I am a sysadmin. I know, I shouldn't brag about it. When people ask me what I do for a living, more often than not I answer "I work with computers". At least, this vague reply spares me the gleam of scorning hatred that might instantaneously spark in my interrogator's eye if I told the truth about my suspect occupation. Really, I am a coward. Next time maybe I should answer "I am a hired killer;" moral standards being what they are these days, it would be much less shocking.
From many points of view, systems administration is a pleasant and rewarding job. However, it has the distinction of being perhaps the only job that is frequently explained to you by a person who assembled his first machine only fifteen minutes ago and now fancies himself to be an expert. (In my humble opinion, driving a car doesn't make you a mechanic, and opening a fridge doesn't make you an electrician. And yet, typing on a keyboard seems to make everyone a computer specialist. Progress is unstoppable.)
Please, do not think that I have any desire to withhold the keys to knowledge, or that I regret the old sysadmin times when computer specialists wielded the absolute might that is behind their mindless vocabulary. On the contrary, being a lazy slacker, I prefer users who can solve their issues without me. Nevertheless, I still believe systems administration is a viable profession.
What I (sometimes) regret is the time when the job consisted of VAX supervisation or UNIX boxen reboots once or twice a year (just to remind people that the server was still there). Those who went through that glorious epoch probably remember how relaxing it was.
With the coming of the PC, and especially Windows, we entered a time that I call "The Era of the Mad Hatter". That title, I feel, is a suitable description of the irruption of irrationality in an inherently poetic and harmonious world. Following the dictates of Darwinism, I have found it necessary to adapt myself to this ominous age.
And so, today, being a sysadmin in the wonderful world of Microsoft means being a monstrous hybrid conglomeration of super-human roles, a subtle and indefinable mixture of shaman, psychoanalyst, handyman, nurse, charlatan and complete psychopath.
I will never thank Bill Gates enough for having transformed a relatively quiet job, that was based solely on cartesianism and technical expertise, into a daily challenge that requires one to constantly reconsider, improvise, and adapt.
What is more stimulating than to know that we will never learn anything useful? Each time we solve a problem, we know full well that the same problem will require a radically different solution when it happens again. Thus, we avoid intellectual sclerosis that would result from endless repetition.
Solving each problem requires such huge leaps of imagination it makes tripping on hallucinogenic mushrooms comparable to an annual financial summary. Logical thinking is not an asset but a grave handicap, preventing you from imagining the most eccentric possibilities. When the most reasonable causes of a malfunction are ruled out, you'll need to be able to consider the unreasonable ones, which fit in perfectly somewhere between fairy tales and the Twilight Zone.
Because I'm a heretic, I refuse to lay on hands and to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, despite the fact that I acknowledge that these methods may very well work for the faithful. And yet, I fear that I will have to perform a gut-wrenching revision of my deepest convictions when Windows ME arrives.
To think that many people search for artificial paradises while I am paid to be in a perpetual state of hallucination. Life is unfair.
Even so, all that would eventually become quite monotonous if the user didn't exist. Victim of a planetary intoxication, of a huge collective brainwash, the user thinks he/she will be able to do something with a machine, be productive, or in the worst cases consider a return on investment.
Today, a user (direly misled by pernicious advertisements such as "Where do you want to go today?") demands that it works, and that's where it hurts. I am saddened by the shift between that legitimate expectancy and the reality of what the enlightened of Redmond actually bring. Where do you want to go today? To the nearest asylum, I guess.
How can anyone expect a thing that compares to an operating system like BoyZone compares to the Beatles, an infamous bricolage coded by foot by a bunch of perverted schizoids to work?
The coarsest lie hawked by Microsoft sectists : a PC equipped with the infallible Windows and the Office mess (which I don't remember anything about - it changes constantly) functions perfectly without assistance. The tale of an ordinary day in the land of the Mad Hatter contradicts that idyllic vision of the perfect world. No doubt a question of version number.
The calm before the storm. With a restful mind, I heartily dedicate myself to my project : to emulate a four-operation calculator on a 8000 series VAX.
A first laconic phone call. "Can you come and take a look? My PC has frozen."
This innocent question could hide absolute nightmare: a PC freezes for myriads of reasons, the first of which is turning it on. I worry even more since this user is a speed demon. He's a little bit like a drag racer, mentioning AGP slots while others speak about horsepower. The goal is the same, though - to be as fast as possible and terrify everyone on the way. He took advantage of his boss' distraction and got a brand new 1.13GHz Pentium 3 that allows him to launch his Excel sheets three seconds more quickly. As you can see, it was a considerable improvement and an excellent investment. He seems a bit depressed today, however, because Intel announced Pentium 4s with 1.4 GHz and more. He bitterly contemplates about what he already views as his rubbish box.
I try to comfort him by mentioning that with such a beast, he should not open two windows at the same time or it will cause a draft. Quite an innocent joke, really - it's the psychoanalyst side of the job - unfortunately to no avail. There are no words to adequately describe the measure of his pain.
