Recognizing and Dealing with System Administrator’s Syndrome

Copyright © 1997 Richard Wayne

For over twenty years, I have been involved in the management of multi-user computer systems. During that time, I have been the system administrator for a number of different computer platforms in a number of different organizational settings. I have done the work myself mostly, but have also managed and worked with many system administrators. What I’m here to tell you folks is that we have trouble right here in River City.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a syndrome as “a group of signs and symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease, psychological disorder, or other abnormal condition.” Let’s coin the term System Administrator’s Syndrome as a possible description of a malady that can strike our fellow system administrators.

My first experience with System Administrator’s Syndrome was in 1988. An energetic and brilliant young man served as my department’s System Administrator. He had been conscientious and extremely hard-working for years. I began to notice a number of behavioral problems. He was getting increasingly angry and frustrated with his fellow workers. He was losing his sense of humor, and most seriously, he began to miss work without giving notice.

A couple of years later, I had my next experience with System Administrator’s Syndrome. The Sysadmin, although cautioned, had established a very ambitious schedule for moving to a new computer facility. At the crux of the transition, he disappeared for eighteen hours. When he returned, he engaged in vigorous argument with the CEO over the schedule he himself had established.

The next incident was also memorable. The person responsible for all system administration and computer operations activities for a large organization showed many of the symptoms that I have already described. In addition, he refused to participate in many of the traditional communication channels that were used in the organization such as phone, phone mail, email, memos, etc. The only way to communicate with this fellow was to find him when his office door was open and sit in his office until he was ready for you. He had an exaggerated view of his real place within the organization before he left. The President’s office had to wait for him to respond, not the opposite. This may have suited the Sysadmin fine, but greatly vexed organization management.

There are common themes with these cases and others that I have observed. The Sysadmin may work a number of extra hours regularly. He or she might forego vacations. Communications with peers and others grows increasingly tense and more one-sided. Perhaps most dangerously, the Sysadmin begins to feel an exaggerated sense of power and control in the organization. The situation usually grows worse until the SySadmin is inevitably terminated.

What’s going on here? Can it be prevented? Understood? Can it be addressed before termination becomes inevitable? I think that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. However, there is a cost.

Let’s review the symptoms again:

* Extra hours are required to get the work done
* Vacations are skipped or reduced
* Greater impatience and irritability
* Decreasing ability to communicate in traditional channels
* Exaggerated sense of importance within the organization
* Growing un-businesslike behavior

Once it is understood that we as Sysadmins are susceptible to System Administrator’s Syndrome, we can begin to take preventative and curative measures. A partnership between management and system administration can develop a program to keep Sysadmins healthy, happy, and effective. Effort and time will be required from both sides. Management can:

* Stress the importance of taking timely vacations in order to retain physical and mental health
* Help the Sysadmin to prioritize so that an unusual amount of overtime is not required
* Help the Sysadmin to stay connected with his or her customers to gain greater understanding of each other’s needs
* Help the sysadmin to increase business skills

The sysadmin must take the greater share of responsibility for his continued well-being. He can:

* Work with management on all the items mentioned above
* Attend to his or her mental and physical health by exercising, eating well, pursuing hobbies, family activities, etc.
* Participate in networking activities with other Sysadmins. Many user groups have been formed for Sysadmin issues. There is a great deal of comfort in learning that other people go through the same challenges that we do on a day-to-day basis.

Read this article again. Then stop getting mad and get healthy. If your organization is not supportive of your efforts, then find another organization. After all, we need to work with each other to be effective.

Richard Wayne has been wrestling with system administration for almost twenty years. He is currently the President of Strategic Information Management Services.

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