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November 4, 2010

Age and Treachery

There is a tendency in the Silicon Valley to only hire "Recent College Grads" - this means young people, under 3, but with a politically correct gloss on it. This is enforced at the phone screen level by the trivia question, game-show quiz approach, which assumes that you excel at the type of pop-quiz buzzword query-response on the latest and greatest systems. It also screens out people with any sort of memory related disability. How nice.

This is foolish. Again and again, I see the young cowboys reinvent the wheel, make the same types of mistakes with new names (but claiming "it's different now" or "it's a new paradigm"), or other stuff that could be avoided by a little bit of BTDT (been there, done that). How much money do these "new, young, agile" companies waste making the same types of mistakes that have been made again and again by every "new" company and "new" business model that thinks it is so "unique" that the basic rules of good business and good process don't apply to them? The entire dot-bomb was due to the "new paradigm" delusion.

Yes, think out of the box, look for improved ways to do things. But you have to know what has been tried before to avoid spinning your wheels on stuff that has already failed. This is where the ten-plus year computer pro who actually was around before GUIs can help you. Sure, they will flunk your memory for trivia tests. But they will know where to look up five prior versions on three different OS's, and remember the tendency for manufacturer $foo to produce buggy drivers for product $bar.

What I've noticed most often with your experienced sysadmins is that the real value comes not just with the breadth of experiences, but the validity of the "gut check". Failing "gut check" is when you propose to do something, and their eyebrows shoot up, they get a concerned look on their face, and they say something like "Why would you want to do that?" in a dubious voice - and that's if they are being polite. More than nine times out of ten when a senior sysadmin has been shouted down after something failed their gut check, it turned out that they were right (and not listening cost you lots of money.)

I recently saw a job ad that wanted a sysadmin to be able to build a system from scratch - bare metal, including configs, without looking anything up. I wouldn't want to work there. Even if I thought I had everything "memorized" (which I don't and won't), I would still look various configs up in the installed or sample files to be sure that I included all the options, didn't make any typos, and (most importantly) that the key/values in the configs hadn't changed between the version I'd memorized and what was current!! When you work with two or more different distros of Linux, plus occasional forays into BSDs and Solaris, this matters.

If you are a manager of sysadmins, cherish your "grey hairs" (even if their hair isn't really grey). The fact that they have stayed in the field for more than ten years, in spite of the bias against them and the abuse they get for not being "recent" grads or "fresh and hip" or whatever buzzword salad masks the bias against those over 35, say a lot for them and their tenacity and love for their field.

Posted by ljl at November 4, 2010 6:47 PM


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