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2 years, 9 months ago
30 years of work as the system administratorSandra Henry-Stocker (Unix Dweeb, works in the TeleCommunication Systems company developing the innovative technical solutions at present). Looking back in the past, more than 30 years of work as the Unix system administrator later, I can tell that it was the long and interesting way. These years I of course did not execute one and too. Development of technologies was led to improbable changes in my work. It were impressive improvements in "iron" which I serviced, and the invention of new software tools which I studied and put into practice. For many years I took improbable pleasure from that how a lot of work I could make in the command line for identification and elimination of different problems and understanding of how in the best way to provide data protection of my employers. Within 30 years I worked with surprising people, at the same time was dismissed once, and also learned a lot of new about what works and does not work, both from the technical point of view, and from the point of view of career development.
The profession and all with it connected changes dramatically, but it always brought and will bring me the sea of pleasure.

Here my reflections about changes which I saw also those which still I will see.

As technologies changed

At the beginning of the career I used the perforator (EOM) by means of which I processed salary sheets of the client companies of large bank of New York, continuing to study in college, after the first lessons of programming. In bank I created the program for processing of punched cards which considerably facilitated work to operators on information processing. In college the programming lesson, based on the Fortran was an input lesson. In the following semester the perferator (EOM) was not any more and big bulky terminals took its place.

30 years of work as the system administrator

In college I learned such programming languages as the Fortran, Lisp, the ALGOL and Pascal. At one of lessons I created a simple operating system on the PDP system, using the Assembler programming language. I remember how "to read" indicators on the front panel of systems and as it is fascinating was when the connected printer "spat out" sheets with instructions. Since then I used many other languages, such as Xi, Java, but generally worked with scenario languages such as: sh, csh, bash, ksh, Python, and Perl. But the quantity of languages which was entered since the moment when I began to work in this area became one of the most surprising opening for me. The number of available languages increased at 20-30 times. In 2013 there were already 256 programming languages.

