This is part of a set of questions on how Server Fault defines "professional" system and network administration. For additional information, see:

The About page says at the very top:

... related to managing computer systems in a professional capacity.

What does that 'professional capacity' mean? I get paid to do what I do, so isn't everything I do relating to that capacity topical?

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Community standards change, so set as CW to ease updatability. –  sysadmin1138 Dec 31 '12 at 16:26
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As I've said elsewhere, professionalism is a state of mind, not a pay packet. –  John Gardeniers Jan 1 '13 at 2:50

4 Answers 4

Not really.

First of all "professional" is more than just a job-description with a paycheck, it's a mindset. But more on that later.

Over the years the ServerFault community has evolved a rough consensus definition of what that phrase means. There are two broad categories we assess new questions against regarding 'professional capacity'.

  1. The system being asked about is a production system.
  2. Knowledge, asking style, and evidence indicate that the asker has the right mindset
    (a.k.a. the "is a professional" test)

The first is more concrete and overlaps with a few other items in the FAQ under NOT About. The second is much more complex.


Production Systems

This is more of an exclusionary line. Questions that fail this test are also likely one or more of:

  • In the home (failing the anything in a home setting and likely career education points in the FAQ)
  • Being built purely to learn new things (failing the career education point in the FAQ)
  • Hypothetical what-if questions (failing the career education point in the FAQ, and a big risk of failing the is a professional test, see below)
  • Development systems (likely failing the anything in a home setting point in the FAQ, and debatably more topical on StackOverflow)

We've found that scoping "professional capacity" to just production systems does a great job of keeping questions definitely topical.

Of these the development systems item gets us the most pushback. There are very good reasons we eliminate these systems from consideration:

  • The SO FAQ states that "software tools commonly used by programmers" is topical.
  • The large majority of such questions ServerFault gets relate to setting up development environments on laptops or virtual-machines on laptops.
    • Apple laptops and Virtual Box VMs are two areas that professional sysadmins have very little professional experience with.
  • Such installs typically use frameworks not actually used in production, such as XAMP/LAMP/MAMP installers, which sysadmins have little experience with.
  • Such installs commonly use configuration settings that are against best-practice for production systems, which sysadmins have little experience with.

However, some questions related to systems which are not nominally production may be on topic, particularly if they meet certain criteria:

  • The question does not relate to a constraint or condition that would never exist in a professionally managed production environment (such as problems which arise from using virtualbox on a laptop).
  • The non-production (eg. UAT) system accurately reflects the production system in all material respects.
  • The problem relates to a change that will be migrated into a production environment once the problem is solved.

A question about a non-production system which does not meet at least those three constraints will certainly be off topic.

Is a professional

Good questions are ones that demonstrate that the asker has the mindset of a professional sysadmin. A question that passes this test demonstrates several of the following qualities:

  • Shows that they've done some research before coming here, usually by including the results of their failed searches.
  • Uses professional language instead of casual, vulgar or shorthand.
  • Knows enough about their problem to include the right details instead of all of the details.
  • Shows sufficient skill in the technology under question to be able to work on it for pay.
  • Demonstrates knowledge of better-practices through how their environment is put together.

Hypothetical what-if questions frequently fail this test, but some don't.

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Love the idea, but seems to wander off the "Professional Capacity" topic into Question Topic, and even discusses the Practicality requirement of questions. –  Chris S Dec 31 '12 at 16:32
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@ChrisS I've seen questions closed due to insufficient professionalism on the part of the questioner, which can only be quantified through question-contents. The "is a professional" item is a smell-test for most of us, so is tricky to write up. –  sysadmin1138 Dec 31 '12 at 16:35
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I like it, but I think it might be worth mentioning that "beginner" sysadmins are welcome (I've seen a bit of pushback suggesting people feel otherwise and we don't want that) as long as they work to the standards outlined above - we're setting a quality bar for questions, not a qualification level for the people asking them, after all. –  RobM Dec 31 '12 at 16:50
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"Being built to learn new things" - Wait, SE doesn't want people's questions about the first time they've set up something? That's the reason a lot of people come to this site, because they are in new territory, the manual doesn't say anything, and if they had years and years of experience with the system then they wouldn't have the question –  TheLQ Jan 3 '13 at 4:01
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You can get a System Administration degree? o_O I always thought of this business more like a craftsmanship through hands-on experience –  Mathias R. Jessen Jan 3 '13 at 8:16
    
@MathiasR.Jessen Yes you can, there are a few places offering one now. Rochester Institute of Technology has one degree program; I had an intern from them last summer. Didn't suck! –  sysadmin1138 Jan 3 '13 at 12:19
    
how does one define "production"? would that include the last line of deployment for internal applications? –  smcg Jan 4 '13 at 19:34
    
