After Hours

10 types of system administrators you'll encounter in the field

Spend enough time in the IT biz and you're bound to run across a few... characters. Justin James has identified some sys admins who are representative of the species.

The world of IT is filled with interesting characters. System administrators are human just like the rest of us, and some have such standout personalities that we remember them for a long time. Here is a humorous look at 10 types of sys admins you may encounter in the wild. You might even find yourself on the list.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Over-caffeinated Man

We all know that IT departments require caffeine as a critical resource. It's right up there with electricity and paychecks in terms of getting things done. But a few system administrators take this a bit too far. They drink so much coffee they're constantly changing from an unstoppable ball of energy to a morose sack of caffeine withdrawal. This type is easily spotted by the innumerable brown stains on their shirts (soda or coffee) and their wild, bloodshot eyes.

2: Rebel Without a Clue

Ever meet the administrator who acts as if the company is the enemy instead of the employer? I know I've met a few. These admins treat the spare parts shelf as a treasure trove to be raided whenever their personal PC breaks down. They constantly work around the rules when they don't like them. And they badmouth management to anyone who will listen. Trying to get a project done with them makes you feel like being a character in a Hunter S. Thompson book: You keep expecting something to explode or to be deported. While it can be fun watching them at work for a few minutes, spending more than five minutes with these rebels can possibly get you fired.

3: Your Data Is My Gossip Mill

Yes, the system administrator has access to all of the data on the network. But one kind of sys admin delights in actually taking a look at data all over the network, looking for juicy tidbits to start rumors. You'll know if there is one of these around pretty quickly. They will start using phrases from your reports and emails in conversations with you to let you know that they know what you have been doing with your PC. Your best defense is either to be fastidiously proper in your use of company resources or to embark on a ruthless campaign of disinformation aimed at exposing these admins to others for the snakes they are. Planting false evidence in a file named Super-Secret Merger Plans should do the trick.

4: The Otaku

"Otaku" is Japanese for someone who is obsessive about a particular item. It's like a geek gone to the ultimate degree, but specialized on one particular topic. Many sys admins take the geek trait of curiosity too far and end up deep into Otaku-land. Otakus are increasingly difficult to spot. As IT becomes more and more assimilated into mainstream corporate culture, the Otakus have a harder time expressing themselves in the workplace.

5: Flower Power

An increasingly rare breed of system administrators still thinks it is 1967. And it shows. These men and women come to the office wearing bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed shirts, and patchouli oil. Chances are, they became interested in computers sometime around the Moon Race. They can be a ton of fun to be around, with far-out stories and knowledge of the history of computers, as only someone who was there can tell it. Sadly, these hippies-turned-geeks are retiring now, and their wealth of knowledge will soon be lost for good.

6: Captain Megapowers

If you have a system meltdown, Captain Megapowers is the one you need to call. These sys admins don't care how long or hard they must work to finish a job, as long as it gets finished. They always treat you like the most important person in the building. They seem to be running on nuclear energy, but you never see them stop for food or water. If you have a Captain Megapowers in your organization, count yourself lucky!

7: The Know It All

There are those in any profession who think they know everything. In the world of IT, these folks are particularly annoying, as they weigh in with an opinion on everything regardless of whether they know what they're talking about. To make matters worse, they manage to sound authoritative even when they have no clue on the subject. When projects can succeed or fail based on minor technical matters, the last thing you need is for management to make a decision based on possibly faulty information from one of these people. Your only hope is to counter their never-ending spew by checking everything against reputable sources.

8: The Historian

Some sys admins are completely in love with the past. When you talk to them about your new computer, all they want to do is tell you about how the first system they worked on used punch cards. They will have old hunks of core memory or even vacuum tubes lying around their office, sometimes enshrined in glass cases. They might have their first PC still working somewhere, just to play the game that made them fall in love with computers. These admins are completely harmless and quite friendly, so long as you're willing to endure endless lessons on the glories of CP/M as they fix your problems.

9: The Evangelist

Every Internet message board seems to be dominated by a handful of folks who insist that you use whatever favorite technology/vendor/application they use. All too often, these people are system administrators -- and they bring this attitude into the office. While any reasonable person is in favor of using the best tool for the task, it gets old quickly when you're constantly lectured about why vendor A's products are inferior to vendor B's -- especially when you have a long-term contract with vendor A that can't be broken for five more years. Evangelists are often blind to problems with their own pet products, but they're quick to call minor issues with other products "showstoppers" and decry loudly to management that these products will ruin the company if they aren't immediately removed. There is no escape once you are in the immediate vicinity of Evangelists. All you can do is hope that they leave to become consultants for their favorite products.

