October 2014 Archives

Getting stuck in Siberia

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I went on a bit of a twitter rant recently.

Good question, since that's a very different problem than the one I was ranting about. How do you deal with that?


I hate to break it to you, but if you're in the position where your manager is actively avoiding you it's all on you to fix it. There are cases where it isn't up to you, such as if there are a lot of people being avoided and it's affecting the manager's work-performance, but that's a systemic problem. No, for this case I'm talking about you are being avoided, and not your fellow direct-reports. It's personal, not systemic.

No, it's not fair. But you still have to deal with it.

You have a question to ask yourself:

Do I want to change myself to keep the job, or do I want to change my manager by getting a new job?

Because this shunning activity is done by managers who would really rather fire your ass, but can't or won't for some reason. Perhaps they don't have firing authority. Perhaps the paperwork is too much to bother with firing someone. Perhaps they're the conflict-avoidant type and pretending you don't exist is preferable to making you Very Angry by firing them.

You've been non-verbally invited to Go Away. You get to decide if that's what you want to do.

Going Away

Start job-hunting, and good riddance. They may even overlook job-hunt activities on the job, but don't push it.

Staying and Escalating

They can't/won't get rid of you, but you're still there. It's quite tempting to stick around and intimidate your way into their presence and force them to react. They're avoiding you for a reason, so hit those buttons harder. This is not the adult way to respond to the situation, but they started it.

I shouldn't have to say that, but this makes for a toxic work environment for everyone else so... don't do that.

Staying and Reforming

Perhaps the job itself is otherwise awesome-sauce, or maybe getting another job will involve moving and you're not ready for that. Time to change yourself.

Step 1: Figure out why the manager is hiding from you.
Step 2: Stop doing that.
Step 3: See if your peace-offering is accepted.

Figure out why they're hiding

This is key to the whole thing. Maybe they see you as too aggressive. Maybe you keep saying no and they hate that. Maybe you never give an unqualified answer and they want definites. Maybe you always say, 'that will never work,' to anything put before you. Maybe you talk politics in the office and they don't agree with you. Maybe you don't go paintballing on weekends. Whatever it is...

Stop doing that.

It's not always easy to know why someone is avoiding you. That whole avoidant thing makes it hard. Sometimes you can get intelligence from coworkers about what the manager has been saying when you're not around or what happens when your name comes up. Ask around, at least it'll show you're aware of the problem.

And then... stop doing whatever it is. Calm down. Say yes more often. Start qualifying answers only in your head instead of out loud. Say, "I'll see what I can do" instead of "that'll never work." Stop talking politics in the office. Go paintballing on weekends. Whatever it is, start establishing a new set of behaviors.

And wait.

Maybe they'll notice and warm up. It'll be hard, but you probably need the practice to change your habits.

See if your peace-offering is accepted

After your new leaf is turned over, it might pay off to draw their attention to it. This step definitely depends on the manager and the source of the problem, but demonstrating a new way of behaving before saying you've been behaving better can be the key to get back into the communications stream. It also hangs a hat on the fact that you noticed you were in bad graces and took effort to change.

What if it's not accepted?

Then learn to live in Siberia and work through proxies, or lump it and get another job.

If you're wondering why comments aren't working, as I was, and are on shared hosting, as I am, and get to looking at your error_log file and see something like this in it:

[Sun Oct 12 12:34:56 2014] [error] [client 192.0.2.5] 
ModSecurity: Access denied with code 406 (phase 2).
Match of "beginsWith http://%{SERVER_NAME}/" against "MATCHED_VAR" required.
[file "/etc/httpd/modsecurity.d/10_asl_rules.conf"] [line "1425"] [id "340503"] [rev "1"]
[msg "Remote File Injection attempt in ARGS (/cgi-bin/mt4/mt-comments.cgi)"]
[severity "CRITICAL"]
[hostname "example.com"]
[uri "/cgi-bin/mt/mt-comments.cgi"]
[unique_id "PIMENTOCAKE"]

It's not just you.

