Network Admin Blues

It all started years ago, like so many things in Brian's life, in the permacloud of pot smoke that hung over the dorm room he shared with Jeff for nine memorable months in college. Sophomore year they were enjoying the delights of a new ceramic bong molded in the shape of Bart Simpson's head and talking about Jeff's new love: Linux. It was this kickass operating system kind of like UNIX, he told Brian. Jeff pointed to a stack of roughly a hundred floppies sitting on his desk. "There it is," he beamed. "Linux."

Brian was still halfway undeclared and halfway applying to get into the College of Engineering. All he knew was he wanted to break things, take them apart, put them together again. When Brian was seven, he'd played around with the wiring in a cable box near his house until he figured out how to get free HBO in his room. That was what floated vaguely in his mind when he imagined his future: endless days of experimentation that would result in slightly illegal -- but inarguably pleasurable -- results.

So the Linux thing was intriguing, especially when Jeff started talking about how a whole bunch of engineers were pounding on it and adding to it all the time.

"OK, so show me what this damn thing does," Brian challenged, launching himself at Jeff's desk in a burst of ill-coordinated enthusiasm. He barely understood how a file system worked, and when Jeff started talking about compiling kernels, he definitely found himself in "bullshit and feign knowledge" territory.

Gradually he became fascinated. Jeff walked him through the file tree and the basic tools, and suddenly Brian could picture a whole, vast network of machines, running this operating system or some other UNIX-like setup, working together at his root-privileged commands. It felt like ... free cable.

And so Brian became a computer science major. He learned to program in C and build a motherboard, but he never strayed far from his original passion: networks. He graduated about the time the whole dot-com bubble was swelling, but he wasn't drawn to any of the strange little startups with names like FireFrog and SphinxPop. He dated a chick who worked for one called All Natural, and it sounded like all they ever did was take ecstasy and sling HTML. Plus, their network sucked ass. When he visited his girlfriend once at All Natural, he actually overheard the CEO telling their senior network guy that he wanted all the wires to be color coordinated to match the company logo. Color coordinated!

For the past five years he'd been working his way to the top of a hardcore team of network engineers at one of the gigantic corporations in Silicon Valley. It was a beautiful network, highly organized, whose servers ran Solaris and SuSE Linux and OpenBSD. Jeff had gotten a job with him last year, doing security, and they had long, late-night sessions where they assaulted the network, looking for security holes and imagining the ultimate BSD toolbox.

Then things started changing. He and Jeff's requests for a new server were turned down, and they were told to "make do with what you have." As various network admins quit, they weren't replaced; he and Jeff were required to do things like help the managers with their e-mail programs. Brian felt less like a devious mastermind and more like a plumber everyday.

He noticed a subtle change in personnel, too. More and more of his team was female, a situation that would have seemed impossible two years ago. The women did just fine -- it wasn't like they were stupider than the guys had been -- but he knew for a fact that they weren't getting paid nearly as much. He remembered his '70s-feminist mom telling him that women were always over-represented in low-paying professional jobs. The pink-collar ghetto, she called it. Was he stuck in the pink-collar ghetto? "I wouldn't be surprised if the VPs asked us to fix the coffeemaker and serve them lattes next," Brian griped to Jeff, who was looking for job leads online.

The glamour had gone out of being a network admin. He was doing maintenance, keeping the old machines chugging along, making sure the VPs could run PowerPoint presentations and open Excel spreadsheets remotely. That free-cable feeling had died. At the USENIX conference for network geeks, it seemed like everyone except the exceptional celebrity geeks were in the same boat. They felt like digital janitors.

For the first time in his life Brian wondered what it was like to form a union, back in the 1930s when things were really hardcore. Then he turned back to his monitor, where he was reading an article from LinuxToday.com, and imagined starting a new open source project. He would call it Janitor.

Annalee Newitz (janitor@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd with a chip on her shoulder. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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