WiAC '12: Staying Happy in System Administration / Emily Gladstone Cole

Hey! I’m at the USENIX Women in Advanced Computing 2012 Summit and will be blogging the talks today. You can view more of my posts about this conference under the wiac12 category on this blog.

Staying Happy in System Administration

Speaker: Emily Gladstone Cole, Operations Architect, Cisco Systems, Inc.

Emily opened her talk by explaining that she’s been a system administrator for a decade. Over this period of time, she found that some people think she doesn’t know how to spell ‘ls,’ that she likes lightbulbs, and that her job will never be flashy.
How did Emily become a sysadmin? She went to UC Berkeley, starting out in hard science. She has degrees in genetics and French. She happened to take a computer class and hung out in the basement of Evans Hall – the computer / math area – now called the dungeon. The area had stations/terminals – Apollo workstations and the open computing facility.
This was her first exposure to UNIX. Friends told her that she had to get an email account so they could keep in touch – you could go there to get an account and use UNIX to check your email.
After graduation, she got a job with U.S. Forest Service, doing DNA research on pine trees. She extracted DNA, processed it, sequenced it, and put it into the computers, comparing it against other DNA sequences to see exactly what genes we had in front of us. She did the research part time, and was a lab assistant part-time. In her work, her managers realized that she understood what she was typing on the computers and was not just copy/pasting from notes. They suggested that she could do the computer thing full-time and hire someone else to wash the glassware and chemicals in the lab assistant work part of her job.
She was given a copy of “UNIX power tools” book. She was given lots of sys admin tasks that required her to use the book and learn more things about system administration. Emily has been in many tech-oriented roles since then. At one point she was an operations manager – she stepped out of management and will talk more about that later on.

xkcd.com comic used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.
Emily pointed out that she doesn’t look like the stereotypical sys admin. She showed the XKCD ‘girls suck at math comic,’ explaining that there’s a lot of pressure on women in this field to do the job really well and not make mistakes because they don’t just reflect poorly on them, but every other woman who wants to make it in technology. Early on in her career, she worked in the SGI technical support doing OS, kernel, and backups L2 support. A caller tried to spell ‘ls’ for her during his tech support request, assuming she didn’t know what she was doing.
Few women choose this field. Emily mentioned that for the SANS GCFW certification, 26 women were in the first 320 people to get the certification. 33 people received honors in that first 320, which was less than 10%: 3 were women (one was Emily.) Ther ewas a slightly higher % of women getting honors than the % of total women who received the certification. If you’re going to go in for something like this as a woman, you’re going to push hard and go for honors – not just as good as the guys but better.
Emily also cited the article “The Trouble with Bright Girls” on the Psychology Today website. The article talked about how girls praised for being good, clever, smart – basically, they are praised for what they ‘are,’ while boys are praised for their effort. So, boys learn effort will get them praise and success while girls learn what they are will get them praise and success. You can’t change or control what you are but you can control the effort you put into something. Emily said that sometimes when she gets stuck, she throws up her hands and gives up – but it’s important to push through. Just because you’ve run into a tough spot doesn’t mean you’re dumb or not good at it. Your training may have been different.
Emily had ended up working with lots of guys. In technology, sometimes they can be awkward or have bad social skills. You will be dealing with some awkwardness at some point in your career, she told the audience. For example, there are sometimes funny silences in meetings. Rebecca, one of Emily’s coworkers, had an answer to explain that awkward silence during meetings: some men will automatically figure out a status hierarchy of all the other men in the room so they know where they line up. If you’re a woman speaking up in a meeting, you can’t get ranked on those same things, so the men doing this in the meeting don’t know where you fit in the hierarchy. They’ll tend to participate more / give feedback more to people who are right next to them in the hierarchy, so if they don’t know where you are in the hierarchy they won’t know who should respond to you.
How do you get around this? Pay attention to those who are there who do respond to you. The more you encourage them, the more they will support you – positive feedback loop to encourage the rest of the team to interact with you as an equal. Emily has found that the more time she spends with her coworkers, the more they are inclined to interact with her, understand her, and treat her as a colleague rather than a special creature to be treated with kid gloves. So Emily’s solution is to go hang out with those who respond to you.
Emily moved on to talk about how women can make great sysadmins, giving some observations and generalizations that she and her friends have noticed:

  • We are more detail-oriented (never rebooted the wrong server)
  • We’re trained to consider multiple points of view and can come up with more than one way to do something
  • Tend to be brought up as listeners / sympathizers, giving us flexibility of thought, good for being a sysadmin
  • We collaborate well and tend to share well – Sharing credit sometimes can be a problem though when you need that bonus / promotion, but the more you’re able to collaborate, the farther you’ll get in your career.
  • Multi-tasking can be good in a crisis. It’s a stereotype but… Emily told a story about when all the systems her team managed went down in San Francisco due to a power outage that caused failures through two levels of backup power. Multi-tasking was really useful in that circumstance.

We are all superheroes for sticking it out in technology. “Why is my job not flashy?” Emily asked. Believe it or not, it starts with that superhero cape you see on the sign for the ladies restroom.
Why is being a superhero bad?

  • You get called in the middle of the night when something breaks, and you save the day. that’s great, right?
  • You’re in crisis mode rather than in normal operating mode.
  • You miss sleep.
  • Do you want to be associated with things breaking?

