How babies are like Unix

You might think that having a baby and taking over management of a Unix system lie at opposite sides of the spectrum, but there are many things that tie them together.

If you've been managing Unix systems for any length of time, you've undoubtedly noticed that the systems you manage develop personalities and start to feel like family. There's a reason for that. Many of the roles you play when working on Unix systems and many of the experiences you will have are strongly correlated to the fine art of parenthood. To begin, both babies and Unix systems are amazingly well designed. Whether you're booting a system or watching the birth of a child or grandchild, you can't miss how startlingly well the process works. The right things happen at the right time and the end result is a fully functional system. You start out knowing just the basics. For babies, you learn how to change diapers and prepare bottles and then work your way up to more complex tasks -- like teaching them to drive. With Unix, you start out with basic commands, then start scripting, troubleshooting, installing complex applications and maybe even modifying the kernel. Initially you have to do everything slowly and carefully. Support the head. Be ready to catch the spit up. But eventually, you can back off and trust them to mostly take care of themselves. With Unix systems, you rely more and more on scripts and other processes that run without you having to take deliberate steps for everything that needs to get done. In the beginning, you may be very fussy about names, sometimes going to great lengths to find names that reflect your expectations or your favorite characters -- whether family members or TV personalities. There are always numerous ways to accomplish the same thing. And what works for one problem might not work as well for the next. You never stop learning. The challenges change, but you're always grappling with a new set of problems and feeling like you're the first one to ever run into them. No two are alike -- at least not unless you're running a with a data center full of clones or have quintuplets (and, I'd bet, they're all quite different too). Each system and each child you work with is likely to be completely different from all others and have its own challenges. Far too many people would like to have some hands on time, but you have to watch out for infections. Don't ask me how many kids I would like to pick up and hug every time I go to the supermarket. But both kids and Unix systems can be harmed if they're handled too much. You don't always get to sleep at night -- whether you're on call or waking up for night feedings. You end up carrying extra stuff around with you -- whether clean bibs or backups. You need to be prepared for whatever might happen. Over time, the systems you manage end up looking like you, reflecting your style if not your values. So do most kids. You only leave them in the care of people you truly trust. In fact, it's really hard to ever give them to someone else -- no matter how old they get -- and you don't want to do so unless you're sure those taking over qualified to handle them responsibly and properly. You worry about them when you are separated for very long. Even if you have more than one, you still care about each one of them. You often find that you want to buy them new things, often things that turn out to be quite expensive -- like big disk arrays or new cars. In fact, it's often true that, the older they get, the more resources they require. You will often find that you will have an urge to show them off. The man pages don't tell you half of what you need to know and everyone you ask for advice will tell you something different. It's harder to manage them if you don't have someone to back you up. The only way to really learn how to do manage them is to jump in and do it. You'll eventually find that even the most routine tasks can be fun. Sometimes you need to understand what they're doing, but you can't watch everything all the time, so you'll end up looking for very specific problems -- like are the disks filling up or are they doing their homework and getting enough sleep. Once you get one, it's very hard to ever give it up. Learning to manage them may be difficult, but may be the most rewarding thing you've ever done You're likely to be both passionate and devoted about the job, no matter what you expected before you started. The initial pain is soon forgotten and you end up wondering how you ever managed without them. And, yes, I just watched a grandson being born ... or was that installed and rebooted?

Read more of Sandra Henry-Stocker's Unix as a Second Language blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld, Twitter and Facebook.

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