About My Job: The Y2K Programmer and the Systems Administrator

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

On December 31, 1999, I along with programmers around the world sat apprehensively in front of my TV watching the date roll starting in the far east.  As each hour passed, and cities still had power, I became more elated.  We had done it!  I think if you had asked most programmers coming up on the date change, we were confident of our company's efforts but not sure whether other companies had accomplished their goal.
To hear people refer dismissively to Y2K as a disaster that didn't happen is a misreading of the event.  It's actually a case of people in thousands of companies and many countries working together to avert a potential disaster, and the fact that it looked like nothing happened means that we were successful, not that we were just saying "the sky is falling" when it wasn't!  I hate seeing "Y2K" used as a synonym for unjustified hysteria.  It ought to serve as an example of companies working together successfully to solve a real problem.

Says another:

I'm a systems administrator.  You can look it up; you probably know several of us, at least as voices on the phone; it's a job classification that has existed for a while now, evolved out of other jobs (programmers, electrical engineers and so forth), and has been recognized as a classification unto itself for at least twenty years. Systems administrators run the Internet, for example, so it's not as though we aren't relevant to the modern work- and play-space.  But in spite of that, I'm continually surprised at how few people know what the fuck a sysadmin is, even in the most general terms.

Like a lot of people who work with computer technology, we are subject to a peculiar sort of cultural membrane effect.  As soon as someone hears that I'm a "computer person," they're about 50% likely to make a remark like, "Oh, you can help me with my computer!"  By which they mean their PC running Windows.  (I'm helpless on a Windows machine, and not much better on a Mac.)  If I try to explain, the next thing they say is, "Oh, you're a programmer?"  Well not exactly... but in order to put my work into some kind of meaningful context, I'd have to teach them more about it than the typical casual encounter allows.

So when asked what I do for a living, I've learned to reply in one word, "computers", and I've found that for most people (including virtually all of my family), that's plenty.  There's something about this technology, or the role it plays in our lives, that makes people perfectly content to know exactly as much as they need to know about it and not a bit more.  But there's a catch to my one-word job description.  If the person asking is also a "computer person," they'll react to my response as though I've insulted them.  "AND?" they'll say, in words or body language; as if to say, "What, do you think I'm some sort of ignoramus?  I asked what you do!"  In that case I can be pretty sure that "systems administrator" will be a meaningful title, and they might even know a bit about the specific technologies I specialize in, the kinds of problems I wrestle with, and so forth.

Even if they occupy a space far removed from mine professionally, they're inside that membrane.  To them, "computer people" -- the whole range of specialties, technologies, jargon and subcultures -- is not some undefined mass that fits neatly behind the blur of a single, unwelcoming word.

Maybe I haven't looked hard enough (or maybe I'm outside of too many analogous membranes), but I'm not aware of other cases where this effect is so pronounced.  People tend to have some grasp of medical specialties, academic specialties, and the varied landscapes of other professions. They don't confuse "engineer" with "mechanic" very often.  I can tell you the difference between a banker and a stock broker (and an equities trader and a commodities speculator...), even though those professions don't have much direct bearing on my day-to-day life.  But as soon as digital technology is involved, some switch flips (so to speak), and a Java programmer, a web designer, a desktop support specialist, and a network engineer might as well all be the same thing.

This worries me a little, not because I have some exaggerated sense of my place in society, but because the growing role of computer technology in so many aspects of our lives seems to be running up against a kind of impenetrable incomprehension on the part of a lot of otherwise smart, aware people.  Granted, the "digital world" is a lot newer than the worlds of finance, medicine and internal combustion, and people haven't had as much time to digest its contours. It also changes too quickly for the casually interested to keep up with the fine print, so I'm not bothered that relatively few people read the tech news, or keep up with the current status of what's possible, practical or commonplace.  But when I read about things like privacy concerns on Facebook, credit card number hijacking, "net neutrality", or efforts by governments to eavesdrop on cell phone conversations, a voice in the back of my head is always reminding me that for some number of people -- maybe a large number -- the issues involved in these stories are blurred to some extent by that same membrane that lumps me in with my natural enemy, a salesman for Microsoft.  As time goes by and the computerization of our lives proceeds, I wonder if we're going to see "computer stuff" gradually summarized and widely digested the way other once-new pursuits have been, or if there's some new threshold here, something qualitatively hard for people to deal with around the workings of computers, such that a distorting gloss will always accompany digital technology.