• 03/06/2015
    8:00 AM
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Get Off My Lawn, Hipster Admins!

As an IT manager, there's a delicate balance between fostering realistic technology innovation and acting like an out-of-touch grouch.

The Kid came by my office the other day, positively lit up with excitement about a new log collection tool he just found. If he had a tail it would have been wagging as he asked me to pull up the interface in a browser. The team was already familiar with the product; in fact, it had several features that give pragmatic engineers pause and we'd already rejected it.

It's a tough moment for an IT manager when you're developing talent, but you know you'll have to be a buzzkill and look, again, like an out-of-touch grouch. It was a reminder that we're in an odd, middle-aged epoch in IT. How do you find a sweet spot between adopting evermore tantalizing fads and being so conservative you miss transformative technology? How do we as admins know what's really essential?

The Cowboy

"The Kid," Dex, is in his first year on the network team and has earned that affectionate nickname. He just moved up from the helpdesk where he'd been an enthusiastic jack-of-all-trades, closed difficult tickets on the weekends and still had time for R&D. He's an asset to the team and everyone likes him. What he hasn't done however, is build a system from scratch and keep it running, and funded, for a few years. He's a wiz at customizing views and reports in the network monitoring system, but he inherited it from an engineer with years more experience, who in turn inherited it from the senior architect who deployed it in the first place.

Dex did his best to unwind the extra credit customization, like black magic PowerShell and Bash alert automation scripts of his forbears. But he got lost trying to extrapolate the undocumented context behind so much specific, conditional code. While in the midst of creating yet another and particularly unsexy hardware refresh budget spreadsheet, I was thinking about how to help. My first thought was to just tell him to work harder to figure it out. Without guidance, however, it was unlikely he'd know where to start, especially with him gazing so reverently at the Code of Elders. So, at lunch we talked about how to isolate essential requirements from a collage of historical, epic customizations.

I only gave Dex a few suggestions: First, when you inherit a system from someone else, appreciate their investment but realize if it breaks, you will be responsible for fixing it -- even features you don't understand. Second, realize that the former owner was probably as overwhelmed as everyone else on the team and may not have had time to really read release notes on upgrades. Chances are the platform has evolved considerably and you're not using all its available features. Lastly, I recommended he find a quiet whiteboard and while remembering his time on the helpdesk, list out what monitoring was helpful versus what was distracting.

The Wunderkind

Dex then took a step toward greatness -- he came back with a great plan. Not just great, it was considered and practical. He wanted to do a clean install of the network monitoring solution in the lab and approach it as if he'd never seen it before. He wanted to apply "essentialness" scores to the monitoring inventory and topology, the teams receiving alerts and the backlog of new monitoring requests. From that, he'd grok the platform features and either keep, extend or unwind anything that fell below a certain threshold.

Within about a week, and while juggling his real job of keeping the network lights on, Dex upgraded the way we managed and monitored network and applications. He was able to get the team to reluctantly admit our desktop LAN/data center bias didn't make sense when 80% of the application traffic was either delivered to clients on the WLAN, connected to SaaS/cloud services, or both.

He discovered an unused tool to build access point coverage heat maps that eliminated the weekly mobile audit with a laptop. He made a new friend on the firewall team by consolidating monitoring ACLs for web servers in the DMZ; they'd never been fans of WMI. He even helped me by creating an evidence-based capacity forecast report that I could roll up with my refresh plan. Best of all, Dex did it with $0 in new spend.

The Kid stays in the picture

It's sometimes easy for IT veterans to roll our eyes should a lumbernetworkjack hipster admin roll in with an awesome but unproven approach. On the other hand, just because we might remember Token Ring hermaphroditic IBM data connectors and the eccentricities of Crescendo XDI before it became CatOS does not mean that what's tried and true today will support our IT mission five years from now. But if you focus on what's truly essential to monitor, you'll naturally balance new hotness with old and reliable.

But enough about that. Did you see this new NoSQL relational mapping engine? It's made from artisanal, recycled electrons, but you've probably never heard of it.


great story

Thanks for sharing this story Patrick. It's a good lesson in keeping an open mind and striking a balance of the old with the new. 

Never assume.

This is a great tale, and serves as an important lesson that new admins should NEVER assume that everything their predecessors did was right (or, for that matter, remains right today).

Re: Never assume.

Good point Joe, it is all too easy to think that everything was done properly before, whereas in some cases this is clearly not true at all.

Re: Never assume.

Still, the opposite is true as well: Never assume that the admins before you screwed up.  Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it's bad or wrong.

(Of course, this leads to another important must for admins: Comment, comment, comment!  Don't screw your successor -- especially because someday that successor might just be you at a later point in time trying to figure out what the heck you did and why.)

Re: Get Off My Lawn, Hipster Admins

It was nice of you to supplanting the story with networking terms & tools we all know & love, Patrick, but this could easily be turned into a fill-in-the-blank puzzle where you replace those words with applicable ones from other IT subdivisions and it becomes an archetypal lesson about new vs old, and practicality vs tradition. No problem there, as this is a very common problem/discussion in all of IT again and again, and I've rarely seen it handled with such a metered and pragmatic attitude, not to mention an entertaining story. People talk a lot about 'the art of leadership' in grandiose terms, and there is an art to it, but it's more subtle and about the day-to-day choices we make and the attitude we have.

It's also a collaborative process, and it sounds like Dex had a hand in his own development. I want to thank you on everyone's behalf for promoting someone out of the helpdesk. Many managers talk about rewarding self-starters and considering aptitude for learning new skills over existing ones... yet, in practice I see few living up to that claim. Skills like network traffic monitoring and backend programming (not to mention cost/benefit analysis) don't teach themselves, and Dex wouldn't pick them up without a disposition and a brain for them - recognizing that in an employee is another art unto itself. I'm glad you're seeing some tangible benefits from that approach. Funnily, it may be too late to teach the naysayers in the previous generation about being open-minded to new things; we may have to rely on teaching the up-and-coming generation to do it for their sucessors.

Re: Get Off My Lawn, Hipster Admins

Unfortunately, it seems that every generation gets more close-minded as it gets older! 

Great Story

"...keeping an open mind and striking a balance of the old with the new..." Spot on, Marcia! This is a story that reminds us of the value of old learnings, creations, or discoveries even when the "new" has set in. Sometimes, people tend to forget that "something came out of something"; it did not just appear out of nowhere. It is then up to you to gauge or determine whether that something old is worth continuing or if you should improve on it or change it and create something new. Especially since we live in a fast paced and highly advanced world; changes happen more often than we know. This is why I believe Dex will be really successful someday soon. He has the initiative. He only needed to be nudged, and he then went on to create something useful.