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What do you do when your boss asks, "What the hell do you do all day anyway? Everything is always running fine..."?

How do you best convey the value of your job as a sys admin? (No, leaving is not an option)

I don't think anyone outside IT would understand if you tell them every little thing you do all day.

And I'm not talking about pointy-haired bosses (they're fine bosses overall), but they just don't understand what the job entails.


locked by HopelessN00b Jan 21 '15 at 18:22

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closed as primarily opinion-based by HopelessN00b Jan 21 '15 at 18:22

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Maybe a little circumspection about browsing serverfault ;-} – ConcernedOfTunbridgeWells Jul 7 '09 at 8:32
Quit, they'll figure out what you did real quick. – SpaceManSpiff Jul 7 '09 at 12:17

20 Answers 20

Drag your boss out of the office and have a face to face talk. Try to present documentation of day to days activities and what each project or system does for the company. Don't forget to present the consequences of a system not functioning properly. Probably, try to sit him or her next to you and explain the complexity of the network or systems. Explain to him or her this is not like opening Internet Explorer or adding RAM to a system.

Yes, the point is to try and explain something he or she won't understand. That should make his or her mouth drop.

Short and sweet make it a take your boss to work day. Be friendly, informative and willing to respond.

Good Luck!

If you can actually explain these things in a way that a non-technical manager (who lets non-technical managers manage technical people?!?) can understand, you've sufficiently justified your position. – jtimberman Jul 8 '09 at 16:25
If you can actually explain these things in a way that a non-technical manager can understand, you should apply for a management post yourself .. – lexu Jul 13 '09 at 20:25

First find out what your boss thinks your job's responsibilities are and what the job entails. If those things are being done I'd ask him which part he's unsatisfied with. If the answer is none it's time to start looking for a new gig. Life's far too short, and if you are looking here, you're far too bright to waste any time trying to "prove" you're not wasting time. No amount of effort will ever convince someone with their outlook that you are working, or there really isn't any business value in the things that you do. It would be one thing if you are on a contract and, since you are paid by the hour, asked to justify each hour. A regular employee is employed becaue someone thinks there is a regular task(s) that has to be completed. If that doesn't provide enough value then it's pretty tough to justify no matter how good you are at it.


Keep a log of what you do on a daily basis, and keep a 'personal achievement file' - basically a list of all the things you've accomplished that have either improved the level of service that you can offer, saved the company money, or generally have improved things. It also comes in very useful around appraisal/evaluation time, as well as forming most of what you'll want to add to your resume when trying to find a new job.

Nothing inspires more hair-pulling than trying to remember the 5 coolest things you did over the past 2-5 years for your resume. – Kara Marfia Jul 7 '09 at 12:21
Keeping a log of what you do is extremely useful; not only to cover your own rear end, but to jot down notes of what you have and where you've implemented it. "Hey Joe, where did you put that script last week?" "Hold on, let me check my logs..." – Michael Pobega Oct 14 '09 at 21:54

Another tricky area is that it depends on your 'role'. A database administrator would be harder to 'account' for their role, compared to say tech support, which is constantly 'fire-fighting' user issues/ requests.

And when you're doing a wide range of jobs, research and development is crucial to expanding and improving the environment - even if the 'powers that be' dont understand why you're spending 4 hours installing a 'test' server to see whether a new product on the market is worth considering.

At the end of the day, it does come down to how you respond to emergencies, and the relationship you have with your boss / managers higher up. They'll value you in your position as tech-support (or which ever role you're in) and they'll value you as a person.

By the same token - how do CEO's justify their positions?

