The Operational Mindset

  • System Administration is intrinsically an activity on which businesses rely and specifically requires a strong operational mindset - that is thinking in terms of running production systems and their impact on the business. Many IT roles do not require an operational mindset, or at least not to the degree to which system administration does. Of course network administration does, but many roles, especially those in engineering disciplines, require little or not appreciation of operations and production. Of all IT roles, system administration is the most "front line" to the majority of performance, accessibility and security and have more opportunity to positively or negatively impact a business.

    System Admins deal heavily with systems that are running, that is currently in use. Of course system admins will handle production systems and also staging, development and other "non-production" systems so understanding the roles and impacts of each system is critical to all system administration tasks. But the core of nearly all system administration work is maintaining and supporting live production systems - systems where mistakes can lead to dangerous consequences such as downtime or loss of data.

    An operational mindset means that risk, impacts from decisions, attention to detail, protection against mistakes, documentation, change control, prioritization and more must be understood and calculated at all times. Triage is a regular part of the work of a system admin - which systems and subsystems take priority, and why? Which customers (whether internal or external) will have the largest overall value or impact to the business? System admins must understand the work that they are doing in the context of the largest business at all times; there is little opportunity for a system admin to work in a business vacuum.

    Few other roles have the broad potential for system affect that system administration can have. Just logging into a key production system can trigger a change that could have large ramifications. Missing key steps may leave a system unstable or vulnerable. An outage to one system might cascade through many others causing distantly related problems. System admins often need to understand the complex interplays between many systems, understand capacity, moment to moment performance, and much more in doing their job. Even closely related roles, like system engineer, often can be almost wholly without operational mindset because their tasks do not involved running protection systems and casual mistakes or errors will not cause business loss.

    In the Myers-Briggs types selection, in the Lifestyle group, system admins are normally best suited with a Perceiving leaning rather than a Judging leaning, whereas engineers are the opposite. Admins rarely have a chance to thoroughly plan but must understand how to act. Whereas engineers may provide admins with action plans to act as a framework but then themselves need not be functional during a triage scenario. The roles are complimentary but the same personality type is rarely well suited to both.