The two sides of an IT admin: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde





I’m not sure many other occupations can go from normal to obscene as rapidly and thoroughly as IT. There’s something to be said for having a job that presents new challenges and situations on a constant basis, but let’s be honest, when the fit hits the shan in IT, it’s generally an epic event.


You may enjoy stretches of days or weeks where your day-to-day duties are calm, organized, and proper, allowing you time to dig through the backlog of projects and tasks that continuously get shoved under the carpet [1], time to develop plans for the next budget cycle, and time to figure out how to move your infrastructure [2] and your company forward in a smooth and collected manner.


[ Learn from the best — Paul Venezia shares his hard-earned admin know-how in “Mission impossible: A remote network cutover [3],” “Revealed! Secrets behind IT magic tricks [4],” and “How to move a data center without having a heart attack [5].” | Get the latest practical info and news with InfoWorld’s Data Center newsletter [6]. ]


Then there are the days where you find yourself playing Jenga with bowling balls.


It’s not just the speed at which everything can go pear-shaped; it’s the wake of destruction that can be left behind. It would be one thing if those situations occurred organically — say, through the failure of a disk or when a UPS gives up the ghost. But a great many disasters are caused by human error, which makes them infinitely worse.


For example, there might be a cluster of six servers that have been decommissioned, yet are still powered on and racked. On an otherwise calm Tuesday, an admin heads over, finds the servers, and starts shutting them down and pulling cables. However, that admin wasn’t paying enough attention or misremembered the rack they were in, so he kills the power and yanks the cables out of half the virtualization cluster in the adjacent rack before anyone notices.


This situation renders the term “all hell breaks loose” an understatement. Hello, Mr. Hyde [7]. Yes, it was the work of a single person, and it took just a few minutes, but the recovery requires a team of admins and the next eight hours of effort. It turns an otherwise normal day into a violent volcanic eruption, and there’s nothing to be done for it other than to put your head down and fight through until everything’s back in place.


On a smaller scale, turning into a monster in IT can be done very easily by simple interruption. During periods of high concentration — such as rewriting a particularly sensitive chunk of code or carefully manipulating remote network configurations [8] — someone stops by to chat. Or the phone rings. Or you get a sudden barrage of email and/or instant messaging. Or all at the same time.


There are few things more frustrating than to be yanked out of your carefully constructed and relatively delicate mental process by a coworker or a vendor calling [9]to see if you’d like to buy a bunch of servers. It should be legal grounds for homicide or at least a good beating.


“Well, officer, I was right in the middle of rearchitecting this particularly involved matching algorithm when Tim leaned on my cubicle doorway and started asking me if I was going to the company picnic next month and if I thought it would be OK to bring beer. And his girlfriend didn’t want to go, and he was thinking that maybe she wasn’t the one and … I … I just snapped and kicked him in the solar plexus.”


“I see. Well, I don’t think there’s anything more to do here; we’ll be taking Tim down to the station. You have a nice day.”


When I try to communicate this to nontechies, I tell them to imagine that they’re counting up a long string of numbers — perhaps 100 random numbers in all. About three-quarters of the way through the list, someone comes up and starts talking at you about last night’s episode of “Toddlers & Tiaras [10]” at maximum volume.


Sadly, although there are ways to mitigate both sides of this phenomenon, there’s no getting rid of it. We have to deal with the fact that at any time, on any day, we can be launched into the fire or out into space in full Dr. Jekyll mode. In between those occurrences, we can hedge our bets as best as we can as Dr. Jeckyll, monitor as many items as we can, and develop plans to deal with any crazy scenario our minds can envision — and we still won’t cover all the bases.


If you work in IT for a single company, you’re aware of all this, but consultants who deal with a wide variety of clients know this in a much deeper and more painful way. When you’re in the middle of one emergency call from a client, I’d wager that the odds of getting another emergency call from a completely different client increase by at least 50 percent. It’s like magnetic attraction or the phases of the moon or something. Where one crisis exists, another wants to join in the fun. Maybe we should have a special corollary to Murphy’s Law just for IT, because it sure seems he spends a fair amount of time there.


But it definitely makes for an interesting occupation, and it keeps you on your toes. Heck, as we work with computers all day long, maybe the excitement is good for us.

This story, “The two sides of an IT admin: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [11],” was originally published at [12]. Read more of Paul Venezia’s The Deep End blog [13] at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter

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