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How good a techie are you? Objective about yourself and your skills?

I think I am... So come judge me, readers

Sysadmin blog How objective are you? Can you design IT solutions outside your own experience? Are you capable of testing unfamiliar and uncomfortable software, services and solutions with an open mind or do you immediately lash out against the mere idea of change?

How far outside of your direct experience can you really step and at what point is the advice you give doing more harm than good?

These probably strike you as somewhat existential questions; indeed, in asking them I am hoping to trigger a moment of professional solipsism in you with an end goal of opening your mind to a discussion about the very nature of our profession itself.

I stand on the cusp of redefining my career. While sharing my inner emotional turmoil with 9.5 million readers makes me feel incredibly vulnerable, I suspect that many of you share my fear and trepidation as you also consider your role within the future of our industry.

To get to the part where we really delve into our role within out profession I need to take you on a roundabout journey through my past and my dreams of the future. It's a long trip, but I hope it will be worth the journey.

How I screwed up my future

I made a serious mistake when I was young and I did not finish my bachelor's degree. At the turn of the millennium you couldn't get a bachelor's degree in "systems administration" and my heart just wasn't in software development or electrical engineering. I went to university anyway because it was expected of me. I was "good at computers" and so I would go take a computer science degree.

I took a year of computer science, realized that I loathe development in general (and Java in particular) and I really hated calculus. I switched to Telecommunications Engineering Technology at the local polytechnic. My mother still hasn't forgiven me. After a year in TET I realized that as much fun as bread-boarding electronics was, I still hated calculus. Worse, I did not want to end up a cable monkey for the rest of my life; after the dot-com bubble had burst, wiring up the ADSL lines of the locals looked to be all that a TET graduate could expect.

In desperation I took a one-year course called Network and Security Support Analyst (NSSA). This wasn't funded by our federal government and so it cost me 4x as much as a regular year of post-secondary; I foolishly accepted burdensome student debt because the program promised to be a lightning-quick crash course in systems administration.

We were to build networks in the lab, work with multiple operating systems, use Cisco routers and Microsoft's RRAS. We were to learn not just the theory behind the technologies of the day but put them into practical use and do so in complex (for a school) interconnected fashion where multiple technologies would be required to be used together to create working networks. NSSA was exactly the kind of challenge I craved and it that same multi-disciplinary approach still forms the core of my career and professional approach to IT today.

The program, however, had one fatal flaw: it was only one year long. While appealing to 19-year-old me, nobody sat me down to explain just exactly what the deleterious effects were that this would have on my career. There was lots of talk about how "credentials don't matter so much as industry certifications" and "references speak louder than degrees".


For all that I've devoted the past decade of my life to systems administration – and arguably the decade before that as well – it isn't fixing boxen that brings home the bacon today.

A little over three years ago Drew Cullen – chief cook and bottle washer here at El Reg – noticed that I trolled people rather a lot in the comments. Such was the sheer volume of words that I vented into my poor keyboard that it was decided that if I insisted on continuing with this madness then The Register should publish my blitherings and put adverts alongside them.

I think Drew was under the impression that if he hit me repeatedly with a broom via e-mail I'd eventually learn to write. More fool him.

For me these events proved a stroke of luck. The very first article under my byline was published on May 17, 2010 and I remember that month well. I was on the verge of cracking and the idea of writing for The Register was one of the only things in my life (apart from my then girlfriend) that gave me a sense of hope.

My newfound sense of hope didn't last long. A little over a year later – after nearly a decade of 12-16 hour days working for the same company – I finally cracked. I had a full-bore nervous breakdown that brought every aspect of my career, my future and even my own sense of self into question.

I had quite literally worked myself to the very edge of my own grave for this company and there was no future in sight. Were I to stay put then at the ripe old age of 28 I would have reached the apex of my career. The planet had plunged into recession only two years before; IT jobs were evaporating into the cloud around me and with only a one-year post-secondary certificate and a handful of entry-level vendor certs to my name the future was a bleak and miserable place indeed.

Without the emotional support of my family and friends – especially my wife – I honestly don't know how I would have made it through those few dark months. As my sense of self-worth hit rock bottom these people lifted me up and pointed out that The Register wouldn't be asking me to write things unless someone out there thought my skills and knowledge might have value.

I threw myself into writing; the more I did the more challenging the assignments I was handed. It was just like being in college again: my mind was unleashed and I was given room to stretch my legs and test my abilities. It was you lot, dear Register readers, who gave me a purpose in life once more.

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