The Adventures of Systems Boy!

Confessions of a Mac SysAdmin...

Go Away or I Shall Replace You with a Very Small Shell Script

"Think about it: the computers work great until the users come in and start fucking everything up. I don't hate computers, I hate users."

This is a rant borne out of the recent feeling that I hate everyone and wish they would all just leave me the fuck alone. I don't think there is a SysAdmin alive who has not felt this way at least once in his life. This one's for you.

Until recently I naively believed that as time progressed, and as new generations came up in the information age, a familiarity with computers would breed a more tech-saavy user. Everyone's always talking about how kids who grew up in this digital age of ours are so much better with computers than adults who had to learn about them as, well, adults. This is total shit. I fall into the latter camp — I started learning about computers in earnest in 1997 — whereas most of the students I teach are in the former — they grew up with computers in their schools and homes and have used them all their lives. And I've assumed, again naively, that I'd see progressively tech-saavy users with each successive class of students. The dream was that the students of the future would have far fewer technical problems, and be far more self-reliant when it came to troubleshooting said problems. Unfortunately, by and large, the reverse seems to be true: students seem more helpless — and at the same time more demanding — than ever before.

There's an episode of Star Trek involving an ancient race of beings who rely heavily on a technology which they've completely lost the ability to understand. This technology is, essentially, a computer with the ability and intelligence enough to run their planet — and itself — for centuries without human intervention. After generations of relying on this computer, the people forget how it works, and when it finally breaks down — see, they always break down eventually — it begins emitting such powerful radiation that it renders the population sterile. But they're at a loss as to how to go about fixing it. It's quite a bind. Ultimately, they end up kidnapping a bunch of kids before finally getting the Enterprise engineer to fix their system. Or, I should say, to show them how to fix it.

I think what may be going on today is similar. I think today's computer users are are like those people in the Star Trek episode. They've completely lost touch with a technology upon which they're reliant. The new generation of student is actually less tech-saavy because, rather than seeing the computer as a tool that he must learn and understand in order to use properly, he sees it as some sort of birthright and as something that should, as they say, "just work."

This is not completely the wrong attitude. Computers, to a certain extent, should "just work." But I think the whole reason we put quotations around that phrase is because we SysAdmins all know, deep down inside, that that idea is, to a certain extent, a pipe dream. And doubly so for the art student range of users who have a tendency to use computers in ways in which they were not originally intended. Computers are extremely complex mixtures of hardware and software interacting with users on behalf of their desires, needs and expectations. When they break or even fail to function in certain ways, I hardly find it surprising. It is, quite frankly, par for the course. It's the reason I have a job.

But these days people seem to think my job is to fix any and every computer problem that might occur, both in the lab and outside of it. Many users refuse to undertake any troubleshooting steps themselves and come immediately to me for help, when often a simple reboot will solve their problem. I actually had a student contemptuously ask me why he should have to reboot the computer, as if it were ridiculous that A) there was a problem in the first place, and B) he should have to do anything about it himself. There is a sense of entitlement and an intellectual laziness that seems pervasive lately among end-users. It's all I can do to get users to Google a question they have or check the help files before coming to me for help with a problem. Consequently, a far-too-sizable chunk of my time is spent answering questions to which the answers are readily available online or right there on the computer. Or worse, looking up the answers to those questions for users who are too lazy or arrogant to do it themselves. It's infuriating.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
-Lao Tzu

When I was in school I spent a great deal of time and effort troubleshooting my personal computer, and thereby learning about computers and how they work. In the process I also learned how to find information I needed on a given topic or problem. We didn't have a class in this. I am completely self-taught. I taught myself how to fish. And I've made a career out of it. Where I work there is a class on systems. It's required. But many students object to this requirement and resent having to take this class. Not only do they refuse to learn to fish, they seem to expect someone else to catch, gut, cook, cut and hand-feed them the fish. And when it doesn't taste just so, they spit it back in your face.

I believe in understanding the tools of your craft. The great Renaissance painters understood the chemical interactions of pigments in oil. They knew how to mix primer and rabbit skin glue, and how to construct and stretch canvas. These days we have paint in tubes and pre-stretched canvas, but any painter worth his salt still has a fundamental understanding of the chemicals in paint and the best way to go about making a stretcher. Computer art students would do well to follow this model. And, quite frankly, they should do so happily. They should be in love with their tools. If they're not, maybe they should find another medium. 'Cause otherwise they're going to end up kidnapping children. And that just ain't right.


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10:51 AM

well said...i'm in a similar boat, supporting digital art majors. i like the analogy to renaissance painters.    

8:49 PM

Yeah... Kids these days...


7:35 PM

Let me just say, I really enjoyed this article. You sum it up so well. I am a Sysadmin (the only one) in a Mac, Linux, Windows Environment, and our users here act the same way. Needless to say, I agree with you 120%.    

