Vampires Programmers versus Werewolves Sysadmins

by Jeff Atwood

This chapter is a free excerpt from Effective Programming: More Than Writing Code.

Kyle Brandt, a system administrator, asks Should Developers have Access to Production?

A question that comes up again and again in web development companies is:

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Kyle Brandt, a system administrator, asks Should Developers have Access to Production?

A question that comes up again and again in web development companies is:

"Should the developers have access to the production environment, and if they do, to what extent?"

My view on this is that as a whole they should have limited access to production. A little disclaimer before I attempt to justify this view is that this standpoint is in no way based on the perceived quality or attitude of the developers — so please don't take it this way.

This is a tricky one for me to answer, because, well, I'm a developer. More specifically, I'm one of the developers Kyle is referring to. How do I know that? Because Kyle works for our company, Stack Overflow. And Kyle is a great system administrator. How do I know that? Two reasons:
  1. He's one of the top Server Fault users.
  2. He had the audacity to write about this issue on the Server Fault blog.
From my perspective, the whole point of the company is to talk about what we're doing. Getting things done is important, of course, but we have to stop occasionally to write up what we're doing, how we're doing it, and why we're even doing it in the first place — including all our doubts and misgivings and concerns. If we don't, we're cheating ourselves, and you guys, out of something much deeper. Yes, writing about what we're doing and explaining it to the community helps us focus. It lets our peers give us feedback. But most importantly of all, it lets anyone have the opportunity to learn from our many, many mistakes … and who knows, perhaps even the occasional success.

That's basically the entire philosophy behind our Stack Exchange Q&A network, too. Let's all talk about this stuff in public, so that we can teach each other how to get better at whatever the heck it is we love to do.

The saga of System Administrators versus Programmers is not a new one; I don't think I've ever worked at any company where these two factions weren't continually battling with each other in some form. It's truly an epic struggle, but to understand it, you have to appreciate that both System Administrators and Programmers have different, and perhaps complementary, supernatural powers.

Programmers are like vampires. They're frequently up all night, paler than death itself, and are generally afraid of being exposed to daylight. Oh yes, and they tend think of themselves (or at least their code) as immortal.

System Administrators, however, are like werewolves. They may look outwardly ordinary, but are incredibly strong, mostly invulnerable to stuff that would kill regular people — and prone to strange transformations during a moon "outage."

Let me be very clear that just as Kyle respects programmers, I have a deep respect for system administrators:

Although there is certainly some crossover, we believe that the programming community and the IT/sysadmin community are different beasts. Just because you're a hotshot programmer doesn't mean you have mastered networking and server configuration. And I've met a few sysadmins who could script circles around my code. That's why Server Fault gets its own domain, user profiles, and reputation system.

Different "beasts" indeed.

Anyway, if you're looking for a one size fits all answer to the question of how much access programmers should have to production environments, I'm sorry, I can't give you one. Every company is different, every team is different. I know, it's a sucky answer, but it depends.

However, as anyone who has watched True Blood (or, God help us all, the Twilight Eclipse movie) can attest, there are ways for vampires and werewolves to work together. In a healthy team, everyone feels their abilities are being used and not squandered.

On our team, we're all fair-to-middling sysadmins. But there are a million things to do, and having a professional sysadmin means we can focus on the programming while the networking, hardware and operational stuff gets a whole lot more TLC and far better (read: non-hacky) processes put in place. We're happy to refocus our efforts on what we're expert at, and let Kyle put his skills to work in areas that he's expert at. Now, that said, we don't want to cede full access to the production servers — but there's a happy middle ground where our access becomes infrequent and minor over time, except in the hopefully rare event of an all-hands-on-deck emergency.

The art of managing vampires and werewolves, I think, is to ensure that they spend their time not fighting amongst themselves, but instead, using those supernatural powers together to achieve a common goal they could not otherwise. In my experience, when programmers and system administrators fight, it's because they're bored. You haven't given them a sufficiently daunting task, one that requires the full combined use of their unique skills to achieve.

Remember, it's not vampires versus werewolves. It's vampires and werewolves.
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