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The Heaviness of Maintaining Systems

29 February 2020

The way people end up in operations has always intrigued me. Operations always felt like “the things around the Thing” - a supporting cast that is important to making something happen. I suppose without “the Thing” there isn’t as much of a need for Ops work to be done. How do ops people thrive and grow as those who take care of the systems around us, without letting the systems consume us?

Over the years I have noticed something in friends1 who perform similar work: the skills that make one particularly effective at this role often are picked up outside of tech. Things like navigating unstable infrastructure, unstable personal relationships, or other unstable systems and situations. Whether tech or personal, there is overlap in quickly understanding how systems come together, reverse engineering, distilling clarity from complex code (or humans), communicating calmly during incidents/emergency situations. But, the development of those skills come at a cost to the person who had to learn and deploy these tools to create their own stability.

The “good news” is that these skills are often seen as ones “senior” engineers have, and under the right conditions mixed with technical knowledge turns out to be in demand. Robustness and resilience are things that People Are Very Interested In™ and anxiety (or trauma, or both) can be synthesized into a career. It is good that these things contribute to keeping a roof over one’s head in the economic system we currently exist in today. The flip side of this is that there seems to be an inevitable march towards getting burnt out, especially for those who juggle all these demands on the regular.

I am left with a lot of questions: In what ways are the systems we maintain mirrors of ourselves? The system designs we push for (or don’t push for) or the debug mechanisms we try (or don’t try) are collected over years of technical, familial, and social encounters. Is there a safe way to perform this work for a lifetime and not burn out? Self-introspection is challenging for many reasons. I’ve tried to start reflecting on what forces are motivating me when I take on extra work, or jump into an incident, or engage in glue work. After that, though: what’s next? I don’t have any answers.

A number of people reviewed this post before I merged it to master. I am thankful for their edits, thoughts, and insights.

  1. Yes, a limited sample size, correlation is not causation, etc. Also, endnotes work on my blog now! Neat.