If only you could go up to your CEO as he's on his way to his Mercedes S65 and ask him "So, what the hell do you do all day anyway, besides bang your secretary?" – Mark Henderson Jul 7 '09 at 2:50
CEO's justify theor position by siging my check- that's plenty of justification for me (although I'm never opposed to more "justification") – Jim B Jul 7 '09 at 2:53
If you're still getting cheques then it's time to convince your CEO to upgrade to a financial package that will direct deposit it for you! – Mark Henderson Jul 7 '09 at 3:59
If you really don't know how CEOs justify their positions, you need to take a course in business management. – jtimberman Jul 8 '09 at 16:24
@jtimberman: Isn't that like saying to your boss "if you really don't understand my position, you need to take a course in computer science"? If you can't explain something, it's because you don't know it well enough. – Ernie Feb 9 '11 at 17:40

In most cases where I've had to provide a detailed log, I have set up an issue tracker with a knowledge base (where one did not previously exist). Doing so not only allows me to track what I've done, but it also provided users with a resource to turn to before contacting the support staff.


The age old problem. If it all runs well they wonder why they're paying you. If it doesn't run well they wonder why they're paying you. There's no simple answer but in my previous position I would sometimes allow a small problem to occur, just so they remembered I was there. Other times I would simply remind them of what they had under my predecessor.

Depending on my mood, sometimes I would explain how I fill my day, usually in fine enough detail to ensure they lost interest. Other times it would be something like "Everything's running properly isn't it? What more do you need from me?". They didn't like those replies but also couldn't argue with them.

If they're wondering why they're paying you, it's usually because your job is a support role rather than a revenue generator. If you were a systems administrator for an ISP, this rarely comes up unless you're doing a terrible job. If you're a systems administrator for an insurance company, it happens all the time. – Ernie Feb 9 '11 at 17:53

This answer isn't easy, but it works.

Track your time hourly. Produce a weekly status report on what you spent your time on. Doing both of these will add a 10% overhead to your current job- at first.

Report time spent into reactive and proactive parts.

Track commitments, internal and external, in both directions. That means, if you order something, someone has an external commitment to deliver the goods to you. If you have committed to stand up a server by a deadline, track when the request came in and what the status is on it. If you need requirements on how to install some software, track when you first made the request and how many times you have followed-up.

Next time your boss asks "what have you been doing", whip out your last weekly report and then go through (in mind-boggling boring detail) where each item currently stands. After a while, they get the idea, this guy manages himself, don't need to manage him. If the manager decides to micro-manage, being more organized than the other players means that your commitment list will be the basis of management, meaning you get to set the priorities.

For this, I highly recommend "Rescuetime" (, a program that tracks what you're doing on your computer at any given moment in time. It has browser plugins to determine what web sites you're using and for how long, as well as tracking other processes and their usage. – Ernie Feb 9 '11 at 17:51

Depends on your relationship with them. Chances are that if they are asking you this question then you have little to no personal relationship with them.

Chances are if they ask you this question, and you're a direct report of theirs, then they need to shape up to know what their employees are doing. If you're not a direct report to them, then they shouldn't be asking you this question in the first place.

All in all its a very unprofessional thing to be doing in the first place. But that's not the question.

I find the best analogy is to servicing a car.

If you work as a mechanic in a motor pool, your job is to make sure each car is serviced and running smoothly, that you know who has which vehicle and making sure that each vehicle is correctly registered, insured and roadworthy. And if you do your job correctly nobody will ever know. Stop doing your job and within a few months when the car is running rough, tyres are slippery, transmission jerky and steering wobbly everyone will know about it.

The fact that everything is running smoothly means that you're actually working hard. If you stop working hard, everything will stop running smoothly.

Pot Holes still happen, even when the road is smooth :P – oldSkool-Soldier Jul 7 '09 at 2:41
Well, if there's a pothole in it, then the road can't be considered smooth, can it. It's got a pothole in it. That said, if the occasional pothole where I live was the only problem with the road the suspension on my car might last longer. – Mark Henderson Jul 7 '09 at 2:46
btw I'm in no way implying that a sysadmin should be able to achieve 100% user satisfaction, it was a tongue-in-cheek comment that doesn't translate well to the written form! – Mark Henderson Jul 7 '09 at 2:47
But a pothole is analogous to the network having a blip. A pothole on the public roads, you can't do anything about. But for a pothole on a private campus, that's something that can be fixed. ;) – Kevin M Jul 7 '09 at 3:18

I may have to sit on the other side of this one. First; I'll point out that the busier I am doing technology tasks that are "on my plate" the less I am connected to what my staff is doing and the more I have to ask. Most of the time I tend to need to connect with what they're working on, not that they're working. If I have to ask too often, it's usually because I'm not balancing my personal technical load with my management responsibilities as well as I ought to.

