Systems Administrator Appreciation Day: Friday, July 30th


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jul 28, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall


One of my Brazilian brothers, Dennis Jensen, sent me email reminding me that the last Friday of every July is System Administrator Appreciation Day, where we should show our appreciation to those hard-working system administrators that keep our systems going.


In my early years of working with computers my connection with these people was limited to handing in a stack of punched cards through a window and praying that I did not hear them being dropped on the other side of the wall. Sometimes I even got my card file back along with my printout. Other times I was not so lucky.


When I graduated from the university and went to work at Aetna Life and Casualty in Hartford, Connecticut I became more familiar with the systems administrators that ran our systems.


Our systems were locked deep underground with dual sets of sliding doors (that actually had a guard sitting between the sets of doors) which separated my world from the world of the machines. IBM mainframes, hooked up to row after row of disk and tape drives, each the size of a washing machine or refrigerator respectively. The programmers and data entry people only saw our terminals that allowed us to communicate with the machines. We were oblivious to anything else.


One day I was typing in commands to the computer and I typed in one command to have some tapes mounted as I had been instructed by my boss:


“cp m op mount tape 3453246 on logical tape drive one”


A few minutes later a message came back:


“message from operator: O.K.”


After a couple of these interactions I began to be suspicious that this special command was not simply being parsed by the machine, and that there was some human down there doing something. So I wrote:


“cp m op do you have a name?”


and back came:


“message from operator: Allo, Allo, Allo!”


which led to a long and glorious relationship with the “CMS operators” and one in particular named “Rod”, or as he called himself “Rod the Operator”.


Rod, and most of “the operators”, loved to live life. Most rode motorcycles, drank large quantities of beer and smoked like fiends (folks, this was WAY before “these cigarettes can kill you”). We met in a little family restaurant called “Kenny's” at least three nights a week. Our feeling was that "Kenny's was a dive, but a dive where you could bring your mother.”


At least twice a year the operators got together to have a “CMS Keg In The Woods” party, where we found a private campsite, set up our tents, turned up our car stereos and burned whole trees that had fallen over during the Connecticut winter. Did I mention that we drank beer? Yes, we did that too.


Rod got in trouble from time to time, but it was mostly for harmless fun. Like the time he made an Indian headdress out of punched cards and had all the other operators bowing to him while he sat on top of the line printer. Unfortunately that was just the time that the Chairman of the Board was leading a group of stockholders through the data center. Rod was chastised for that.


Or the time that Rod inadvertently spilled all the master record tapes for Aetna's Family File index out onto the floor (there were 120 of them, containing tens of thousands of names each) and the whole company's operations came to a screaming halt. But that was indeed an accident, and anyone could have made that just happened to be Rod.


Or the time that the operators had convinced a new hire that the “bit bucket” had overflowed, making the 370 system crash, and had a bucket overflowing with punch card shads in a cabinet of the CPU. “Did you empty the bit bucket?” they cried when the big machine halted. “I did not even know where to find it....” cried the newbie.


What I remember the most, however, is both the seriousness and professionalism that they exhibited most of the time, and how they helped each other out. And how they helped me.


Systems Administration has changed a lot since those days, where computer security was more of locking the door when you left and computer graphics was printing Charles Schultz's Snoopy on top of his doghouse via the chain printer (thank goodness Mr. Schultz did not sue us for trademark infringement), but a good Systems Administrator is still needed and should be valued, perhaps now more than ever.


Take your Systems Administrators to lunch on Friday, and tell them how much you appreciate them, even if you do not say it enough during the rest of the year.


  • Memories, like the corners of a punch card

    The first job I ever had was as a computer operator for the US Army. We had an IBM 4331 Mainframe (later upgraded to a 4341), 12" reel tapes, card reader/card punch and a big old 1401 high-speed band printer. Ah, those were the days. ☻
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