256 programming languages.
  1. 4th Dimension/4D
  2. ABAP
  3. ABC
  4. ActionScript
  5. Ada
  6. Agilent VEE
  7. Algol
  8. Alice
  9. Angelscript
  10. Apex
  11. APL
  12. AppleScript
  13. Arc
  14. Arduino
  15. ASP
  16. AspectJ
  17. Assembly
  18. ATLAS
  19. Augeas
  20. AutoHotkey
  21. AutoIt
  22. AutoLISP
  23. Automator
  24. Avenue
  25. Awk
  26. Bash
  27. (Visual) of Basic
  28. bc
  29. BCPL
  30. BETA
  31. BlitzMax
  32. Boo
  33. Bourne Shell
  34. Bro
  35. With
  36. With Shell
  37. C#
  38. C ++
  39. C + + / CLI
  40. S-Omega
  41. Caml
  42. Ceylon
  43. CFML
  44. cg
  45. Ch
  46. CHILL
  47. CIL
  48. CL (OS/400)
  49. Clarion
  50. Clean
  51. Clipper
  52. Clojure
  53. CLU
  54. COBOL
  55. Cobra
  56. CoffeeScript
  57. ColdFusion
  58. COMAL
  59. Common Lisp
  60. Coq
  61. cT
  62. Curl
  63. D
  64. Dart
  65. DCL
  66. DCPU-16 ASM
  67. Delphi/Object Pascal
  68. DiBOL
  69. Dylan
  70. E
  71. eC
  72. Ecl
  73. ECMAScript
  74. EGL
  75. Eiffel
  76. Elixir
  77. Emacs Lisp
  78. Erlang
  79. Etoys
  80. Euphoria
  81. EXEC
  82. F#
  83. Factor
  84. Falcon
  85. Fancy
  86. Fantom
  87. Felix
  88. Forth
  89. Fortran
  90. Fortress
  91. (Visual) of FoxPro
  92. Gambas
  93. GNU Octave
  94. Go
  95. Google AppsScript
  96. Gosu
  97. Groovy
  98. Haskell
  99. haXe
  100. Heron
  101. HPL
  102. HyperTalk
  103. Icon
  104. IDL
  105. Inform
  106. Informix-4GL
  108. Io
  109. Ioke
  110. J
  111. J#
  112. JADE
  113. Java
  114. Java FX Script
  115. JavaScript
  116. JScript
  117. JScript.NET
  118. Julia
  119. Korn Shell
  120. Kotlin
  121. LabVIEW
  122. Ladder Logic
  123. Lasso
  124. Limbo
  125. Lingo
  126. Lisp
  127. Logo
  128. Logtalk
  129. LotusScript
  130. LPC
  131. Lua
  132. Lustre
  133. M4
  134. MAD
  135. Magic
  136. Magik
  137. Malbolge
  138. MANTIS
  139. Maple
  140. Mathematica
  141. MATLAB
  142. Max/MSP
  143. MAXScript
  144. MEL
  145. Mercury
  146. Mirah
  147. Miva
  148. ML
  149. Monkey
  150. Modula-2
  151. Modula-3
  152. MOO
  153. Moto
  154. MS-DOS Batch
  155. MUMPS
  156. NATURAL
  157. Nemerle
  158. Nimrod
  159. NQC
  160. NSIS
  161. Nu
  162. NXT-G
  163. Oberon
  164. Object Rexx
  165. Objective-C
  166. Objective-J
  167. OCaml
  168. Occam
  169. ooc
  170. Opa
  171. OpenCL
  172. OpenEdge ABL
  173. OPL
  174. Oz
  175. Paradox
  176. Parrot
  177. Pascal
  178. Perl
  179. PHP
  180. Pike
  181. PILOT
  182. PL/I
  183. PL/SQL
  184. Pliant
  185. PostScript
  186. POV-Ray
  187. PowerBasic
  188. PowerScript
  189. PowerShell
  190. Processing
  191. Prolog
  192. Puppet
  193. Pure Data
  194. Python
  195. Q
  196. R
  197. Racket
  198. REALBasic
  199. REBOL
  200. Revolution
  201. REXX
  202. RPG (OS/400)
  203. Ruby
  204. Rust
  205. S
  206. S-PLUS
  207. SAS
  208. Sather
  209. Scala
  210. Scheme
  211. Scilab
  212. Scratch
  213. sed
  214. Seed7
  215. Self
  216. Shell
  217. SIGNAL
  218. Simula
  219. Simulink
  220. Slate
  221. Smalltalk
  222. Smarty
  223. SPARK
  224. SPSS
  225. SQR
  226. Squeak
  227. Squirrel
  228. Standard ML
  229. Suneido
  230. SuperCollider
  231. TACL
  232. Tcl
  233. Tex
  234. thinBasic
  235. TOM
  236. Transact-SQL
  237. Turing
  238. TypeScript
  239. Vala/Genie
  240. VBScript
  241. Verilog
  242. VHDL
  243. VimL
  244. Visual Basic .NET
  245. WebDNA
  246. Whitespace
  247. X10
  248. xBase
  249. XBase ++
  250. Xen
  251. XPL
  252. XSLT
  253. XQuery
  254. yacc
  255. Yorick
  256. Z shell

I remember that in the 80th it was necessary to know topology of hard drives for this purpose that to add them to my system. Today systems are able to identify peripheral devices practically without my participation. Number of cylinders, heads and sectors … I had to describe a disk and its components for system, make available its for use.

30 years of work as the system administrator

The tendency to reduction of the sizes of drives just strikes. And if at the beginning of the 90th, I still used the 300th megabyte disks (yes, megabyte!), which size corresponded to the size of a shoe box, now, looking at the usb-disk containing about a terabyte of data I draw a conclusion that drives of data of a smaller size will be soon created, perhaps it that having dropped the drive on a floor, will be problematic it to find. What improbable comparison!