10: Simon (the BOFH)

The stories of Simon, the BOFH have brought a smile to the face of anyone who has ever had to deal with users (or as Simon calls them, "lusers"). And while some of us may occasionally fantasize about, say, fixing users' out-of-disk-space errors by erasing all their files, a few system administrators actually act like the BOFH. Being a jerk, abusing their authority, and treating people poorly just because they don't understand computers may be funny to some, but it is not helpful to anyone. If you find out you have to work with one of these, you might as well just give up now.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

15 comments
vikingkenfl
vikingkenfl

You forgot #11 General Zod - The duties of this system administrator are wide-ranging, & can vary within your organization. ZOD Admins are usually little to no actually help & will belittle you for asking for assitance. Other duties may include providing cryptic or incomplete instructions & worthless training to further assist you in diagnosing or troubleshooting errors. May also include an IRON FIST Micro management style, assigning Useless projects, limiting web access or bandwidth & must demonstrate the ability to NEVER be wrong on any subject, regardless of technical skills. "Kneel Before Zod!" is the Work Mantra!

maclovin
maclovin

I find portions of 1,3,6 and 7 in myself and have been working to control these possible issues. Wouldn't mind being a (perfect) 10 every once in a while....it happens in my dreams frequently! :D

RayJeff
RayJeff

So far, I've mainly worked with SEVERAL #8s. I love working with them they are just to hilarious. Especially the ones I've worked with in the data center environment. You don't get too many people my age (at the time I was there) that work in that environment, much less stay in that environment. I've worked with a few during my contracting work, and they are hilarious too. But, the stories they tell priceless. And with talking about legacy hardware and software is so interesting to talk about.

cdpjusto
cdpjusto

i could like to be #6, right now i dont know where i belong

RFink
RFink

This is the worst class of sys admin. Reminds me of Dogbert from Dilbert. He controls the network and servers and he'll let you know it. Good luck getting access to anything and don't let me catch you surfing the web.

shodges119
shodges119

Currently morphing into some of the others unfortunatley. Being a number 6 resulted in me moving into management. Now most of my knowledge is getting antiquated and though I know how it should have been done 5-10 years ago people should research for better answers when I recommend a solution. Oh well I guess that's the career path we choose.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Amusing article. The Captain Megapower comes in two varieties, though - the guy who spends countless hours fruitlessly banging his head against the wall and making no progress, never coming up for air, food or water - and the guy who is actually skilled, talented, dedicated, and passionate, and loves the challenge of responding to a critical down-time situation. One is good to work with, the other is not. There is also the "whiz kid" - which is often originally mis-identified as a variety of the "know it all", except, the whiz kid really *does* know it all - and eventually you'll come to admire, respect and rely on the fact that if you're stumped, the whiz kid probably won't be, for long. Being in the presence of a whiz kid is a humbling experience.

SKDTech
SKDTech

If caffeine had any effect on me at levels below overdose. Maybe I am a budding modernized #5, I'll let you know in a decade or two.

ssampier
ssampier

Great article. Even though everyone picks on the mac zealots, I admit I can be quite a evangelist for browsers. I have a hard time believing anyone would choose IE. mozilla.com is a just a short download away, just use Firefox. You know you want to ;) I'm trying to change though. IE 7 and 8 are a step in the right direction. If only we could completely uninstall them they'd be perfect =)

dwdino
dwdino

The Suffering Admin: The systems admin that actually architects I.T., trains staff, manages purchasing, and still maintains infrastructure. This admin thinks and works at a 30,000 feet but is constrained by position to 1,000 feet. Only the roles of Director of I.T. or C.I.O. will satisfy this admin, but corporate politics are the weak link.

NexS
NexS

As many, the BOFH sends a good chuckle through me. I generally work as professional as I can, but if ANY of the above I guess that I'd describe myself as an Evangelist. I hate everything Apple, but that doesn't mean I think other products are flawless. Again, thanks for the article, was a good laugh.

CG IT
CG IT

I don't believe anything anybody says, even when I know what their talking about.

Old Timer 8080
Old Timer 8080

My initial observation: I'm most of the above, although some of the TECH Journalists who were once SA are becoming the worst examples of the IT profession. I *AM* one of the many that have retired who really is a know-it-all and the person with the stamina to become a MEGA-PROBLEM SOLVER in the IT field. I DO have contempt for a lot of chairwarmers; I prefer the tech lab and not the stresses of any management position. I don't do coffee, either. I DO do history; it is usually the only way to properly solve many supposed NEW problems.. A SHARP reminder; that hippie lifestyle gave us LINUX and not IBM corporate DRONES as the future of computers. Yes, I still have that Byte-8 and IMSAI s-100 boxes somewhere, along with my SYNERGY synth... No, I never was in IT for the money, I really was in it for the challege of making a difference. You are talking on one of my successful implementations of one of those challenges right now. From design at Cray to end (l)user support, I've done it all! No regrets. P.S. I've never been the BFOH, though many times I've been tempted...

dwdino
dwdino

...protecting them from themselves?

davidb22
davidb22

I would really like to completely remove IE from systems, it sucks that I can't. I like #10, I had one once, was funny once u weren't at the recieving end