A Fine Line Between Genius and Madness: A Day in the Life of an IT- System Administrator
Q: What do you get if you combine technical savvy with the patience of a saint and a willingness to help? A: The perfect system administrator. In other words, someone like Raffael Willems, Head of Internal IT at imc. Not that life in IT is always perfect...
You have to be slightly mad to want to do this job. Apparently, there’s quite a bit more to solving problems in internal IT than just saying “have you tried turning it off and back on again?”
Raffael Willems has been Head of Internal IT here at imc for about a year. In this interview, he tells us about his average working day, and why his job requires not just basic curiosity, but patience, good communication skills, and empathy as well.
Job | Head of Internal IT
Working in | Saarbruecken, Germany
Worked at imc since | 2021
Super power | Patience & willingness to help
Favourite food | Pretty much everything - but good!
Hi Raffael, thanks for making time to talk to us! You’re the boss of internal IT here at imc. How would you explain to your three-year-old daughter what you do for a living?
Funnily enough, my daughter actually likes to “help” me with my work. When I’m working from home, she loves to type along with me on one of my numerous keyboards. She knows my job has something to do with computers and helping people. The way I explain it to her is that I’m in charge of everything that flashes, goes “beep”, causes trouble, and hinders people in their work.
So, your role as a system administrator is to ensure everyone at imc can do their work?
Pretty much. My job is to make sure everyone else is able to do their job. I’m the one people call when some technical problem or other is causing them grief.
What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? Do you just sit there, waiting for people to call with their problems?
No, no, of course not. While I’m having my first coffee of the morning, I read my emails and Teams messages, look at the ticket system, and check using our monitoring system whether everything’s ok, or whether there’s something needing attention urgently. Then I work through my to-do list for the day – which is not all short-term tasks, by the way.
I also have a lot of longer-term projects on the go that require a fair amount of planning. Planning is important because the kinds of changes I initiate affect everyone. If I mess something up, that could very well put 350 people out of action. That’s why good planning and communication with a range of departments are absolutely essential.
What do you like most about your job?
This may sound a little counter-intuitive, but what I like most of all is the creativity. As I said, my job is to try to find solutions that work for everyone, but I also have to make sure they comply with our stringent security and data protection policies. That can often be challenging to reconcile. But certain things, like hardware equipment and security updates, just have to be managed top-down to ensure they’re done properly.
I really enjoy working with other people, and the more different they are, the more exciting I find it. I mean, a call from a developer is a very different experience to a call from Marketing. Different people speak completely different languages – figuratively as well as literally. And then there are the many different nationalities and cultures here at imc. That’s quite a change from where I used to work, and I really enjoy it.
One thing I particularly appreciate about my work here is that my ideas always fall on fertile ground. There are no wrong answers, and new ideas get listened to and not dismissed out of hand. You can always bounce ideas around and try to come up with creative solutions that work for the greatest number of people.
What personal qualities do you need to be a IT-System Administrator?
Above all else, patience. As an IT- System Admin, you’re constantly dealing with people – communicating and explaining things and, every so often, smoothing ruffled feathers. You have to realize that most people, whatever the company, see IT projects and processes as a necessary evil. People just want things to work properly so they can get on with their job. And that’s totally legitimate, but technology is changing so rapidly that IT is constantly having to adapt.
Even so, you can’t just throw a new system at people and expect them to welcome it with open arms and work with it, no questions asked. You have to get the affected departments onboard early on, involve them, be patient, and understand what they need and how they work. Just because a system is a huge hit with Sales doesn’t mean it’s assured of rave reviews in Content, and vice versa.
Hence, as well as patience and good communication skills, you also need empathy. I have to put myself in the other person’s shoes so that I can understand what the problem is and how I can support them. And if things do start getting heated, I need to get alongside those concerned and calm them down.
In day-to-day terms, that means you need to be able to read between the lines. If I can tell from the tone of the e-mail that the writer is extremely annoyed, then I can reach out directly and try to calm things down so that the situation doesn’t escalate. That requires experience and well-honed instincts.
Another key personal quality for being a sys admin is the ability to get to grips rapidly with new subject areas. Sometimes there are situations that require fast decisions, so you need to be able to compile and evaluate the relevant information very quickly. I may have no prior knowledge of the problem someone is writing to me about, but I still have to respond quickly with a valid answer. Hence you always need to be keen to learn new things, especially in IT, where rapid technological change is a given.