But that's a quick conversation, not a request to provide time tracking. There are times I have to ask for time tracking - from time to time, usually right after I recommend that we add staff, the amount of scrutiny that I come under with what I'm doing with the people we already have has a tendency to increase. It's a fair question: "we need three more programmers." "What are you doing with the ones you have?" Your boss may be asking you this for good reason.

I think at the end of the day, assess your relationship with your workplace, and the manager you report to directly. From time to time we are all asked to justify things we wish we didn't have to justify; we're all asked to perform the mundane tasks that we wish we didn't have to do. If the over all balance is good, try to be forgiving of the details. If over all the balance is bad, well, then you know what that means. The problem isn't time tracking.

"I don't think anyone outside IT would understand if you tell them every little thing you do all day."

Try. I've found plenty of non technology managers that do honestly try to keep some basic understanding of what technical folks are doing. Try keeping a log for a few days "Logged in to router, reviewed tunnel config, realized it was wrong, updated it, contacted the client to verify that it was still running. 30 minutes.

And if you find that frequently you're being questioned on the what - sell your boss on larger items before you do it. "Hey, found this really cool thing that I think could have a huge positive business impact - fewer tech support calls, less downtime, increased productivity and sales - I'm going to try to find some time Wednesday to play with it, get it installed on a VM and make sure it will work for us" "Hey that's great" is better than "you spent four hours doing what again?" after the fact. Maybe not about everything - not even necessarily daily (though if things are rough right now, maybe daily isn't a bad idea) - but do try to communicate with non-techies. It can even come in handy down the road as a skill in its own right.

BTW - my current technical answer to this solution is something along the lines of reporting off of our ticket system and svnstats reporting off of our subversion repository. I find the graphs, charts, and the actual notes of all the checkins is a nice way to provide feedback and a sense of movement to non-technical management on long term things, and the ticket tracking reports for the shorter term, all hopefully without having to force our fine technical staff to waste their precious time typing things twice. At least I hope it works out, fingers crossed...


To my mind, there's no simple answer. I think that employees should have a clear "value proposition", and while I don't think that an employee should spend a large fraction of their time describing that value, I don't think it's unreasonable for an employee (or their manager) to spend some time defining it.

I had a boss that was a bit this way. I kept a log of my activities (and the time associated) such that over 90% of my work day, each day, was accounted for. (I'm a combination of irritating jerk and overly literal, so I actually got that number over 95% for awhile.) I kept this up for a period of time, and met with him to discuss it. (Since I was a billable resource as well as being the in-house network administrator some large fraction of my time, which was billable, was already documented this way anyway.)

Had my boss been reasonable, I think that would've probably been enough. I would've updated the documentation on a recurring basis so that he had some idea of what I spent my time doing. For items that were a direct response to an issue, I logged my times and activities as I always did. For more "soft" items like training, conversations with co-workers, etc, I probably would have only revisited that time accounting once a quarter and produced some kind of "at a glance" view of how I spent my average day.

It ended up that I quit and started my own company, though, because (for a variety of reasons) my boss wasn't reasonable. That might not be for everybody, but it's suited me fine. >smile<

If your bosses are rational, I would think that the time and activity logs (which you really should be producing anyway and entering into whatever change control system you use) should be enough to justify your existence.

If your bosses end up being unreasonable you may want to look for greener pastures.


Take a weeks vacation, and tell your boss you're not arranging for a delegate to cover you.

