[linux-elitists] Poor skills of most IT "professionals"

Karsten M. Self kmself@ix.netcom.com
Fri Sep 26 20:28:30 PDT 2003

on Thu, Sep 25, 2003 at 10:20:48AM -0700, Larry M. Augustin (lma@lmaugustin.com) wrote:
> First - a digression.  Kudos to this list for extricating itself from a
> flamefest and switching to some useful discussion of SpamAssassin.

I intend to follow up on that topic specifically -- not merely TMDA, but
the flamefest aspects of it.  The trend and behavior I experienced was
among the more severally disappointing I've seen in any free software
project, bar none.  Worse than most corporate turf wars I've witnessed

> Now, onward.  Earlier in my carrier I spent time as a sysadmin at
> Stanford and a small EDA company.  Recently I've been spending a lot
> of time with small companies (less than 50 people), and had a chance
> to see some of the people who provide IT services for them.
> Maybe I'm just spoiled, but I find the lack of basic IT skills to be
> absolutely appalling.  I find many places have no one that can write
> anything more complicated than a few lines of DOS batch files.  They
> even struggle with those.  Basically, many of the "IT professionals" I
> see today are distinguished from users only because they're the people
> that are willing to read the installation guide and follow directions
> installing the software.  (Users won't read any directions.)
> As I've followed the anti-spam discussion, I realize that many of the
> "sysadmins" I'm now meeting could never set up a SpamAssassin
> filtering email gateway.  It scares me, and I don't know if I should
> be worrying more about it.  Is the pool of skilled IT people being
> diluted?  Is the set of "less skilled" IT people about the same as it
> has always been, and I'm now just more exposed to it because of the
> companies and people I now tend to be working with?
> Thoughts?


Greg Folkert knows who I'm referring to here, but I'll share her story

The woman in question is in her 40s, and has been through a number of IT
paradigms.  She knows GNU/Linux, legacy MS Windows, Macs, proprietary
Unices from Sun / HP / IBM / foo, VMS, MVS, AS/400, OS/2, and lord knows
what else.  Hell, knows 'em, she's got most of 'em running at her house.
Yes, including an MVS server.  And programming skills form Cobal to VB
(with many less embarassing skills between).  A truly competent

She works for a home mortgage company currently.  She's, variously, the
Girl Friday / tech of last resort.  She generally works remotely (a
plus), on page (a very big minus).  She serves as 24/7 emergency support
for the company's worldwide ops (several US locations, Europe, possibly

I've never met anyone more obsessed over the thought of utterly
obliterating a pager.

The organization runs most of the systems described above.  She is one
of the very few people who has experience across the entire range.

Specifically, she's described most of the younger IT techs.  They grew
up on legacy MS Windows.  Not DOS, but MS Windows, with dialogs and
wizards, but utterly stymied by the command line.  They don't have the
ability to think through a problem if there isn't a dialog option to
prompt them.  They don't understand networking protocols, programs,
hardware, or other aspects of system integration.  And under an aspect
of corporate task selection which is oddly Communistic, she finds
herself relied on in a "from each according to her ability" standard.

I've been re-reading _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_ as on
of my copious discretionary time activities.  There's a section which
describes two different types of workshops:

    Bill is a mechanic of the "photographic mind" school.  Everything
    lying around everywhere.  Wrenches, screwdrivers, old parts, old
    motorcycles, new parts, new motorcycles sales literature, inner
    tubes, all scattered so thickly and clutteredly you can't even see
    the workbenches under them.  I couldn't work in conditions like this
    but that's just because I'm not a photographic-mind mechanic.  Bill
    can probably turn around and put his hand on any tool in this mess
    without having to think about where it is. I've seen mechanics like
    that.  Drive you crazy to watch them, but they get the job done just
    as well and sometimes faster.  Move one tool three inches to the
    left though, and he'll have to spend days looking for it.

Pirsig doesn't provide the alternate description, but we know it:  a
well-ordered workshop, with tools racked on the wall, parts in their
bins, and a space for current work.

I'm minded strongly that this is reminiscent of the legacy MS Windows

  - Icons and controls scattered over the workbenches (desktop) so
    thickly you can't see the root window or non-active parts of

  - Administrative controls aren't accessed so much by location, as by
    navigation path.  Rather than /sbin/ifconfig eth0, it's Start =>
    Control Panel => Networks and Dialup Connections => Local Area
    Network => Configure.  Move a control (which happens with each
    minor revision of legacy MS Windows), and you have to retrain all
    you monkeys to hunt through a different path.

  - The associations between tools or utilities and their actions isn't
    clearly drawn, but is merely an accident of positioning within the
    interface.  Linux and Unix may have their crypticly named commands
    and tersely named directory tree.  However these are the result of
    decisions, largely made by engineers and technicians _who are also
    users_ of the system over the 30+ year history of the system.  There
    have been some revisions (readers of Kernighan and Pike will
    recognise a mostly, but not fully, familiar tree, and LSB has
    tweaked minor differences between GNU/Linux distros).  But the broad
    outlines are both constant *and* discoverable.

And finally, an experience at my most recent contract.  The network
(Win2K desktops and servers, MS SQL Server, Exchange) was administered
by a young and generally likeable fellow who exhibited skill in choosing
his desktop wallpaper and substituting his mouse pointer with a BMW
logo.  Faced, however, with a solid-state Linksys firewall/DSL modem
whose internal, but not external, interface was pingable, it was a
week's worth of interrupted, and often inaccessible Internet
connectivity before the problem was finally resolved by yours truly who
Googled for a few minutes, found a buffer overflow DoS exploit on the
model (unpatched, six months on), and swapped in a second unit (pulled
from an internal network segment) in place of the first.  That's a week
in which fifteen people were unable to reliably access the 'Net. 

The kid was unable to exercise troubleshooting skills to the point of
noting that if everything on the inside, and everything on the outside
of the network were functional, that it was likely the gateway itself at
fault, and that a simple HW swap could confirm or deny this hypothesis.

Upshot:  yes, there has been a serious de-skilling of the workforce.

On the other hand, with most jobs being rapidly offshored, isn't this a
wholly redundant concern?


Karsten M. Self <kmself@ix.netcom.com>        http://kmself.home.netcom.com/
 What Part of "Gestalt" don't you understand?
  Backgrounder on the Caldera/SCO vs. IBM and Linux dispute.
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