Re: Sysadmin Skills and University Degrees

Russell Coker wrote about Sysadmin Skills and University Degrees. I couldn’t agree more that a major deficiency in Computer Science degrees is the lack of sysadmin training. It seems like most sysadmins learned most of what they know from experience. It’s very hard to recruit young engineers (freshly out of university) for sysadmin jobs, and the job interviews are often a bit depressing. Sysadmins jobs are also not very popular with this public, probably because university curriculums fail to emphasize what’s exciting about those jobs.

However, I think I disagree rather deeply with Russell’s detailed analysis.

First, Version Control. Well, I think that it’s pretty well covered in university curriculums nowadays. From my point of view, teaching CS in Université de Lorraine (France), mostly in Licence Professionnelle Administration de Systèmes, Réseaux et Applications à base de Logiciels Libres (warning: french), a BSc degree focusing on Linux systems administration, it’s not usual to see student projects with a mandatory use of Git. And it doesn’t seem to be a major problem for students (which always surprises me). However, I wouldn’t rate Version Control as the most important thing that is required for a sysadmin. Similarly Dependencies and Backups are things that should be covered, but probably not as first class citizens.

I think that there are several pillars in the typical sysadmin knowledge.

First and foremost, sysadmins need a good understanding of the inner workings of an operating system. I sometimes feel that many Operating Systems Design courses are a bit too much focused on the “Design” side of things. Yes, it’s useful to understand the low-level mechanisms, and be able to (mentally) recreate an OS from scratch. But it’s also interesting to know how real systems are actually built, and what are the trade-off involved. I very much enjoyed reading Branden Gregg’s Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud because each chapter starts with a great overview of how things are in the real world, with a very good level of detail. Also, addressing OS design from the point of view of performance could be a way to turn those courses into something more attractive for students: many people like to measure, benchmark, optimize things, and it’s quite easy to demonstrate how different designs, or different configurations, make a big difference in terms of performance in the context of OS design. It’s possible to be a sysadmin and ignore, say, the existence of the VFS, but there’s a large class of problems that you will never be able to solve. It can be a good trade-off for a curriculum (e.g. at the BSc level) to decide to ignore most of the low-level stuff, but it’s important to be aware of it.

Students also need to learn how to design a proper infrastructure (that meets requirements in terms of scalability, availability, security, and maybe elasticity). Yes, backups are important. But monitoring is, too. As well as high availability. In order to scale, it’s important to be able to automatize stuff. Russell writes that Sysadmins need some programming skills, but that’s mostly scripting and basic debugging. Well, when you design an infrastructure, or when you use configuration management tools such as Puppet, in some sense, you are programming, and in terms of needs to abstract things, it’s actually similar to doing object-oriented programming, with similar choices (should I use that off-the-shelf puppet module, or re-develop my own? How should everything fit together?). Also, when debugging, it’s often useful to be able to dig into code, understand what the developer was trying to do, and if the expected behavior actually matches what you are seeing. It often results in spending a lot of time to create a one-line fix, and it requires very advanced programming skills. Again, it’s possible to be a sysadmin with only limited software development knowledge, but there’s a large class of things that you are unlikely to address properly.

I think that what makes sysadmins jobs both very interesting and very challenging is that they require a very wide range of knowledge. There’s often the ability to learn about new stuff (much more than in software development jobs). Of course, the difficult question is where to draw the line. What is the sysadmin knowledge that every CS graduate should have, even in curriculums not targeting sysadmin jobs? What is the sysadmin knowledge for a sysadmin BSc degree? for a sysadmin MSc degree?