Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned from System Administrators

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Dear Wondrous SysAdmin: Please hurt someone else.Dear Wondrous SysAdmin: Please hurt someone else.

This 2003 certificate is backwards compatible. (source: User Friendly, 7/25/2003)

Today is the 10th annual System Administrator Appreciation Day, a special event that encourages everyone to thank your SysAdmins for all the long hours spent on the front line of technology battles, preventing and/or cleaning up our computer messes. They deserve a little love, at least one day of the year.

While you are contemplating what gift you can give today—here are a few suggestions for proper use SysAdmin’s time—we pause to give thanks for their contributions to parenting, as well. Taking a cue from Iowa State University’s best practices for system administration, here are five strategies employed by System Administrators that can make us better parents.

Have a Backup Plan

Losing files is always a drag, but even the best of Geeks might get a bit sloppy when it comes to implementing an effective backup strategy. Enter the SysAdmin, who is often responsible for maintaining daily copies of data files for everyone in an organization. They do this by coming up with a plan, routinely evaluating it, and training operators to help support it. Data has to be prioritized—you can’t just beam everything to another storage media at once. SysAdmins also plan for worst-case scenarios and practice disaster recovery.

As parents, we can take similar precautions for small but surprisingly challenging activities, like going to a restaurant to eat. We take a Felix “bag of tricks” to help distract kids who suddenly have no concept of an inside voice or insist on asking the neighboring table for some of their french fries. Preparing for breakdowns may be a easy as remembering to pack some pencils and paper, or a favorite book. Children who struggle in transition may also need to review what is coming to avoid making surprises unpleasant. Talking through possible scenarios in advance arms kids with choices, helping them make good decisions in the future moment.

Learn About Your System

A good SysAdmin will keep up-to-date on the servers and software that person must maintain. Reading security bulletins and understanding relevant issues with a particular configuration can help Administors adjust what they are looking for when keeping tabs on the network.

Similarly, parents can help themselves by reading the academic and popular literature on raising children. Online forums and offline support groups are also good sources of information about what to expect as your children develop. While there is no operator’s manual for babies, there is no shortage of other people who have gone or are currently going through the same kinds of struggles you are.

Define Critical Hosts

Critical hosts are the machines in a network that could most harm an organization, if compromised. The damage could range from injuring reputation, interrupting tasks, or the disclosure of confidential information. There could be legal issues that arise from failure with a critical host, so SysAdmins have to be aware of which information flowing through the organization is the most important to protect. Psychologist Ross Greene explains criticality in parenting in terms of three strategies, or plans, we invoke to address challenging behavior.

Plan A makes your expectations the top priority, at the sacrifice of understanding the problem (my way, or the highway). Plan C is where you drop expectations completely, if only temporarily. There is no teaching here, and you won’t solve any problems, but it might allow you to deal with higher priority issues. In between is Plan B, or collaborative problem solving, where the parent and child work together to understand what is behind challenging behavior. Understanding when a child’s behavior fails to rise to the level of Plan A can help increase the teachable moments.

Configure Only Essential Services

Although this can sometimes be a headache for the technologically-savvy user who just wants the latest freakin’ upgrade to critical software (breathe, Kevin), closing TCP/UDP ports and taking a deny-then-allow approach to permissions is a sound strategy for secure system administration. Turn on only the essential components and necessary services, and deal with the outliers individually.

The same proactive restraint can help relationships with some children, too. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka wrote a great book about raising spirited children. Often labeled as “difficult” or “strong-willed,” spirited children exhibit traits we value in adults, but try to suppress in youth. These kids are hard-wired to be more intense, sensitive, perceptive, and adverse to change than the average child. As a result, “more” may be the kid equivalent of spiking your processors or suffering a DoS attack. Things don’t operate as well under those conditions and struggle to regain a productive level. The parenting equivalent of “essential services” is to give kids only what they can handle and avoid overloading them with things they can’t.

Monitor Your System

Finally, a good SysAdmin—and (at least today), aren’t they all good?—devotes some time toward periodically reading log files and scanning system metrics. To an untrained eye, there is a lot of detail that appears overwhelming, but regular monitoring of the system footprint will give an Administrator some insight to quickly notice when something is amiss.

Parents used to keep scrapbooks, write letters, and keep diaries. Today, the digital equivalent is storing a copious number of documents in applications like iPhoto, WordPress, and YouTube. One of Twitter’s unrealized values is likely to be the long-term record of the detail of one’s life. Since that life includes the children, parents can use social media tools to facilitate reflection on their interactions with kids. Even better, use these records as a catalyst for family time by encouraging kids to contribute to the family footprint, and by periodically remembering together how those moments may be different than where you are now. The artifacts of the past can help inform the future.

Now, go hug the kid or SysAdmin of your choice.

"SysAdmin Day Song" – Written and performed by Wes Borg

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