If you build it differently, would you still need to be a late-night hero? Here’s how to not get paged: documentation and training. If you can write down what you know and share it you can avoid getting woken up or disrupted, and the folks handling the crisis can look at your docs instead. If you train the jr folks, they learn, and you will learn from their questions. This will improve your documentation and presentation skills.
Documentation can take many forms – an email, a doc on the website / wiki, a script, or automation. Yes, a script counts as documentation (it provides repeatability & consistency.) What Emily does now in documentation is a lot more robust than it was a few years ago: this improvement is from learning from the experience of answering trainee’s questions. For example, don’t assume that everyone knows where the log files you’re referring to are.
“When i do my job right,” Emily explained, “it’s not flashy:”

  • Things may break, but people know how to fix it.
  • When I prevent downtime, nobody knows about it.
  • If I build it solidly to begin with, we can work around a server outage.

If it just works it’s not exciting, but it means you can move on and do new things instead (solve a new problem or learn a new thing.)
The downside is that keeping things dull can mean a lack of recognition. If it’s all going well, you’re invisible. If you’re invisible, your manager doesn’t notice you at raise/bonus time. Emily suggested the following to help work around this: send a thank you to others’ and their managers for their help with releases, outages, and troubleshooting after a big effort. It’s always good to praise others and raise their mood. It will help you build a reputation for being grateful for others’ help, show that you’re willing to recognize others, and that you’re easy to work with.
Emily moved on to talk about how to love the job you’re with. What if you have a bad day? She suggested that you try to find 3 work-related things that you liked about your day. It helps a lot at a ‘bad’ job. Find something you love about your job, and over time it can help you find a better job. Emily said that she finds that the things that she likes are the things she tends to be good at. For her, finding the things she likes – because she’s passionate about them and putting in the effort – was really important. It helped her figure out where she wanted to go in system administration and what she wanted to do next.
One of the things Emily really loves about her job is figuring something out – the lightbulb. You know, the “aha1” moment when you find the solution to a tricky problem. She also loves getting into the ‘flow’ when working / scripting / coding /automating something. Another great thing is passing that feeling on, seeing someone else get it, explaining it clearly, or having someone read and understand your documentation and take something away from it.
Emily also loves her colleagues. She explained that they are a tight-knit bunch that socialize together a lot, at lunch and after work.
Emily also loves learning new things, “the more I can learn, the happier I am.”
It’s important to avoid burnout, though. Take breaks, take vacations! Get exercise. You need something else you do after hours that give syou a mental break. Emily likes to act and do theater and dancing.
There’s a sweet spot between being a sysadmin vs a manager. The skill sets are very different. For managers:

  • Job satisfaction comes through others.
  • You have more politics and more meetings.
  • Hands-on work can be discouraged.

You can find places where you can advanced without going into management, so don’t feel you need to be management to advance.
In summary, how Emily stays happy in system administration:

  • She enjoys writing docs, automating tasks, and troubleshooting.
  • She gets to learn all of the time.
  • Her colleagues are awesome.
  • She has many outside hobbies to keep energized.



1. (Carolyn) You talk a lot of docs, sharing what you do so others can pick up… do you feel like you’re the only one who does that or do you feel like your whole team has the mentality?

When I started I was the only one. The first two wiki docs I made in my first week – here are all the things a sysadmin needs to get up and running. And number two, an acronym list. I do think that over time I’ve been able to encourage people to see the benefits in doing it. Maybe they are not as inherently apt to do it and enjoy it, but at least they understand the importance and are trying.

2. (Carolyn) Sometimes admins feel a sense of job security in not documenting what they do. E.g., “I’m the only one who knows this so you have to call me to get it fixed.”

I like the job security that comes from my ability to learn a new thing really quickly – that is a more powerful form of job security. The thing I really don’t like is solving the same problem over and over again. If I’m the only one who knows something, I have to get pulled in when things go wrong, and I don’t like that. I want to move on to the next new thing. It’s valuable to say “Yes, I picked it up and learned it. But now I have this new thing I can do for the company or put on my resume because I didn’t have to answer the same question I answered two months ago to the same person.” So I don’t belive in that kind of job security – I don’t believe that.

3. You mentioned that men when they get together in a meeting, they find out everyone else’s ranking. Is this an automatic thing or did they develop the rankings over time? Can this be quantified?

I don’t know a lot more about that. Maybe some of the men in the room have input?
(John A.) It depends on the individuals and the organizations and sometimes on the org chart. I work at a company where we don’t have some of these issues but I’ve seen them and I’m sure other guys have as well. Biggest challenge – in these meetings, there are individuals like that, and some of them are the kind who will do whatever it takes to move up the ladder. There are others, though, who aren’t like that – they don’t look at the pecking order, and they do listen to you. I always personally try to get to know the people in the meeting before I go. Whatever their background / religion / gender – doesn’t matter… If you identify people who interact with others via this pecking order, you need to learn how to work around that. They won’t be around forever, but you can work around them. Find people who will support you and work around it with you as a partner. It happens to guys as well, by the way. It’s not only guys who do this.
(Carolyn) I think the organizational culture supports this bad behavior in some of the companies that are the worst. It helps when you have both genders working on this problem. Sometimes it takes a man to say that something is completely unacceptable.
(John A.) The best bosses I’ve had have been women. Sometimes you have to work with the HR department on these issues, though. It’s politics.
(Margo S.) This behavior seems remarkably similar to middle school.
(Emily) Best way to get around it is to ignore it. Just be as good as you want to be and leave them to their games.


  1. Emily says:

    Thanks, Mairin, for covering my talk! Here’s a link to the superhero comic: http://weknowmemes.com/2012/05/im-sick-of-this-stereotype-that-all-women-wear-superhero-capes/

  2. […] from Leslie Lambert, Vice President & Chief Information Security Officer, Juniper Networks; Emily Gladstone Cole, Operations Architect, Cisco Systems, Inc.; Clea Zolotow, Senior Technical Staff Member, IBM; and […]

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