Administering Unix systems like your mom taught you

Credit: flickr/Jakob Renpening

Granted, your mom wasn’t likely a Unix systems administrator, but she probably taught you a lot of things that have strongly influenced how you work and how you manage your Unix systems today. It's easy to see why. Mothers dream of their sons' and daughters' success and long-term happiness and generally want to give them pointers that are going to help them do well in their jobs and in their personal lives, even when some of that advice comes across as nagging or sarcastic. So, in honor of Mother's Day, let's look at some of the things our mothers have taught us and trace how some of those lessons have come to apply to the way we manage our Unix servers.

Do it right or don't do it at all

Many moms, mine included, stressed that doing something the wrong way (think "shortcut") was generally a waste of time. Even if doing it right seems to take more time (and it generally does), doing it wrong often means having to redo it or make some accommodations later. For example, taking extra steps to ensure that a process is set up to run properly, that you'll know if and when it breaks, that you'll be able to explain it to someone else, and that it is documented well enough that someone (maybe even you) a couple years from now will be able to maintain it will almost always pay off in the long run.

Don't put off what needs to be done

Postponing necessary tasks means that you have to keep track of what needs to be done as well as do the work. You'll save yourself time and a few brain cells if you take care of small tasks as soon as you think of them. And somehow this seems to be even more true as the years go by. Mom used to say “Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today”. I now understand this is a quote from Benjamin Franklin, but it's also still a quote from Mom.

Clean up after yourself

Don't leave messes for other people to clean up -- not in the data center, not in the shared kitchen, not on your desk, not on the disks you manage, and not even in your scripts. Be considerate of the people who work with and around you as well as the people who will follow in your footsteps.

Don't waste other people's time

Respond to email in a timely manner. Never be so impressed with yourself that a dozen people have to wait for you to show up at a meeting; be a couple minutes early. Remind yourself that other people's time is as valuable as your own.

Appreciate everyone, especially those who take care of you

My mother worked for a while as a waitress and afterwards never forgot to appreciate anyone who waited on her. She believed that the woman hauling the trash out of the office deserved as much respect as the company CEO. She never forgot to appreciate and show her appreciation to anyone who helped her in any way.

The people labeling your backup tapes, processing your purchase orders, filling the supply cabinet with pens, making sure there's a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen, or checking the AC in the data center all deserve appreciation for taking those tasks off your plate and allowing you to concentrate on the problems that maybe only you can do.

A place for everything and everything in its place

This was probably one of my mother's favorite sayings and, while I can't say that I've implemented it nearly as well as she had hoped, I know it's the key to being organized and being comfortable in one's space. If everything you work with has a spot where it belongs and you take the time to put it there when you've finished using it, you will spend a lot less time than many of us looking for the things you need. And you'll probably feel more comfortable and get more work done too.

Never make decisions when you’re angry or tired

I don't always have the luxury of putting off making a decision on how to proceed with a task. Sometimes problems pop up and land on my head and I have to react. But, when I do, I like to separate my thinking through a problem, deciding how to address it, and actually doing the work. I prefer to jump into a demanding task when I feel rested, clear headed, and calm. Mom taught me (and she was right) that stepping back and taking a little extra time before tackling a demanding task can make all the difference in the world. In fact, I often "discover" the cause of a problem only after I step away from it for a while -- sometimes on my way home, sometimes after a short walk around the office, and sometimes after grabbing a fresh cup of decaf.

That expression is going to freeze on your face!

Even as a very young kid, I didn't believe any expression would actually solidify on my face, but I think mom had something important to tell me. My facial expressions make a difference. Some people only see me for a few minutes a week. If I'm gritting my teeth and frowning, they might easily think that I'm gritting my teeth and frowning all week. Make an effort to smile and be friendly even when working under pressure or worrying that your server is about to crash and that problem that you just noticed will never be resolved.

If that's what you think, you've got another think coming

It took me quite a few years to put a positive spin on this one, but these days I'm always happy to grant myself "another think" -- even after I've had to admit to being dead wrong about something. It's always OK to change my mind. It's always OK to learn something new, even if it means that what I believed up to that point was completely misinformed. Even after 30+ years of working with Unix systems, it can be a bit startling (but still OK) if I end up learning that some command or process works entirely differently than I had believed it did. And I can feel good about that. I'm glad to have at my disposal another "think".

Get a good mattress and a good job

The key point to this one is simple. Make good choices when it comes to the things that you're going to spend a good portion of your life doing. If every day you sleep eight hours and work eight to ten hours, spend those hours being as comfortable and happy as possible. Unless you really have no choice in the matter, spend your life doing things that enhance your happiness rather than detract from it.

Eat every bean and pea (pee) on your plate!

Even today, I don't like to waste anything -- especially food. But this saying of my mother's went so much further than a caution against waste. It really meant "follow the rules, but don't forget to laugh". It was always delivered with an exaggerated demanding tone and a subtle grin that told me that the double entendre (pea/pee) was meant in a lighthearted way. Even if you work in a demanding environment where nearly every task is a high priority and the weight on your shoulders is unbearable, make a little time for humor. And share that humor with the people you work with. It can make even the heaviest tasks seem just a little lighter.

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