Being involved with an organisation populated by people with mutual interests is something that Mike Ciavarella says has been particularly important to his career success at the same time as helping him to meet life-long friends and build networks for the sharing of knowledge and experience.

Commonly known around the traps as Mike C (because no-one is sure how to pronounce his last name*), Mike is also a bit of mystery man in regards to professional endeavour as he is one of those lucky people who can hide behind the veil of “consultant”.

As one of his ITPA Board colleagues said: “Do a profile on Mike C. and try to find out what it is that he actually does because nobody knows.”.

I work for myself

In response to this first question, Mike said: “Currently, I work for myself. I consult to Government and corporate entities to help them solve systems-oriented problems. I help them understand how to build systems that are reliable, and how to manage them efficiently and effectively on an ongoing basis.

“A large part of that crosses over into the security space as well as touching on every other aspect of how technology impacts on the function of business in public and private organisations. It includes everything from development to design, training, integration, service management and continual service improvement plus much more. It is an interesting place to work.”

Mike didn’t want to go into too much detail about the clients he works with because there are some commercial-in-confidence and security boundaries that are best left untouched but he did concede that most of his time is currently spent with a customer who is “in the emergency response area”.

Bringing specialist skills to the table

Mike said that the specialist skills he brings to the table span both business and IT operations.

“What I tend to do with customers is to look at their existing systems and identify where those systems can be improved,” he said. “Often a technical improvement that will lead to a business benefit. It could be an improvement in the dynamics.

“It is not unusual that I will get my customer teams to start having design meetings or design reviews and because of that they change their processes so that outcomes are improved.

“I am generally brought in reactively where the formal processes have either broken down or did not apply in the first place but I also try to set up systems that will be proactive going forward so that the type of issues I am dealing with don’t reoccur.”

Making disparate teams talk again

Mike said that it is all-too-common for him to walk into a client meeting and meet with development teams, systems teams and security teams who all operate independently and who don’t communicate with each other.

“Often when I walk in as the independent person with broad expertise, I can see immediately that disparate teams can’t agree on issues because of the personalities involved not because they have different issues,” he said. “So, I act as a technical mediator in that instance.

“I am able to tell them what I see as being current best practice as well as what are the best solutions, the best processes and the best organisational structure for their specific organisations and the outcomes they are trying to achieve through their use of technology.”

Short pants: Where it all began

Now 45, Mike’s enthusiasm for computers and technology started early. He was still a primary school student when he got his first system and was still in those same short pants when he got his first paid job fixing other systems and showing people how they worked. He also would neither confirm or deny that there might have been some joy gained from schoolboy hacking (in the old sense) at about the same time

“Computers were new at that stage and they were just very easy to use and understand for me but others didn’t have the same clarity and so there was this opportunity for me to help and get paid to do so,” Mike said. “I was lucky enough to have access to computers from a very early age because there were a couple of teachers at my school who were bringing in their own systems.”

That is where his life-long association with computers started and it continues to this day. So much so that he claims to know intimately the details of every computer he ever owned; mainly because he still has them all. This includes a TRS 80 Model 1 which was the first system he owned.

“It had 16 KB RAM and it used an audio cassette recorder for data storage,” Mike said. “That was kind of fun. Occasionally the tapes would have problems or get twisted so you’d have to get out the pen and unwind the tape to fix but if you had a dual play cassette recorder - which I did - you could make back-ups.”

It was not long after that when he got his first job which gave him access to the “one giant leap” that was external floppy disks.

“Where a program used to take 20 minutes to load, it was now just a matter of seconds so that was very exciting,” Mike said. “By the time I got to university, all of that was obsolete and everyone had IBM compatible PCs that had all of those features and more storage internally. There was also this wonderful thing called a network where we could talk to each other and that was really cool.”

Right place at the right time

Mike quickly found himself working in one of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty IT departments where his skills and knowledge of systems management rapidly progressed.

“Tertiary education institutions all around the world were at the forefront of technology at the time and were exploring the possibilities of networks, collaborative effort and pioneering the use of computers in all sorts of ways,” Mike said. “So, it represented a whole new batch of skills and to this day, I think I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

So, for Mike, that job at the university faculty was his first foray into the world of systems administration. His responsibilities included making the systems available to students who were accessing them 24x7 and to deal with incidents and solve problems as they arrived.

