My first year as a Sysadmin

This blog post is a short story of how I started working for a Drupal company, some of the things I've achieved during my first year in the industry and my impressions of working with a Drupal agency as a sysadmin.

Photo of Emlyn Kinzett
Fri, 2015-01-30 10:24By emlyn

Introduction

Before I pelt you with details of my first year as a sysadmin, I think I should give you a little information about myself. I’m Emlyn, 23 years young and based in the UK...the West Midlands to be a little more precise.

I graduated from Coventry University with a 2:1 in Games Technology with the hope of becoming a games programmer. However, after graduating, I noticed my portfolio fell far short of other students on my course, and, I’ll be honest, that bummed me out.

That was when I was approached by my cousin, Jamie, who works as a Systems Manager for Code Enigma, with the prospect of training to become a Junior Sysadmin. I gave it some thought; I had always been interested in Linux systems and wanted to know more about them. In fact, one of my modules at University was Operating Systems Security and I thoroughly enjoyed the assignment we were given where we had to create a shell script that provided the ability to display working processes, navigate a directory, list online users, amongst a few other things. So, I accepted the offer of a three month internship, which started in October 2013, which then turned into a permanent position in January 2014, and I really haven’t looked back since!

Training

As with every new job in a new field, training is required. For me, this was two weeks in Cardiff with Jamie, trying to learn as much as possible before working from home by myself. It was daunting, I’ll be honest. I knew there was so much to learn in a very short space of time. Perhaps I put too much pressure on myself; no one expected me to become an expert in just two weeks!

On the very first day of my internship, I was given the task of ‘building’ a new server which would serve as an internal server. So, my first lesson was in Puppet and how to use it to provision a new server semi-manually. This blew my mind! A few simple-ish (well, now I think they’re simple-ish) steps and Git pushes later and a new, usable server was up and running. Let me go back on myself, my first lesson was in Puppet and Git. One interlinked the other, and vice versa.

In a sense, I was thrown in at the deep end, given tickets to work on myself. Jamie pointed me in the right direction and gave me hints and tips that aided me in my work. In all honesty, his method of training me was brilliant, perfect. I’d try the work assigned to me first, and ask for help when I needed it.

Over the course of the two weeks, Jamie never showed any impatience or annoyance at what I was doing, even if I did something completely wrong or didn’t understand what had to be done. He taught me an important part of being a sysadmin: patience, especially patience towards clients. I had to understand that the client may not know as much as me, even though I’d only been in the industry for two weeks myself!

Over the course of my three month internship, and in fact the following nine months, my training never really stopped. I was learning new things every single day, all the while fine-tuning my newly acquired skills. Another important lesson I learnt during my first year as a system administrator was that I will never know everything there is to know in being a sysadmin, there will always be something new to learn.

Working from home

Being given the chance to pursue a totally new career and develop new skills was fantastic and an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, but what put the icing on the cake was that I’d be working from the comfort of my own home. However, I realised that I was going to have to be very disciplined, even more so than I normally would. It dawned on me that my fellow colleagues would be trusting me to work efficiently and I did not want to let them down by being slack just because I was working from home.

Working from home has its advantages, as you can imagine. No suit and tie and no long commute to work every morning. So there’s not a mad rush in the morning and I don’t have a busy office environment around me to distract me from my work. However, I am alone (as are my colleagues), which means not being able to walk up to them should I have a question or concern and not being able to go for a drink or food after work. But, these disadvantages, I feel, are out weighed by the advantages of working from home.

Running a distributed company can be quite challenging. My boss, Greg, is currently working on a series of blog posts in which he goes into detail about being Spread About. It's well worth a read.

What was I expecting?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what the job was going to be like! All I knew was that I was going to be learning a lot in a short space of time. From the email conversation I had with Jamie before starting, I had a feeling it was going to be all hands on deck. A lot of the time, I’ve been kept busy all day dealing with several different clients, all wanting different things done. Other days, it’s been a little less busy and I’ve been able to spend a bit more time on each task.

Surprises! Of all kinds of variety

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been surprised by anything. I think what surprised me the most in my first year, and what still baffles my mind today, is the sheer number of tools and software available to a system administrator. For example, we use Percona as our database of choice, but we could use MongoDB, or MariaDB. Then there are multiple database caching systems to choose from, numerous HTTP accelerators, web servers and continuous integration tools! My point is there isn’t a short supply of tools available; in hindsight, I’m not sure why that surprised me, but it did.