1:52 PM

You are right, people who want to go into this field need to take more initiative and learn more. But the last thing I want is a bunch of people who think they can fix a problem screwing things up and making a bigger problem. My job is to keep the system running and that's what I do. They don't ask me to take on a sales quota so I shouldn't ask them to fix computers. Besides if everyone learns 90% of the problem can be fixed with a reboot, I am out of a job!    

5:47 PM

Wow. First of all, I'm pleasantly surprised at the popularity of this article. (Yes, three comments is a lot for this site. Sad but true.) It's nice to know I'm not the only one who wants to kill users from time to time. Thanks for all the comments.

Second, I wanted to respond to Anonymous' comments about users fixing computers, because I think he/she brings up an interesting point: As SysAdmins, it is our charge to maintain the systems. Do we really want users mucking around with them? If users can fix their own machines, does this put us all out of jobs?

My response to this first question is that it's kind of a fine line between users troubleshooting problems and users potentially breaking things. No, I don't want Joe User removing the hard drive of a troublesome machine and taking to it with a blunt instrument any time TextEdit crashes. If there is a serious problem with a machine I certainly want to know about it and fix it. But there are basic troubleshooting issues that every computer user should be aware of — like force quitting applications, or rebooting machines. I simply don't have time to deal with every instance of a crashed app. There are also lots of user-induced problems that occur — like the misconfiguration of an application, for instance — and those problems can and should often be solved by the user himself. My point, as you all know, is that there are a lot of problems that can easily be solved by users, but they just don't seem to be trying all that hard to do any troubleshooting whatsoever. They often can't even tell the difference between serious and trivial problems. And I think they should. For my sake as well as theirs. These are not casual users; they are people whose field, by its very nature, involves using computers in complex ways every single day. They should know a little systems maintenance.

It could be argued that, yes, this is my job. But I do kind of feel sometimes that my real job is to set up the computers in such a way that repairing them is a rare event. And what irks me is that I think I do a pretty good job of this. But then users come along and do weird things, or stupid, or inconsiderate things that break their own configs, and I'm left to pick up the pieces. Yes it's my job to do this, but I feel it's also the job of any computer user to know a little bit about what they're doing and either not break things or know how to solve some problems on their own. Or both. Instead they do neither and come to me for any and every little thing.

When users discover that they can solve most simple problems with a reboot, will it put me out of work? No. My job is a lot bigger than rebooting computers. In fact, it would free me up to do a lot more work on the projects that I'm really here to do, like making improvements to the lab, installing software and system updates, implementing new features, and the like. This is the true nature of my job. But when users act irresponsibly, it only detracts from my ability to do that job.    

9:38 PM

About arguing "that this is my job". Hell yeah, it is your job setting up solutions and supporting them and their users. And part of that is to educate them how to deal with problematic situations. It is not that you must clean up every mess behind them and for sure not at every time they demand it, but to educate them about the situation and involve them in the solution. I invest pretty much time in this myself. And it pays back over time.

And to come back to the star trek analogy - you belong to this society, are part of it, not from some alien space. You are the technician they need to solve problems and teach them.

That maybe sounds harsh. But i post this to give you something to think about and maybe improve your situation. And to give it the full tilt - admins with that mind annoy me as colleagues. Your posts indicate you to be a friendly person, maybe you just need some education about dealing with your situation ;-)    

12:19 AM

Y'know, I was going to write something really snarky in response to this latest comment, but I decided against it. What follows, believe it or not, is the less snarky response.

Yes, you are right. It is my job to educate users. And, actually, I'm pretty good at it. And yes, I am a friendly person, though I do suffer from yearly bouts of total, off-the-wall bitchiness.

We do quite a bit to educate our users. We have a required systems course and multiple workshops throughout the year. I agree that this is our job, and I agree that indeed it should fall to us. This is, after all, an educational institution. To wit, the following paragraph from the very article upon which you, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Comment Person, felt obliged to comment. (Uh... You did read the article, didn't you?)

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
-Lao Tzu

When I was in school I spent a great deal of time and effort troubleshooting my personal computer, and thereby learning about computers and how they work. In the process I also learned how to find information I needed on a given topic or problem. We didn't have a class in this. I am completely self-taught. I taught myself how to fish. And I've made a career out of it. Where I work there is a class on systems. It's required. But many students object to this requirement and resent having to take this class. Not only do they refuse to learn to fish, they seem to expect someone else to catch, gut, cook, cut and hand-feed them the fish. And when it doesn't taste just so, they spit it back in your face.

To spell this out more clearly, 'cause some people seem to have trouble with analogies, sometimes I get a user — or a batch of users — that refuses to allow themselves to be educated, by me or anyone else, despite our best efforts. What do you do with a user that refuses to learn? Have you ever had a user like this, Anonymous Comment Person? I have and currently do, and clearly others have as well. If you have never encountered such a user yourself you may count yourself among the extremely fortunate, but please allow me one moment to enlighten you. These types of users think it's your job to do every bit of troubleshooting for them. They have complete and utter disdain for anything systems related, and lack any intellectual curiosity whatsoever — but particularly when it comes to computers — refusing to even Google a topic or problem. And they're pissed off at the SysAdmin if the slightest thing goes wrong, as if computers should never misbehave, and if they do it's somehow my fault. Yet, for some odd reason, they've chosen to use computers as their artistic tool of choice. I am not exaggerating any of this. Honest. I want only for you to understand where I'm coming from, because you apparently have been blessed with a near-perfect user-base. You must understand, these users exist. And they're waiting for you. They're out there, and they're hungry.

