Holding UNIX's hand

Ever since I've been working with computers I've written scripts to perform jobs for me, from which a natural progression, via software tools that expedite software development, introduced me to system administration – that unavoidable occasional interrupter of making computers useful. While working for NA software, I was (inter alia) understudy to two colleagues who managed the systems there; at the same time, I provided user support to colleagues with less knowledge of UNIX. While I was new to UNIX, the basic principles of script-writing were just the same as they had been under DCL/VMS: and UNIX is an easy enough system that I soon learned to go beyond scripts.

Later, while working for the Geneticists on the FlyBase project, I knew as much about UNIX as anyone on the premises so I naturally ended up looking after the system, including the bits I'd been able to avoid until then. This also brought the joys of installing software packages. I made us an early (May '94) Web site thanks to CERN and kept us up-to-date with much of the GNU package as the FSF released new versions of it. This provided a firm foundation for subsequent contract work as a system administrator, webmaster and CGI programmer.

While I've looked after most aspects of UNIX systems in this time (and since), the heart of my experience has always been in script-writing. While working at Laser-Scan, I helped maintain and develop in-house tools used to manage software development according to ISO 9001 procedures. Making good tools comes down to designing and building a simple set of independent low-level tools out of which to construct the ones your users need. All the art lies in chosing the right tools to build.

Aside from scripts and installations, I've had the usual round of problems to sort out. These have usually come down to solving a nasty puzzle which answers the question why isn't it working ?, after which all else is fairly straightforward. This can be quite good fun but seldom as much fun as user support, where I actually get to help other folk make use of the totally obedient moron (TOM) at their fingertips. Less appealing is the perpetually necessary task of backing everything up (regularly – and check it !) and working out who can be persuaded (tactfully, of course) to reduce their disk use. Many a time and oft I've been glad that I installed gzip and GNU tar, and that I know how to use find. And, of course, I've made my fair share of embarrassing blunders … and later found good uses for the lessons learned thereby ;^>

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