Joining forces with like-minded souls

It was around about the same time that some of the people Mike was hanging out with invited him to a meeting of like-minded souls and that turned out to be SAGE-AU.

“I joined a short time later because I knew that these were people who could help me to continue improving my skills and expanding my knowledge,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends in my time with SAGE-AU and now ITPA.

“These are people that I can make a quick phone call to and say `hey I’m having this odd problem. I know you’re working in this same area. Can you help me?’ And, I know that I am going to get back a qualitative answer and that is absolute gold in this industry.

“The same thing applies on the discussion forums/mailing list that we share. Sure, there are other options like Google and Stack Overflow but they often don’t take into account local context. The complexities of what I am doing often go way beyond a Google answer.

“Every time I have posted to the membership forum and asked a specific question, what I have gotten back has been a whole other level of quality as well as interaction. The collective knowledge of the discussion board members is vast and it’s useful. That alone makes the membership of ITPA worth it.”

Mike said that the other great benefit he gets from being a member of a professional organisation is trust.

“I do a lot of security work so the question of trust comes up a lot,” he said. “I can point to my 20-year membership in an independent industry association. I can look them in the eye and I can say - ‘see this code of conduct, I adhere to that and I contribute to my community and people in that community will vouch for me’.

“That adds credibility and is a validation of what you do, who you are and what you stand for.”

The changing role of systems administrators

Mike also had some interesting opinions on the changing roles of systems administrators and the impact that cloud computing and virtualisation is having on the profession. While some people are quick to surmise that the role of the systems administrator is heading for the same fate as the dinosaur and the dodo, he thinks that news of its death is greatly exaggerated.

“Moving to the cloud doesn’t get rid of computers,” he said. “It just eliminates some of the basic design and management. It means you don’t have to unpack boxes and plug in cables anymore and to me, that is fantastic.

“While some SysAd guys enjoyed that aspect of the role, when it gets down to it, the same issues that we have been dealing with since day dot still apply.

“Is my data backed up? Can I recover my data in the event of a failure? Are my users being managed effectively? How do I make sure that my systems are performing well? How do I know when a system is down? Is it important? What is my response? Who is going to support these things?

“All of those questions still need to be answered. We still need to build these systems out and whether that is done by hand or through automation tools, the same principles are still there. You still have to specify, you have to build, you have to test and these are all core functions of the traditional SysAdmin role.”

“It is a very similar role, just a slightly different environment. The context might change, the environment might change and your ability to respond will change.

“In the old days, if you ran out of capacity, it could be weeks before you could respond with new kit integrated into the network. Now you can just go onto a website, twiddle a knob on a dashboard and bring 100 new servers online straight away if that is what you need and for good measure you can do so for just a short period if that is all you need it for.

“All of this capability and the knowledge of how to make it possible allows you to become even more valuable to the organisation for whom you work.”

Keep learning new skills to stay relevant

Mike asserted that the key to remaining relevant is to keep learning more about the tools, technology and services that are available. To keep expanding your skills base has never been more important to keep up with the evolution.

“Your systems are always going to change,” he said. “The technology behind your systems is always changing. It’s nothing new. The cloud - as it is a marketed - is just another set of changes and I would be very surprised if SysAdmin professionals couldn’t find the commonality between what they know and what the cloud is offering them to make that transition.

“If you’re looking for a way to maintain your relevance, here is what I suggest you should do. Have a look at what the cloud offerings are that you could use and try to frame those in the context of your business.

“Make yourself critical to the business because you understand better than anyone, how the business can be transitioned to take advantage of cloud technologies You are still being a systems administrator but now you’re not doing the heavy lifting, you are doing the smart lifting.

“That has to be good. Being more strategic instead of being slowed down by manual processes.

“Another good idea would be to not dismiss DevOps. In every part of just about any job, you are going to have to work with people who have ideas and approaches that you don’t agree with. If you are a systems administrator, your whole career is built around getting things that don’t want to talk to each other communicating.

“So, treat yourself like a system. Manage it properly. Get it to talk to other people. Understand what it is that they are really trying to achieve - and if they are still wrong, enlighten them.

“Systems administrators sit in a unique place within an organisation. They are between business units because they are providing shared business resources. They understand the technology and they understand the needs of the separate business units and they have the tremendously powerful knowledge of how to enable positive business outcomes and value using technology.”

* For the record, Mike’s surname is pronounced Chee-R-Varrrrrrrrr-Ella with the rolling R at the end of the emphasised third syllable.