Time Management for System Administrators review

Fri 30 April 2010

After Coders At Work, I needed to decide what next to read in my professional sphere. I've been slowly collecting rainy day ideas and ToDos in a text file, and moved them into Evolution when that got long enough that I needed summary views to hide notes for each item. Even then, it became overwhelming again. A personal website to improve, video games to play, books to read, software to install, things to blog about, programs to write, investments to research. Meanwhile work load at the college is only growing, so reading a book on time management seems apropos.

There's lots of books on time management, but the system administrator role brings together a unique combination of managerial meetings, discretionary time and on-demand customer service. We're also members of a rare group of people for whom on-call pagers are a nearly universal term of employment. And for reasons I'll never understand, IT professionals are rarely managed by more experienced IT professionals, resulting in scenarios like this. When I look around the office, there's few people I can look to for advice on the subject of time management. Some people stick in the office till 7PM, and others let unproductive committee meetings dominate their work day. But I recall a mantra: "to change the world, first change with yourself." So I decided to pick up Time Management for System Administrators and give it a shot.

About the Author

The author, Tom Limoncelli, is an accomplished system administrator, having worked for Lucent, Lumeta and now Google. He's published through the LISA conference numerous times and serves on this year's program committee. He's also a co-blogger on Everything Sysadmin, created in part to promote books they've coauthored, such as "Practice of Network and System Administration," a fairly comprehensive book on the subject. Clearly, the guy is qualified as both a sysadmin and a busy one at that.

Time Management for System Administrators

Limoncelli knows your time is valuable, so TMfSA is a thin book, a svelte 194 pages. But do not be fooled. This is not a book you can read once and put on a shelf to collect dust. You can get something out of it, of course, but it's no different than a diet book, you have to be prepared to take action to truly have gained from this book. Multiple times he admonishes the reader to start practicing his approach right now, because getting started is the hardest, most valuable advice. The only way to encourage readers to start now any harder would be to include stationary to practice with, which Franklin Covey already does quite annoyingly well at.

The basic central system is what Limoncelli calls "The Cycle System." In a nutshell, his advice is to record everything, and organize by day. Record every task to be done, prioritize and estimate the time it takes. If your day is overbooked, he offers coping mechanisms to make up the difference: Delegate, shorten the task, break the task up into smaller subtasks, delay meetings. Let people know when high priority tasks aren't getting done on time and come up with contingency plans.

Like any modern time productivity book, TMfSA addresses the email time sink. It advocates an inbox zero approach, heavy on automating the filing, filtering and processing. It's not as dogmatic as Getting Things Done or Inbox Zero but does name drop the former in the Epilogue. TMfSA's main advice appears to be to touch all mail once and skip archiving.

The "Cycle System" is generic enough that I wouldn't recommend this book if that's all it contained. But the details count for a lot. He points out that programmers and sysadmins work best in a state of 'flow', and that a good workplace is organized to maximize flow and minimize interruptions. He suggests that teams can organize a support rotation for a few hours a day so the rest of the team can utilize large blocks of uninterrupted thought. New email checks can be done every 3 hours rather than every 3 minutes, and you can have a scheduled 'on call' person to shield the rest of the team from interruptions. Since it's easier to concentrate when it's quiet, don't squander that opportunity on replying to email.

Finally, it gets into the stuff that's dramatically different for IT than other kinds of employees. There's some advice on running effective meetings, the eternal bane of techies. There's some advice on specialization. An example gets the point across: a lawn service can justify expensive mowing equipment that improves productivity because they'll use it a lot more over a season. If 1 hour of your time is worth more than 20 minutes of theirs, hiring a service becomes a no-brainer. TMfSA covers a few such no-brainers in the sysadmin workplace. It also covers when to document, when to automate and when to outsource, and presents a clever use of make to automate system deployment.


The book was interesting and certainly gave me ideas on how to approach time management, however there's a lot of places I choose to deviate. The author spends a lot of time addressing a paper oriented system, but smartphones have gotten to the point where most sysadmins have a phone that performs as well as or better than the old Palm PDAs. The author makes a point about a centralized calendar but all that's really called for is a unified calendar. For example, a unified view of your work calendar on Exchange and a personal calendar on CalDAV or Google. My phone supports local calendars and oddly, Exchange but not CalDAV. I really hope the next firmware release of Maemo adds CalDAV because it would solve this problem neatly. Failing that, I really think it's something for Meego to look at.

I also dislike the idea of deleting email. There's a lot of valuable historic information that saves my bacon on occasion, and anticipating this on the spot is a hard task. Keeping your inbox empty adds a "keep or delete" decision that I just skip. Limoncelli advocates the opposite approach primarily for a technical reason, that clients and servers cope poorly with them; my experience with Gmail suggests the problem is solvable rather than inherent. I did agree with his point about the price of email interruptions and I've tuned mail popups to specific high importance mail only, and set up better filters—now patchmail goes into a folder I review once a week while preparing change tickets.

As I said before, reading this book is less fruitful if you don't practice the advice within. I find The Cycle System performs fine at work. It does less well at home where there's rarely ultra high priority tasks and little motivating distinction between "soon" and "eventually". I think a slack time based prioritization would help with tasks that have deadlines, as would a CalDAV app for my phone. For personal projects and hobbys, I've decided to take a page from my university days and built a weekly schedule to fit everything into. I've even blocked of some time every week to contribute more to Ubuntu, now that my webserver is at a point where it's running the latest stable and has a test disk image. No more patching Ubuntu packages locally!

The technical content has become less relevance over time. It may have been best to not discuss PDAs and smartphones, as many things have changed since 2006. Palm is no more, and PalmOS is all but vanished. Wikis are popular enough that pages are probably better spent on effective wiki permissions than syntax--too many enterprise wiki systems deny by default and interfere with the purpose of wikis. The make trick is clever, but cfengine would have been more appropriate, if it cfengine was less confusing for readers. Since publication, Configuration Management Tools have flourished into popular and less confusing systems. I suppose make does feature a high reward:investment ratio you can use as a reference point on your way to puppet or chef or cfengine etc.

Overall, the book is a useful way to begin building your own time management approach. Although the book's sysadmin voice feels forced at times with the inclusion of UserFriendly clips, if you're a UNIX system administrator this book is a way great jump start your own routine. Time Management for System Administrators review

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