Ivan Tomica

What do I do?

Prompted by the excellent article at RedHat’s blog on the topic of “What my family thinks I do all day?” I decided to do the same research on my own, just to see where I stand and how much understanding I get from the family about the work that I do.

It is quite hard to explain things that sysadmins do in plain English, especially when the audience is not very technical. For many years I’ve been going around telling people “I work in IT” but I feel that’s very vague and usually gets me in trouble when someone I’m talking to requests IT help from me, which I then need to politely decline. You can see my struggle here. Also as a side-note I wanted to explain to myself what it actually that thing I do everyday and have concise answer for the rest of the world.

I started asking questions within my family. Questions were directed to:

  • Wife – who’s not very technical
  • My (11 years old) sister
  • My brother – he’s Javascript developer and also highly technical
  • Mother – not very technical but knows some lingo

The wife

She’s not very technical and does most of her internet related stuff on her phone. Since we live together for few years she picked up some clues. Her first comic answer was among the lines of:

You sit in front of the computer for hours and stare at the screens while drinking lots of coffee.

Well, this is quite true when you look from that perspective, but then she also said something like:

You do something with servers and something with the internet. You set up things, when something breaks, you fix it and you also need to help developers quite often. But I’m not sure what that server part exactly means.

Not bad, but as she said herself she doesn’t really grasp what exactly that involves.

Little sister

Sister was very brief with her answer:

You do programming and you also test applications if they work properly.

And from that I could see that briefness was due to the fact that she didn’t really know what it is what I do. Idea has likely come from various discussions about software architectures that I have with my brother when we’re all at our parents house.

From her early childhood she was used to using Linux based computers, spends lots of time drawing some impressive pictures with Wacom brother and I got her few years ago, and she even tried some Blender too. All while using various Linux distros, so I’d say she has some potential to grasp what is that thing her brother does. Clearly this is a communication failure on my end.

Brother

It didn’t came as a surprise that he provided the most technical answer of all. After all, he’s excellent JavaScript developer, familiar with most of the infrastructure part. He used Linux for some time as well, and was quite geeky about it. He also did some programming in PHP and was all around in tech-field.

Infrastructure I’d say. Domains, DNS, Backup. Working with docker, setting up CI, servers/VPS. Not sure what exactly is included but mostly OS level stuff. Quite of debugging I believe.

As you can see, he was pretty close, but as most sysadmins know there’s much more.

Mother

Similar to my wife, she’s not very technical and does all of her computing on her phone but she has an itch for technology and problem solving, so she usually puts extra effort to understand things. Her answer was somewhat like:

I can guess cause you usually don’t give me much information and I know that I don’t need to ask too much so I can just guess.

You’re some kind of “big shot” in server maintenance, whatever that means. Most likely you control servers and solve issues that arise in data transit and saving of data and those sort of bullshit. I don’t understand those “codes” that computer understand, but I know you do, and then you give those instructions to computer to do things and fix things that don’t work well so we can all use those systems.

In short you’re some sort of “background guy” who see’s everything and knows everything.

My conclusion

It is interesting to see how people fill in the gaps and give their own touch to it when in the absence of concrete information. I’m most certainly the one to blame for the lack of the explanation towards my family. Usual excuse is that it is too hard to explain in layman terms and that I would spend too much time debating it over and over and after all leave them all confused even more. That’s perhaps true, but this article is an attempt to at least try to explain my scope of work.

IT is a huge field, and there is huge number of different types of IT workers in this field. Some of them do more of the creative (on the surface) stuff such as designing nice graphics, animations, designing layouts of the applications and websites and so on. There are also folks who do programming and write websites, mobile applications, backend applications etc. that we use every day and even the ones we don’t ever see or know they exist. I could count various fields in IT until tomorrow and still not be half way done so it is perhaps better to start explaining my field.

What am I?

I like to call myself a sysadmin, but what exactly does that mean? Perhaps easiest way is to explain by example.

At the beginning of my career as a sysadmin I did mostly web and email hosting as that was what company I worked for did. This part of my life involved setting up web servers (things that deliver website from them to your device), email servers (when you send email you’re basically asking your email server to deliver message on your behalf to some other server which will then deliver that message to your intended recipient. Think of it as virtual postman).

Later on I also started working with databases, various message delivering and queuing systems. Basically started exploring all aspects of how those internet systems tick. As I explored I gained more and more knowledge and experience.

Anybody who tried to host website on some shared provider knows that all IT systems are unstable. No technology is perfect and not everything is up and running all the time. You will always have some downtime. So besides monitoring systems and designing proper alerting triggers, achieving high-availability of IT systems has especially caught my attention and has also been in my focus.

All of that includes lots of work, and we, sysadmins, are usually a lazy bunch and don’t like to do same things over and over, so, naturally, we’re also figuring out how to automate all the things we do on a daily basis, just so we can focus on more creative stuff and problem solving.

On top of all that I also have to communicate with customers, developers, basically people other than myself and rubber duckies I have on my desk… Sometimes folks do not know what they need., sometimes they think they know, and sometimes they do know but don’t know how to express it well. All of that naturally requires huge amounts of patience and being able to place yourself in someone’s else perspective in order to figure out things can be crucial.

And what do I do? – I still don’t know, but if you figure it out, please do share it with me :-)