@smcg Generally, "customer facing" for the app. For internal apps, customer=end-user. –  sysadmin1138 Jan 4 '13 at 21:01
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Professionally-managed test or QA systems are not "production" but should be included. I don't think customer-facing is the right definition; if you have a proper lab environment where you're testing a new configuration before pushing it to production, then it belongs here too. –  Richard Gadsden Jan 8 '13 at 15:46
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To reiterate what @RichardGadsden said: a real professional will first set up a test environment to check a new technology before unleashing it on production systems, let alone customer-facing ones. Rookie mistake is doing the exact opposite. –  Hubert Kario Jan 14 '13 at 0:40
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Doesn't seem to leave much room for novice questions. Also, I whole-heartedly disagree with "Virtual Box VMs [is an area that] professional sysadmins have very little professional experience with" We have several VirtualBox VMs that run in production. –  Chris Drappier Jun 18 at 15:11
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@ivan If you're going to clean up our meta site, it would probably behoove you to read some of the recent discussions. I would also suggest that you adopt a less confrontational attitude to criticism; you won't last long here otherwise. –  Andrew B Nov 8 at 23:45

The more I see questions being closed as off topic because the member who asks seems a bit lost or not at ease with the system being used, I would say that professional capacity on SF seems to refer as being a guru or a demi-god.

We seem to forget that it's impossible to know every single technology or field in IT.

We also seem to forget that people need to start somewhere. Is a system administrator with 6 months experience less of a professional?

If so, then SE would need to add new site for near-professionals.

Is it possible that a network administrator who does magic with switches and routers might not be familiar with the inner working of Microsoft Active Directory or Syslog-ng? ...absolutely.

Is it possible that a Linux administrator who codes useful bash script in no time might not be familiar with Cisco IOS or Oracle DB? ...absolutely.

The problem is, in both situations, the user might want to ask question outside of their professional knowledge.

If they do, then starts the "this-does-not-belong-here" dance. All based on the wrongful assumption that the person is not a pro.

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I agree that "professional capacity" can be an abusive form of elitism, but most of those that get closed due it feels like they didn't try to do any research at all. –  Grumpy Jan 4 '13 at 19:01
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Some people seem to forget that server fault is not a replacement for the manual. The point is not whether the questioner is a beginner or some sort of guru. It is that they have a real world problem that isn't simply a case of being too lazy to look it up. –  JamesRyan Jan 5 '13 at 12:34
    
I disagree. "Professional capacity" has nothing to do with skill level, but everything to do with usage scenario. So for example, setting up a POP3 server belongs on ServerFault. Configuring your POP3 mailbox in Outlook: SuperUser. Sure there's two parts of the same job, but client-software configuration is a user-focused task, while server configuration is a technician-focused operation. –  tylerl Jan 5 '13 at 23:46
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All of us at times need to ask questions about things that are new to us but how those questions are asked is everything. Any professional, in any field should show due diligence, which includes showing that they have taken serious steps to help themselves, rather than just being lazy and expecting others to do the work for them. Anyone just starting in the field that does show due diligence will always be welcome on SF. Conversely, those that fail to show due diligence will likely see their questions closed, or at least downvoted, regardless of how many years of experience they have. –  John Gardeniers Jan 6 '13 at 4:15
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I don't agree. We've discussed this point several times on the site and each time we've come back to a central point - Everyone is welcome to ask questions on serverfault, but serverfault expects a certain quality standard from its questions. For example, I don't care if someone's experience with Linux is that "I booted it for the first time yesterday" or "I get to call Linus Torvalds a Linux Noob to his face on a daily basis", I just care that their question about it is on topic and meets the site's professional standards. –  RobM Jan 8 '13 at 20:46

I'd like to add my opinion that while the Help section's bullet points on What topics can I ask about here? doesn't come right out and exclude academic research or student projects, the term Professional Capacity should NOT include these. Students coming to ServerFault discussing a project they are working on for school and needing assistance should be considered Off-Topic.

There are gray areas, as always (student intern being paid to work on a corporate project), but by and large student questions should be considered off-topic as they don't fall under professional capacity.

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I'd agree with this. These are often interesting questions for discussion in chat, but academic project assignments are often bound by assumptions and limits that are totally absurd in the real world. –  RobM Nov 4 '13 at 15:27

I would like to add both legal and ethical constraints to the term "professional".

When I am dealing with an industry professional (lawyer, doctor, builder, sysadmin, architect, whatever), I expect the advice I get to comply with all the relevant laws and regulations. If my plumber does something to my bathroom that doesn't meet council regulations, then I consider that a very unprofessional job. If I order my builder to do something illegal then I expect a firm "no, I'm not doing that" (hopefully followed by some alternatives that are legal).

I also expect the the professional to comply with industry best practices, including codes of ethics.

Accordingly, any questions or answers on this site that suggest illegal or irregular activities should be closed. Any that contain advice that goes against best practice (for example, disabling UAC) should be closed, unless they offer some very compelling justification for the advice.

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"Under certain constrained circumstances, disabling User Account Control (UAC) on Windows Server can be an acceptable and recommended practice." (MS KB 2626083)- you see that an undifferentiated one-size-fits-all approach does have some problems? –  the-wabbit May 15 at 7:29
    
The thing about best practice is that whilst there should be only one, everyone tends to have their own based on their business needs. We do close blatantly illegal questions and delete similar answers. We also call out blatantly bad practices, sometimes they get closed, sometimes they get answers with caveats. When all is said and done the site is (meant to be) for professionals and as such you should be able to assess/test etc. any advice that you get here within your own environment. Don't forget also you get what you pay for. –  Iain May 15 at 11:50

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