February 10, 2013

The System Administrator

It wasn't until 1997 that I got my first computer. It wasn't my first touch with the machine though. There was this beautiful language called Logo which is now a childhood shrine. I remember when I was in class 3, our strict computer teacher Mr. Haque used to take us to computer lab and ask us to take off our shoes and socks and quietly follow him inside the lab. Computer labs had such enigmatic and charismatic aura about them with the carpets, curtains and exhaust fans running wild. While we sat on carpet looking at the machine(was it 286?) with utmost bewilderment, he told us that he is going to log in and show us how it works. At that point of time, I only knew that he has some special access to the computer and he practically controls it using his secret password. He was the administrator. The System Administrator! The man who owns the machine and knows how to make it work and turn and twist it in whatever way possible. The man who uses his cryptic knowledge to interact with the weird looking wafers inside the machine. Oh, what a privilege!

After a couple of years, I frequented a certain computer lab to play games like Dave and run DOS commands like dir. Every time I went there, I was greeted by simple yet shrewd looking men who used to log in the machine with the username Supervisor. As a curious kid who asked "What's this?" and "What's that?" to everyone around, I couldn't stop myself from asking about it. With genuine nonchalance and as a matter of fact, he told me that he was the System Administrator. I looked around at the 10 odd computers(was it 386?) and marveled at this man who knew how to operate and administer all of them at once. Well, he was The System Administrator. The interface between mankind and the world of bits and bytes(this piece of information was acquired much later). Human with the magic wand! It wasn't even remotely an obsession but I started respecting system administrators and secretly yet fervently wished to be like them. There came the winter of 1997 when first computer(was it 486?) landed up in my home. A certain fat engineer came to do the settings and instinctively I knew he belonged to hallowed family of system administrators. He set the BIOS password and told me what it is. The desire deep down inside got me enthralled and I asked him to give me the BIOS password. He paused abruptly and gave me a suspicious bone-chilling look and smirked "No kid, you'll damage the machine.". Knowing that I couldn't complain to my parents "Look, this guy is not giving me password but I want to be a system administrator", I resigned to fate and restricted myself to simple dos commands, Windows 3.1 and the 8-bit games. School got over and college started and my new college had various labs with lots of computers(was it Pentium I?). I did a recce of the labs and I knew there would be guys around who would be system administrators for those machines. It felt good. During the initial few classes of structured programming, a professor having domineering personality told us about the passwords that we would get to access Linux machines. He was the master, the creator, the god of the machines: the superior of system administrators. System administrators were typically lean, mean and thin guys who often ate samosas in the corner and didn't interact much with the masses. Four years of college where plenty of time was spent in labs, I had this slightly empty feeling of not playing the role of system administrator ever. The guy who set the BIOS password in 1997 was still insurmountable.

My first job was at Hewlett Packard, an IT company with lot of system administrators. I got my desk, my machine(was it Pentium II?) and usernames and passwords. Alas, none of them had administrator privilege and this felt like a fleeting dream. I didn't pay much heed to it afterwards and continued with my work. I used to write shell scripts and ftp on servers residing in US etc. and many times I had to request someone with the admin access and that was just routine. That was just routine until one fine day my manager called me inside conference room for a talk. He asked me calmly "Do you want to be a system administrator for those servers?". When you look back at the your life and the incidents that happened and were forgotten, certain moments stand out leaving indelible marks on life. Those moments had plethora of exuberance and unmatched excitement and gave tremendous satisfaction. This was one such moment. This was it. The calm atmosphere inside the conference room felt unreal and suddenly all the chairs, round table, white boards vanished and it was like I am standing in space and from a different galaxy my manager is mincing the words like a robot running on low battery "Do- you - want - to - be- a- system- adm..inis..trator..". I suddenly shifted back to reality and wanted to blurt out "What? You're asking me if I want to be a system administrator? Don't you know all my life I wanted to be one? Don't you..". I said yes exuberantly. Since that day, every time I saw my manager at the coffee machine, canteen, outside his meeting room, lift and practically anywhere and everywhere, I asked him "Hello. When are you making me system administrator?". I am sure he grew suspicious and wondered what is wrong with me but one fine day I got a system generated mail stating my administrator username, ozak. I heaved a sigh of relief and walked around the office quietly and triumphantly. I looked at the Linux workstations around, the bash prompt and it felt surreal. I was the system administrator. I never bothered about updating resume regularly but I made it a point to add 'Linux System Administrator' to it. It was a system administrator role limited to those machines but what the heck, I was the system administrator. Every time I typed su on the bash prompt, I was overjoyed. Like all variants of happiness, this too was ephemeral and the initial euphoria subdued after a few days however the feeling of contentment lingered. It was probably a normal human psyche to be in control of things but more importantly it was coupled with a love called technology.

The guy who set the BIOS password in 1997 and refused to share, hello, I too have admin privileges now.