30 years of work as the system administrator
30 years of work as the system administrator

I also remember reserve copyings of my server with use of the bobbin-tape drive. Cartridges were very big and they could not contain all necessary data. Some of my data required 3-4 such cartridges. Today we use robotic tape storages and tools which automate process of backup and trace file provision for its fast recovery at the first need. Moreover the smart technology of a deduplication of data, is applied to reduction of the size of a dump at the expense of an exception of a backup copy of similar information that occasionally allows to reduce the amount of reservation several times.

30 years of work as the system administrator

Of course the most considerable changes in area in which I worked over 30 years happened to emergence of networks and the Internet. When I worked for federal courts, district courts connected to system in Washington, using service "Tymnet" in which the technology of package switching was applied. My project made available to use in vessels not only "minicomputers" (systems, of the size of the refrigerator), but also provided a possibility of direct communication, without the need for sending data to Washington and back.

30 years of work as the system administrator

Growth of the Internet made possible to be connected to systems worldwide arbitrarily. I could find answers to all the technical issues in the provided World Wide Web without making more efforts to pull out the book from the shelf. Today I often ask a question as I can find answers to the technical issues till the moment, so far Google or other search engine will not provide them.

What changes happened in work

In general networks which we managed became more increasing also more various. We cannot see all network segments of AppleTalk, but I remember how they developed it at the beginning of the 80th, we started different systems on our working computers and support in our data-centers was surprisingly various. The most part of work which we did it is centralized, it was executed on a network by means of such network services as NFS, NIS, DNS, etc.

Virtualization became a fundamental factor in development of our data-centers. The majority of our servers at present — only part much more of bigger infrastructure which we are capable to expand or reduce at any time on demand, and also, if necessary, quickly and quickly to migrate in an alternative data-center. In spite of the fact that virtualization, apparently, reached the limit, we move more and more complex systems and even the whole data-centers to "clouds" — essential changes in what we as system administrators have to manage and what have to bear responsibility for.

The majority of us in the work rely on universal tiket-systems in which it is possible to trace all history of problems, to monitor tasks in the course of a solution and to open new. Duties of the system administrator considerably extended in recent years, it not "simply" system administration, but tracking of problems with safety, control of access to the broad range of resources, the analysis of a network traffic, logs, identification and correction of vulnerabilities in our "cyber-armor" now any more.


At the beginning of my career (it is possible for the first 10 years or about that) safety was happy is weak. We recommended to our clients to change passwords of times a year. I remember how I wrote the program, for password generation by gluing together of two short words in a random way once, but it nothing as compared I should do now. The safety issue those days was not very critical and most of people with whom I then worked cared for it still to a lesser extent, than I. And when one of speakers at the Sun User Group conference which I helped to organize with the 1990th, suggested that all of us have to think how hackers, the thought seemed revolutionary.

This aspect in work of the system administrator provoked where big changes, than any another. Today you are irresponsible if you do not treat a safety issue with that responsibility which could seem paranoid 20 years ago. Tools and measures which we use as safety of our systems today lie far outside what we could consider then.

Passwords became longer and systems which we manage allow us to configure more difficult security measures. The recommended password length now from 7-8 to 12-14 signs, and replacement time — a minimum of times a year, but in recent years passwords recommend to change time in 3-4 months.

Besides the tools which we use in recent years became incredibly difficult. Somewhat ourselves become hackers, using such solutions as Nessus and Nexpose for detection of vulnerabilities. We also observe systems on detection of signs of harmful activity and data loss prevention, we interfere with leakage of "jewelry" of our organization. I could not think that after a yesterday's briefing in Palo Alto, I should apply the old checked method again — firewalls. They got into everything that we do, became cleverer, quicker and trace everything that occurs, and not just the traffic passing through a network.

As our society changed

In 1980 years in a corner of my dining room was located with Apple II because of what my neighbors often looked at me, as on the freak. Having heard their conversation, I understood that they thought that I have a centrifuge on a table. And not because the computer was in the dining room, not because it was Apple but because it was the first home computer which they ever saw in the life and they did not know what is it. It was quite ridiculous to watch their reaction. There passed not a lot of time as everyone who had no house of the computer began to be considered as a strange. In present time all of us use wireless networks for connection to the Internet and for certain in each house, and even at each family member, there is the computer. These are big changes, even without mentioning of all other electronics which completely changed our way of life.