On a scale of one to ten, how well would you say your training prepared you for your current role?
I’d say seven. During my training as an IT System Electronics Engineer, I was fortunate to have a trainer who always believed in me. He would always say that in my chosen career I was walking a fine line between genius and madness. But he made sure to teach me the things that really matter – and not just the hard skills, but the soft skills as well.
Thanks to him, I developed a certain sense of ambition and learned to stick with things, to complete my tasks reliably and to not be afraid to step into conflict situations where necessary, but without losing my calm. So, a big shout out to Volker Laufer!
What attracted you to the profession of System Administrator. How did you get into it?
My father was a primary school teacher, and he got me interested in computers at a very young age. Back in the 1980s, he wrote his own learning software for Atari and Commodore. And for my mother, who was a self-employed music teacher, he wrote a sheet music learning program in Omicron Basic. Of course, I was always looking over my dad’s shoulder, and when I got my first Windows PC, I learned a lot just by experimenting and trying things out. So, when I got older, I naturally gravitated towards a career involving computers.
The fact that I am now working for an e-learning provider is a source of great pride for my parents, because in a sense I’ve brought the family full-circle. I feel the same way, which is why I’m able to identify very closely with imc’s values and products. It’s like I’m getting back to my roots.
In what ways does imc differ from most of your previous employers?
Well, there’s the company’s size, of course, but mainly it’s the communication culture. Here, whenever I introduce something new, it takes two weeks tops for everyone to get on board with it, including everyone over in Australia. At my last employer, it would take an eternity, even though they don’t have any locations outside Germany. Here, people talk to each other, share ideas, and read the updates that I post in the blog.
But the biggest difference is the mindset. At imc, the attitude to change is more positive than negative. I never have to explain to anyone that IT changes and that they can’t keep doing things the same way they’ve been doing them for the last 15 years. Perhaps that’s due to the greater diversity here, and to the average employee age, which I think is about 38.
The people here also have a relaxed way of dealing with each other – there’s no stuffy business etiquette, just a willingness to help one another. And if you’re going through a tough time personally, that’s ok too. You can talk about it and get support.
Here’s a recent example that says a lot about our culture around mistakes and how we get along with one another. I was working on something that I failed to think through properly, and, as you’d expect, when the admin screws up, it affects the whole company. It wasn’t anything major, but it was still annoying. Pretty soon, one of my colleagues stormed into my office in a rage and had a complete meltdown over it. But that evening, we spoke about it again over a beer or two, and it was fine.
Mistakes happen, and people here accept that. Nobody holds that mistake against me, because they all know it wasn’t malicious and because I admitted it immediately and apologised. Plus, they know me as someone who does a good job and is always willing to help.
You’ve been with us for almost exactly a year now. What’s your reflection on how things have gone?
It might only have been one year, but it feels like ten – and in a really good way! I feel like I’ve been here forever because I’ve already gotten to know so many people and worked on so many projects and systems – I guess what I’m saying is, I feel needed. There is still a lot to do, obviously, and the processes are not quite the way I would like them to be, but we’re getting there.
Here at imc, my work is valued, people take the time to thank me, and I feel there’s a very healthy culture around conflict and mistakes. Discussions here are based on reasoned arguments. Rather than rejecting new ideas as a matter of course, the people here embrace change and accept that change also means new technology. That’s because change isn’t just about how you work; it’s also about how your workplace is equipped and what the systems are behind it.
What would you like to change?
I think we could do more to raise imc’s profile as an employer. For example, when I first applied, I knew virtually nothing about the company. Having said that, I was really impressed with the overall application process.
I also really liked the Welcome Days organized by the HR department and the way I was onboarded and welcomed into the fold. I would like to see imc build on this positive applicant experience and inspire more people to join the company – and hence also join my team.
I’m sure we can manage that. Thank you for sharing these valuable insights. You clearly love your job. Long may that continue!
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I have been working in the Marketing & Communication Team at imc since March 2019.
Communication, creating unique content and social media are my passion.
"One can not not communicate" - Paul Watzlawik.
To explain complex content in an understandable way and thus make the topic of e-Learning accessible to everyone is an exciting challenge every day.
Privately I love to read, play poker and travel a lot.
I am always happy to receive feedback or suggestions.