Get To Know Your Systems, But Not Too Well

To me, it seems that a system administrator’s knowledge of a system, application, or technology follows a curve similar to the 80/20 rule. 80% of what you need to know comes in the first 20% of the time you spend on the problem:

Time Spent vs. Knowledge Gained

“So what?” you ask. Well, I think about this when I see folks spend hundreds of hours to design the perfect system. Or when they absolutely must tune a server to its peak performance. Or lay out LUNs on storage arrays. The list of examples is enormous, but I only ever have one question: was all that time best spent on that one system, that one task, that one goal?

The inverse of this is when I see a system administrator that doesn’t know anything about their systems. They bumble around, messing up applications, disrupting operations, and generally causing mayhem just because they took or had no time to learn about the systems they are maintaining. Their systems are black boxes, and the symptoms of this are often systems going years without patching or upgrades, outages, security problems, and lots of blame shifting. To these folks I only ever have one question: of all the time spent worrying, panicking, and blaming, could you not take a little bit of it to learn about a system, so you wouldn’t have to worry, panic, and blame so much?

As with most things, the right balance for an individual, for an organization, and for a system is somewhere in the middle. While the optimal mix might not be 80/20, but instead 60/40 or 90/30, it is almost never 0/0, or 100/100.

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