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Merrill Aldrich

Technical content about Microsoft data technologies. All opinions expressed are purely my own and do not reflect positions of my employer or associates.

Striving to be boring - or at least have boring systems

A developer I work with, whom I respect a great deal, reminded me of this truism today. I'm not sure who came up with the original, but they deserve credit wherever they are:

“A good system administrator is a bored system administrator.”

As a DBA, this really rings true for me. Being a DBA should not be a thrilling job. Within reason, there should not be myriad surprises, nor a roller coaster ride, wondering what will break each day. There should not be numerous 2 AM calls or frantic fixes. If there are, then I think it means one of two things: either I am not getting the resources needed to do my job well and so my hands are tied, or I am not being proactive enough to prevent unexpected issues from popping up. That doesn't mean there are never problems, but a problem should be something you really could not have anticipated.

A sort of corollary I've found is that a good admin's job is only really exciting in this way at the beginning. If you get hired on as a DBA, you probably step into a dire situation where the systems need your help, and urgently. But after you've been there a while, things ought to be brought under control. Recurring problems should be truly and permanently fixed at the root cause, so that they don't repeat. Monitoring should allow you to see problems coming, instead of users calling you after things are already ugly. Recurring, mindless tasks should be automated, freeing you to do other, more valuable work.

If it's not possible to make progress in this way, and most of us have been there at one time or another, it can be because the organization simply refuses to provide the resources (be it hardware, time, expertise, or change) to bring an out-of-control system into line. If that's the case, you might be doomed to be “thrilled” on a daily, or nightly, basis. I am lucky enough to work for a great organization where I get that support, and as a result have been able to make the systems there a lot less “exciting” over the past year or two.

Another sysadmin from my past put it this way: “If you see me, if you need to know who I am, then I’m not doing my job right.” A little extreme, but I get the sentiment.

I am happy to say I have been really busy lately, but all of it (knock wood) building new apps and systems, and not too much fire fighting. But then, maybe I just jinxed myself…

So – go forth and make boring systems!

Published Wednesday, May 26, 2010 10:56 PM by merrillaldrich

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Jerry Hung said:

I guess "do well, but not too well" is also true, otherwise we DBAs will be out of the job

May 27, 2010 3:20 PM

Bob Probst said:

I hope Jerry is kidding but he raises an interesting point.  Being good at what you do makes it appear effortless.  People who don't understand your job can begin to believe that anyone can do it.  and maybe a lot cheaper than the premium salary they're paying for your experience.  A good a manager will understand the value you bring and provide opportunities for you to not get bored.  It's the bad managers you need to be cautious about.

May 27, 2010 10:11 PM

Alex Woodhouse said:

After writing 2 pretty good systems for the company, both are man-hours-reducing pieces of work, essentially automating existing processes that had to be done by our data-entry crew, i'm really happy with their success. After a bit more than a week of deployment, i hardly touch them. They run happily, and that makes me happy.

So yeah, my systems are boring, but to prevent boredom and so i don't forget them, i keep track of processing statistics. Keeping an eye on when we reach a record #submissions/hour by customers. And just recently, we had a bit of a celebration with party poppers and noise makers when we passed 100,000 100% automated submissions in 5 months. The rest of the floor had no idea until an announcement was made an hour later.

A boring system, but it sure keeps us excited for all the right reasons!

May 30, 2010 7:20 PM

mbourgon said:

For years we've said "the best dba is a lazy dba".  A lazy DBA will go spend the effort ONCE, so they never have to do it again.  I actually lost a job because they really didn't know what I did, since I had it running so smoothly.

June 1, 2010 4:35 PM

merrillaldrich said:

It's possible to make something run itself so well that you make yourself obsolete, I guess. It is important that leadership understand that it's no accident that things run smoothly, and that *you* do that. But you can't really sit around, feet up, watching the green lights glow on all your servers for too long without raising eyebrows :-).

On the other hand, I think one can, over time, reduce the number of man hours required for "basic" administration and fire-fighting, but at the same time increase the number of hours spent on value-add work for the organization, so you remain in demand. This is what I have tried to do: 80% stock administration / fire fighting in the first six months, then 60% in the next six, then 20% the second year. After that, the other 80% of my time should be full, I am definitely not sitting around, but hopefully working on projects and process improvements that add value to the organization over and above basic admin tasks.

Or, put another way, an admin that can never get ahead of this curve, resources permitting, and spends month after month and year after year just fighting fires isn't actually of that much value to a company (sometimes, sadly, those people do have successful careers riding their war stories and impressing people with "accomplishments"). Stuff does have to run, and it sometimes needs fixing, but in this day and age full-time fixing is no way to live!

And nice work, Alex :-)

June 1, 2010 5:15 PM

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