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Of Cats, Admin-O-Saurs & Condition-Response

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 09/18/2005

I got myself a couple of adorable kittens for my birthday last month. They were 3 & 1/2 months old. I’ve almost had them a month. I’ve had pets growing up, but have gone the last 10 years without. I’m going through all the re-learning of what it means to have a pet, and particularly the trials and tribulations of being a home PC-user with curious cats. Even domesticated cats, I know from watching the Animal Channel, are still basically wild animals with all their wild instincts. Yet, I am determined to keep them to stay off my keyboard while I’m typing. Of course, wherever your center of attention is, that’s exactly where cats want to be. And cats don’t mean it personally. It’s just in their nature, and you can’t get mad. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be trained. Little did I know that the process of training them would cause flash-backs to my dealings with Admin-o-saurus.

Specifically, I’m talking about my dealings with the system administrator at my last company. I find myself thinking through all the same tactics with cats as with this sys admin. You can’t reason with a wild animal whose instincts and nature tell them to do the wrong thing. And that’s what this old-school sys admin was. His instincts told him that any change was bad, and that anyone or anything that had new ideas, particularly from a technology standpoint, was a threat and needed to be shut down. His powers of intimidation were so great that for a brief time, he actually had the unmitigated power to do so. It was exactly like a house cat becoming overly aggressive and dominant. My silly keyboard problem with the kitties is much less serious than my sysadmin problems were in that point in my career. Now, I’m not saying this about all sys admins – just a certain old-school breed that escaped the reality-check of the post-boom purge, and the trends towards customer service, accountability and cost-justification in IT. Basically, he was the type of dinosaur sys admin that’s still only found these days in academia.

But both cats and dinosaur sys admins can be trained through condition response, and adjustments to the situation. And it’s safe these days, because sys admins just don’t have the power they used to, because they are so eminently replaceable–not at all like the old days, where they had arcane and mysterious knowledge. If they’re wild animals, they’re more like ferrell house cats than tigers. So my analogy strengthens!

My sys admin’s annoying instinctual behavior came in the form of not believing that people “deserved” decent PCs, and that he had the right to hold court over who got new PCs and who didn’t. It got so bad that the CFO who had to run complex Excel spreadsheets and Crystal Reports had to suffer a third-generation hand-me-down eMachine. There were plenty of available decent PCs in the company. But a C-level officer was powerless to secure one, because as a “bean counter” (which Admin-o-saurus relished calling him) he didn’t respect him. This was reflected in him choosing sarcastic passwords that people had to type in a self-deprecating fashion whenever they had to use their PCs. I won’t give examples here for security reasons, but suffice to say, they reminded everyone of the contempt this out-of-control IT-guy felt he had over us.

After countless attempts to work with the sys admin like a human being, it dawned on me that it was exactly like talking to a cat. Words were absolutely meaningless. After a rational discussion was over, and you thought something registered, he turns right around and does the equivalent of walking all over the keyboard. And just as a cat only responds when the environment is changed and 100% consistent condition-response is put into effect (squirting a little water), so does a certain breed of old-school sys admin. In my house, I’m locking down all clutter that would annoy me if knocked over (changing the environment), and I’m installing software on my PC that plays a horrible harmonica sound whenever walked on (condition-response). In the place of the clutter, I’m putting plenty of cat toys. And I just give the kitties the attention they need if they really are itching to be on the keyboard.

Similarly, I implemented an IT self-help buddy system, and showed everyone just how easy it was to order Dells (changed the environment). There was some vague talk of not “meshing” with the network, but I forged on ahead. I wholly took over certain IT systems related to my job, which were for some reason sacred IT ground. I countered all the chicken-little scare tactics he used to terrorize management, until management finally agreed to turn these systems over to me (another colorful story that I will tell here sometime). Then, I began to publicly stand up to this guy (condition-response) who everyone treated with kit gloves, because of his intimidating demeanor. I showed others the way, and they started standing up for themselves. He particularly liked to talk down to us, expressing that he was too busy and important to deal with printer and email problems, to which we by this time knew to gently remind him that it was his job. I heard stories of him actually starting to shake at such challenges, but over time, we got admin-o-saurus behaving a little more human. It was nothing personal. But just as rationalizing with cats is futile, admin-o-saurs should expect a little squirt in the face from time to time.