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An ode to rent-a-nerds and cable monkeys

Love 'em or hate 'em, we'd be screwed without them

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Sysadmin blog Writing an article for El Reg takes between two hours and several weeks of research. Different articles have different origins. I usually have some techie-type problems occurring that could make for an interesting article, but every so often I get a bug about something and dive into a pile of off-topic research.

I have been writing articles for about 18 months now; doing research/interviews/lab testing and then bashing out an article is a comforting sort of normal. It is a problem to be solved, a task to complete. I am a systems administrator: solving problems is simply what I do.

Every so often, however, they let me run a little wild and I get to pick a topic relevant to my interests. This carte blanche is bizarrely problematic. That sort of freedom feels a lot like going back to those very first few weeks of writing where everything was new and scary.

What if I say the wrong thing, present it in the wrong fashion? What if the readers don't like my topic? What if I – $deity forbid – make a spelling mistake? The commenters around these parts will have me for dinner.

Whether any of this should be relevant to you is questionable, but it sets an important background for the topic I do want to discuss: personal perception. Each of us views the same challenges in different ways. Typically, these are framed based upon what is familiar to us.

Every field has its prejudices. They are an inescapable part of human nature. Rivalries become feuds. Common errors develop into in-jokes and eventually foster a sense of disdain. One example is a way that systems administrators tend to look down our collective noses at on-site technicians. To most sysadmins, on-site techs never get anything right. They break the rules and never seem to go through the proper channels that you have spent so long establishing. Finding one that knows how you want things done and doesn't have to ask you about every little thing seems a Sisyphean task.

We give these contractors cutesy names designed to help dehumanise them and remind us of our own superiority. How many among us have used "cable monkey" in a derogatory fashion? How many have referred to an on-site support consultant as a "rent-a-nerd?"

Hand in hand with this bit of professional name-calling is the implication that the job of the other person is somehow "easy". Certainly it is at the very least easier than yours – you do "real" work after all – and down the rabbit hole of skewed perception we go.

I am guilty of this myself. Until recently, I never had much time for on-site techs. Then, I decided that taking a few odd jobs would be good topic fodder for writing articles.

Actually being an on-site tech in someone else's network playing by someone else's rules is not an easy task. As with writing outside my comfort zone, I find the experience humbling: a much needed reminder that the world is larger than the sum of my personal experiences.

Unless we periodically step far enough outside our comfort zones to realise when and where our perceptions are orthogonal to reality, we risk becoming mired in the same old, same old. We fall victim to our prejudices, and end up using dated methodologies in support of antiquated design paradigms.

If writing for El Reg has taught me anything, it is that IT is about more than the tech. It is about the people who make the widgets do the thing and the bits go from here to there. It is about the cultures embraced by those who practice the art – our stories, humour, our mythology, our prejudices and our shames.

Until VMWare succeeds at replacing us all with a virtual machine and a shell script, IT is about all of us: the human beings that make it all work. We are all important pieces of the puzzle – all of us – regardless of job title. ®

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