From System Administrator to System Engineer

Posted by Thomas Ryd
December 10, 2012

Automation of IT-operations can lead to fantastic productivity gains, increased quality of service and reduced operational costs. But what about the people, and their jobs?

System Administrators will not become obsolete, but the nature of their work often changes in highly automated environments. The ones who adapt typically enter into more proactive roles. The ones who willingly or unwillingly are left behind, end up fighting fires and home made scripts, until they will eventually be replaced. This evolution should not be viewed as a threat, but as an opportunity.

Cultural DevOps changes on the verge

The craftsmanship involved in IT-operations is changing. The emergence of DevOps leads operations people to embracing change. Monologues (people telling each other what to do) turn into dialogues and both physical and virtual walls between Developers and Operations are diminishing. The strong DevOps wave will result in changed behavior in thousands of IT-organizations around the world.

Powerful automation tools on the verge

In addition to the cultural change we now see, next generation automation tools, like CFEngine, empower operations people to achieve operational metrics surpassing past performance significantly. New solutions allow for more proactive ways of working. The division of labor between human and machine, where the humans make decisions and machines execute, shape the most successful IT-operation companies today. In these companies we see a ratio of one System Administrator per 500 servers or more, daily and even hourly deployment rates, combined with 99.999% uptime. These powerful automation tools are hitting the mass-market and thereby become a natural tool in the toolbox of IT-Operations.

The dawn of System Engineers

System Administrators administrate systems, much like the way managers were administrating factory-workers up until the 80s. Operational improvements in the manufacturing industry lead to drastic changes. Factory-workers were replaced by machines, and administrators became specialized engineers who’s main focus became to optimize the machines who did the actual work.

The same evolution happens in IT-operations these days. Manual tasks done by System Administrators are slowly becoming obsolete and replaced by powerful software automation. The new breed of System Administrators focuses on efficiency (doing the right things) through dialogues with their peers (DevOps), and effectiveness (doing the things right), by focusing on improving their already powerful automation solution.

The nature of this job looks more like engineering than administration. In CFEngine we embrace the new role. We think that the job-title “System Engineer” better conveys the description of the next generation of IT-operations professionals. We see examples of companies where, due to CFEngine and self-service, the need for SysAdmins to deal with level 1 and level 2 support-tickets have been vastly reduced. The new role of the System Administrator has transitioned into how to improve the system (through dialogue and automaton) as opposed to how to fix it. CFEngine will fix the system for you.

An example: At a large-scale installation (5,000 servers), CFEngine normally runs more than 5 billion checks a day to ensure the system is compliant and thereby avoids the majority of level 1 and level 2 tickets (see: The Value of 6 Billion Checks a Day). CFEngine fixes several thousands non-compliant and unauthorized changes daily, work that otherwise would have been done by System Administrators.

Great opportunities are awaiting all System Administrators

System Administrators face great opportunities. The ones who embrace a high degree of automation will become critical to the companies they work for and will create significant business value. What is extra cool, is that this life can be a pretty nice one. One of the engineers we know who is responsible for thousands of servers at Linkedin, moved to Hawaii because he loves surfing. At Locaweb, the biggest cloud provider in South America, who is highly automated with CFEngine, one of their System Engineer, has a blog called “sysadm must be lazy”. I think these two examples are great evidence of the cool attitudes and the exciting possibilities waiting ahead for the System Administrators who want to embrace automation and become Engineers.

No one should think of automation as a threat, but rather as the biggest opportunity in a long time to really make a difference and add value to one’s company. Companies hire people because they will add business value. More than ever, System Engineers will bring significant value to the companies they work for. If you become one, you will get exciting challenges, experience more credibility and a higher salary. Great System Engineers we come across often earn 2-3x the average salary of a System Administrator, and they get way fewer wake-up calls in the middle of the night, or like our friend at Locaweb puts it: “My life before CFEngine was hell. I could get up to 9 calls during one night. This has all ended now”.

Start today

If you would like to learn more, and even talk to some of the System Engineers that have already come a long way, please let us know

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