The phrase “Jack of All Trades” dates back to what some would call ancient history, when Robert Greene used the term (somewhat dismissively) to refer to William Shakespeare. While some today would use the term in the same fashion, adding the second part “master of none” to it, we in IT all know that the Jack of All Trades is the master journeyman of technology, capable of administering servers, debugging programs, assembling hardware, configuring routers, running cables, optimizing SQL queries, and reading packet traces-all before lunch.

In the past year we had a poll up on our blog to ask you, our sysadmin readers, what type of sysadmins you are at your company. The results are now in and “Jack of all trades” is the clear winner. From a total of over 5,200 votes collected over a year we got the following results: 


So whether by choice or by necessity, many of us evolved to become jacks of all trades because, if we didn’t do it, no one else would. In this article we pay respect to all those sysadmins who have branched out beyond one or two or even ten technologies, and have advanced their skills to the point where they know at least a little bit about everything there is, or at least, everything that is on their network. We respect the JOAT.

What is this none/one/some codswallop anyway?

Well, the full phrase commonly in use is “Jack of all trades, master of none” which, when used self-deprecatingly, implies that user is willing to admit knowledge of lots of different things, but won’t claim expertise or excellence in anything. Usually, that’s utter BS and the person who calls themselves this with the full phrase is being modest. When used by others about someone, they are not being nice, assessing that while the subject of their discourse knows a little about a lot, they are not deeply skilled in anything. Some people today will expand the phrase to indicate that they do indeed know a lot about at least one if not more specific subjects, which is usually a JOATs way of being more realistic about their skills.

How does someone become a JOAT?

Practice, experience, and a little bit of luck (both good and bad.) To become a JOAT, you have to be exposed to just about everything, with enough time and need to learn how to deploy it, fix it when it breaks, optimize it when it is slow, and troubleshoot it when it isn’t playing nicely with others. Sysadmins who are one-person shops have to do this in the first 30 days, as they have no one else to rely upon! Others may develop these skills over the course of years as they move from one role to another, or just naturally pick things up as the go. The good luck puts them in the right place at the right time to pick up new skills. The bad luck puts them in the wrong place at the wrong time, but they are the only ones there so they have to figure it out!

What is the value of a JOAT?

The JOAT is the one person that, when the chips are down and the alarms are going off and the ship is taking on water and the stuff is hitting the fan, you can call on to save the day. They know where the skeletons are buried, why that one bizarre line of code in that script is there, which user account must under no condition whatsoever be disabled no matter what, and can usually figure out what is wrong when something is broken simply by sniffing the air in the server room, or sticking their small finger in an Ethernet port, or just laying hands upon a faulty system’s keyboard. They are like the Server Whisperer and Carmack had a love child who was raised by telepaths with precognition.

What’s the downside of being a JOAT

Even in the largest of companies with full IT departments, the JOAT is the only one whose phone number is on the CIO’s speeddial, and they get the call 24x7x365 when things go wrong. It doesn’t matter that the area of technology has an entire team devoted to its care and feeding…when something goes bump in the night, the phone rings at 2:00 and the conversation goes something like “hey, yeah, I know it’s not yours, but the SAN seems to be acting funny and a bunch of transactions are timing out. Yeah, the team is already on it, but would you mind joining the bridge just to see if you spot anything?” Sometimes, it sucks to be indispensable, and historically, it doesn’t always work out for the miracle workers. In the small shop it is even worse, because the JOAT can do everything, so why should the boss hire any more skilled IT. You’ve got this, right? Sleep, vacations, work-life balance…they are all just words.

Sound pretty cool, where do I sign up?

Really? Did you read that last paragraph? Okay, if you really want to join the elite ranks of the JOAT, start figuring things out on your own. All things. Search engines are fine, but experience is absolutely the best teacher out there, so roll up your sleeves, dive into the deep end of the pool, and start figuring it all out. Oh? The guys and gals who already admin that system won’t be happy if you start poking around? Then start volunteering to help them out on all the new installs, maintenance windows, vacation coverage, and anything else you can do to gain exposure and experience. It’s a dirty job, but when you really are on top of your game, and able to talk to DBAs and firewall engineers and application programmers and AD admins, and then translate everything each of them says for every other one of them, AND then dumb it down enough to make it clear to the bosses, you have reached JOAT status.

Congratulations, and THANK YOU! You have a job that is far too often thankless and underappreciated, and it doesn’t help that you make it look natural and EASY. And if you’re reading this on sysadmin day and you want to say thank you to your JAOT click here for some simple ideas.

Are you a JOAT? If so, share a comment below and let us know how you earned such hallowed status. There really are plenty of readers who want to do the same thing, and some words of wisdom will be just as helpful as some horror stories to relate a day in the life of the JOAT!

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