How Empathy Will Make You a Better Sysadmin

The stereotypical sysadmin is not what you would describe as a people person. They tend to prefer the company of software and computer systems to that of people. This is a stereotype that needs to end. The first step? Learning to consider the needs of others.

Many sysadmins choose their career because they love technology. Because they want to spend their days surrounded by systems and servers, managing the digital guts of their business. What a lot of sysadmins don’t realize is that their job is just as much about managing people as it is about managing systems.

In short, you cannot be an effective sysadmin if you lack people skills.  You’ll have to deal with irate users when something doesn’t work. You’ll have to help people with everything from password resets to basic computer competence. 

If you’re not a people person, that will wear on you. You may even come to resent your co-workers. Like it or not, that resentment will gradually seep into everything you do.

You’ll care less about doing the best job you possibly can. You might take more sick days than you ordinarily would, or simply coast through your day-to-day. Ultimately, you may even find yourself stagnating, treating a career you once loved as a chore rather than your passion.

You don’t need to become an extrovert to shift away from this mindset. You don’t have to suddenly start loving people, or start seeking the company of others. Rather, all you need to do is try to see things from their perspective.

A little empathy can go a very long way in making you better at your job. Instead of being frustrated when a user comes to you with a seemingly easy and obvious problem, consider their perspective. They don’t have the extensive knowledge and understanding you do.

Put yourself in their shoes, and try to think about how frustrated you would be if you encountered a problem you had no idea how to solve. Try to think about how upsetting you would find it if, upon seeking help from an expert, you were rebuffed and talked down to like a child. Talk to them how you would want to be talked to, were your roles reversed.

This may be difficult, at first. If empathy were easy, the world would be a very different place. But with practice, you’ll eventually learn to be more empathetic, and in so doing, more approachable and easier to talk to. 

The Greater Good magazine, a publication managed by UC Berkeley, has a decent guide on what makes a person empathic, and on what behaviors you can focus on if you want to develop empathy as well. 

  • Cultivate a desire to learn about the people around you.
  • Don’t let yourself be guided by prejudice. 
  • Consider experiencing someone else’s life.
  • Listen. Focus on the people you’re talking to. Open up. 
  • Get involved. Pursue social causes you’re passionate about.
  • Develop your imagination.

You might even find that you rediscover your desire to help your users, rather than viewing them as an obstacle to doing real work. Empathy is only the first step in being more of a people person.

But it’s the most important step and one which will ultimately make you a better sysadmin.