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.

Geeks on an Island

In a discussion on the Geekup mailing list about a particularly stupid bit of Government legislation, I came across this:

Robert Burrell Donkin wrote:

It would have been wiser to invest in a couple of islands and some yachts….

Caius Durling wrote:

Any room on there for another (possible) expat? :)

Simon Ward wrote:

If we manage to find some islands, it seems we’ll already have thriving geek community. :D

I tried to imagine how a desert island occupied by hardcore geeks would work..

“Ah I’d love to rescue you from that quicksand, but can you just wait whilst I download the iphone app to do that”

“Guys, Guys, guess what!”
- “what?”
“I’ve already sold an e-commerce site to a Monkey I met in the jungle!!”
- “You fool you should have killed it for food?”
“I couldn’t eat a client!”

“Does anyone have a Macbook display adapter with them?”
- “no”

“Does anyone have a Windows 7 rescue CD to reimage my laptop with?”
- “no”
- “I’ve got a Ubuntu CD…”
“Fuck off”

“Guys, I’ve written a program that takes all the weather information I’ve collected, analyses the current weather and gives you an accurate 7 day weather forcast”
- “Cool”
- “What is this?”
“This is today’s forcast”
- “Oh I think I see, the UI could use some work. How do I see tomorrow’s forcast?”
“Simple, just C-M-], C-X, C-^}, M-987″
- “???”
“This is the Emacs interface”

Anyone else got any ideas? Leave a comment

Barcamps I’ve been to

I missed Barcamp Bradford today which to be honest, is the first time I’ve missed a local barcamp in a long time. I was however, exhausted and slightly ill, and it just really didn’t seem like an appealing idea. I feel a a bit sorry for the organisers, it’s very frustrating when people don’t turn up to events you organise and put on, so I hope it went well.

Andrew Disley, Ian Forrester and I organised Barcamp Manchester 2 weekend which went really, really well. I think we had ~250 people there at one point on Saturday Afternoon. I may get round to blogging about it in detail,for the time being I’d just like to thank everyone who turned up, our amazing sponsors, fantastic venue and Ian and Andrew for their effort and dedication to help organise the even with me.

It occurred to me shortly before Barcamp Manchester 2 that I’ve been to quite a lot of Barcamps, so I thought I’d have a go at listing them (not necessarily in chronological order).

  • Barcamp Manchester 1
  • Barcamp Liverpool (1)
  • Barcamp Sheffield (1)
  • Barcamp Bournemouth (1)
  • Barcamp North East ?
  • Unsheffield 1 (Barcamp Sheffield 2)
  • Barcamp Leeds 2(?)
  • Barcamp Brighton 4
  • Barcamp Blackpool (1)
  • Barcamp Manchester 2
  • Barcamp Bathcamp (2)

These are all I can think of, in theory, Oggcamp probably would fit in there too considering it was just as much a Barcamp as Unsheffield 1. Becta’s Open Source Schools project’s Unconference probably shouldn’t count because it was much more like a conference than any sort of Barcamp.

The notable thing to point out is that I’ve never been to Barcamp London. Ever.

Barcamp London six clashed with some previous commitments and Barcamp London seven clashed with Oggcamp and LugRadio Live 2009 so I didn’t go to it.

Thoughts? Comments? Barcamps I’ve been to but not mentioned? Leave a comment..

Why I wrote this Site

Many people I know, now have piczo sites which, despite the fact that some find them wonderful, with millions of animated flashing “graphix”, I hate them because:

  • The “graphix” slow my computer down (look at you CPU % on task manger when you are on one) so I can’t do anything else at the same time
  • They are badly designed with useless pages… pages without text.. badly alligned pictures, etc
  • Most are full of “iz waz n innit yo” ie. to anyone other than the teenagers we are, they are unintelligble(fair enough but…).
  • About 70% use 101% too many “X”s on any one page.
  • And there are an endless supply of other reasons why Piczo irritates me.

Many more people(including myself) have accounts have accounts on bebo, myspace, facebook, Hi5, ringo, Windows Live Spaces, tickle… and the hundred and one other sites… which let you meet your friends’ friends, let you create a profile, let you setup quizzes, let you tell everyone in your address book on hotmail exactly how much you really want to “join me on XYZ”.
But as far as I know, no site allows for allows for a mixture of all the features these sites offer, without all their weaknesses, at least anyone that claims to…

  • won’t
  • will have a catch
  • will suck
  • will have 50,000 popups and 80 banner ads on each page
  • virtually none will be highly customisable
  • those that are will not guard against irritating animated backgrounds aka “graphix”
“Anything you can do, I can do better.”

I wanted a site that did all of those things so I opted for this… basically the sandbox… from here I could build anything. A bit of free webspace. Using NVU (www.nvu.com) the free, open-source WYIWYG HTML editor (to most of you “using a special program very like a word processor to create this special sort of file”)
This site was as easy to write as writing a word processing document. Virtually no prior knowledge was necessary.
I then used WordPress, a dead simple CMS to string it all together into this slick site.