Choice of profession


In comparison with the majority of IT professions, work of the system administrator does not provide great opportunities for career development. As the system administrator, you will seldom be in the center of attention. You can easily remain in "bottoms" (nobody reports to you), even after 30 years. Occasionally it is difficult to realize importance level. You are almost imperceptible when everything goes well. But when there are big problems, most of people remember you very often, and not just in day of the system administrator.

System administrators seldom communicate with clients if they only do not provide support of systems with which they work. And even then, when you do the work well and to you will have the luck after long attempts to solve a problem when most of employees not on watch and drink beer in some local pub or relax at the weekend, will hardly remember you.


Work seldom happens boring, there is always an opportunity to study something new, in particular when something breaks and it "something new" comes through doors or "breaks off" phone. Even after 30+ years of work in administration, it is still not monotonous and is paid quite not bad. A lot of things change in what needs to be done and what it is necessary to understand. You could automate all the tasks or manage a huge data-center, but there will always be something that will throw down you a challenge, will require your attention.

There are benefits depending on type of the organization in which you work. I worked in the company in which there were only three employees and two independent contractors, and in the big organization with collective from several tens of thousands people. In the small organizations you have an opportunity to test yourself in all aspects and to be aware of everything that occurs. In big there is an opportunity to find the place and to climb gradually a career ladder, to develop the specific direction.

The number of changes in your work depends on many factors, but I prefer to have enough freedom for this purpose to solve how easy simple problems, and something else — new and fascinating. This mix allows me to feel that I fulfill the bread and I train myself for new tests and opportunities.

The best work

The best work for me that when I felt that I did something important and it carried by advantage. Work on the federal government was just such work because I knew that I supported the analysts making important decisions at the national level. It was very pleasant to be part of it.

At other work, at university of John Hopkins, I managed systems and networks at department of astronomy and physics. Huge plus was the fact that I worked with the most outstanding people whom I ever knew — some of them mapped the Universe, others peered into the nature to the level of the smallest subatomic particles. And students who helped me from time to time were surprisingly qualified specialists. I lived in the beautiful campus that not only allowed to reach conveniently for work, but also provided a possibility of visit of different lessons free of charge.

I also liked to be "Jack of all trades" in all computer industries of Web Publishing (part of IDG) where I serviced networks, servers, backup systems, the website and even purchased very capable assistant who made work even more pleasant and fruitful. Our publications came to the forefront in such online editions as SunWorld and JavaWorld which provide fine information and councils for users of this technology.

And at last, not less important, but nevertheless work in several branches of the E*Trade company in which I was engaged in administration only. It was always pleasant to work with bright and creative people. Our office was at the mooring of San Francisco that allowed to reach for work on the ferry and to derive the mass of pleasure from such daily cruise.

Some of positions which I held in recent years were connected with the best opportunities of a co-working when I had an opportunity to train colleagues and to study at them even more than I could expect. Nevertheless, office policy complicated understanding that we have to work for a common goal — to do the organization successful, but not to fight for a place in the sun.

In general, if:
  • You derive pleasure from work;
  • you feel that you do something important;
  • you can lead that life which you want;
  • you have an opportunity to be trained, make the contribution and to earn reward for it;

You are in the good place.

Money it is not all. Even life on the yacht in the gulf San Francisco which I had within several years, can be paradise for one and hell for others. Spend time for thoughts to realize that is really important for you. Visibility? Recognition? Sense in achievements? To a big salary? Flexible working hours? Tone of execution of working tasks? To a share of a contribution to the common cause?

That you did not do, do not stop studying! Computer skills grow old very quickly and this tendency will not change soon. Devote some time to training every day to be capable to work with those tools which will be in your career in the future. Check the list of vacancies from time to time even if at you is not present in plans to change work, only for this purpose that know what skills are in the increased demand.

Also fasten belts. You cannot even imagine how this direction will look in 30 years.

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