Sysadmin Day Q&A with Jenn Svensson

Originally posted on GigeNET’s blog, July 10, 2018. 

It takes a special expert to lead a team of sysadmins for a hosting company. The ideal candidate has extensive experience, is a constant learner, and has excellent people skills. Luckily for us, we’ve found this superhero in Jenn Svensson.

In celebration of Sysadmin Day, I sat down with Jenn to learn about her work in Silicon Valley during the boom, how she became a sysadmin, and what it takes to lead a sysadmin team.

Q: Jenn, you’ve been working in IT for over 20 years. Where did it all begin?

A: While getting my undergrad in Computer Engineering from The University of Michigan, I took a part-time job with CAEN — the Computer Aided Engineering Network (the IT department for U of M’s Engineering Campus).

There, I cut my teeth as a system administrator, and when I graduated I followed the System Administration path to San Francisco, turning down 2 computer engineering jobs with IBM.

Q: What made you turn them down?

A: San Francisco was the place to be for anyone in my field. I had spent spring break of my senior year visiting my aunt in San Francisco and fell in love with the city. It didn’t matter that the cost of living was so skewed that my college friends who took those IBM jobs were buying houses while I was sharing a studio apartment — I was having the time of my life!

While we shared a studio apartment two blocks from Market and Van Ness, my roommate bought a Porsche. That’s how crazy the housing market was at that time — we couldn’t afford to live on our own, but we got to carpool to work down 101 in a Porsche with the top down.

System Administration held a lot of excitement for me, while I lost all desire to spend my career in a lab trying to figure out how to make network cards communicate faster (one of my IBM offers). I felt the type of work I would do as a sysadmin would be diverse and constantly evolving. It would keep me engaged and challenged.

It is what I wanted to do with my life. It was not hard at all to turn down IBM.

Q: What was it like working in Silicon Valley?

A: It was a rollercoaster ride — full of ups and downs, but all the while exciting. Fairly early on, I landed a position with one of the old school tech giants. At first, it was amazing! Our facilities were the best in the valley (they were later bought by Google and are now the Googleplex). Lucasarts would rent out a whole theater complex and take us out for an early screening of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Penn and Teller were hired to perform a private show celebrating the launch of a new server line.

But it didn’t last.

Technology changes so fast, and very few corporations are able to keep up with the pace. Our time as a giant was over, and we spent the next 15 years shrinking to less than 10% of the size we were when I started there. Layoffs were a common thing. Every couple years I’d have to change the group of coworkers I’d eat lunch with. I stuck with the same company for most of my time in Silicon Valley, but had I done what so many others did — hop from place to place, amass vast sums on paper, then lose it all — my experience wouldn’t have been so different. After The Bust, we all faced layoffs, restructuring, etc.

Q: How have you seen the industry change since you began in Silicon Valley?

A: During the Boom, any crazy idea would get funding, spawn a start-up, churn through capital for a while, then vanish. After the Bust, it actually took a reasonable idea to get funding.

When I started, having a strong IT team was considered an advantage and our budgets reflected this. Later, that view shifted to treating it as an expense and companies started outsourcing and minimizing their IT staff as much as possible.

Q: How did you make the climb from being a sysadmin to a support manager?

A: I earned the respect of my peers by working hard and showing that not only did I know what I was talking about, but I brought years of experience and insight that my younger colleagues couldn’t touch.

At the same time, I developed a reputation for being reliable with my management team. I tried to anticipate their needs, and be prepared before they asked. I filled a gap that hadn’t been filled for some time here, and all of a sudden progress was being made, and projects were getting completed.

I was treated like a manager before it became official, so that once it was, it was pretty much just a formality at that point.

It wasn’t my first time flirting with a management role. While working for the Silicon Valley tech giant, I was up for manager of the combined Network Service and Extranet Services team. It was between me and one other person (I’m sure I had the advantage), but just before any announcements were made, one of those frequent restructurings came down and the position was eliminated.

My team, Extranet Services, was folded into the Datacenter Operations team and thus began years of adventure and mayhem — but those are stories for another time.

Q. So as a support manager, what does a typical day look like for you?

A: No days are typical. One of the first things I did when I became manager was pull myself away from the support queue. I’m still there to assist when things get busy, or for when a gentle hand is needed, but most of the time I’m giving guidance in the background.

That frees me up for what occupies the bulk of my time — planning for our next steps and improving our internal processes and documentation.

Q: With customer support, you’re the face of GigeNET in many ways. How do you balance overseeing a team of sysadmins as well as customer relations?

A: I’m lucky to lead a great team, and most of them have no problem interacting with clients — even when things get dicey.

When things do get escalated to me, I follow a few simple rules: I won’t throw my people under the bus, I won’t be dishonest, and I treat everyone with respect.

If mistakes were made, we own up to them, and if it wasn’t our fault or responsibility, I try to make sure we’re all on the same page, as far as understanding the scope of our support, and still see if there is anything we can do to help.

Q: What do you look for when hiring sysadmins? Do they need specific certifications or experience?

A: I look more for troubleshooting ability and logical thinking than anything else. One of the best sysadmins I know has a degree in Philosophy. Others have no degree and no certifications. Having them certainly helps, but it doesn’t make you look better to me than someone with quality experience.

Q: How do you recharge or take a break from work?

A: I’m a foodie. I’m always seeking out new and exciting flavors. I enjoy reverse-engineering at home a dish I’ve had out, until I get it just right.

I’m also a gamer. I love a huge, open-world, single-player RPG that I can completely escape into. In the past, I’ve played more multiplayer games, but I’ve found that they were harder to pause if a friend called or showed up unexpectedly and it was taking a toll on my social life.

Q: What’s your best shortcut or life hack (no matter how small or niche), or a great rule with your sysadmin team?

A: I always make sure to explain why we have a procedure or policy when I present it. This way, rather than an arbitrary order with no meaning behind it, it makes sense and thus is more likely to be remembered and followed.

Q: The IT industry gets a lot of heat for its lack of diversity. Is it challenging to work in a male dominated field?

A: No, not especially — but it’s the only field I’ve worked in. It’s certainly less so in the more technical areas. I find that it’s a field where one is recognized by one’s peers for their abilities, knowledge and ideas more than many other fields. Factors like gender, orientation and appearance is easy for techs to overlook and ignore.

It’s also a field that tends to attract people that may have trouble with personal interaction. They might not communicate well, or lack tact when dealing with a tense situation. Possessing good communications skills and tact has made me useful beyond just my technical abilities, which has lead to more respect from my peers.

Q: What advice would you give to women pursuing a career in technology?

A: Keep at it! We need more representation in technology! There’s no reason you can’t do it — some of the greatest innovators in technology have been women. Women tend to excel at multitasking, and have an excellent ability to “think outside of the box” — both skills that can be of great benefit in the tech industry.

Our differences are our strengths, not weaknesses.