The Trouble with the Bastard Operator from Hell
Welcome to our special issue on violence in the workplace, I mean system administration. Despite the picture on the cover, Linux Journal does not normally advocate violence as a solution to system administration issues.
But why is the system administrator as an individual, and system administration as a profession, always in some kind of crisis? Why is a system administration job a never-ending flow of fires to be fought and ill-planned new information technology purchases to be integrated somehow into the operation? Where is the respect or consideration for the system administrator's expertise in how to make information technology work? Hey, stop laughing.
The answer to that last question is: “Nowhere, of course. Welcome to the race against burnout. Don't try to change the organization; just make your big score and get out.” Business experts everywhere advise managers not to keep a dog and try to bark, too. But it's an article of faith that management thinks nothing of inflicting well-marketed but idiotic information technology products on the poor, battle-weary sysadmin. But, it doesn't have to be this way.
In The Trouble with Dilbert, Norman Solomon writes, “One of the best ways to teach people not to rebel is to offer plenty of ruts for fake rebellion.” And sysadmins have nothing if not ruts for fake rebellion. With an escape hatch as close as the nearest ssh client, sysadmin culture has flowered under management repression into newsgroups, mailing lists and web sites all dedicated to the proposition that all sysadmins are created superior. That's not surprising for a bunch of people with such diverse backgrounds and skills. Show me one sysadmin who majored in Computer Science, and I'll show you three historians and a molecular biologist. Sysadmins are, on the balance, excellent writers and creative people.
So why does the job of being a sysadmin suck so much? Simon Travaglia's Bastard Operator from Hell is the folk hero of system administration, and his stories are linked to from everywhere. If you haven't read the BOFH stories, he's a self-described [Don, did you really think we could put that word in LJ? —Ed.] who delights in tormenting any user who asks a question (and some who don't, just to be on the safe side). But, just messing with the users isn't making the system any better. The BOFH is entertaining, but the way of the BOFH leads only to more clueless users to deal with, more problems and less help.
What the BOFH has may seem like power, but real power lies in the ability to construct something useful. And you're not going to get that done just working around the demands of idiots and taking revenge where you can. You don't work for the Ministry of Information here. In the real world, a system administrator can walk away from idiots. And given the current job market for people who know Linux, you can walk away from the next idiot, and the next. Imagine a company that works your way because you built a system that works your way, or just works, period. It's possible. The Bastard Operator from Hell can only destroy. By abandoning foolish companies to seek out the good ones, a system administrator can really create something.
Don Marti is the technical editor for Linux Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.