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Is System Administration Bound for Extinction?


Article from ADMIN 54/2019
Writers and tech journalists have predicted for years that the system administrator role is an endangered species, with extinction just around the corner. Are they right?

Writers and tech journalists have predicted for years that the system administrator role is an endangered species, with extinction just around the corner. Are they right?

Spoiler. They're wrong. I've read dozens of articles over the past 10 years that predict everything from the death of the desktop computer to the extinction of my ilk (system administrator). It's not happening. No amount of artificial intelligence, automation, cloud, or so-called zero administration efforts will ever wipe out our kind. The only thing, perhaps, that can eradicate our Administraticus systemus is multiple Chicxulub-class meteors simultaneously landing on every Amazon data center. And I'm not even sure that would do it.

The reason for my positive outlook for system administrators is simple. You can't do away with the human element in decision making – not completely, at least. You can build all kinds of automation into repetitive tasks, you can automate deployment, you can automate provisioning, and you can streamline just about every system administration task you can imagine, but you still won't kill off the need for someone sitting at a keyboard making decisions.

My opinion is mostly opposite that of everything you read or hear, but I can prove my point with a single example: patching. Yes, you can automate patching, and some patching automation is good, but what happens when a bad patch is released that kills computers? Your automation intelligence won't catch that. It takes a person to scan the patch documentation and decide on relevance and timing for applying those patches. You'll also need a person to apply patches to test environments and perform regression testing to see whether the patches work on your systems.

If you're now asking why you wouldn't have a managed service provider (MSP) take care of all that for you, you've probably found the answer to my point: What happens when a patch causes a problem for your managed systems? It does happen. I've been the victim more than once. The answer is that you're going to want to call a person with fingers on a keyboard who can fix your services – a system administrator with troubleshooting skills. Unless you have yet to send packing your system administrators who know how to fix things that break, you'll need to rely on your MSP for those non-automated repairs.

It's not as simple to get rid of system administrators as those non-technical writers and pundits believe. One prediction stated that the system administrator role would decline significantly by 2020. That's next year. You only need to look at one of the job boards to dismiss that prediction.

I'm all for automation. I love automation. I've written extensively about automation. I've automated hundreds of tasks. I've also un-automated some tasks after realizing that some things shouldn't be automated. I redesigned automation to include my brain as a decision point and my index finger as the "Go/No Go" option for triggering those automated tasks. The human element cannot be completely emulated. An automated task cannot stop and think. It cannot reconsider. It simply iterates through prescribed steps. Even artificial intelligence algorithms have limits. They can't stop and think and neither can they reconsider a choice if that choice is outside the programmed range of possibilities.

I have no fear in stating that system administrators will continue to be in demand in every business size and class for many years to come. I have only to look at the job market to provide proof that system administrators are still in very high demand, so rejoice in the knowledge that you're still needed.

Senior Editor * Ken Hess

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