This was originally written for Red Hat’s Enable Sysadmin. Enjoy!


Sysadmins have plush easy desk jobs, right?  We get to sit in a nice climate controlled office, and type away in our terminals, never really forced to exert ourselves.  It might look that way, and as I write this during a heat wave here in my home town, I’m certainly grateful for my air conditioned office.  Being a sysadmin though, carries a lot of stress that a lot of people don’t see. Most sysadmins have some level of on-call. In some places it’s a rotation, others it’s just 24/7.  Some industries demand quick response, others maybe a little less. We’re also expected to know everything, and solve problems quickly, and I could go into a whole separate article on how keeping calm in an emergency is one of the pillars of a good sysadmin.  The point I’m trying to make is, we are in fact under a lot of pressure, and we need to keep it together. In some cases profit margins are at stake, in others, lives could be. In this digital world, almost everything depends on a good sysadmin to keep the lights on.  Maintaining all of this pushes a lot of Sysadmins (and network admins, and especially Information security professionals) to the brink of burn-out. Today, I’m going to talk about how getting away from the day job, can help keep your sanity.  

Technology outside of the office

I want to highlight that it is very important, in my opinion for any sysadmin to have a healthy interest in technology outside of their job responsibilities.  In fact, it’s one of the things that I try to gauge when I’m interviewing technology folks, whether it’s for a development job, or something more admin related, I think it’s important that folks working in technology, have a passion for technology.  Personally I have a home lab, where I try things out. It’s currently running oVirt-node, and an all-in-one oVirt manager/hypervisor. I run Red Hat Virtualization in my day job, so it’s nice to get my hands on the upstream projects for the hardened stable products that Red Hat provides us.  I use that home lab to tinker with whatever new technology comes along, that catches my interest. Sometimes it’s OpenShift, sometimes it’s containers, sometimes it’s a Minecraft server for my kids. I also tinker in electronics, it’s not uncommon to find me in my workshop holding a soldering iron. 

Tech outside of your daily work life helps keep you sharp, and helps you explore new tech that you might not have the time or resources to tackle at the day job.  However, this is a double edged sword. I recently went through a year long process of simplifying my homes dependence on my skills. It was getting to the point where, I’d come home from work, and just step from a professional sysadmin role, into a volunteer sysadmin role.  Sure, I enjoy setting up services, I enjoy running services, but sometimes when you get home at night, you just want to sit down and let your brain relax. If you’re coming home to the kids asking why the wifi isn’t working, and your wife asking why the Plex server is down, it gets old.  On top of that I was running my own web sites out of my basement, AND running a side business hosting for others. I was feeling like I never got a break. So I put a bunch of time into simplifying. I moved my self hosted email to a free email provider. I moved my web sites to a cloud provider, and closed up the side business (it wasn’t really making any money anyway).  I even replaced my slick linux based firewall with a simple to setup wifi mesh. Now, when things go sideways, you don’t need to be a Senior Sysadmin to figure out the problem. In all it’s really helped my sanity. Plus, using technology like an average user helps me understand where they’re coming from. User’s don’t have the level of control that Sysadmins have over technology.  So they’re sort of dependent on us, or on the vendors that make their devices. Sometimes it’s good to step into those shoes so you can understand where they’re coming from. There’s one more really great point I’d like to make though…

Step away from the keyboard

The stereotype says that we’re all afraid of the outside world.  That we hunker down in basements with the windows closed up, and nothing but the glow of a monitor to light our work space.  That may actually be true for some of us, but personally, I have always tried to maintain hobbies outside, away from a computer.  Firstly, sitting at a computer, or even standing at a computer, isn’t all that healthy for you. You need to move around more, and what better way to do that, than to go outside.  Getting away from your terminal helps your brain relax, but just being away from your computer, or your office, might not be enough.  It’s easy to be away from something, and still be pre-occupied by it. So don’t just go for a walk, do something.  I’m not about to tell you what you should do, but make it something engaging.  I’ll give you some examples of what works for me. 

Hunting and Fishing…  Yes, I know this is viewed as barbaric by some, but it’s something I’ve done with my father, who is now retired from his own career in technology, since I was of legal age to do so.  It gets me away from everything, and I get to spend time with my father. It’s good exercise, and it teaches you to appreciate what you have. What better way to spend your time? If you’re not into harvesting animals for food, call it a day long hike in the woods.  The point is to get away, and occupy your mind with what you’re doing. I enjoy the sights of the outdoors, I enjoy spending an entire day simply paying attention to nature around me. Because if you’re not paying attention, you’re not likely to be a successful hunter. 

Camping.  I was a boy scout as a kid.  I spent a lot of time in the woods, camping, fishing, boating, spending time with other boys.  I mean real camping, the sort where you’ve got a tent, and a backpack, and enough food to last you a few days.  You’re cooking over a fire, you’re living in your tent. You’re self-sufficient for a day or two while you spend time in nature.  Don’t bring your smart phone, or at least try to keep from using it if you can’t stand to be unreachable. It’s a great escape from the usual stress of life.  

Jeeping, or off-road sports in general.  Again, I know some will have issue here, but give me a moment.  For almost as long as I’ve been driving, I’ve been a Jeep enthusiast.  To the point where I almost have two personas online. One where I’m Nate, the Iron Sysadmin, and another where I’m Nate, the trail guide, and Jeep nut.  You could say I’m equally as passionate about jeeps and offroad, as I am about Linux and open source software. I know it’s unpopular in some crowds. Off-roading is seen as a detriment to the environment, and Jeep’s aren’t all that ecologically friendly, but there are lots of up-sides to this hobby of mine.  I’ve been doing it long enough that I’m pretty good at it, and I can teach others. It also teaches problem solving, which is very relevant to what we do as Sysadmins. If you’re out in the middle of nowhere, and your 4×4 breaks down, you better figure out how you’re fixing it, or getting out without it. Working together, and helping others is a big part of it as well.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stopped to help someone in need on the trail, or on the highway, because of the skills I’ve picked up over my years of Jeeping.  

Related to Jeeping, I also like to build things.  Whether it’s home renovations, or upgrades to the Jeep.  Sometimes I even fabricate things myself. Mostly for the Jeep, but I’ve applied my skills to my house, the kids halloween costumes, projects for friends, it’s always a good idea to have a broad range of skills.  I know, you can probably save your own time, and pay someone else to expand your closet, or build you a garage, but doing it yourself is so rewarding, trust me. 

There’s also things like Gaming.  Whether that’s a board game, console gaming, or PC gaming.  It lets your brain escape and work in different ways than it does as a sysadmin.  Personally, I love a good DnD session, or a card game with the family. I’m also a pretty avid Doom player.  

Finally, I’d like to cover creative outlets.  I touched on this slightly when I mentioned teaching, and fabricating.  I like to teach others what I know, and I like to create things that might help others.  Like this article! Writing is an obvious one, as you’ve seen from my blog, and the content I’ve contributed here.  I also run an IT related Podcast, The Iron Sysadmin Podcast. I also produce jeep related content for another site I run, and a youtube channel I manage.  I find creating something like that to be very rewarding, and believe it or not, it’s helped me learn about technologies which benefit me in my day job, that I’d never have come across otherwise. 

All of these things, while not really IT related, apply to the skills you need as a good sysadmin.   Get away from that terminal, get outside and do something, give your brain a break, and try to avoid burn-out!  You’ll thank me later.