Thursday, April 06, 2006

Book Review: Time Management for System Administrators

Many workers are crushed for time in their jobs, and the book market has responded with lots of works like David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. While very useful, these books are general in nature and aren’t tailored to specific work domains. System Administrators can reap great benefits by grabbing Thomas Limoncelli’s Time Management for System Administrators, a work that is tailored specifically to SysAdmin’s hectic life.

Limoncelli’s book is much in the same bent as GTD or Sally McGhee’s Take Back Your Life!: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized: manage your inbox with a smart system, use a calendar, and kill off cruft tasks which block progress.

This book’s counter to those systems is his Cycle, a three-point system for handling to-lists and today’s schedule, keeping a general calendar, and setting and tracking life goals. There’s nothing earth-shattering in his Cycle system, and you may not want to change from any system you’re currently using. However, it’s a great place to start if you’re not currently using any time management tricks. What’s unique about Time Management is the focus on things a SysAdmin runs into every day.

Limoncelli shows how to manage a SysAdmin’s customers (those *#$%@! users) effectively while maintaining progress on the endless list of varied projects a SysAdmin has to juggle. Limoncelli is particularly good with tips on how to keep customers happy while avoiding misunderstandings. One example he puts out is using a running dialog with a customer, explaining how he’s using remote access at a different workstation to check a server the customer had stopped by to complain about. The customer understands the SysAdmin is using a nearby tool to help, instead of thinking the SysAdmin is merely ignoring the customer and turning away from him to work on something else.

Along this same lines, Limoncelli dedicates an entire chapter to managing interruptions. He’s got several good tricks such as coordinating interruption handling with co-workers, or even, gasp!, closing one’s door.

Limoncelli helps differentiate his work from other time management books by showing how various tools help SysAdmins get through their daily loads. He mentions Best Practical’s Request Tracker as an example ticket system several times throughout the book, showing how me manages his workload via RT’s various interfaces. He also covers a few shell tricks and even shows how he uses make to help with server management.

Particularly useful to SysAdmins is Limoncelli’s common-sense approach to prioritization. It’s OK to have some things fail, or not optimize some resources, so long as the tasks or resources in question are bottom feeders. He illustrates this with his backup tape changing schedule. He used to spend a lot of time each morning running around checking tape status on numerous machines throughout his facility in order to save expenses on tapes. He changed his routine, prioritizing servers and only changing tapes on low-priority systems once they’d run out of space. The cost of tapes is far outweighed by the amount of time he’s saved.

Another common sense example is his approach to documentation, particularly the black hole of network diagrams. Rather than spend hours making nifty, perfect Visio diagrams, he simply draws diagrams on a whiteboard and snaps a digital photo of them. A printout of that photo goes in a book, and a softcopy goes on a central documentation site such as a web server.

The author co-hosts a website Everything SysAdmin where he also writes a blog along with his collaborator Christine Hogan.

Limoncelli’s writing style is funny and thankfully concise – the book is only 223 pages long, and those 223 are tightly written. There’s little, if any cruft anywhere in the book. That’s a great pleasure after having had far too many bloated tomes in my reading queue lately.

Time Management for System Administrators isn’t any earth-shattering, ground breaking book, but its focus makes it unique and a great use for SysAdmins. Workers in other domains will find it quite useful as well.

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