Still Alive, History, and Other Things!

Minicast 05 – Still Alive, History, and Other Things!

I’ve been more productive at work in the last few months, than ever before. Over the last couple of years I’ve really broken into loving being a Sysadmin, and I will soon have a ton of awesome blog entries chronicling my many exploits. Before I write the individual blog entries though, I have a confession to make; I used to think that systems administration was a joke! I remember wading through college, learning to program, hearing nothing but negative things about systems administration and SA’s. I distinctly recall a conversation where I was told the reason we are learning to program was so that we wouldn’t become system administrators or work in IT. The really sad part was that I agreed with that reasoning, as if becoming a SA was a failure in comparison to being a developer.

I remember my time in the United States Marine Corps, working in the G6 office. Some days we just handed out laptops, or helped the officers with their email woes, or picked heavy things up and moved them. But some days we manually aligned and bounced signals off of satellites. Some days we created secure point-to-point networks so some General somewhere could send a text message. I went to Africa, and with limited resources, a flat-head screw driver, and a Gerber knife, I helped create an intranet with internet access using 3G aircards, saving millions of dollars in the process. But when it was all over, I thought that the reason I was able to do and accomplish so many awesome things was because I was a United States Marine. The mission required and allowed solutions like that. I did not believe that the job itself (IT, or Systems Administration) would be the same once I was a civilian. Because of this belief and the general attitude regarding SA, I decided to become a developer.

The primary appeal of being a developer was that I would be solving problems. I’m very good at solving some kinds of problems. Given time, support, and a budget, I think I could rediscover flight, and when I get out of traction, space flight! Seriously though, all I wanted to do is make enough money solving problems to live comfortably. I wasn’t the best programmer (I’m still not), but I graduated with my undergrad degree, and immediately felt unsure of becoming a developer.

Throughout college I had the fantastic opportunity of volunteer-teaching in several courses. Most of the time I helped with the project courses. I played a small part in them, but I like to think that I made a difference. I also helped with the database course, video game programming course, and a few others. The point is, as I graduated with my undergrad degree I felt compelled towards becoming a professor. I wasn’t absolutely sure, but I was sure enough to continue my education in the ISAT Graduate Program to buy some time so I could figure things out.

In grad school I researched with Ross Murray, under Dr. Aron Culotta. Dr. Culotta’s research involved predictive modeling using machine learning and social media. This was my first view into actual research and exposed me to the amazing world of machine learning. Somehow I had missed ML while pursuing my undergraduate degree. Eventually, I would develop and write my thesis on a project in the same vein as the research I had participated in with Dr. Culotta. Simply put, given a YouTube video, analyze the video’s comments to determine if a member of the conversation was being (cyber)bullied. I was bullied as a kid for being nerdy, fat, and wearing glasses, so this project was rather personal. The project/thesis process was arduous, but once complete I felt great accomplishment.

Despite getting paid rather well to be Dr. Culotta’s research assistant, I needed to get an additional job. Unfortunately, I had gone through a rough breakup and was in a slump emotionally. As result I developed some less-than-desirable money spending habits. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, and was one unexpected expense away from being completely broke. I enjoyed the research I was doing, but I quickly discovered that I did not want that to be my career. Along with researching, I also became disenchanted with teaching full-time. Thankfully, I was put in contact with the owners of a local business that were ready to expand and hire their first employee. With ~1 year before graduation, I began working as a .Net developer.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, WinForms and WPF were the ‘in’ thing. The design patterns to know were MVVM and MVP. But, there wasn’t a lot of industry-influence when I was in school, so even though I was aware of the terminology, and the idea of separation of responsibilities, I didn’t have much experience in developing business applications. The truth is, I had written more PHP, Python, and Java than .Net. Even still, C# was becoming the big deal in the area, so I picked it up and ran with it. MVP evolved into MVC, and Microsoft (eventually) streamlined creating MVC projects using their Visual Studio IDE.

So, here I was; a developer, writing software to help make peoples’ lives better… But I wasn’t happy. Sure, I had a pair of excellent bosses, was making decent money (enough to crawl out of the financial hole I had dug), and was solving problems. But, the problems weren’t challenging, and I felt that perhaps business application development (as a whole) wasn’t challenging in the way I needed it to be. The hurdles were things like proper alignment in CSS, or managing Nuget dependencies, or understanding when to use code-first instead of database-first. These are real problems, and I don’t wish to discredit the occupation; I just felt that despite all of the buildup, reinforcement, and community, even development (or at least business application development) was not for me. The associated stress pushed me to extreme measures, the most positive of which was buying a used motorcycle.


I had crossed off becoming a professor, a researcher, and (now) a developer. Life was happening, and I was being indecisive. My time was running out. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way. I was only 25 years old, and yet my time is running out… Graduation was fast approaching, meaning that the additional income from being a research assistant would stop. If the full-time .Net developer pay would’ve been substantial I think I would’ve stayed; however, the numbers just weren’t there. I was hesitant to look for another .Net developer job; the starting pay wasn’t great most of the time, and the few decent jobs out there would’ve seen me relocating to New Orleans.

I was still working as a .Net developer when I was advised to check out Southeastern Louisiana University’s job posting website. As I checked the unclassified postings a wave of irony washed over me; there was an open position for a Systems Administrator. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? Objectively, I had crossed off a lot of career paths beginning with systems administration. But I needed a stable job, preferably one with benefits, and less stress. That would be nice. This job had those things (the first two for certain). I interviewed (poorly, in my opinion), and got the job. I love SLU, and I embraced being a legitimate employee instead of a volunteer, but I didn’t expect it to be a long term solution. I was prepared to work hard, and learn, and figure out what I really wanted to do. When the time was right, I imagined that I would quit and go and do something that made me happy.

Something awesome happened; I found what I was looking for. That awesome feeling of doing mighty things from when I was in the Marine Corps returned. In less than a month I realized that I WAS WRONG about systems administration, IT, the whole thing… Not only had I discovered problems I felt were worth solving, I had found a special group of people that are all different, but work hard to solve those problems. All the negativity surrounding IT and SA during my undergrad was completely wrong.

I love my job. Even on the worst day there, I still love it. I’ve been there a little over 2.5 years. I’ve programmed internal and front-facing software, scripted servers, retrofitted production systems, revised monitoring and backup solutions, recovered bricked OSes with nothing but SUM, and pulled out the guts of directories and email, all to solve extremely gratifying problems. Tomorrow there will be more problems, and I can hardly wait.  Thanks for reading. More to come shortly.

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