A Day in the Life of Maurice Volaski, Systems Administrator
Retrospect continues to celebrate the lives of the hard-working IT personnel and learn more about what goes on in a typical day for them. Our guest for February is Maurice Volaski, Systems Administrator for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Maurice, what do you do on a typical day?
I can tell you what used to be a typical day. It’s like the job of a firefighter. You wait for someone’s machine to break and then I’m off to fix it. Sometimes, it’s really simple like installing a printer and sometimes it’s not so simple, like installing a printer! Ha ha. I have a number of server functions like backup with Retrospect, Windows image management with VMWare Mirage and managing an antivirus environment with ESET. I also maintain a 72 TB file server running Solaris and a web server under Linux. Most of the time, these servers just work, but when something goes awry, it’s both hands on deck.
What was your background? How did you get involved with where you are now?
It’s actually in biology. While I was a bio major, I realized I could graduate without knowing much about plants, so I took plant physiology and discovered that a groundskeeper back in 1940s did a little poster of all the trees on campus. I thought it would a cool summer project to redo it. That project turned out to include all the shrubs and took two whole years! It also introduced me to the Macintosh. The biology department had a 512K Mac and the computer department had a Mac Plus along with Pagemaker and a Laserwriter. My project ended up being an 80-page book that I did completely on the Mac. I was totally hooked. But I already had plans to study experimental psychology and while I was in grad school, I saw a job offer for someone to port a Fortran to the Mac. Well, it turns out I was learning Fortran to run my experiments and I had spent the prior summer learning Pascal on the Mac. I didn’t only get the job, I kept it. Up until a few years ago, I had been working for the same professor for the past 25 years.
What is your favorite part of your job? (And why?)
I can give you a great example. We once had a graduate student who just spent his summer generating data he saved in an Excel spreadsheet and it had a bunch of charts. Something went amiss and it wouldn’t open. He was horrified. I made an assumption that one of the charts was borking the file and I knew that you can open the spreadsheet sans chart in Word itself. I tried that and it worked. I saved his summer of work for him. That was very gratifying.
What is your least favorite? (And why?)
Having to install software on each user’s computer. First, sometimes I have the track the user down. Second, it’s disruptive to the user, even if it’s for five minutes. Third, sometimes the install doesn’t go right or I discover the PC has other problems. I also dread it when a whole server crashes. Users don’t like to lose access to their data.
What was the most embarrassing or funny thing to happen at work?
This just happened recently. I had a user whose Mac wouldn’t start up because the button wouldn’t push in. I replaced the button and Mac booted just fine. The user got his machine back and was a happy camper until the whole display fell out on his lap. I forgot to put the screws in to secure the monitor. It tore some cables and borked some connectors. He ended up having to get a new machine.
What is your strongest quality?
Analytical and detective skills. We had this Mac acting as a server and it wouldn’t boot up. I took it to the shop and it booted fine. Take it back to my office and it wouldn’t boot. What’s the difference? The keyboard and the mouse. I replaced them and sure enough it booted fine. I tried them one at a time and isolated it to the mouse. It turns out when you press the mouse button at startup, it forces the floppy drive to eject and nothing else. This mouse had an electronically and permanently depressed mouse button.
What are you most proud of?
Providing my users with service make them more productive. Stories like the one I described above.
How has your job changed since you started? How do you see it changing in the future?
I started out in 1989 as a programmer, converting a data collection and analysis program from Fortran on a PDF-11 to Pascal on the Mac. When I my immediate supervisor left for graduate school, I took over his job. One of the first things I did was to roll out Retrospect software to backup up the computers of my users (We were mostly an all Mac shop). Eventually, I got completely out of programming and into help desk and system administration functions. To be honest, the future is uncertain. We are being taking over by a hospital. And they are replacing some of my functions like antivirus management and the school has its own much larger central storage. I am being told there will be things to do, but exactly what they will be, I don’t know yet.
Quick, there is a fire? What do you grab before you run out of the building?
Nothing. In the past, I had stored backups by Retrospect on tape I kept in my bedroom closet. Today, we store data on disk in a dedicated data center.
How do you spend your free time, if any?
I have a huge digital watch collection. I’d like to be able to stargaze, but there’s no good places where I live. I do also read a lot of books. One of my favorites is Everything’s Relative by Tony Rothman. Many “facts” we have about historical inventions like Bell’s inventing the telephone and Edison’s inventing the light bulb aren’t quite accurate.
What skill would you most wish to have?
Web design and development skills.
If you won the lottery, what would you do?
If you’re talking about a ridiculous jackpot level amount, then I would set up a charitable foundation. I believe money can do good if it’s well distributed.
JG Heithcock is GM at Retrospect and has eighteen years experience in the storage and backup industry.