That's point one. Point two is that, despite being a friendly person, sometimes it's just downright therapeutic for me to complain. Everyone complains about their job. That's just life. Don't you ever want to complain, oh Anonymous Comment Person? Boy, I sure do. In fact, people who never want to complain annoy me as colleagues. This blog is my place do bitch every now and again. It's my blog, damn it. Mine. It's my blog and I'll bitch if I want to, bitch if I want to, bitch if I want to. (See, I'm feeling better already.)

Your post did give me something to think about. Which is great, 'cause I really didn't have enough to think about before. Thanks. But in the end I don't think you're telling me anything I didn't already know, and I don't think I'm saying anything unreasonable. And hopefully I'm voicing sentiments that we all, as sysadmins, feel from time to time. Not always, but occasionally. If you live in a world of perfect jobs, if you've never had a problem user or a bad day or a headache, then bully for you. Maybe this article's just not for you. But for those of us who have, I hope I've talked about this topic in a way that'stherapeutic not just for me, but for others in the same situation.

Thanks for listening (and commenting).


8:41 PM

It was a pleasure for me to read your reply, thank you! I am the person you responded to.

Of course it is your blog, and you can do whatever pleases you. You give your thoughts and others give theirs if they want.

In no way I live in the perfect job place. I needed quite a few years to teach the users how to deal with problems. If it is not a configuration problem with the machine or the network, that I would have to fix, I make clear that it is their problem, they want to achieve some goal and so have to at least participate in the solution. Sometimes new users leave when I come to help, then I leave, too. Most don't repeat that behavior ;-)

It's not that I will do their work for them. I provide the environment, once that runs, it's their deal. Everything after that is a bonus, as I see it.

Don't take my words too harsh. We don't know each other, and communication just via text is difficult anyway. Further more english is not my native language.

I made my original comment because it happens that I met too many lamenting technicians in my career. Many do it to show that there were a much too high workload that makes them suffer. Then when I get to know them better, I most often found that they just don't do a good enough job, and hide all the problems with their lamenting about the situation. That has nothing to do with you, I just wanted to show where I come from.

And please don't ride on my me posting anonymous. Want a name? I mostly post in forums with the nick Tutor. Better now? I mean, you don't tell on your blog who you are either, and that is for sure the right way if you want to occasionally bitch about your users ;-)

My nick comes from my history as technical support in a university. And I can tell you I am glad this is history. Maybe you need a different job in a company where people can learn to rely on you and respect you. Students pissed me off mostly, too. But in a real job situation people can not fuck around with you, because the next day they could need you again. This helps ;-)

Nevertheless, and that was my original point, that I tried to make clear, it is always more than a technical problem we admins have to deal with. It is a social situation that needs to get managed. And we are the managers. So think about improving your situation by handling those situations more to your liking. It helped me a lot, it could help you, too.

That's why I posted my comments. Admins need social competence. You seem to have what is necessary, in that respect, that's why I was motivated to post in the first place.

Best wishes


1:00 AM


Thanks for the lovely response to my horrendously bitchy response. Yes, text can be a dicey form of communication. But your reply was much appreciated, so I guess when it works well it's a good thing.

The thing I found most interesting about your response was the fact that you've moved into the non-academic arena and find it much more manageable and rewarding. I do freelance, and I've noticed that the sort of accountability that's required in the professional world really alleviates a lot of user incompetence. I've often wondered if I'd enjoy working in that world better. I really like the education sector, but yeah, students can sure be presumptuous sometimes in ways I don't see in professional fields.

I also appreciated your insight on the "lamenting technician." I don't think, by and large, I am one of these. At least I hope not. And if I ever find I've become one, I hope I have he good sense to change careers.

You're are, of course, 100% right about the social and managerial aspects of the job. I've recently found myself in a position of a great deal more responsibility — both in terms of systems and in terms of staff management — and it's been a big adjustment. My high bitch phase was certainly affected by these changes this year in a less-than-positive manner. I'm learning a lot right now about new systems. But I'm also learning a hell of a lot more than I realized I would about managing people — students, staff, faculty, everyone. It's hard, but I think I'm starting to get the hang of it. Still, I've plenty more to learn. Finding ways to handle situations is not always easy, and I think the article is in part an attempt to try and understand my own particular environment so that I can, indeed, handle things more appropriately. It's a start.

Anyway, I could go on all night, but I've started a post based on some of the thoughts I've had around this article and the comments it's generated. Plus it's late, so, you know, bed and all.

Sincere thanks again for taking the time to clarify. It really does help.


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