I Hate Systems Engineering 2013-01-03

I've been a Systems Engineer my entirely working life. What do I mean by that?. It's really hard to explain what you actually do when you're in the field.

It generally comes down to the following components:

  • Fixing someone elses' broken shit.
  • Doing the DBA's job for him (again)
  • Telling software developers how computers actually work
  • Figuring out why everything is broken (I actually like this part)
  • Keeping Project Managers and/or software devs from breaking everything.
  • Reluctantly getting pulled into every faction's office politics
  • Not sleeping

I know this has a pretty negative tone already, but I'm feeling a need to rant. I tried to quit the field over a year ago, but I wasn't able to make ends meet, and it doesn't help that I'm actually quite good at it.

It consumes all of your time, and parts of your soul

To be successful as a systems engineer you really need to go all in. You're going to be on-call whether you're supposed to be or not. You're supposed to always be thinking about work when you're at home, sleeping, watching tv, etc. Many veterans of the field exit with severe sleep problems, energy drink additions, and a thousand-yard stare that will haunt you for days.

I was recently linked this xkcd comic, It's meant in jest but it's really the sort of life you are forced into when you're in the field. The key is that the company expects you to care about it above all else. This is especially troublesome when you also find yourself easily disposed of by them later. You're basically asked for the mental and social investment of a Corporate VP, or even a C-level executive, only without the golden parachute and six figure bonuses.

During my career as a systems administrator I've:

  • Been on a single conference call for over 30 hours, with multiple VP-level higher-ups demanding updates every 10 minutes.
  • Been the key stakeholder on 3 meetings all scheduled at the same time.
  • Had on-call days where something broke every 15 minutes. (even at night)
  • Driven 5 hours on 2 hours of sleep in a car with no shocks and 12,000 miles overdue for an oil change(company car) to fix some shit at a remote data center.
  • Drove a car with no brakes several miles for a meeting because dying would be better than what the project manager would have done without you being there to set it right.
  • Developed severe insomnia.
  • Cried every day for 6 months on the way home, knowing you're not actually getting a break and it'll only be worse tomorrow.

This list could be a lot longer if I really wanted to sit and think.

Your positive contributions are rarely noticed

I used to work for a large telecom company in their "Network Operations" division. As a sort of side-investigation to a separate project, I researched some of the discrepencies we had in our handset authentication database (containing something on the order of 40 million records), and the official upstream source. I determined that in many cases the upstream system was wrong, and in many cases our system was wrong, (and in some cases, both D:). I was able to determine using other pieces of data which records on our side were invalid and correct them. I fixed over 300,000 (partially) broken users. Using the somewhat-informal internal metric for that sort of thing ($10 per tech support call), I saved the company three million dollars. Two months later I was laid off.

You're always extremely visible when something is broken.

By default, you're going to be at least part of, if not the key person working on fixing any sort of technical issue. Sometimes things get fixed quickly and with minimal impact, other times not. Either way higher-ups didn't enjoy the stress of the situation.

Unless you move into management, you've already reached the glass ceiling

While I am getting paid more, even adjusted for inflation, than I was when I started. I'm really doing the same shit I've been doing for the past 15 years. There's not really any growth in the field. The troubleshooting parts are "fun" but eventually you rack up enough of those that you can sort of just remember how to fix most problems.

So what does this mean?

I'm really tired of all the sacrifice. I don't want every day to feel so overwhelming. I don't want to cry when I drive home. I don't want to be preoccupied with work when I'm supposed to be unwinding. I really wish I could make it some other way.

Thanks for listening to my rant,

With love,