Let's return to the matter at hand: A frozen PC. Indeed, I get a desperate hourglass as a cursor, and nothing seems to respond. I am tempted to say that it's perfect for making hard-boiled eggs, but something in his forlorn look tells me that I should keep my mouth shut.
Suddenly, I spot a CD-ROM from PCMagazine: Benchmark your PC! ... You see, being fast is not enough, you have to express it with Business Graphics, WinMark, High End Disk WinMark, CPUMark32 and other benchmarks - it is required to humiliate those grunts with their 500MHz slugs at lunch time. Although I know the answer, I ask him if he did set up the benchmarks. A notice, in very small print, warns not to set up the benchmarks on a fully functional computer, but rather in a freshly installed one. Unexpected malfunctions may occur otherwise, or so it says.
Malfunctions, eh? I quickly call a junior colleague to repair this mess and make an appointment with the user for the next release of PCMagazine benchmarks. Back to the office now.
I notice that one of the NT servers froze. Somebody probably sneezed too close to it - those things are quite sensitive. Ok, reset, reboot, routine.
Second phone call. "Do you have five minutes? Sometimes strange things happen in my machine."
I am actually quite surprised, knowing this person, that strange things don't always happen. This is the "desperate aesthete" variety: terrified by uniformity, he's installed every possible theme on his machine - the mouse pointer is a squid, the hourglass is a grandfather clock and the screen saver (which is triggered after one minute of idling) is an intergalactic shoot'em up game with truckloads of whistling sounds and explosions.
Of course, he's got a sound card. It is required to holler the laughter of Oprah Winfrey when warning messages appear. All that is a little disturbing. And since he's got Internet access, he's downloaded every shareware available to customize the appearance of his desktop. It doesn't look like Windows at all anymore; he's replaced every Operating System component to the extent that he's now the only one capable of figuring it out. I find it quite astounding that he needs to reboot his machine only once per hour. Perhaps I am being unfair to Microsoft.
Inside every big program there are several small ones struggling to stand out. That's the Great Escape: just stick your ear against the case and you'll hear quite the dispute. All of them must be plotting and strifing in order to take control of the system. This is a desperate situation. Cowardly, I urge him to go get the latest version of his anti-virus/file manager/file compression utility/download manager/text editor/web browser and flee without touching the mouse for fear of a new Chernobyl. Next, please.
Back in my office, I notice that another NT server crashed, probably by some sentiment of solidarity. Gregarious instinct or the beginning of a revolution? I'll have to keep an eye on it.
I get another phone call, from a very peculiar species, one that gets drunk on IT press - and trust me, it's quite devastating. Believing he's a planetary strategist, he explains how Java is going to take over and change our views of computer science, how Sun will eat Microsoft if Oracle allies with Apple and Compaq stays put. He predicts the death of Intel, as a victim of its competitors and crushed under its own weight. After a while, dismayed by the apocalyptic prophecies, I forget where I live exactly. I hang up, slightly comatose, hoping that all those things will happen after I retire.
Anguished phone call from a secretary. "When I launch Word with a document that I typed yesterday, I get this error message: This application will be terminated because it executed an illegal operation."
I am tempted to reply that it's perfectly normal, that's how the application works, but I restrain myself. Her despair is sincere, and the loss of several hours of work isn't funny.
Onward to a new adventure. This charming lady belongs to the category of those who view the introduction of IT in their jobs as a calamity. That purring thing on the desk is out to get her, and is obviously animated by a hostile spirit that rejects the very concept of cooperating with a human being. She tried to tame it by making it look more friendly - a pot of flowers on the case and her kids' picture as a desktop wallpaper - to no avail, that thing is alive and makes her existence miserable. I think she would be relieved if I hung cloves of garlic from the ceiling, crucifixes on the wall and sprayed holy water on the computer - it's the Shamanic side of the job.
On the twentieth attempt, I succeed in launching the document without generating the infamous error message accusing us of some illegal trifling. The source of the problem? A table cut by a page break, - an infraction so grave it deserved nothing less than a radical crash. I think a total destruction of the machine would have been more appropriate. I find Microsoft quite laxist, really. Problem solved. Next one.
There are no other calls this day. I finish my work quietly, rebooting two NT servers and coding on the VAX. I had already coded the addition and subtraction, and I hope to achieve the division by 2005. Of course, I will probably need 512 more megabytes of memory in order to implement it. The director of finance is going to appreciate this, I'm sure.
It is a certainty: tomorrow will bring a new lot of victims. What if they discover that I don't actually know all that more than they do, that all the job experience in the world doesn't help when Word or Excel acts up randomly, that the time when companies lived on homemade applications is over?
Bah, I act as if I am a superior being, which is, ironically, exactly what they expect from me - it's the charlatan side of the job. Besides, they need someone to yell at.
And what about me? Well, I fall asleep every night, dreaming of the exquisitely painful tortures I would inflict upon Bill Gates if I could get my hands on him. It's the psychopathic side of the job...