A career in Unix: The best and the worst

water play courtney carmody
Credit: flickr / Courtney Carmod

Having spent more than 35 years working in the field of Unix systems administration, looking back practically requires a telescope, but the view is incredible. Would I do it all over again?

No. At least not in the same way. Here are my thoughts on the best and the worst of these years, the jobs that both moved me along in my career and made me happy (and those that didn't) and the factors that made the difference.

Before I get too far with this, some basic stats. In 37 years, I've had 11 jobs. That's only 3.36 years per job. The longest stint was 15 years, the shortest was well under a year. I was let go only once. The smallest had 3 employees and two contractors, the largest probably over 10,000. They ranged from the DC area to San Francisco. At some, I was the only sysadmin. At others, I worked in groups with 20 or more. Except for two positions, my salary went up. One of those was a favorite for some very good reasons (and probably worth the salary drop); the other was a cost-of-living cut.

Here are the factors that made the most difference to me.

Mattering

Of all the work I've done over the years, the one that I miss the most was one in which what I did every day seriously mattered. I was a Unix admin and managed a network of servers and workstations. My users were highly intelligent, dedicated analysts who helped to ensure that intelligent decisions were being made on a national level. At some other positions, I provided an environment that supported development of products that made a difference to many thousands of individuals (e.g., emergency communications), but was so remote from the end product that I never got a sense that I was contributing to something of great value.

Contributing to the bottom line is certainly something that matters. But for me (I'm something of an idealist), the stockholders' pocketbooks are less important than believing that the work that I'm doing actually has a positive impact on the way people live.

Scope

I mostly enjoyed working in positions where I wasn't a “single focus” individual, but had a wide range of responsibilities. Having a wide focus gave me a lot of variety in my day to day work, helped me to develop skills in a lot of different areas, and kept me in touch with my customer base.

The team

I generally prefer working in a small team of people who work together closely, passing the baton, comparing notes, making collective decisions about how to manage systems, etc. A small team can be a small group within a much larger staff, but I like being able to bounce my ideas off someone else, being able to delegate work when I need a break or change of focus, and the gradual buildup of best practices that naturally comes about when people have to pass the baton.

In one job, I worked with an outstanding group of individuals, but my tasks were so separate from what the rest of the group was doing that I barely felt like part of the team and no one was there to back me up or play strategy volley ball with me. Being part of a team doesn't count too much if you're running around the field by yourself.

Environment

Some jobs allow you to live in an area that you love while others provide a work environment that is comfortable and enjoyable. One of the nicest places I've worked was the Johns Hopkins University main campus where I was the systems manager for the Physics and Astronomy Department. Sandwiched between people peering into subatomic particles and others trying to map the cosmos was truly exciting and the campus was lovely. The grad students who acted as my part-time assistants were brilliant and fun.

Skills and growth

One of the factors that has always stood out as an indication of a good position is the company's or organization's willingness to invest in staff skills. If you don't get to take a class or go to a professional conference every year or two, you're probably not being adequately valued. A good employer will care about their workers' skill development as well as their long-term prospects.

I'd go as far as to say that if you're not constantly acquiring new skills and putting them into practice, you're stagnating and wasting your time. You should always be learning something new. As a general guideline, I'd say that spending one quarter of your time in a growth area and the rest doing work that puts your existing skills to work is an ideal mix. Give yourself a chance to shine and a chance to grow.

Reaching outside

One of my best career moves was making a decision in the early 90's to start being active outside of the organization where I worked. I became active in the (now defunct) Sun User Group (SUG), served on the Board of Directors for two terms, and helped to organize a number of our conferences (which drew as many as 5,000 attendees). Being an active part of a professional technical organization gave me a great perspective on the technology, provided me with opportunities to meet some outstanding individuals and work with many others. Writing technical books and columns has also given me considerable exposure outside my employer's organization and helped me resist the idea that I am defined by my job. My long-term mantra has been “Don't let your employer be the only gauge of your professional value” has served me well.

Some of the best positions for me include working for the federal government (mattering, skills, and growth), Johns Hopkins University (scope and environment), and Web Publishing and E*Trade (Team). Some of these I wish I'd never left. I stayed at some other places far too long. But I've contributed to a lot of meaningful work getting done and, looking back, that feels pretty good.

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