Where Have All the Good Sysadmin Shops Gone?

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At Crowd Favorite we are web developers, not system admins. We understand how to build something so it can scale, but actually doing the server config and managing them on a day to day basis is not our core competency.” – Alex King

Candidly, it’s interesting how much I hear that sentiment expressed these days. That scalability is a challenge is, I suspect, a mystery to no one. That it’s as common a problem as it is might surprise you.

It’s true, in my view, that cloud computing is likely to soften demand for this type of service, as scalability becomes a feature rather than a product. As Matt puts it:

Infrastructure can be a competitive advantage today — the speed and reliability of WordPress.com has certainly put us in a favorable light with users, especially large customers — but that’s going to disappear over time. We’re very much at version 0.1 of things like Amazon’s web services and App Engine, but it’s not hard to read the writing on the wall and understand that level of abstraction is going to be the future foundation of web applications. I’m not counting on infrastructure to be a long-term competitive advantage for Automattic

And yet even in the accelerating build out of cloud computing offerings, the demand for scaling skills remains high. Which makes me wonder: where are the boutique consultancies catering to scalability? Or even more general systems administration?

It may be, of course, that they’re prevalent but just not on my radar, because boutique services firms are not where I spend most of my time. More to the point, there are clearly a great many systems ninjas content to high margin contract work. But I am somewhat surprised, given the rampant demand, that we haven’t seen more of these systems administrators band together in the form of high quality consulting outfits.

In conversations with some potential candidates for this type of gig, I’ve been reminded that the nature of systems administrative work is fundamentally different enough from, say, the type of design and coding work that Crowd Favorite does to present problems with the model. Which is an excellent point.

To which I’d respond: wouldn’t it be nice to be on call for shorter and shorter periods of time, because you could rotate the responsibility amidst a collective of admins you trust? Some would scoff at the possibility, believing that that kind of trust is impossible to find, but that’s precisely what we did at the two shops in which I was afflicted with pagers and 3270 telnet access to the mainframe.

Plus, it seems clear to me that there are more possibilities for ongoing, subscription type work (read: recurring revenues) – presumably automated via systems management technologies – for clients in this space than in the pure design or the web programming and architecture spaces. Or maybe you think Debian/Ubuntu users were excited to patch these vulnerabilities yesterday on their own?

I know when we were hacked and casting about for security expertise, the guys over at Inverse Path were recommended to us only after a long and often fruitless search. Querying some of the best technologists on the planet, no one had any great, off-the-cuff suggestions for a sysadmin for hire. Luckily, those guys turned out to be an outstanding resource that we’ve applied towards other issues we’ve had, but where are the rest of the Inverse Paths of the world?

Are they out there and I just can’t see them? If not, why not? Should the systems management players begin trying to build out such ecosystems around their products? Should some of the web development firms begin adding these services as lines of business?

Inquiring minds want to know.


  1. A lot of sysadmins get training in scalability voodoo at open-source shops like the Open Source Lab or, to a lesser extent, volunteering at largish projects like Gentoo. Then they get hired by a single company (Mozilla Corp and GNi come to mind). There’s enough demand for people with that kind of experience that they don’t seem to end up in a position where they’d want to start their own business. I also suspect the sysadmin frame of mind that puts stability at the top of the list applies to where they look for jobs, too.

  2. […] Where Have All the Good Sysadmin Shops Gone? […]

  3. tummy.com is a boutique Linux System Administration company, that’s been around for over 10 years.

    The focus of Systems Administration is quite different than that of development. It’s a more conservative perspective, while development often has a more flexible, dynamic perspective.

    SysAdmins are happiest when they never have an emergency.

    We’ve got a couple of openings for good clients right now.

    Great SysAdmins that want to work in an place where their skills are appreciated and where they can grow, should send us their resumes. We see more different sorts of systems than you can see at a single site.

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