The High Tech Sweatshop
Its 4:30 am on a Friday and I just finished the last Mountain Dew. We ran out of coffee hours ago, the remains of it now black sludge at the bottom of the pot. The buildings air conditioning went off sometime the previous night and its up to almost 90 degrees in the server room. The two volunteer hackers on the staff went home after 12 hours, leaving me and the sysadmin...
This is a normal day for me.
I'm a systems engineer in the client services division of a network security software company. Basically what that means is that when networks break, I fix them.
I am 22 years old, I make a large multiple of the national average salary, and if I cashed in my stock options I could buy a very nice house. I'm also sixty pounds overweight, I sleep an average of four hours a night, and I have several ulcers. I usually spend about 60 hours a week at the office, but I'm on call 24 hours a day seven days a week. If I was honest with myself Id probably say I worked about one hundred hours last week. This is a normal life for someone working in this industry.
We live in a world today that runs on information. And people want all of it now. When was the last time you actually wrote out a personal letter to someone, on paper, in pen? Why bother when E-mail is so much faster and easier? But what goes on behind the scenes when you hit the "send" button? There are thousands of people out there just like me who have titles like "Network engineer" and "Systems administrator". We keep that information flowing, and we get paid what seems like a lot of money to do it. If you've been in the market for a good network admin lately you know what I mean. The market is pushing the salary into the 100k+ plus range for someone with the necessary experience to handle even a relatively small network, never mind what the really large companies like State Farm insurance or Wells Fargo bank have.
I started work on this problem with the sysadmin on Thursday before the close of business, getting things set up, preparing for the changes etc... The company was switching internet service providers that night because the previous one hadn't provided the level of service they needed. This entailed changing the IP addresses, and DNS configurations of every machine in the building, running three different operating systems, probably two hundred machines all told, then setting up the servers, routers, and switches necessary to get it all running. It's a big job, but with six people working on it we figured we could get it done before start of business the next day. Normally you would do this kind of thing over a weekend, but the ISP could either do the changeover tonight, or wait till next week, and we needed to be online before Monday.
Getting back to what happens when you press the send button. You expect the computer to send the message, and that the person it was sent to will receive it. What happens to the message then is an incredibly complex series of storage, sending, routing, switching, redirecting, forwarding and retrieving, that is all over in a fraction of a second, or at most a few minutes. But you don't care how or why it gets there, only that it does, and this is all you should care about. After all you don't have to know how your cars engine works in order to drive it right. But someone has to know in case it breaks. And when your email breaks you expect someone to fix it. It doesn't matter what time it is, or where the message is being sent, you want it to get there now.
Its now 8 am and the network is still down. We've managed to isolate a routing problem and are in the process of fixing it. The ISP gave us the wrong IP addresses and now we have to go back and redo all two hundred machines in the building. The router was crashing and we couldn't figure out why. Two hours on the phone with the vendors support, and three levels of support engineer later we fix it. People are starting to come in to work and ask why they can't get their email. The changeover process takes us about three hours and finally everyone has the right IP, but things still aren't working right. A bunch of people use DHCP for their laptops and the DHCP people cant get out to the net. The CEO of the company is one of those people...
So what do we do? Well we hire people to take care of the network. And we give them benefits and pay like any normal employee. We also give them pagers, cell phones, a direct phone lines to their houses so that any time, any where, we can get them, because the network could go down, and we DEPEND on that network, and those people. This is where things go skew from the normal business model.
All compensation is basically in exchange for time. The only thing humans have to give is their time. When I pay you a salary it is in exchange for me being able to use your abilities for a certain period of time every year. The assumption is that the more experienced or knowledgeable you are the more your time is worth. This works fine when you are being paid a wage, but salaried employees aren't. They exist under the polite fiction that all their work can be done in a forty hour period every week, no matter how much work there is. We all know this isn't the case of course. And when it comes to Systems administrators and network engineers that polite fiction isn't so polite. In exchange for high salaries and large stock options the company owns you all day and all night, every day and every night. You are "Mission critical". High salaries become an illusion because when it gets down to it your hourly rate isn't much better than the assistant manager of the local Pep Boys.
I finally went home at 1 that afternoon. I couldn't stay awake any more and if I didn't leave right then I wouldn't have been able to drive home. The funny thing is I felt guilty for leaving. Things still weren't working quite right, and I felt like I should have stayed until they were. Even funnier is that I volunteered for this. The only part of the job that I actually had to do was to change a few IP addresses and configure the firewall, but I thought I'd lend a hand, and I couldn't do the firewall till everything else was working anyway. My wife hadn't seen me in two and a half days, and I could barely give her a kiss when I walked through the door and collapsed on my bed. The SysAdmin was fired a few hours after I left. Back to work Monday morning.