Better Sysadmin: improving a crappy work situation

I was skimming /r/sysadmin last week and the top thread was posted by a chap who was close to reaching his limit at work (a few days later he resigned). Unfortunately this is surprisingly common. Throughout the two posts I found a lot of really good advice from people who had been through similar issues. No situation is perfect, but whether you decide to stay or move on, improving your lot is always a good idea. I started putting together some of my own thoughts, and this post is the result.


Learn to say no. You can’t do everything. This leads on to..

Don’t be the guy who always says no. Consider what you are being asked for, and what is actually important. Try to find a good middle ground.

Be professional with everyone, even the guy who just ruined your day. Heck, be super nice to that guy – it will really make him think about what he did wrong.

Set boundaries. If you get calls at 3am and the building isn’t on fire, tell them to send a ticket and you will deal with it in the morning, then hang up (To be honest, I would just hang up). Be firm, be consistent, try not to swear. If it happens again escalate the problem with your boss.

Define an emergency. Sit down and document what is an emergency, get your boss to agree to it. For most businesses this is a problem that will immediately put at risk the ability to make money. A faulty printer almost certainly isn’t an emergency.

If you are on-call, work with your boss to define when you can be called, what for, and the compensation.

At the end of the working day, stop working. There is nothing wrong with doing the odd bit of extra work, but you won’t solve all of the problems just by working longer.

Be realistic. Not everything is going to change overnight, and there will always be challenges.

For your own sanity don’t compare your situation with other people, and don’t vent at work. It won’t help you, and it is destructive. By all means talk to your spouse, friends, or dog. Just not people you work with.

Do your job

Delegate. If you are spending time putting paper/toner in printers, stop now and train the admin staff to do it. Even better make a simple poster, and train everyone how to replace the paper. If people come to you for replacement mouse pads, mice and keyboards then work with admin to make them standard stationery items. Get an external company to repair printers, outsource PABX management and support. Think about other tasks you can delegate. This isn’t about getting the boring stuff off your desk, it’s about the right people doing the right tasks.

Interruptions kill focus and productivity. Move your desk to somewhere you can really work. If you can’t get a project done at your desk then book a meeting room, or go out to a café and work from there for an hour. Put on some headphones to cut down on people casually bugging you. Turn off email notifications. If it is important and urgent, people will ring.

Do things the right way

Document all the things. Use a wiki with version control, make sure it is backed up. Don’t write too little, don’t write too much, and don’t be afraid to delete outdated crap. Make it easy to add information, and easy to access.

Use a ticketing system. Make it as easy as possible to send a ticket. Get management support. Make sure people use the ticketing system – part of this is attitude. You have a lot to do. The next time you get a call or desk visit simply say “I’m working on something right now (give a rough overview if they push), send a ticket with the details and I will do it as soon as possible”. Make sure you follow through, and don’t give into “it will only take a minute”.

Regularly look at the ticketing system stats. Identify common problems, and work on reducing them. Next performance review you can tell your boss just how many problems you resolved. Use the data to justify getting more staff if necessary.

Make sure the basics work really well. If the email server goes down, you will get phone calls within seconds. Backups need to be regular, reliable, tested, and include everything.

Learn to write business proposals. Understand and use the terms Management use and understand – Capex, Opex, Return on Investment, Risk etc. Include time frames. Have a plan. Give options, not ultimatums. Get to know the bean counters, they can be really helpful and nice folks.

Discover the day star

Get away. Take a day off, and if you can’t then take half a day. Even just an hour with your phone off. Work up to bigger amounts of time off. Time away from work is important to get perspective. Get some exercise in the sunshine (seriously, do it). Work out how you can take a week off, and still ensure the company has support. Next time aim for two weeks.

Meet other people in IT. Look into local User Groups, go to vendor events, start Tweeting, find a good forum. We all deal with a lot of the same issues, and learning from others mistakes is a lot better than making them yourself!

Now, hopefully that is a start. I am sure *you* can add some great advice below..

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