Creator of the Unix Sysadmin Song explains he just wanted to liven up a textbook
When you get to Chapter 15 of a Unix book you're ready for a laugh
In more than a few IT departments, or more likely in the pub on Friday night, there will be the ritual singing of the Unix Sysadmin Song, which is still remembered 28 years after its genesis in Harley Hahn's book, The Unix Companion.
Hahn, who has sold over two million books in his career, explained that while the song might be sung in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," a bigger influence was PG Wodehouse.
The British author is known primarily as the author of the Jeeves and Wooster series, but was also an expert lyricist. Hahn said he tried to emulate that precise style in the song.
The Unix Sysadmin Song wasn't the only Easter Egg in that chapter, which delved into the popular elm and pine Unix email systems, among others. He included a version of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors where characters argue over a lost disk and a humorous retelling of Casablanca's final scene. You can read both here.
You've got to listen to me. Do you have any idea what you'd have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten we'd both end up working on the Windows 95 version of pine. Isn't that true, Louis?
I'm afraid that Microsoft would insist.
You're saying this only to make me go.
I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with the elm group. You're part of their work, the thing that keeps them going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with them, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
A career in computing
Hahn started with Unix in the Autumn of 1976 as an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo – still known as the MIT of Canada – before moving to UC San Diego as a graduate student.
To make ends meet he took a job with a professor who needed some Unix programming done, so he had to learn it on the spot. At Waterloo there was some computing in the form of IBM mainframes. At UCSD, Hahn found a terminal and got to work.
"Everybody was self taught," he explained. "But you could ask somebody 'how do you do this?' You were sitting in a terminal room with other people who were self taught and try and figure out something. Nobody dreamed that you could have your own computer or more disk space than you'd ever need."
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He wrote his first book the following year while working as a teaching assistant at the university, teaching systems programming using IBM 360 Assembler. But there were no textbooks, so he wrote one – called "How to Write Beautiful Assembly Language Programs for the IBM System/360."
In a style that was to become a trademark, he injected some humor by starting each chapter with a relevant quote from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. After convincing IBM to let him have a PC/AT system he wrote three guides covering general use, assembly language on the system, and Xenix. He followed this up with similar guides to the IBM PC and PS/2 (poor devil).
In 1991 he cowrote "Guide to Unix" with the utilities pioneer Peter Norton, and this reignited his interest in open source. He went on to write five books on the topic, including the 1995 tome that includes the infamous song – latterly using his beloved Dvorak keyboard.
Forget Windows, the fundamentals of Unix haven't changed
Hahn remains a devotee of open source and, while he writes on a Windows system, points out the dependability of the Unix ecosystem.
"There's a huge difference in how Windows has changed over the years from Windows 95 through to 10 – Unix doesn't change that much," he opined.
"The programs get more and more sophisticated, but the basic Unix you need to know to get in the game is still what you could have learned in the 1970s because it doesn't have Microsoft behind it trying to change things to make more money. The world of Unix isn't trying to lease programs to you for a monthly payment."
Hahn still writes code for Unix and, after a brief break, he's back writing again – working on a treatise covering the VPN market and putting some of his Unix books online for free in time for the next school year.
These will be formatted to be read on-screen for the next generation, for whom books can be seen as something of an anachronism. As the popularity of dead-tree publications wanes, a new generation of sysadmins may learn the song, and the tradition will continue. ®