The Swiss Army Knife is a novel invention, a single pocket-sized device that includes everything from a standard knife blade and scissors to corkscrews and laser pointers. What it makes up for in versatility, however, it lacks in effectiveness – the functions themselves are never as good as actual scissors or laser pointers.
The same rule applies to federal systems administrators (sysadmins), who now serve agencies as a professional “Swiss Army Knives.” Thanks to budget cuts and decreasing staffing levels, federal sysadmins have been pushed into more and more roles, including security specialist, storage manager, virtualization manager and many more.
The same budget cuts that force sysadmins into these roles allow little room for training or specialized tools, meaning that these jacks-of-all-trades are entering a completely new role with only a Wikipedia page and perhaps some hastily-scribbled notes from their predecessor.
It’s not that sysadmins are incapable of effectively completing these new tasks, but the sheer workload volume and a lack of training and support turns these additional roles into Herculean tasks. Before agency CIOs and IT managers start slicing and dicing specialist tasks to divide amongst the IT generalists, they need to first understand what exactly they are asking sysadmins to do.
Specialization: There’s None of That
Once upon a time, specialization was the bread and butter of the federal IT department – niche teams would handle every aspect of agency networks, from security to storage to email, while IT generalists, like sysadmins, would fill in where needed. This is no longer the case – the scrutiny of the federal budget has caused the supply of these specialists to dwindle to almost nothing, leaving sysadmins as the primary workhorses for agency networks.
In a non-federal organization, this lack of niche skillsets would be painful, but could be overcome with the judicious use of outsourcing and the cloud. The federal government, however, struggles with the cloud, thanks in part to the sensitive nature of their services and data. Because of this requirement, areas that require specialization – particularly security and virtualization – suffer .
When it comes to security, the pain of meeting metrics is no longer the domain of the security specialist – it belongs to the sysadmin. As the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) continues to refine the standards set down by the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), agencies are required to drill down deeper and deeper into their architecture for security audits, a skill that a pure sysadmin may not have. Detailed reports are then submitted to CyberScope, OMB’s web-based metrics aggregator, which feeds high-level dashboards for agency IT managers and the CIO, ensuring that any pain from poor grades flows downhill, straight to the sysadmin.
Complexity: There’s Too Much of That
Virtualization, on the other hand, looks far simpler than security, at least to agency higher-ups. The technology is extremely scalable and flexible, key issues for CIOs, but most importantly, it promises humongous cost savings. Everything’s gravy, right?
To a sysadmin, virtualization is a nightmare scenario – the “cheap” virtual machines add a level of almost unprecedented complexity when paired with physical resources and chaos can reign if documentation is not kept up to date. Most sysadmin positions tend to be filled by contractors, who in turn have a high turnover within federal IT. With this in mind, it’s highly likely that a brand new sysadmin could inherit a morass of orphaned and zombie virtual machines, with little to no understanding of how this psychopathic landscape is to link up with the overall agency network. In this scenario, the sysadmin is likely to start from scratch with a whole host of new virtual machines, replicating the scenario ad nauseam once he or she is replaced with another new IT generalist.
Specialization could easily remedy these problems, but again, thanks to the federal budget problems, there’s no money for…wait for it…
Training: There’s Far Too Little
Thanks to budget constraints, even basic skill training on specialist tasks like virtualization and storage management is out of the question for many agencies. While some IT vendors are providing limited training free of charge, the fact is that most sysadmins are thrust into these new, specialist roles with limited experience, save some rough documentation left by the vendor or a predecessor, and what they can scrounge together online.
Much like what the DOD and military are experiencing, civilian agencies are striving to reduce the training footprint for their IT workers, particularly sysadmins, but are struggling to find the right balance. As it stands, most specialist IT tasks are performed using complex technology, typically massive framework systems that require weeks or even months of coursework to understand properly. Faced with these monolithic toolsets against seemingly unwinnable odds laid down by agency leadership, it’s no surprise that sysadmin turnover is so high – the task is too daunting. At least, for now.
Simplicity: More Is Needed
When it comes to working around the limitations of a revolving door of talent, simpler is always better – and federal IT is no exception to this rule. If agency CIOs and IT managers can break their needs in niche areas, like security or virtualization, into basic building blocks and do away with the terrifyingly huge systems used to accomplish these tasks, the job facing sysadmins becomes far more manageable.
And it’s not just IT that needs to be simple –the tools that MANAGE IT are no exception. Agency networks will always retain a certain level of complexity; it’s just the nature of the beast. But if IT teams can automate the complex components while keeping the management simple, federal networks in general will become more sysadmin-friendly.
Beyond simplifying, maybe it’s time for agency CIOs to strongly consider turning their sysadmins into the next generation of specialists, especially as simpler tools reduce the training footprint for niche tasks.
Swiss Army Knives are good in a pinch, but are never meant to fully replace a specialized tool. It’s no different in IT, except that unlike the knife, with the right training, support and tools, sysadmins in the federal workforce can actually BECOME the specialists.
Denny LeCompte is Vice President of Product Management for SolarWinds.