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Extreme System Administration

by Andrew Cowie

Learning from Programmers

I know, it sounds like a horrible thought. Most sysadmins I know look upon programmers as anathema. The world of system administration is different, you might say?

Programmers have to work together in teams. They have to communicate effectively with each other to do so. They collaborate on a common code base. While they make extensive use of tools that help them, they ultimately cannot avoid the necessity of interacting to solve problems, one human to another. Sysadmins sometimes miss this point.

Extreme Programming

Once it might have been presumptuous to say so, but today, most software development projects are late, have cost overruns, fail to meet expectations, and are bug ridden. If you're very lucky, the product might work when delivered.

In the last five years, a set of software development processes have arisen that somewhat dramatically challenge the status quo. Certainly the explosive growth in popularity and success of open source software, developed as it is in a distributed collaborative setting, is one. Another trend is Agile Development, schools of thought that advocate unconventional practices, the most radical of which goes by the moniker Extreme Programming.

I came across the following list in a book by Bruce Tate about the pitfalls found in Java software development (appropriately titled Bitter Java). I often reflect on how we--the sysadmins, DBAs, and network engineers who make IT systems run--can improve our work, and I quickly realized that some of the practices from "XP" could very well apply to the operations world:

Nothing New About Professionalism

None of these ideas are particularly new; in fact, the discipline of programming has been well established for more than 30 years. Part of the problem is that many of us have either forgotten what we learned in school (brushed aside by day-to-day work pressures), or we picked up programming or systems on our own and never had an opportunity to study and learn from the early pioneers and masters of our field.2 Continually striving to learn new things not just in our own narrow specialties, but across a broad range of disciplines, is ultimately one of the best tools we have to prepare ourselves for change.

Learn more by attending Andrew's presentation, entitled "Surviving Change: Bringing Operations Professionalism to the IT World," at the MySQL User Conference, April 18-21 in Santa Clara, California.


1 Bullet items and quoted text from Bruce Tate, Bitter Java (Manning, Greenwich, Connecticut, 2001), p. 49. These are, in turn, a paraphrasing of the material about Extreme Programming available from Don Wells, et al: Extreme Programming: A Gentle Introduction, available at

2 Compliments to Steve Landers of Digital Smarties Pty. Ltd., Western Australia, who first pointed this out to me. He recommends László Böszörményi, Jürg Gutknecht, and Gustav Pomberger, The School of Niklaus Wirth: The Art of Simplicity (Morgan-Kaufmann, 2000), a recent book of essays on the topic.

Andrew Cowie runs Operational Dynamics, an operations and infrastructure engineering consultancy.

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