Infoworld’s Paul Venizia stirred up a controversy, asking what happened to sysadmins who can fix things, as opposed to just rebuilding machines any time something went wrong.

The definition changed, mostly. At least that’s what I think.

When I started working in IT part-time in the mid 1990s to pay for college, an operator was someone who knew a fair bit about computers, enough to help other users with some things–especially things like creating accounts and resetting passwords–but may or may not have administrator rights.

A systems administrator, or sysadmin, knew the system inside and out. They could install the operating system, they could fix it when things went wrong, and most of them were pretty good with the hardware too. I remember two sysadmins vying for one-upmanship by comparing experience with soldering motherboards in the field. By the mid 1990s that skill wasn’t as necessary, but there were people who still expected a real sysadmin to be able to at least solder a jumper wire if the need arose.

An engineer was a guy who knew everything. You had software engineers, who wrote operating systems–that would be guys like Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, who wrote Unix; Linus Torvalds, who wrote Linux; or Dave Cutler, who wrote VMS and Windows NT–and you had hardware engineers, who designed chips and systems and stuff. Those were guys like Amiga legends Jay Miner and Dave Haynie, but also the guys at Intel who designed CPUs.

I distinctly remember Dave Haynie once saying that you didn’t have to be an engineer to design a circuit board, that a good technician can do it.

Yeah, there was a time when they made that distinction.

But I guess what mattered most is that in days of yore, IT organizations didn’t have engineers. Computer companies had engineers.

Today, everything is down a tier or two. By 1990s standards, I’m a Windows sysadmin, and, in some organizations, my atrophied Unix skills would have only qualified me as an operator. I administered the Unix systems at my previous job, but what that really meant was applying patches, helping the auditors run through their checklists, running backups, shutting them down cleanly when there were power failures, and updating virus definitions. If anything went truly wrong with those systems, I didn’t know enough about them to be able to fix them.

But by 2008 standards, I was an engineer. My job title was “Senior Software Engineer.” There’s some irony there, as I was also the guy who replaced failed components. One day, when one of my five bosses was giving their boss a tour of the facility, I was in the process of disassembling a server and replacing some memory. The only time he saw me outside of the job interview and orientation, I was doing hardware work. Technician work, by 1990s standards. A real hardware engineer would roll his or her eyes if I tried to call swapping memory “engineering.” As would my oldest son’s godfather, who is a real, live mechanical engineer.

Some organizations contradict themselves by dividing engineers into two classes: operations/maintenance engineers, and engineering engineers. Engineering engineers are expected to fix things. Operations engineers… Well, they’re the guys who reinstall a server rather than fixing it. The choice of the word “operations” is curious. In 1997, they might not have even had the administrator password.

People look  at me curiously when I call myself a sysadmin today. By today’s standards, a sysadmin is, well, remember the dipstick with the screwdriver? It’s that guy.

I think the reason for the standards is twofold. Technology lowered the bar, and, frankly, most organizations probably can’t afford enough real, old-school sysadmins to take care of the vast herds of servers they’ve deployed. At my job in 1997, we had about 25 servers, and everyone thought that was a lot. We had five people to take care of them. In more recent years, I’ve worked for organizations that had 250 servers, but only 10-15 people to take care of them.

If a problem comes up and it can be fixed in an hour or two, that’s great, but management isn’t willing to pay extra for 15 of those types. Some aren’t willing to pay extra for even one of them. Not when a server can be built and deployed in two or three hours.

They’re more likely to be willing to pay extra for the ability to deploy and re-deploy faster.

The other reason, I suspect, is HR. Give the fancier job title instead of more money. It’s cheaper that way.