It seems that some webhosts have a mod_security rule in place that bans submitting anything through "mt-comments.cgi". As this is the main way MT submits comments, this kind of breaks things. Happily, working around a rule like this is dead easy.

  1. Rename your mt-comments.cgi file to something else
  2. Add "CommentScript ${renamed file}" to your mt-config.cgi file

And suddenly comments start working again!

Except for Google, since they're deprecating OpenID support.

"Over the next few decades demand in the top layer of the labor market may well centre on individuals with high abstract reasoning, creative, and interpersonal skills that are beyond most workers, including graduates."
-Economist, vol413/num8907, Oct 4, 2014, "Special Report: The Third Great Wave. Productivity: Technology isn't Working"

The rest of the Special Report lays a convincing argument that people who have automation-creation as part of their primary job duties are in for quite a bit of growth and that people in industries subject to automation are going to have a hard time of it. This has a direct impact to sysadminly career direction.

In the past decate Systems Administration has been moving away from mechanics who deploy hardware, install software and fix problems and towards Engineers who are able to build automation for provisioning new computing instances, installing application frameworks, and know how to troubleshoot problems with all of that. In many ways we're a specialized niche of Software Engineering now, and that means we can ride the rocket with them. If you want to continue to have a good job in the new industrial revolution, keep plugging along and don't become the dragon in the datacenter people don't talk to.

Abstract Reasoning

Being able to comprehend how a complex system works is a prime example of abstract reasoning. Systems Administration is more than just knowing the arcana of init, grub, or WMI; we need to know how systems interact with each other. This is a skill that has been a pre-requisite for Senior Sysadmins for several decades now, so isn't new. It's already on our skill-path. This is where System Engineers make their names, and sometimes become Systems Architects.

Creative

This has been less on our skill-path, but is definitely something we've been focusing on in the past decade or so. Building large automation systems, even with frameworks such as Puppet or Chef, takes a fair amount of both abstract reasoning and creativity. If you're good at this, you've got 'creative' down.

This has impacts for the lower rungs of the sysadmin skill-ladder. Brand new sysadmins are going to be doing less racking-and-stacking and more parsing and patching ruby or ruby-like DSLs.

Interpersonal Skills

This is where sysadmins tend to fall down. A lot of us got into this gig because we didn't have to talk to people who weren't other sysadmins. Technology made sense, people didn't.

This skill is more a reflection of the service-oriented economy, and sysadmins are only sort of that, but our role in product creation and maintenance is ever more social these days. If you're one of two sysadmin-types in a company with 15 software engineers, you're going to have to learn how to have a good relationship with software engineers. In olden days, only very senior sysadmins had to have the Speaker to Management skill, now even mid-levels need to be able to speak coherently to technical and non-technical management.

It is no coincidence that many of the tutorials at conferences like LISA are aimed at building business and social skills in sysadmins. It's worth your time to attend them, since your career advancement depends on it.


Yes, we're well positioned to do well in the new economy. We just have to make a few changes we've known about for a while now.

And if there isn't a stipend...

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Sysadmin-types, we kind of have to have a phone. It's what the monitoring system makes vibrate when our attention is needed, and we also tend to be "always on-call", even if it's tier 4 emergency last resort on-call. But sometimes we're the kind of on-call where we have to pay attention any time an alert comes in, regardless of hour, and that's when things get real.

So what if you're in that kind of job, or applying for one, and it turns out that your employer doesn't provide a cell phone and doesn't provide reimbursement. Some Bring Your Own Device policies are written this way. Or maybe your employer moves to a BYOD policy and the company paid telecoms are going away.

Can they do that?

Yes they can, but.

