If you asked six system administrators to define their jobs, you would get seven different answers. The job is difficult to define because system administrators do so many things. An SA looks after computers, networks, and the people who use them. An SA may look after hardware, operating systems, software, configurations, applications, or security. A system administrator influences how effectively other people can or do use their computers and networks.

A system administrator sometimes needs to be a business-process consultant, corporate visionary, janitor, software engineer, electrical engineer, economist, psychiatrist, mindreader, and, occasionally, a bartender.

As a result, companies calls SAs different names. Sometimes, they are called network administrators, system architects, system engineers, system programmers, operators and so on.

We have a very general definition of system administrator: one who manages computer and network systems on behalf of another, such as an employer or a client. SAs are the people who make things work and keep it all running.

What System Administration Entails:

It’s difficult to define system administration, but trying to explain it to a nontechnical person is even more difficult, especially if that person is your friends or relatives.

System Administration Matters

System administration matters because computers and networks matter. Computers are a lot more important than they were years ago. What happened? The widespread use of the Internet, intranets, and the move to a webcentric world has redefined the way companies depend on computers. The Internet is a 24/7 operation, and sloppy operations can no longer be tolerated.

Paper purchase orders can be processed daily, in batches, with no one the wiser. However, there is an expectation that the web-based system that does the process will be available all the time, from anywhere. Nightly maintenance windows have become an unheard-of luxury. That unreliable machine room power system that caused occasional but bearable problems now prevents sales from being recorded.

Management now has a more realistic view of computers. Before they had PCs on their desktops, most people’s impressions of computers were based on how they were portrayed in film: big, all-knowing, self-sufficient, miracle machines. The more people had direct contact with computers, the more realistic people’s expectations became. Now even system administration itself is portrayed in films. The 1993 classic Jurassic Park was the first mainstream movie to portray the key role that system administrators play in large systems.

The movie also showed how depending on one person is a disaster waiting to happen. IT is a team sport. If only Dennis Nedry had read this book. In business, nothing is important unless the CEO feels that it is important.

The CEO controls funding and sets priorities. CEOs now consider IT to be important. Email was previously for nerds; now CEOs depend on email and notice even brief outages. The massive preparations for Y2K also brought home to CEOs how dependent their organizations have become on computers, how expensive it can be to maintain them, and how quickly a purely technical issue can become a serious threat. Most people do not think that they simply “missed the bullet” during the Y2K change but that problems were avoided thanks to tireless efforts by many people. A CBS Poll shows 63 percent of Americans believe that the time and effort spent fixing potential problems was worth it. A look at the news lineups of all three major network news broadcasts from Monday, January 3, 2000, reflects the same feeling.

Previously, people did not grow up with computers and had to cautiously learn about them and their uses. Now more and more people grow up using computers, which means that they have higher expectations of them when they are in positions of power. The CEOs who were impressed by automatic payroll processing are soon to be replaced by people who grew up sending instant messages and want to know why they can’t do all their business via text messaging.

Computers matter more than ever. If computers are to work and work well, system administration matters. We matter.