The Unix sysadmin's guide to getting along with co-workers
You might be the sole Unix geek at work or one among many, but there are things we can all do to develop and maintain better relationships with the people lucky enough to work with us.
OK, that teaser was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I'm not sure that I really believe that anyone who works with me is "lucky", but I've learned some rules of thumb over the years about how to get along with the people with whom I work. Others I'm still working on. In fact, I've come to believe that maintaining good relationships at work is something that all of us have to put effort into on a nearly continuous basis. It's far too easy to become defensive, bitter, and jealous when things don't seem to be going our way. Over the years, I have had big successes I hardly expected and losses I didn't deserve, but good relationships with my coworkers have often made the difference between a really bad job experience and one that worked.
One of the top strategies for managing relationships at work is to always maintain an appropriate level of humor. It doesn't pay to be goofy, but a few running jokes and inside humor can lighten those hard days when you'd otherwise be inclined to beat your head against the wall or cry out in frustration. Keep your sense of humor, even when the going gets rough. Spend a little time away from the office together if you can. Share some personal events. Don’t base your entire relationship on trouble tickets and backups.
Another, perhaps related, tactic is to remember that you are not your job. I've had to remind myself of this time and time again. To a large degree, I often let my career become too big a part of my self-definition. One way around this -- other than having a deeply satisfying personal life (which hasn't always worked for me) -- is to base some part of your professional identity well beyond the walls of the building in which you work. Join professional organizations. Meet people at conferences and stay in touch. Develop and share tutorials on those things you're really good at. Find ways to use your skills that provide you with an independent sense of your worth. And don’t lose track of the fact that your coworkers are not their jobs either.
Try to avoid becoming isolated, even when your work is primarily independent of the work of your coworkers. For several years, I worked for a guy who cut me off from everything else going on in our division. He'd drop by my office once a week to ask what I'd been working on and then disappear for a week while maintaining conspiracy theories about how his boss was intent on making everything we worked on fail. Having connections outside the company -- my writing and part-time teaching -- helped me deal with the isolation, but I don't ever want to work like that again. In retrospect, I should have found some way to better understand and deal with whatever politics were feeding this situation, but I survived and he didn't.
Another lesson -- behave professionally. Make peace with your big disappointments without allowing resentment to build up, leaving you bitter or impacting the quality of your work or your relationships with your coworkers. One of the worst case scenarios to handle is when someone you might feel is far less skilled and much less deserving than you becomes your boss or gets the promotion you've been expecting. Be as honest as you can when assessing what you may have lost in the process and what you still have. Watch out for "the grass is greener" (that job is infinitely better than the one you’re in) and "sour grapes" (you didn't get it, therefore, it must have been a sucky job anyway) reactions.
Frequently ask for feedback from your boss, your "customers" -- those people that you provide services to -- whether they're across the hall or halfway around the world, and your coworkers. Take criticism in stride, especially if it's fair and is being dished out by someone who seems to be looking after your well being (it's not always possible to tell). Keep Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" playing in the back of your mind, but keep the volume down.
Speaking of volume, work quietly. Don't be one of those people who makes as much noise as everyone else combined. No one needs to hear you dialing your phone. I keep a pair of 30 dB ear muffs in my office that I put on when the noise from nearby offices is just too distracting or annoying. I also have a headset with a microphone that I can use for conference calls when the sound can be streamed through my computer -- saving my coworkers from having to listen to hours of me participating in Unix and security discussions.
Do your fair share of the work on every project you work on. At work as well as in life, I have always tried to do my fair share and then some. Having a good work ethic won't always protect you from unfairness at work, but you will at least know that you deserved to be treated better -- and that's a lot.
As was drilled into me since early childhood, "give credit where credit is due". Even when you're feeling neglected and ignored (maybe especially when you're feeling that way), take the time to acknowledge your coworkers' contributions -- whether their successes are independent of your work or are part of your success. "I wouldn't have been able to do this without ..." may go a long way toward helping someone else who might be feeling overworked or underappreciated.
Be serious about every assignment that is given to you, whether it's a big deal project or boring repetitious work. Do a good job with everything you do and share the skills that you pick up whenever it's appropriate to do so. A couple decades ago, I found myself trying to protect my "turf", but soon realized that, more than protecting my job, I was digging myself into a hole. When you share what you learn, not only are the other people who work with you better off for what you've taught them, but you are free to take on other responsibilities as they arise because you're not the only one who can do the work on your current tasks. Besides, management just might recognize that your style of working pays off by making your whole group more productive. Maybe.
Be especially keen at encouraging newbies. Latch on to a summer intern and teach her something that will help her in her eventual career. I've had several people who, nearly 20 years after we worked together, thanked me for the time I spent passing on some skills that I'd acquired. That feels better than most anything that happens to me in the course of a year at work.
There's also a flip side to this coin. Ask for help when you need it. Don't try to figure out some complex SQL query on your own if one of your coworkers can whip it out in a matter of minutes. Understand that the people you work with have their own priorities, but don't fail to reach out for their help. If nothing else, this contributes to a culture of everyone helping each other out. That might just pay off for the whole group.
Be on time to meetings. In general, I hate meetings, but they're important. Setting my reminder to go off in time for me to get a meeting a few minutes early is something I'm still struggling to do, but it shows respect for my coworkers' time when I pull it off ... and that's important. In general, don't waste anyone's time. Don't feel superior (even if you are). Practice humility.
Keep track of your priorities. Spend a dedicated segment of time each day laying out what you plan to accomplish. Don't neglect those people who are waiting on a response from you or need your help. Plan for interruptions. Take time for small talk, but not too much. Even so, get your work done.
Don't leave your printouts on the printer for hours. Pick up your mail. Clean up the mess you made in the kitchen. Don't leave the leftovers from last week's lunch molding in the refrigerator. Don't encourage others to post "Your mother doesn't work here" signs over the kitchen sink and don't do it yourself except as a last resort (some people just expect others to clean up after them and it’s hard to get through to them).
Don't gossip or form cliques. I know it's tempting at times, but try to step back and maintain perspective. Find one or two coworkers that you can trust when you need to ask questions like "Is it me or am I being shafted here?". These special people should be those who will be honest with you, even it means bursting a few of your bubbles. Treasure them.
As my husband likes to say "Don't be dumb". There are times when you just won’t be getting a fair shake at success, when your boss plays favorites, when the assignments you're given are all dead ends, and when, no matter how good a job you do, your work will not be valued. Don't make judgments like this to quickly, but recognize ugly truths when you must. Sometimes moving on is the only answer to a work situation that leaves you miserable. Sometimes recognizing that the pay's still nice and the story's not yet over will be enough to get you through to better times. What will you miss if you move on? What can you still do to feel good about your efforts?
Never forget to notice the people you work with. I've been lucky over the years to work with some really amazing people. Some I put into a world class "movers and shakers" category, some I learned so much from that I regard them as personal heroes. Others who, everything they worked on seemed to be done with a level of professionalism, inspired me to be more like them myself.
Unix administration work can feel thankless. So can network administration. So can technical support. I've said this before, but sometimes you get noticed the least when everything is running smoothly. Don't forget that this may be true of your coworkers as well as it is for you. Cut them some slack.
Read more of Sandra Henry-Stocker's Unix as a Second Language blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld, Twitter and Facebook.
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