Time Management for System Adminstrators at NYLUG

Thomas Limoncelli is the author of the O’Reilly book Time Management for System Administrators and his talk at the New York Linux Users Group was less technical than most but no less important.

Every system administrator lacks the time to do everything that needs to be done. “I’m not good at time management,” Limoncelli said, “but I’ve created many coping mechanisms to deal with the problem.”

“It’s not your fault,” he added.

Part of the problem is evolution. The human brain may be suited to surviving in the wild, but it is not suited to time management. For example, one key time management skill is memorizing long lists, a skill not suited to the neocortex, which is roughly the most recently evolved part of the human brain. However, the neocortex is good at making tools. So use them: paper, pencils, smartphones.

Another part of the problem is infrastructure.

If you are your own boss, then you made some tough decisions about infrastructure and you have to compensate for your own lack of investment. Limoncelli remembers a time when he had to persuade companies to adopt trouble ticketing systems.

In his speech, he posted a funny graphic: a trouble ticket that said, “The worst has happened. There’s no coffee!”

Limoncelli added that he has worked at makeshift desks, computer rooms that were too small, and with monitoring systems that could not parse the data they were gathering.

“How many people here have worked at a company that tried to save money by purchasing consumer grade networking equipment instead of professional grade equipment,” he asked. Many in the room raised their hands.

Recommendations

Limoncelli recommended keeping a written To Do list. It can be as simple as a Notepad text document. For Emacs users, Limoncelli recommended Org-Mode, a powerful To Do list system that can be partially automated.

Part of your job is getting rid of interruptions — which is as much about dealing with people as it is about dealing with technology. Limoncelli recommended writing down a request — with large and highly visible hand motions — rather than interrupting what you’re doing and allowing someone else to set your priorities.

Limoncelli recommended what he called “the 4 PM check.” That’s the point in the day when you know whether or not you will be able to do everything that you had planned to do. If you cannot get it all done, he said, you have three options: negotiate an extension, delegate the work, or work late and complete the take.

“Stop working late every night,” he advised.

If you are managing desktops, you should be patching and cleaning machines, backing them up, and making sure that you can restore from backups. Limoncelli referred to the Evard Life Cycle of a Machine.

This is common advice, but Limoncelli had powerful stories about the consequences of not following it. He said that he once came into a company, as a consultant, and found that a key machine was generating a tremendous quantity of security problems. When he walked into the administrator’s office, he did not have to ask why the problems were occurring: he could see, on the desk, in pristine, unopened packages, all of the patches that should have been implemented. The company refused to pay for a test environment for this vital piece of hardware, so the administrator refused to patch it for fear that the patch could take down the machine.

If you have systems, they have to be useful. Limoncelli had several stories about the consequences of burdensome security and backup systems. The result of a burdensome system is that users will avoid it and it will therefore not serve its purpose.

Be a leader

Limoncelli said that administrators must be leaders as well as managers. A manager sets priorities and allocates resources; a leader is the person who goes first and makes it possible for others to follow.

Sometimes leadership means helping others do their job. Limoncelli told the story of a security consultant who was brought in to a company that was growing so fast that machines were being added faster than security issues could be fixed. So the security consultant did what the IT department should have done: she automated many IT tasks so that the IT department could do both tasks: fix security issues and also add new machines.

Limoncelli recommended documenting what you do. He said that the documentation could be bullet points. It could be simple. He recommended documenting the tasks that you least like to do. Eventually, you will be able to delegate them. Also, the documents will allow you to occasionally take a vacation.

Eventually, when your department grows, you can recommend that the company hire a cheaper, junior person who you can mentor. When the company asks you what they will do, you can read from the list of documents you have created. You will be delegating all of the tasks you least like to do.

With good documentation, you may also find that you can automate some of these boring tasks.

People skills

Let’s say you’re approaching your boss. Which of the following do you think would be more effective:

“We need a faster and better server”

or

“I figured out how to reduce the time that our salespeople spend uploading data to the CRM system so that they can spend more time selling.”

If people start e-mailing you instead of using the trouble ticketing system, Limoncelli advised that you be firm but polite. “I always say that it’s nice that they e-mailed me but that I’ll get the message if they use the system and that I’d hate to think that their problem could go unnoticed for a few weeks if I was on vacation.”

Conclusion

Limoncelli is a fantastic speaker. In this schematic summary of his talk, I’ve left out most of the anecdotes that give weight to his recommendations. If you have the chance to attend a speech of his, take it! His tour schedule can be found on his website.

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