Where are the Sys Admins?

by Mike Hendrickson

I did some analysis of our audiences who purchase books. This is a time-oriented graph. If you notice the spikes on the "Consumer" trend line, those represent the end of each year. Consumer purchasing reaches a peak at the end-of-the-year holiday period. Consumer means people who buy computer-oriented books like Ipod, Digital Photography, etc. Books that are not for software developers or system administrators or other computer science types.


So look at the slow erosion of the System Administrator audience. That is certainly interesting to me. Could it be that there are no really new IT admin tools or technologies to explore? I'd be interested to hear what you think.


Dmitriy Kropivnitskiy
2007-04-24 11:45:37
I am a system administrator and I do not recall when was the last time I purchased a professional book. Most books on particular software are outdated too quickly and cost too much and similar information (maybe in a less organized state) is in most cases available on the web for free. I mean, if I buy a book on installing and configuring Ubuntu Linux today, I will pay around 50$ and the book will not cover the current release, because it was only a few days ago. And the book on the current release that comes out in three months will be outdated in another three months because of the six months release cycle. For programmers this syndrome also exists, but at least the base technologies, such as programming languages do not change as fast. A book on programming Ruby will still be relevant today (maybe with some corrections) as it was a year ago.
2007-04-24 12:10:02
Mike, Scott here. I can tell you that at the O'Reilly School of Technology (http://oreillyschool.com) our system adminstrator series of courses is BY FAR our most popular series and growing.

I think the answer has to do with mature markets and jobs. Tech books seem to do best with new and growing technologies more than old and mature ones. Whereas courses and certificate programs do best with mature technologies with steady job market.

Matt Doar
2007-04-24 12:52:01
Hmm. I'd hesitate to call it statistically significant without throwiing a few tests at the raw data. Also, how has the percentage of O'Reilly's in each category changed over the same period?

That said, it's nice to the consumer and developer sales going up!


2007-04-24 13:16:37
I wonder how many Sysadmins that read this blog are subscribers to Safari and if that is statistically significant. I'm an admin who has purchased a lot fewer books since subscribing to Safari.
Joshua Franklin
2007-04-24 14:37:20
I second Safari. I had a personal subscription from day 1 which has now been replaced by a workplace subscription. Additionally, no offense but I have found improving quality from some other publishers' sysadmin books. (By the way, most sysadmins like myself also buy other category books for sysadmin tasks.)
Joe Klemmer
2007-04-24 15:05:01
The downtrend for Admins is more than matched by Developers. I think that the SysAdmin who does only SysAdmin work is slowly being phased out by the Developer/SysAdmin combo job description. And if given the choice between assigning Admin or Developer to oneself most people will go for the latter.

I also agree with Dmitriy in that the technology moves so fast many (if not most) books are out of date before they get printed.

Side Note: I wish that the people developing programming languages would slow down a little. There are good things that happen with a fast development upgrade cycle but I believe that are overshadowed by the constent learning curve. There's a reason that the enormous majority of code in use is C/C++, Fortran and the king of all COBOL. Did you know that there is more COBOL code out there than all other languages combined? And that more new COBOL code is still being developed than everything but C/C++?

But I digress.

2007-04-24 16:12:15
My general opinion of this is that the traditional 'admin' role is being relegated, more and more, to the low-tier positions, half of whom aren't going to ever bother reading a book in their field.

Far too much, in IT departments now, the role of SysAdmin and to a lesser extent operations, is seen as the non-specialized (and by their logic, non-skilled,) role.

So if the role is losing it's glamour, it's losing the power to easily buy those books, and the people who would buy them.

2007-04-24 16:12:59
Since I was brilliant enough not to write my name and therefore post anon, I'll put it underneath (;
2007-04-24 16:39:13
I've been a SA for 24 years now. I, and the other admins I talk to, are buying books at a record pace these days.

The reason I believe that the curve is trending downward, is the even larger downward slope of employment in the field today. I am not optimistic about being able to find qualified, experienced people in the future who will be willing to take a job in the field. Companies with large amounts of work for SA's today let these people go, and are not replacing them. Inappropriate work assignments and level of effort expectations (what, this other admin has been working 70 hour weeks for 2 years, why aren't you) by managers desperate for technically talented staff only drives people away and makes it more difficult to hire/lure additional staff.

From where I currently sit, I think my industry is going to have a rude awakening in about 5 years.
2007-04-24 17:23:41

There's too little information here to infer anything. This graph omits number of total titles per market, edition cycles (and their relative staleness between hot property editions like Head First and slow change editions like Managing NFS and NIS), and advertising per market.

Mike Hendrickson
2007-04-25 06:14:11
As to the chartjunk comments. The number of titles is fairly constant during the four year period. But the fact of the matter is that the number of titles is a reflection of the market. Publishers do not continue to pump out new editions or titles unless there is a stable and growing market. And please remember, this is the WHOLE market not just O'Reilly. I am confident that we are seeing an "erosion" of certain audience types. A couple folks have mentioned Maturity as a factor. Others new tools may be a contributing factor.
2007-04-25 07:42:05
I've been a sysadmin since '92 or so.
I find I don't need the general sysadmin book as much. Once you've got the basics, you need the special cases. I don't see myself every buying a "Learn in 24 hours". Those are for beginners. I have "Essential System Administation" and the Red and Purple Nemeth, et. al. books. I don't need a general one.

I have older NIS/NFS, DNS, TCP books. I don't see myself getting a newer one though when Solaris was starting to fold NIS back in, I would've gotten a newer edition.

As others have said, the specialized stuff is where we need information. The books are either out of date or contain only beginner stuff. There's a lot of crap out there and few gems.

I think it's going to be hard to keep up with the specialized stuff for advanced users. It's a tiny market IMO.