Top five things I’ve learnt

A year ago, I knew very little to nothing about being a system administrator. I could be very lazy and just list the top five things I’ve learnt in my job, but I’ll try and be a bit more descriptive. In no particular order of importance:

  1. Patience is actually a virtue! I’ve learnt that when dealing with a task, be it for a client or a personal task, to be patient with it. Getting frustrated and angry (perhaps covertly when dealing with a client) will only make matters worse and lengthen the time it takes to solve the problem. Clients who are not as technically knowledgeable appreciate patience; as I described above, Jamie was incredibly patient with me during my training, which helped me to understand the problem at hand more easily.

  2. Security is important. Very important. I deal with client data on a daily basis, so being proactive in keeping my workstation and computer secure at all times is important. I’ve learnt to be vigilant when transferring data to a client or a colleague; rather than send them a sensitive document over plain text email, I’ll upload it to a server the recipient has access to so they can grab it from there themselves. I’d GPG encrypt an email to them, but ever since the people who make the GPGTools plugin for the OSX mail app have started charging for the service (shakes fist), I’ve opted to use other means. We at Code Enigma like FOSS! Over the last year, Code Enigma have become ISO 27001:2013 certified, which meant I had to learn and understand how to handle data and documents properly.

  3. Workflow is also important. I learnt about the simple, yet very effective, workflow used by Code Enigma in the first couple of weeks of joining the company. It’s as straightforward as this: master -> stage -> production. Push changes to the master branch first, then merge them through to stage after some initial testing. Once the client is happy and has signed off the changes, push them through to production for deployment to the live site. Simples! However, before I joined CE, I didn’t know or think like this. When I ran an online game with my brother (not in Drupal), I’d make changes to the code locally, with no local setup running, and FTP (ew) the updated files directly to the server, which affected the live site. Horrendous. Now, when I start work on a personal project, I have an exact workflow I want to follow.

  4. Drupal...well, a small amount. A very small amount. Primarily, I’m a sysadmin, so I do a lot regarding setting up Drupal sites and debugging server issues relating to Drupal. I did a small amount of Drupal development at the start of my employment, so learnt a little bit about it which has fared me in good stead when it comes to dealing with simpler Drupal issues.

  5. Linux. Well, obviously not all of it, but I have learnt a lot in my first year. Obviously there are some things I’ve learnt that I need to improve on, but that’s a given with most operating systems, especially Linux. I knew a little bit about Linux before joining CE, but only rudimentary stuff from using Ubuntu as my main OS for a little while. During my first year, I picked up some really useful tips and tricks, learnt of different command line tools and how to use them, such as Drush and learnt how to read system and access/error logs. That’s just to name a few Linuxy things I’ve learnt.

What I hope to do/learn in the next year

There’s so much out there to learn that appeals to me, I could probably write a separate blog post just about that! But what I really want to learn, that I think will benefit me as an individual and my role in Code Enigma, will both be time consuming and difficult: MySQL multi-master replication and DRBD, to assist our Australian sysadmin with server cluster issues, and Drupal 8. I’ve a head start (ish) on Drupal 8 in that I know a bit about PHP, but I’ve been made aware the PHP I know and have programmed in is archaic and old-fashioned. It’s time to delve into Object-oriented programming!

It would be great (for me at least) to get a text-based, role-playing game up and running in Drupal, be it 7 or 8. But seeing as I want to develop my D8 skills, it makes sense to develop the game using the latter of the two. As I previously mentioned, I used to run an online text-based game with my brother, which used a very poorly written engine now that I look back on it. I’ve not seen many, if any, games of the sort created using Drupal. Even if no one plays the game, it’ll still be an achievement in my eyes as I’ll have improved my Drupal knowledge.

MySQL multi-master replication will be an important concept to understand and know how to use because we have a handful of clients that have a high availability layout setup with us, which include two application servers and two database servers, at least. If there’s a blip in the network, replication between the servers can be affected, which requires manual intervention to put right. If this happens, our Australian sysadmin is woken up through the use of his batsignal, but if I could solve any replication issues and save him being woken up in the early hours of the morning, then it’s a win-win for both of us; I’ll have bolstered my knowledge and Mig won’t be woken up abruptly.

What are my impressions after my first year?

My impressions after my first year as a system administrator for a Drupal agency are very high; the other sysadmins in our team are incredibly knowledgeable and can adapt to every situation and issue thrown at them. This has given me inspiration to develop my skills and knowledge to reach their level and some day leave the same kind of impressions on a future junior sysadmin.

My impressions for working for a Drupal agency are just as high. My colleagues are all very clued up in their area of expertise, from Drupal magic to content strategy to finance management. Everyone does their part for the company, be it providing bespoke tools for a website (such as the ones used for this very site) or by providing top level training to new, or old, Drupal agencies. It's an honour to be part of such a fantastic team!


Main image by Wendy Seltzer, released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.