Hello, I’m Tim and I have a job no one understands.

Ok, I hear you: I work with computers and the Internet – you understand that.

But what exactly does a “Systems Administrator” at a “hosting company” do? Indeed… what’s a “hosting company”? What do you mean by “Systems Administrator”?

These are frequent questions I encounter when explaining to friends and family how I’m gainfully employed. Actually, that’s a lie. I wish they were frequent questions.

More realistic conversations go like this:

> So Tim, what is it that you do?

> I work with computers.

> Oh, I’m sorry. I guess someone has to.


> So Tim, what is it that you do?

> I work in IT.

Ahh, perhaps you can help me: I’ve been having this problem where my work emails don’t seem to be displayed how they used to be, can you help?


> So Tim, what is it that you do?

> I help people over the phone fix problems on their webserver computers.

> You’re one of those fucking patronising arseholes I have speak to on the phone?! Why don’t you ever listen? Why does nothing ever work? I hate you and your whole life!

As you can tell, people have many misconceptions about my job. Largely they’re just ignorant about how technology works, and have memories of computers and business IT systems breaking down.

But frequently, the problem isn’t preconceptions, but the absence of a frame of reference. To many, websites are things that ‘occur’ on your screen when you ‘have the internet.’ Explaining that there is a computer behind them usually conjures ideas of a desktop computer somewhere (complete with mouse, speakers and screen) somehow ‘broadcasting a website’. Until this morning, I think this was a problem for my parents.

My parents are intellectually curious: they’re interested in knowing things simply because knowing them is interesting. They’re happy debating about politics, linguistics, science, history, botany and pretty much everything else. They’re (apparently!) very proud of their son, but they had limited comprehension of anything beyond ‘he works with computers, Linux and the internet.’ Clearly, I needed to straighten a few things out.

So I arranged to take a day’s leave and spend it in the office with my parents, explaining to them what I do, giving them a datacentre tour and filling in their knowledge so that they would feel they fully understand what I do, what the company does, and why people pay us money.

That day was today. I went through and explained:

  • Vaguely ‘how websites work’
    • What important terminology means (and a test!)
    • What a client-server relationship refers to
    • What happens when a server is overloaded
    • A simplified explanation of the process from the web browser to database server and back
    • A simple explanation of how you can split services out onto different physical servers to scale a website up
    • The difference between dynamic and static websites
    • What clustering means and a few advantages of it
  • Where a hosting company comes in
    • Websites need servers
    • Servers need network, power and a stable environment.
    • We have all those things
    • We rent servers to people
    • People put their websites on our servers
    • We help people if they have issues
  • What a datacentre provides servers
    • Power
    • Stable environment (cooling, fire suppression, physical security, etc.)
  • Subtleties of different types of hosting
    • Dedicated servers (traditionally more powerful)
    • Virtual servers (easy scaling up and down)
    • “Cloud servers”
  • Why the company is great
    • Because I work there!
    • Honesty and professional integrity
    • Friendly, knowledgeable colleagues
    • Technical “no nonsense” approach
  • How things work behind the scenes
    • How we can use text chat to communicate
    • How we interact with customers (CRM and phone)
    • How we know if things break (monitoring systems)
    • How I can (in theory at least) work from home/anywhere in the world
  • Where I come in
    • Pretty face and general awesomeness
    • Amazing sense of modesty
    • Helping people with technical issues
    • Giving extra help and support to those who want to pay for it (managed hosting)
    • Attempting to explain things to parents

I’ve  spent most of the day showing them what I mean by ‘hosting’, answering questions, giving them a datacentre tour, and basically explaining simply what we do.
And that took a whole day, and I’m still fearful I’ll get a call along the lines of

“Tim, what is a server?”

So I’m still at a loss of how to explain what I do to friends and family. My current favourite explanation is courtesy of Rich Quick, but frankly, I’m not really sure I’ll ever be able to explain my work easily to nontechnical people:

> So Tim, what is it that you do?

> You know in Formula One, you have engineers in the pits who change the car’s tires, put fuel in it, fix things, give the driver advice and generally make the car go faster?

> Yeah, of course.

> Well, I do that, but for websites!

Thanks to David Kendal, Psychedelic Squid and Matthew Bloch for proofreading.

6 thoughts on “Hello, I’m Tim and I have a job no one understands.

  1. Tim :-)

    (Been too long…)

    Don’t fight the power of the meme: we’re all developers now (http://www.forbes.com/sites/venkateshrao/2011/12/05/the-rise-of-developeronomics/ http://www.forbes.com/sites/techonomy/2011/11/30/now-every-company-is-a-software-company/). Dig out those shades and dub thyself DevOps (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=iYLxw6OsZug). At least then you can be misunderstood in a cool, funky and mysterious way…

    Hope you had a Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year!


  2. my dad thinks I haven’t worked in like seven years, since I started making money from the internet. He’s like 57 now and works on an OIL RIG. I work from my home as a system administrator for a hosting company and sometimes I go into the datacenter.

  3. Hi Tim,

    Though that day may not yet have reaped many rewards for you, it was really wonderful, for all sorts of reasons.

    1. I really do have a much clearer idea of what you AND your firm does, and why it is crucial to our internet world. And I know that when I now find people who need to know, I could explain it ‘in words of one syllable’ that they would grasp.

    2. It is to your credit that you paced the day so well, adapted to our learning styles, and did not over estimate our ‘absorption rate’. Absorption rate is crucial, and so frequently not appreciated by ‘experts’ (this goes for any field of expertise ~ I see it in dance!)

    3. The visit to the data-centre was actually crucial (for me) ~ it was something visual to remember, that I could then hang the abstract explanations onto.

    4. I found ‘redundancy’ a very useful word/notion to have in my mind, and how important it is to our general experience of using the internet.

    5. My feeling is that you or Bytemark or Digital Manchester could/should be offering you/your day to either teachers conferences, or schools for career days, or media conferences.

    6. I think you can be happy with the ‘one liner’ analogy of Formula One (don’t say ‘F1′ as the ‘non-techie’ listener assumes you are still in ‘techie mode’ and struggles to think ‘key-board’ instead) and the Pit-stop engineers, who also have lots of ‘redundancy’ available for them to use at any moment, all towards the aim of going faster and more smoothly.

    Thank you so much my dear.

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