What is a System Administrator?

Since I have gotten some questions from people wondered who we are talking about when we say System Administrators, and if that includes ${MY_AREA_OF_WORK} (where that has at various times been: Windows, Networking, even programming), I think I need to describe a little about how I view our profession.

What is a System Administrator? The short answer (which you have probably heard if you have talked to me in person) is that it is extremely inclusive and if you are wondering if your area of the computing world is included then it very possibly does include you even though you had to ask.

For me, it does not matter if you have bits served up by a system you run (whether windows, mac, unix, linux, VMS, zOS, etc), saved on a (storage) system you run, organized by your system into some form of database, passing through some system you run (networking), or in many cases even processed by a system you have coded/programmed. If you have a system you control and manage in any way and someone depends or expects proper responses from it, you are directly or indirectly administering a system.

That's a key part of the situation leading to it being a system. Someone is dependent on your abilities for a computer to operate the way they need, and it's important to remember that it's not the size of the system or the number of people that use it to make you the administrator responsible for allowing that interaction to go correctly and as efficiently as possible. Even a solitary computer not (regularly) connected to a network could be an important system for someone as long as they are connecting to it via hands, eyes or other sensory input, they are depending on you to keep a computing device functional for their needs.

Applied in the real world, particularly the world of networked systems, this means interacting and intercommunicating. As individuals, we often have our personal preferences with some people wanting to only ever interact with Widows systems and yet other people that would be happy if they only ever interacted with Unix systems, and so on. Eventually, in our roles as admins or even as we operate as the user connecting to systems run by another admin, our preferred systems need to communicate and interoperate with something we are unfamiliar with or have no desire to involve ourselves with deeper. It's at exactly that moment you need to consider whoever is responsible for that machine and be thankful if they are keeping it answering to your needs.

What is considered by many admins as external and not system administration is also something that I think should be considered in the administration realm sometimes: coding. There is a very tight link in what programmers do with what the user of a machine sees and experiences, and the coder is very much controlling the interaction and availability of a system, the programs and code are very much a part of that system. Depending on your company, offerings and procedures, a programmer may well be on the front line performing the updates (hopefully after using suitable revision and testing procedures) and interacting with the users.

Are you a system administrator? I expect the answer is probably yes, but an even better way to be sure is to just come chat with us, hopefully we can learn from your experiences.

Philip Kizer, President