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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Sysadmins: Sharpen your people skills!

It takes way more than technical genius to be a successful sysadmin -- experts offer their tips for earning respect from your users and your boss

June  1997
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If you want to be a well-respected system administrator, impressive technical know-how alone just won't cut it. Strong, positive relationships with your users and your manager are equally crucial. Top sysadmins give advice for making it all work. (1,200 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I learned Java in a snap and am known as a hot shot sysadmin around the office, but I have a problem: My manager promoted a less-technical guy to lead our sysadmin team! He says my people skills "are really rough." But our users do drive me up a wall: They don't read their manuals; they constantly interrupt me; and they act like their problem is a big crisis. Got any tips on how to straighten my boss out?


Dear Frustrated,
Hmmm, this is an interesting problem and the most revealing letter I've read today!

You have two choices if you want to be happy, either:

  1. Get reassigned to a job that removes you from liaison work with people (and there are still a few good jobs out there where you can work by yourself, like replacing urinal cakes, or Unix kernel programming). Or I strongly recommend...

  2. Listen to your boss and take some crash courses in people skills.


Take it from us
I sent your e-mail to our top sysadmins with our Pencom Systems Administration/PSA group for their opinions on your dilemma. Here's what they said:

Users are rewarding: "Edgar, it may just be that your reader has never worked with a senior sysadmin who has shown him how important it is to clearly communicate with users -- these are the people who will ultimately determine his future and salary. I personally like helping people, and I find their "grateful thank yous" one of the most rewarding parts of my job...." --David Bryant, currently onsite at Motorola, Austin, TX

Switch: "Edgar, tell this guy to switch careers unless he can change his attitude.... The world does not need another cranky, stressed out systems administrator: He will never be happy and will just frustrate his company, users, and boss...." --Mike Carpenter, PSA AnswerDesk, Austin, TX

Work with people -- not machines: "I supervised an incredibly smart and very busy SA that started treating the problems as if there was a problem with a machine, rather than a problem with the user of that machine. The SA would do a quick check of the sendmail, find it working perfectly, and then send the frustrated user a message back that read: Everything works great! The problem turned out to be no one had taught the user the correct way to delete mail." --Kevin Graham, working onsite at Lucent, Naperville, IL

Call users directly: "Because we are barraged with problems, it is very easy to skip the follow-up call to the user -- a bad mistake. A SA might think the problem has been solved and can cross it off his list, but, to the user, they have no idea what was done: They may *not* have received the update because they are accidentally deleting it, or some other "pilot error." --Gordon Galligher, working onsite at Philips Semiconductor, Sunnyvale, CA

Instill confidence: A telephone call to the user to gather more information, or to follow up to make sure they are satisfied, goes a long way to building confidence among the user base. It continues to remind the SA that when they are dealing with problems, they are dealing with people, not machines. --Ian Forde, working onsite at Safeway, Walnut Creek, CA

Impatient calls: "An SA's job is not unlike that of a dentist. When your system is running smoothly, you may smile at the SA; you may even chat amiably for a few seconds, but you still do not take the time to get to know the person. But... when your system is not running smoothly, you cannot wait to find the SA. Then your phone calls are not answered, and you have to "wait your turn." Many get mad, not understanding that the SA is busy *fixing* the problems you want to report...." --Vince Taluskie, working onsite at Motorola, Austin, TX

Be a diplomat: "I hire SAs that show they can be diplomats. We cannot be rude to the user community -- our job only exists because we administer systems that serve user needs. Being inattentive, abrupt, or condescending is unprofessional and does nothing but give us a worse reputation than SAs often already have (in this case, one that would be well deserved). We must treat users like their issues are the most important ones for us to deal with at the moment. It's imperative that the users feel that we can handle their problems with relative ease. If the users don't feel confident that we will get the problem resolved, they continually "badger" us for updates and subtly suggest that "maybe you should just call the repairman or the telephone company or something." --Marc Furon, working onsite at Hughes Space and Communications, Los Angeles, CA

Multitask: "Some sysadmins have a hard time understanding that sometimes all they can do at that moment is to "simply bandage" the problem and work on a longer-term solution at a later date. (Although, all too often, a "later date" never arrives, and the bandage fix becomes the de facto standard for problem solving.) Our investment banking firms typically run sites where downtime is measured in million dollars of revenue lost when a workstation goes down, and a broker cannot complete his transaction. Sysadmins in these high-pressure environments either absolutely love it, or they burn out fast...." --Rick Tait, working onsite at Vastar Resources, Houston, TX

Communicate urgency: "Your reader needs to be comfortable with the reality that most problems are completely out of the control of the SA: network outages, system outages, e-mail not working, application programs not launching correctly, etc. The challenge is how to communicate this immediately to the user base and give them a sense that you understand the urgency of the situation and are pushing hard for a fast solution. --Elizabeth Hayes, working onsite at MCI, Colorado Springs, CO

Patient educator: "I find most of our problems do not require much time to fix but require me to be patient and repeatedly educate and remind my user base -- printer not printing correctly; terminal not logging in; user forgetting password. I've seen SAs laugh at their users or reprimand them... but that becomes a lose-lose situation and then no one is happy...." --Tom Blackerby, working onsite at Intel, Portland, OR

So, Dear Frustrated, hopefully these tips and observations give you new information on your career path and your other options. Some people are just not cut out to be sysadmins. Good luck to both you and your users.

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About the author
[Edgar Saadi] Edgar Saadi is senior vice president of Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the US. In his many years in high technology staffing, Edgar has helped guide the careers of thousands of open systems professionals. Visit the Pencom Career Center and the new 1999 Interactive Salary Guide, featuring the new online trends magazine Tech-It-Out!.

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