Before Elizabeth Joseph began her career as a system administrator, she was a hobbyist who attended a lot of Linux Users Group meetings in her hometown near Philadelphia. Now she’s an automation and tools engineer at HP, working on the OpenStack infrastructure team and recently co-authored the latest revision of The Official Ubuntu Book.
“I really love it,” said Joseph, one of two winners in the Linux Foundation SysAdmin Day contest, announced in August.
When Joseph started using Linux in 2001 she was working as an accountant who played around with computers in her free time – building websites, setting up Apache servers and email, and writing Linux tutorials. Then in 2006 a tech services provider from her Linux Users Group asked her to take a contracting role as a junior admin. For a while she held down two jobs: accountant by day, admin by night.
“At the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a developer or sysadmin, but it really grabbed my interest,” she said. “I like the engineering – building infrastructure to solve a problem. It’s exciting when you build the system and it works.”
She decided to make the career change and became a full time admin at LinuxForce where her boss allowed her to continue her open source contributions to Debian and Ubuntu. But after six years she felt like she was outgrowing that job and started looking for a position that would combine her two passions: open source software and system administration. She reached out to her contacts in the open source community and heard about an opportunity at HP.
“I didn’t know a lot about OpenStack but I’ve learned a lot in the year and a half I’ve been here now,” Joseph said.
Working on an open infrastructure team
Though there are similarities to her former job, maintaining OpenStack infrastructure is very different. One big change, she says, is that her clients aren’t your average consumer, but developers working on OpenStack.
“Developers tend to be slightly more forgiving when things go down because they understand portions of the infrastructure and they understand what’s going wrong,” she said.
And when something does go wrong the OpenStack team has admins around the world who can respond; no more middle of the night pager calls.
But perhaps the most significant difference between her old job and the new one at HP is that, just like the OpenStack code itself, the project’s infrastructure is completely open. Anybody can make changes to it by submitting a patch, which then goes through OpenStack’s peer review process using the Gerrit code review tool.
“At my old job, in the morning we’d do basic triage, and have meetings to talk things through, and we’d go off and fix things. We didn’t have a configuration management system; we trusted each other to do things well,” she said. On the OpenStack infrastructure team, “we’re all doing code reviews for each other’s changes and chat about them on IRC; that’s how we communicate everything. We’re all supporting each other’s projects.”
The admins work collaboratively, oftentimes with the project’s developers, to build and maintain new systems. OpenStack’s infrastructure is, she says, “collaborative by default.”
“Since we work with developers, giving them the ability to write patches on our infrastructure has been really powerful – even though they’re not sysadmins they can help us,” she said. “Rather than say “We don’t have time to fix that,” we say “Why don’t you write something and we’ll review it?”
There are a few things they can’t do through code review, such as big upgrades, she said. But even then the team is working together through the upgrade, troubleshooting and suggesting commands over IRC.
How to Get Hired
This open, collaborative approach to IT is becoming more common among open source projects and can be a good way for junior system administrators to gain experience, Joseph said. She recommends becoming a volunteer admin on a project with open infrastructure to help improve your skills and job prospects.
“A lot of people have trouble getting that first experience with actual, real world infrastructure,” she said. “A lot of people who volunteer on these projects end up getting hired.”
Some projects that she recommends for those looking to get involved include:
And OpenStack http://ci.openstack.org/
For more information on how a system administration career progresses, see the Linux Foundation’s Evolution of a SysAdmin chart.
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