Paid Feature System Administrator Appreciation Day has run on the last Friday of July, every year since July 28, 2000. What did you get for Sysadmin Day this year? What do you mean, you were elbows deep, patching hundreds of remote laptops that you know have been a ticking security time bomb since the company went into lockdown in March, 2020?
Well, you’re not the only one whose harassment levels have shot up over the last couple of years.
The Harvey Nash Group Technology and Talent Study 2021 showed that almost two-thirds of IT ops workers had seen their workloads increase over the course of the pandemic. By contrast, 45 per cent of developers, and 38 per cent of software engineers reported a rise in their workloads.
It’s hardly surprising. Corporate infrastructure has been turned inside out by the demands of remote working. The first challenge is ensuring asset management protocols are followed when new client devices are shipped direct to remote users, never coming anywhere HQ. The second challenge is to find enough skilled staff to do the job, against a backdrop of a worsening shortage of tech workers. And, increasingly, of the tech itself.
And as Thorsten Stremlau, Chief Technologist, Commercial Product Portfolio at Lenovo, points out, sysadmins and ITDMs were already struggling to cope before the onset of Covid. “A vast part of a sysadmin’s day is spent on mundane tasks of maintenance, deployment, patching and things like that. And then the rest of the day, if you’re lucky, is taken up with actually trying to drive innovation and transformation in the business.”
The fact is companies have consistently undervalued what it is that their sysadmins actually do and, more importantly, achieve.
The skills level within many companies has been reduced over all, Stremlau continues. And fewer techies at entry level mean even fewer skilled techies moving up the organisation over time. “We’ve lost a lot of people that still understand those little lines of code, DOS scripts, and scripting capabilities.”
This leaves companies looking for help with even the most mundane tasks. That help is even harder to find as a result of Covid. And harder to deliver when the end user workforce is largely at home.
The situation is complicated further when organisations suddenly realise that they really do have to embark on digital transformation. When companies are looking to reinvent themselves, the 25 per cent of the time that their sysadmins have free for non-routine work is woefully inadequate.
“I think that the planners and the do-ers will always have a disconnect,” Stremlau says. “But it’s been exacerbated a little bit by the technical debt that a lot of companies have incurred over a period of years. It’s been very much about reducing costs, reducing the cost of the hardware, to bring it down to the bare minimum.”
Keep it simple NOT stupid
But all is not lost. From Lenovo’s point of view, there are a number of ways to help IT infrastructure workers – and by extension their users, and even the planners and transformers whose abstract ideas are often out of sync with the reality of working with tech day-to-day.
There’s one core maxim, according to Stremlau, just make it simple – whether you are an enterprise or small business.
This starts with the device on the desk or in the rack – wherever that happens to be. “It’s very important to make sure you always design the hardware with manageability and operational aspects taken into consideration.”
Stremlau draws a comparison with cars. If checking the catalytic converter necessitates the removal of the engine, guess what’s going to happen. Likewise, making technical maintenance unduly difficult means it is unlikely to happen.
Beyond the device itself, sysadmins and their organisations could benefit from more automation, something that many IT organisations are often wary of, somehow equating it with a loss of control of their platform.
Yet, as Stremlau points out, “We could either publish a 50-page document that tells somebody how to write a script in order to do something or we could simply create an executable that does all the integration of that script automatically. We’re actually trying to make it as easy as possible to alleviate that burden.”
Another contribution on Lenovo’s part, he says, is working with the operating system providers – whether that’s Microsoft or Linux. In part this ensures that Lenovo is aligned with where they are going, but also helps to steer them in the right direction when it comes to making users’ lives easier.
Stremlau reveals Lenovo’s field technical support engineers are crucial in feeding back what’s happening in the real world at the sysadmin level. “We have hundreds of these techies that are meeting with sysadmins every day, and they know what the pain points are. So, when a partner comes out with some ludicrous idea on how to do something, we can usually tell them that’s not a good idea, and they should probably do it in a different way.”
This could be as simple as pointing out that it’s unhelpful if a vendor dictates that features only work when a device is connected to the cloud, or that other services must be in place first. Or, it could be pointing out that requiring a European customer to connect to a server in the US might violate GDPR principles. As Stremlau says, while there are challenges which are geopolitical, geotechnical, and some that are “just simple, stupid ideas.”
Those same field technical support engineers have a deep understanding of the mix of sometimes vintage technology really embedded in customers’ systems and the transitions they’re looking to make.
Back in the real world
“They’re out there helping our customers all the time with questions like ‘how do I integrate this driver for this 20-year-old scanner in Windows?’ But also things like, ‘how do I now manage my system using Intune? Right? I’ve been an SCCM (Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager) house for the last 20 years, I now want to move to Intune. Can you help me do that?'”
The same challenges occur right across the board, he explains, “No matter what type of a project, whether it’s an IoT project, whether it’s a mobility project with mobile phones, or laptops, whether it’s a new server project.”
The only possible exception is in the very highest investment projects, for example AI or HPC. “I think the higher cost projects obviously have more attention paid to them.”
Companies face a delicate balance in addressing these tensions, according to Stremlau. The drive to reduce costs has often prompted companies to hand sysadmin work to outside suppliers, but there’s a potential downside to this.
“It does make sense for companies that are not in IT, to not be in IT. Outsourcing things that you know nothing about is good. But the thing that many companies don’t realize is that they know their business very, very well.”
That includes those over-stretched sysadmins. “If I get rid of all the people that are IT-savvy, I’m no longer able to translate my business properly to the IT people. You always need to have IT people in your organisation that know your business.”
And companies can then help their savvy in-house IT folks by facing up to technical debt, eliminating legacy architecture and policies when they are no longer useful, and embracing “modern” IT, in the form of automatic deployment, zero touch deployment, automatic updates, and the latest application technology.
Would this really make it feel like SysAdmin Day, every day? Wouldn’t it get a bit “samey”, after a while, certainly after the first 10 years or so?
Maybe, but it would certainly free sysadmins up to do what they really want to be doing, which is helping users and helping the organisation just do better.
Because, as Stremlau says, while some sysadmins may not always be as communicative as they could be, “Rarely do I meet an IT admin who doesn’t care.”
Sponsored by Lenovo.