Infrastructure People – Learn to code or GTFO

Although it’s not always apparent to those I’m mentoring (Asking me for answers should not be your first step.), I like teaching. I like helping people work through problems and figure out how different components fit together holistically.

Lately, there’s been a particular point I’ve been trying to hammer home in almost every conversation I have – with junior sysadmins, college kids entering the field, and anyone else who will listen.

Regardless of your infrastructure specialty – networking, servers, storage, whatever – you need to learn to code.

Or you need to consider another line of work.

Batch script wizard

Part of gaining expertise is learning the scope of what you don’t know. I remember feeling like a fancy wizard when I started my career in tech – that I knew sooooo much. I could build computers from junk parts and troubleshoot through any problem set in front of me.

Then I met systems and network admins who knew how to script. They could craft batch and bash magic to effect change across the network. The scale of the world they worked within was so much larger than mine.

Suddenly, I felt like a caveman (Not even a smart caveman. More like Flurp, the slow, butterfly-chasing caveman.), clumsily bashing rocks against every problem.

Even simple batch scripts to map printers and install software were game-changing. All of those manual configurations I had been so proud of started to feel silly. I still feel a little of that when I browse through projects on GitHub.

Knowledge of scripting rapidly became a dividing line between tech jobs that paid minimum wage and those with upward potential. Batch (more Powershell now) and bash (more Ruby/Python now) became the foundation to launch a career from.

Code literacy

There are cases where a simple Python script can obviate hundreds of hours of work. Hiring managers know this and this skill set is now expected rather than being a “nice-to-have”.

“Take this server. Now make 1,000 friends for it.”

New expectations are forming around the interaction between infrastructure & applications and general automation. Within a few years there will be very little room in the industry for infrastructure-focused people who are not, at the very least, code literate.

This doesn’t mean you need to be able to build a consumer-ready application from scratch (although that helps), but it does require an intermediate-to-advanced understanding of scripting languages and/or a basic understanding of compiled languages depending on your company’s dev stack.

DevOps is here

What use is a sys admin who just points at the apps team and says “your code sucks” without even being able to read the code? Or a sys admin who is charged with designing infrastructure for an app he or she has no understanding of?

That’s why DevOps (the merging of infrastructure operations and development) has become such a big deal. Companies need their sys admins and programmers to be able to work together and at least have an idea of what the other person is talking about.

“Line 38 appears to reference an individual database server we took offline last week instead of the load balanced DNS name and knowing that this loop is working through this array, I probably gave the app servers too little memory.”

And in situations where an app is being scaled horizontally, the infrastructure has to be there to meet it – automatically. Clicking buttons in the Windows Server GUI is probably not going to get you there. Knowing how to script against the server command line or the platform services an app is running on will carry you a long way.

Additionally, why would a company hire 10 network admins to maintain equipment configurations when they could hire 2 who knew how to script against an equipment API? Be in the second group. Automate your configs and show your value.

It’s up to you

If you have no plans to build your skills past manual configuration, you are destined to work in small, boring environments if you’ll be able to find a job at all.

If someone can hack together a few lines of code to replace you, that’s your fault, not the merciless-robot-who-is-taking-your-job’s fault.

If you think “I can’t code. My brain isn’t built that way.” Spend 30 minutes working through exercises on CodeAcademy or any of the countless other coding tutorials online and you will find out that you are wrong.

This isn’t the requirement for five years from now. DevOps is here today. If you want to stay in the infra niche and be happy and successful, it’s time to fire up your text editor and learn a programming language.

Image Credit: Michael Himbeault