The Ego and the System Administrator

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Tim, the Sys Admin, took a moment from flitting back and forth between email, IM, and the ticket queue, in order to assess the state of his network using a screen full of graphs and a highly tuned monitoring system. No aberrant event could occur in the infrastructure without his knowing. Almost as a premonition, he flipped to the virtual terminal that held his email, just as his iPhone chirped an alert. It was a security warning. One of the users had attempted to log into a machine to which they didn’t have access.

Tim checked the username, and wasn’t surprised. Bill was continually being a user who caused trouble. He installed software on his PC, even after Tim had locked it down. He was one of those users who tried to solve their own problems and, in Tim’s opinion, caused more trouble than they were worth.

So why would Bill have been trying to log into the authentication server itself? He should know better than that. Tim reached for the phone to find out. Bill apologized, and tried to explain himself by pointing to an email that he had sent to Tim last week, talking about his login time limits. Bill said that he was only trying to alter the settings on his account so that he could work on the weekend, but Tim suspected that he was trying to get administrative rights on his computer again. Immediately, Tim suspended Bill’s account. Now, Bill only had local access, and Tim laid out, in no uncertain terms, what would happen if he caught Bill trying his boundaries again. Bill remembered back to the time he had been suspended from remote access for six months. He apologized again, and then hung up the phone.

Like Tim, we SysAdmins tend to get to the stage where we defend our networks aggressively against the slightest provocation or threat. This isn’t a good thing to do, for a number of reasons. It isn’t healthy on a personal level;  it can have a counter reaction from those we offend that can cause collateral damage to the infrastructure and to other staff members;  We lose our reputation as helpful people. We can, and must, respond in a more adaptive way.

The underlying problem is that system administrators have egos. Usually, we have big egos. We play God with the infrastructures that we run, and we are used to being treated as such. When we create a mandate, it goes. When we make a change, it is unquestioned. We say jump, the servers say “how high”.  We’re egotistical because we’re the final say in almost every way that counts.

Sysadmins aren’t the only profession that is stricken with this particular issue. Surgeons, lawyers, politicians, and online columnists are all frequently seen as egotistical, and although the latter’s reputation may be blamed on their editors, there’s a kernel of truth to the accusation. Whenever a person is placed in a position of power and given the final say on a matter, the opportunity arises for ego to assert itself.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on an upgrade for my company’s telephone infrastructure. We’ve got a couple of offices, and I’d like to unite them using Voice over IP. The upgrade will involve improving the wiring infrastructure of each office. I was pretty excited to get the chance to improve the physical infrastructure, since it had been necessary for a while. Although it was going to be expensive, it was a step forward.

While I was reviewing my options, one of my users had the nerve to bring a perfectly acceptable option to me that would cut our costs by nearly an order of magnitude. Yes, their solution would work, but it was their solution, not mine. Mine was better…because it was mine. What did I say? Well, for a few minutes, I didn’t say anything. I wanted to upgrade the network. I wanted to run new lines. I didn’t want to use their solution, even if it was better. Especially if it was better. My ego got the best of me; At least for a while.

After a few minutes, I was able to step back from the situation and look at their idea logically. It was acceptable, both from a technical and a financial point of view. Although it wouldn’t result in the physical infrastructure being upgraded, I couldn’t ignore the massive savings and the fact that it would solve the problem at hand. From a purely logical point of view, their solution was better. So what did I do? I told them so. Though it still hurt to do it, I told them that it was better, and I meant it.  The only way that this was possible was that I realized that the well being of the company was more important than my ego being satisfied by solving the problem.

It’s hard to avoid being controlled by one’s ego, and it takes practice. It is worth it because well-being of the company is your real goal, and it can best be served by doing whatever is right. Remember that whoever is presenting an opposing idea isn’t your enemy. They want the same thing that you do, or at least, you should treat their request as if that’s the case.