As with all labor laws, the rules vary based on where you are in the world. However, in August 2014 (a month and a half ago!) Schwann's Home Services, Inc lost an appeal in California Appellate court. This is important because California contains Silicon Valley and what happens there tends to percolate out to the rest of the tech industry. This ruling held that employees who do company business on personal phones are entitled to reimbursement.

The ruling didn't provide a legal framework for how much reimbursement is required, just that some is.

This thing is so new that the ripples haven't been felt everywhere yet. No-reimbursement policies are not legal, that much is clear, but beyond that, not much is. For non-California based companies such as those in tech hot-spots like Seattle, New York, or the DC area this is merely a warning that the legal basis for such no-reimbursement policies is not firm. As the California-based companies revise policies in light of this ruling, accepted-practice in the tech field will shift without legal action elsewhere.

My legal google-fu is too weak to tell if this thing can be appealed to the state Supreme Court, though it looks like it might have already toured through there.

Until then...

I strongly recommend against using your personal phone for both work and private. Having two phones, even phones you pay for, provides an affirmative separation between your work identity subject to corporate policies and liability, and your private identity. This is more expensive than just getting an unlimited voice/text plan with lots of data and dual-homing, but you face fewer risks to yourself that way. No-reimbursement BYOD policies are unfair to tech-workers the way that employers that require a uniform to be worn who don't provide a uniform allowance are unfair; for some of us, that phone is essential to our ability to do our jobs and should be expensed to the employer. Laws and precedent always take a while to catch up to business reality, and BYOD is getting caught up.

There is something that not many people seem to realize about how your personal email can get sucked into a lawsuit filed against your company. It all comes down to ediscovery...

When it comes to things to send alarming emails about, CPU, RAM, Swap, and Disk are the four everyone thinks of. If something seems slow, check one or all of those four to see if it really is slow. This sets up a causal chain...

It was slow, and CPU was high. Therefore, when CPU is high it is slow. QED.

We will now alarm on high CPU.

It may be true in that one case, but high CPU is not always a sign of bad. In fact, high CPU is a perfectly normal occurrence in some systems.

  1. Render farms are supposed to run that high all the time.
  2. Build servers are supposed to be running that high a lot of the time.
  3. Databases chewing on long-running queries.
  4. Big-data analytics that can run for hours.
  5. QE systems grinding on builds.
  6. Test-environment systems being ground on by QE.

Of course, not all CPU checks are created equal. Percent-CPU is one thing, Load Average is another. If Percent-CPU is 100% and your load-average matches the number of cores in the system, you're probably fine. If Percent-CPU is 100% and your load-average is 6x the number of cores in the system, you're probably not fine. If your monitoring system only grabs Percent-CPU, you won't be able to tell what kind of 100% event it is.

As a generic, apply-it-to-everything alarm, High-CPU is a really poor thing to pick. It's easy to monitor, which is why it gets selected for alarming. But, don't do that.

Cases where a High-CPU alarm won't actually tell you that something is going wrong:

  • Everything in the previous list.
  • If your app is single-threaded, the actual high-CPU event for that app on a multi-core system is going to be WELL below 100%. It may even be as low as 12.5%.
  • If it's a single web-server in a load-balanced pool of them, it won't be a BOTHER HUMANS RIGHT NOW event.
  • During routine patching. It should be snoozed on a maintenance window anyway, but sometimes it doesn't happen.
  • Initializing a big application. Some things normally chew lots of CPU when spinning up for the first time.

CPU/Load Average is something you probably should monitor, since there is value in retroactive analysis and aggregate analysis. Analyzing CPU trends can tell you it's time to buy more hardware, or turn up the max-instances value in your auto-scaling group. These are all the kinds of thing you look at in retrospective, they're not things that you want waking you up at 2:38am.

Only turn on CPU alarms if you know that is an error condition worthy of waking up a human. Turning it on for everything just in case is a great way to train yourself out of ignoring high-CPU alarms, which means you'll miss the ones you actually care about. Human factors, they're part of everything.

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