Although, he's as likely to be even madder with you when you get back :)


tell him you spend each day taking proactive and preemptive actions to keep everything running fine

then whip out a list of the 1001 things you do each week to back this up - he'll shut up

then ask for a raise


Two pieces of advice:

  1. Make sure you and your boss are on the same page about what your job description is. Ask him to define what it is you are supposed to be doing or ask what he thinks you aren't doing. If you are already doing those things, explain them.

  2. Try to improve your social relationship with your boss. If he likes you, he is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and not worry when he doesn't know specifically what you are doing.


Talk to you boss, and try to get him to understand that the less he hears about you, the better you are doing your job. My last review, my boss was extatic because he never has anyone calling him mentioning my name. To him, that means I am doing my job, and it's one less thing he needs to worry about.


Establish a ticket-system, so your work gets documented and your boss can read
by himself, what you are doing all day.

Works quite well in my company.


Another use for all those monitoring & automation systems. Forward him copies or screenshots of the backup report, the temperature monitoring, the uptime report, etc, etc - along with your notes on what needs to be done, or what steps you took as a result of your findings. That might provide an easier way to get into the discussion about how these items can take up 5% or 200% of a working day, depending on severity.

These kinds of people view IT as overhead, an expense much like rent. However, our job is far more like shooting at a target strapped to a buffalo, while we stand on a train with a monkey jumping on our heads. It's not the same thing every day. It's ever-changing, and you couldn't be sitting around bored collecting a paycheck for nothing if you tried.

That brings up a good point about availability, as well. If you're a guy short in sales, you make fewer sales. A guy short in accounting, um, the paperwork piles up? A guy short in IT means that someone, or some department, or some business function throughout the company will not work. This doesn't make the case for IT to sit around playing Doom all day, but it does explain why you don't have a skeleton crew, if you expect the rest of the business to avoid constant interruption.


Track your time for a a few weeks in detail. I was in the same boat. There's a Adobe Air app called Klok that makes it a bit easier to track and report once its setup. Track everything in minute detail, if you spend 30 mins in the morning reading overnight email alerts track it, on the flip side if your spend 2 hours a day getting coffee you need to know for your own info.

Best of luck.


i have the same problem with many clients, i now just choose to use a time tracking software that starts the clock stops the clock and allows me to describe the issue.

end of month i send out invoices with a granular list of all the activities and a pie chart of the division of projects. the pie chart helps isolate users that really really waste my time with lame issues.

best of luck.


First of all, do not swamp your boss in piles of details about every little thing that you do. It is a good idea to track all of that for your own personal information, but the boss should only be presented with summaries such as "resolved 18 logging issues".

You should try to have a face-to-face private meeting with your boss every month to review your job description, your planned activities (at a high level) and your personal development (training courses, reading books, reviewing serverfault postings for good ideas). If you do that, your boss will know what you do, your job description and planned activities will get his support. Also, if he decides that task X is not important, then when all hell breaks loose and you fix it, he will be happy, and probably praise your effort to senior management. You shouldn't tell anyone that the boss essentially created the issue in the first place, because this is common practice in office politics. In fact, the boss may have pushed down the priority of that task because he WANTED all hell to break loose, because he trusts you to fix it promptly, and because senior management is asking him why they should not fire him and his whole department.

Don't be anal about this. Track your work, summarise the work and the results of that work in plain English. Whenever you save money (compared to some alternative) or provide support to a revenue-earning activity, give that activity special notice. Things like "saved $x by configuring BIND on Internet-facing server" and "provided Widget application transaction volumes and average transaction times to sales team who won the Acme account".

In the world of business doing a good job technically, is not enough. You need to learn how to communicate what you have done and relate it to the health of the business. If you can't do that, then you may find yourself out of a job. That hurts you, and it could hurt your former colleagues if your job really was important to the business.


I would say do nothing. This boss sounds like he's shirking the key management responsibility of knowing what's going on, so the effort isn't worth it. Be happy you're doing the right thing, that's the most important view.


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