Monday, August 31, 2009

Are sys admins soon to be relics?

One of the ideas that can be extrapolated from the positions of the "infrastructure as code" crowd, is that the future of systems administration will look dramatically different than it does today.*

The extreme view of the future is that you'll have a set of domain experts (application architects/developers, database architects, storage architects, performance management, platform security, etc.) who produce the infrastructure code and everything else happens automatically. The image of today's workhorse, pager wearing, fire extinguishing sys admin doesn't seem to have a role in that world.

Of course, the reality will be somewhere in the pragmatic middle. But a glimpse of that possible future should make sys admins question which direction they are taking their job skills.

I finally got around to digging into the conference wrap up report that O'Reilly publishes after its annual web operations conference, Velocity. Most of it was the standard self-serving kudos. However, the table below really caught my eye and inspired me to write this post.

Attendee Job Titles (multiple answers accepted)
  • Software Developer 60%
  • IT Management/Sys Admin 27%
  • Computer Programmer 20%
  • CXO/Business Strategist 19%
  • Web/UI Design 17%
  • Business Manager 16%
  • Product Manager 10%
  • Consultant 9%
  • Entrepreneur 8%
  • Business Development 4%
  • Community Activist 3%
  • Marketing Professional 2%
  • Other 5%

Now of course you have to look at this data with a cautious eye. People were asked to self-describe, you could select multiple titles, some people where attending to learn about design tricks for faster page load times, and most people blow through marketing surveys without much care. However, it did catch my eye that somewhere between 60 - 80% described themselves as having a development role. Only 27% described themselves as having a sys admin role.

Now is it a big leap to point to this data as an early warning signal of the demise of the traditional sys admin role? Probably... but it fully jibes with the anecdotal evidence we saw around the conference halls. From large .com employees (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flickr, Shopzilla, etc..) to the open source tools developers, the thought (and action) leaders were developers who happened to focus on systems administration, not systems administrators who happened to have development skills.

* Disclosure: I'm a member of the infrastructure as code crowd


John Allspaw said...

Ugh. The answer is (again) no, sysadmins are not going to become relics. Not going away. For some of these same reasons:

Damon Edwards said...

John, of course Operations isn't going away. I never said that.

I'm simply commenting on the skills of those people who fill the operations roles you list in your post.

In high-performing operations organizations the skill set of the frontline engineers is starting to look more like that of a developer than a traditional systems administrator.

Ops isn't going anywhere, but how it is being performed is changing for the better. Treating infrastructure as code and using development techniques (like source control and release management procedures) doesn't threaten Ops in any way.

Unknown said...

The thing is, those skills (software development) have always been a part of the required skill-set of every Unix/Linux sysadmin.

What's changing is the *focus*, the idea that having the ability to rack and stack servers well is your a prime part of your job description as a systems administrator. It *might* be, but it certainly doesn't have to be any more.

When I reflect on what's happening, I feel like we're at the stage where what "infrastructure as code" really means to systems administrators is that all the work you never liked doing anyway is gone.

The stuff that really made you a systems administrator, and that made you a real Ops ninja, that stuff is now *more* critical. Capacity planning? Needs a human. Performance tuning? Gotta have a human. Production troubleshooting? Gotta have a human. Hopefully, the results of all of the above are easier (no more ".. and now repeat yourself a hundred times".)

Damon Edwards said...

Adam, good point about focusing on the things that require a human (which are arguably the things that make the difference between operations being either a hindrance or a strategic asset).

I would go one step further and say that when a workforce is given a chance to focus, it naturally leads to demands for specialization... which further diminishes the need for the current jack of all trades type roles that are common in operations teams today (and what I was referring to in my original post as "sys admins")

Not less people... focused people. The smart people stop "building the cars" by hand and start "focusing on building the factory" (if you'll allow my overused manufacturing metaphor).

John Allspaw said...

Apologies if I misunderstood, the idea that automated infrastructure will simply wipe sysadmins off the earth is a common one, and seeing the word 'relic' in your post got me moving in that direction.

Adam (as usual) clarified the point I was trying to make: 'The thing is, those skills (software development) have always been a part of the required skill-set of every Unix/Linux sysadmin.'

I suspect that the reason you saw those titles/skills at Velocity is because that community has for the most part always described themselves like that. Sysadmins writing code to manage their infrastructure isn't new at any stretch, at least not in web operations.

What the infrastructure-as-code people describe is a reality that has always existed, skills wise. It's the much-needed refresh on tools that has brought the focus to light.