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Sysadmins: Don't get in your own way

Be prepared to try new and irritating things

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Sysadmin blog I remember the first time I saw these automated supermarket tills. They intrigued me. Yet I was also afraid of the things. I was afraid that despite all of my knowledge and training I wouldn't be able to figure it out and I would end up looking like a fool. I avoided them for three years; the basis of this avoidance nothing more than irrational fear of that which I might not understand.

When I finally bit the bullet and walked up to my grocery store nemesis, I was absolutely floored by how simple they were. Here was a computer that "just worked". I didn't have to think about how to use it, there were no complicated instructions and no training videos required. All that mattered was that I could understand spoken English and recognise the intuitive words or icons on the screen.

What didn't matter was what was under the hood. What hardware was it running? What operating system? What networking stack does it use and how many scoops of fruit does it contain? It is all completely irrelevant to the end user.

This is a critical concept, and one that goes beyond UI design. Usable and intuitive computer systems are not simply the developer's problem. These issues travel up and down the stack and need to affect every judgment we make about which technologies we implement.

Think about your infrastructure for a moment. Does the vendor of your virtualisation stack really matter? Does physical versus virtual matter? Why, and under what circumstances? Does hosting on premises get you anything, or can you do better by offloading that task to the cloud? How do all the components fit together, will they work if you change that bit out for an alternate bob?

Does a user preference for Outlook automatically mean you must have Exchange, Sharepoint and Lync? Do you know what the advantages of having the whole stack are, and have you considered hosted?

What kinds of compromises do we make trying to make it all work together, or adhering rigidly to some white paper? Can you give your users a better experience if you colour outside the lines a little?

Our choice of mail environment can impact which mobile device management software we can use, and in turn which mobile devices. Our mobile devices can affect which browsers we can safely use and that in turn can be driven by the apps or websites we need to access.

At the end of the day, what scripting language you can write your nightly batches in doesn't matter. What version of which operating system you use to house that super secret something-or-other that nobody but you ever sees is actually pretty irrelevant. What matters is your ability to understand user requirements and deliver an intuitive solution.

We have a wealth of choices today. Multiple operating systems, applications, protocols and bits of hardware exist for nearly every task. A decade has passed since the dark days of forced monopoly, and we now live in a world where heterogeneous and hybrid IT environments have become the norm.

The solution to your next problem may be a thin client. It might be a two button Android app that offloads the heavy lifting to Azure or even an iPad and some Velcro.

When your users first encounter the IT solutions you have provided them, what experience do they receive? Are their worst fears of difficult and confusing IT confirmed, or do they find everything "just works?"

If everything doesn't "just work", then it's time to identify which element of your IT stack is holding everything back and get rid of it. If that element is a piece of technology then your life is easy. If the roadblock is your own prejudices and biases, the problem is far more complex. ®

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