The Systems Administrator is likely the closet technological trade to skilled manual labor. They troubleshoot complex systems that others take for granted, until they fail, with a deceptive ease. Explaining to another how they had a hunch to look at a certain part of the system is either a retrospective tale of why it made sense, or a sarcastic nod to magic. This tale attempts to work out how one could have deduced the solution, but even if someone assembled a collection of symptoms and solutions into a step-by-step guide, they would not be able to replace the role of a Systems Administrator. Like an automotive mechanic can detect a blown head gasket from the smell of the oil, a Systems Administrator can sense infrastructure issues from how systems are behaving. And like a fondness for a make of automobile, we grow attached to Linux distributions that have treated us well and editors whose dark secrets we can manipulate skillfully.
I once had a student who didn’t understand why we couldn’t repair board-level hardware issues ourselves as easily as replacing a stick of memory, as their uncle was capable of repairing any engine problems by opening up the hood and quite literally “jiggling some wires.” A mystic knowledge exists in both worlds that is challenging to articulate to the layman. It can be difficult enough to explain a single component, but when a part of a system falls over and causes cascading failures in other parts of a system, outsiders are tempted to believe that they’ve just learned a truth about the solution. That is, that when certain symptoms occur, it is always caused by the failure of a particular part and that this part should be restarted to ‘solve’ the problem. Yet, the experienced know that this only resolves the symptoms and the still problem lurks, now with fewer hints as to its origin.
The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed. — William Gibson
The trouble with paradigm shifts is that they aren’t necessarily direct improvements on existing technology with a clear lineage. Critics ask why the new ways are better than that which they replace, and we struggle to draw the path that led us to this new place of understanding. The struggle is because instead of making a choice at a clear intersection of a path, we stepped through the bushes to another path not as obviously traveled. This alternate path may lead us to the same end, but its course has an entirely different shape.
To further exacerbate the problem, new innovations stand on the shoulders of giants. Some people have been convinced of the merits of leveraging cloud computing on a strictly financial basis, and have missed the tenants of Undifferentiated Heavy Lifting (UHL), where running servers and building networks may not be ones core business and ultimately a distraction. Some have yet to grasp the concept of treating systems, even built on internal hardware, as disposable, still accustomed to legacy processes of maintaining a system for the lifetime of the hardware.
It is essential to realize that these new technologies are not minor improvements to business as usual. Like the birth of globalization changing business around the world, nursed by the multi-modal shipping container’s head fake as just another way of moving cargo, todays innovations will surely reshape the face of operations permanently, in substantial and non-incremental ways.