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Hey you – minion. Yes, IT dudes and dudettes, they're talking to you

Beyond the scope of the button-pusher

Sysadmin Blog Who are you, dear reader, and why are you reading this? If you've a yen to answer that literally, by all means please do, but the question is somewhat more metaphorical in intent.

I'm not seeking an existentialist answer about your sense of purpose in life, but I am hoping that you can answer – to yourself if to no one else – what your role in technology is and why you turn to the pages of The Register for news, laughs and more.

To me, who you are and why you are here is an intellectual curiosity. More data to chew on. For you, however, your self-identification can and does play an increasingly critical role in everything from your vendor biases and product selection to your chances of retaining long-term employment in fields related to technology.

If you self-identified as a "systems administrator", "storage administrator", "IT practitioner" or other term that realistically boils down to "minion who does things related to technology", you're done for. If reading the previous sentence caused you to become angered and prepared to argue, instead of curious as to why I might say that, you're super-double-extra doomed with a side of "cheque please".

The problem with self-identification as a minion-class button-pusher lies in the scope of awareness and the breadth of apathy. Put simply: as a category, IT is huge, and growing at a ferocious clip. Button-pushers – even specialist button-pushers – are cheap and plentiful.

Any minion can be trained to rigidly adhere to whitepapers and say "no" to every request that comes their way. People who implement technologies are a commodity. What's rare – and what's actually worth paying a living wage for – are people who solve problems.

In business title terms, I am talking here about the difference between an administrator and an architect. The administrator will eventually be replaced by mediocre software. The architect is the individual who understands not only how technology works, but why. They design solutions by considering factors and elements outside the scope of the implementation of the technology.

The big picture

To be able to make informed decisions about which technologies, services and practices to adopt, an architect needs to understand what's out there. More knowledge is required than simple surface impressions, and technologies need to be revisited regularly. Just because something was pants five years ago doesn't mean it still is today.

By the same token, however, it is intellectually lazy to clamp onto a vendor or product and go full fanperson. Newer does not mean better, and just because a product was adequate or even superb in a previous incarnation does not mean that it will continue to meet requirements in the latest incarnation.

Newness is not progress. To my mind, in order to be considered progress, a new product or service must advance the state of the art such that it demonstrably proves superior to that which it proposes to replace.

Architects can't look at individual products or services in isolation. Their job is to look at the totality of products that make up the solution. The interaction of multiple products, services, regulations and vendors all affect the outcome of their design and are all variables that must be accounted for and controlled. Among the variables to be accounted for are the biases of the architect themselves. Those who self-identify with a button-pusher tech role typically don't want to be bothered with "political stuff". They view things related to business needs, business processes, laws, regulations, diplomacy, user experience concerns and documentation as "necessary evils" to be avoided if at all possible.

Just because something was pants five years ago doesn't mean it still is today

Unfortunately, this worldview is neither rare nor particularly valuable. Businesses need fewer button-pushers today than they did five years ago, and they aren't particularly interested in promoting individuals for whom thinking beyond the implementation details of the technology requires leaving their comfort zone.

Thinking beyond tech

Let's take Microsoft as an example. There are a great many things that factor into my calculations regarding Microsoft. I believe Microsoft is a supremely arrogant company that doesn't care about obtaining or retaining the trust of its customers.

Based on the above, I believe Microsoft absolutely would put the squeeze on subscribers right when it would hurt everyone the most. Many of the organisations I support operate in boom and bust economies. They are comfortable and familiar with buying assets in the boom and sweating them through the bust and I honestly don't believe all of them could handle a switch to a subscription model.

This leads to "beyond the tech" questions that are nonetheless critical to choosing products, services and even vendors.

What percentage of the company's monthly revenue is reasonable to be subscription fees for IT products and services? Will what looks viable with today's numbers be survivable when the bottom drops out of the market the customer operates in?

How low can I scale the services in question? Not everything is a per-user fee, and even those that are often change how much they charge per user as you start hiving off users to save money.

There's lots to consider beyond month-to-month subscriptions, too. Microsoft offers the ability to pay for several years up front, though the prices are almost certain to be higher than those who roll their own are used to.

Additionally, the legal and privacy concerns around public cloud computing in general are many. No matter how many PR stunts companies pull, they are still subject to US law. Can your business afford to roll those dice?

Of course, the integration between Microsoft's products is compelling, and the costs of moving away from them are usually huge. For industry-specific software, it may not even be possible to leave Microsoft behind.

That said, pure Microsoft shops are a rarity these days. Heterogeneous environments are the new normal and this adds a layer of complexity to calculations. Microsoft is really slow with regards to adopting standards, but it does eventually adopt them. The same cannot be said for all of its competitors.

Before running for the exits with any vendor it is important to spend a lot of time thinking about how alternative solutions will interact with the rest of your network, how they can be secured, and whether or not the proposed alternative vendors are equally horrible.

Abandoning Microsoft in order to jump in bed with Oracle's cloud services would be one example of a choice that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Beyond tomorrow's bonus

For architects, the long game matters. For many it really matters. Whether or not your {insert technology} is up and running today is a very short-term problem requiring a very short-term focus.

The bigger question is whether you want to be running {insert technology} 10 years from now. If so, can you? If you can, will you be able to run it physically where you want to by then? How deeply you want to rely on {insert technology} or how much you want to integrate other technologies – or the applications your developers are writing – into {insert technology}?

Architects have to think not only beyond the current quarter, but often beyond the next refresh cycle. A lot more has to go into these decisions than just the technology.

Chose wisely

Choosing a vendor is more like a marriage. It is often a long-term affair with consequences that affect every aspect of your decision-making.

The character of your vendor matters. If it behaves with unchecked corporate hubris you might find that getting in business with it has more long-term risks than rewards.

Every product, service and vendor you choose limits your options. Now, and in the future. Every choice made has an effect on the cost of change and the speed with which it can be accomplished.

If you spend your whole day pushing buttons to keep the lights on, then you aren't doing the research required to analyse anything beyond the day-to-day implementation of the technology. You may not even have the time to keep up with advances in the implementation of technology, and that's a huge problem.

Businesses don't get to pretend that technology simply stopped at some arbitrary point in the past. Businesses operate in the real world where news technologies, heterogeneity, vendor politics, long term considerations, legal concerns and more all have to be dealt with.

Apathy and purposeful ignorance are not corporate survival traits.

How you see yourself matters. It affects where you direct your energy, your free time and your employment efforts. Are you dedicated to automating away the daily scut work so you can focus on bigger concerns? Or are you happy pushing buttons and think that if things are working life is good?

Who are you going to be a year from now? Five years? Ten? The months and years tick by when you're not looking, especially if your hair is always on fire. Are you the automated or the automator? Are you an administrator or an architect? Your future depends on your answer. ®


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