Carl Albing
2007-04-25 18:10:38
So how would you characterise a book like our upcoming "bash cookbook"? It certainly useful for sys admins, but very useful, needed for power users and developers. I'm a developer myself and the people I work with need/use this kind of information. But in which category does it fall? Are there other cross-over areas that system admins are needing/buying (as some of you guys have already mentioned, jobs taking on new roles). Or is it GUI-ness that's cutting into the sysadmin role and users are left without the support they should have but don't know that they need? We found a lot of interest in bash scripting because GUIs are so inadequate for admin tasks.
Mike Hendrickson
2007-04-25 19:02:24
Here are the relevant taxonomic items for bash.

| audience | title | super_cat | cat_family | cat_group |
| power user | Learning the bash Shell | unix | systems/programming | operating system usage |
| power user | Linux Shell Scripting /w Bash | unix | systems/programming | operating system usage |

Bash certainly could carry the sysadmin audience tag too, but we typically do not multi-level tag in the audience table.

This is one of the more frustrating parts of publishing -- you never really know who purchases your products and how they use them and what else they may want. I'd like to find out more... hence the original post.

jeremiah foster
2007-04-25 22:39:38
I'm no expert but I work in the field so I'll take a stab. I think there are two main reasons the sysadmin numbers are down-trending, (excuse any neologism):

- Increased quality of online documentation (i.e. Safari)
- Sysadmin role is changing, requiring purchase 'developers' books

I am convinced books will continue to play a crucial role in any sysadmin's toolkit.

Ellie Cutler
2007-04-27 09:14:20
RE comments about sysadmins using online doc (Safari), how about making a similar chart for Safari sales and see what the trends are there?

2007-04-27 13:17:32
I switched to Safari. I tend to grab a book when I'm on a project, and then it sits on the shelf and loses value (anyone need a first edition of Termcap and Terminfo?) With Safari, I just replace it with new content for my current project, I can always get it back if I need it. I think I'll have a Safari subscription until I retire or win the lottery.
2007-05-01 03:27:57
I'm a multi-tasked SA-DBA-Web-otherDutiesAsAssigned employee. Jumping from one project to next, often of "can-you" or "what-if" flavour. Safari is were I've been going first for years now for answers. But when I keep using a book I find there I buy it. I am doing more SA work (non-Windows, never really did MS much now that I think about it) and like it but am still feel noobish so lean toward generalist books when I buy but keep BASH and some others close in Safari. Have found ability to PDF a chapter or two one of the best features since I like to get away from the screen and can jot notes in the margins. Safari helps me keep my book budget reasonable and under the spousal radar grid.
linux admin
2007-05-01 04:02:07
Linux, Perl, etc -- what has changed in the past decade?
2007-05-01 06:02:34

Maybe it's a generational thing. My sister in law is a librarian at an architectural school. She says they have a hard time getting students to search books. "If it's not on the internet, they don't research it"

THere's also the things that are not in the books. I'm having an issue with RPC permissions with MS SFU from unix. There's general stuff in the NFS/NIS book but it assumes everything's unix (or even Solaris).

2007-05-02 08:33:59
RE sysadmin turning sysadmin/developer. I did over 7 years of SA, and my experience points into the opposite direction. In the early days, we were acutally building systems out of technology components, and in that sense were developers. We needed good books about the basic technologies (NIS/NFS, DNS/Bind, TCP, Sendmail, ...), and then there was a lot of programming/scripting involved, with shell, sed, awk and later Perl, to actually build an enterprise service (like a mail gateway or a directory). Nowadays, it's mostly buy rather than build, since there is a much broader offering in enterprise level products and managers seem to have more confidence in bought solutions (Sort of the opposite of the "not-invented-here-syndrome"). Nowadays, there seems to be an appliance for everything...

So for the sysadmin this means more market research, product evaluation, fact sheet reading, vendor negotiation, contract management, struggling with support departments, service level agreements, and the like. SA is increasingly non-technical (That's why I left). And if you actually find the time to read, it's product documentation. Building enterprise level systems by hand is past for many sysadmins.

Tom Adelstein
2007-05-03 18:52:07
Back in early March, I changed professions from a System Admin to a technical writer. (Thank you Andy Oram for the training). Does it really seem like a mystery that system administrators have gone away?

Microsoft admins are commodity FTEs and can expect around $25 an hour. Last August, Southern Methodist University shut down its once profitable training center. The reason? No students.

I got an offer back in February to manage 30 Linux boxes and the pay was $25 an hour.

While those jobs pay more than Dunkin'Donuts, bus drivers salaries compete for System Admins.

Another factor comes into play. Employers pay for MCSA types to get Red Hat certification with the understanding that the employee won't quit for two years or they'll have to pay the company back. Red Hat is also in the book business.

Many factors seem to have come into play, but it doesn't require a Phd to read the chart. System admins are fewer in number than ever before and the prospects don't entice people to enter the IT field in this category. My last course this past winter on Implementing MS Server 2003 had 2 students. I remember a time when the same course on the NT 4.0 track would attract 150 students.

Times change and since dot com bust so has the market.

2007-05-23 09:54:46

YASAS (Yet Another SA using Safari)
Paul Lomax
2007-06-08 02:17:54
At one point I think I had the entire O'Reilly book library, but at some point you guys kinda went off the boil a bit. I couldn't quite tell you why though. Perhaps not covering new technologies quick enough?

Apress's books have probably take a decent chunk of your market share. They seem able to publish books on emerging technologies very quickly, working with the people behind those technologies such as the recent Symfony book.

My library probably now has equal numbers of O'Reilly and Apress.

2007-06-12 06:42:35

Think of it this way.
If most of the info you need could be googled or wiki'edm why spent money on books ?