Posted 2021 July 18
I’ve had a lot of reasons to be more reflective lately: the pandemic, the fact that my retirement is no longer something way off in the distance, even the recent death of my canine companion of 15 years. So this blog post is going to be about a non-technical topic I care greatly about: our Mac admins community.
I ❤️ Mac Admins
I love the worldwide Mac admins community. Functionally, I’ve been a solo Mac admin for most of my nearly 25-year career. I first started to connect with the Mac admins community in 2008 by attending my first Macworld (later: MacIT) Conference. I truly found my professional peer group when I attended my first Mac Admins Conference at Penn State in 2012 — I remember making a point of going over to the organizers’ table at the end of the event and telling them exactly that. The community has given me so much personally and professionally over that time. I can’t imagine doing my job without it.
These days, I stay connected to our community by being active in the MacAdmins Slack, trying to attend an in-person conference once per year when there isn’t a pandemic (and attending virtual conferences and meetups when there is), helping organize a regional conference, and contributing to open source projects in ways that match my skillset. (Pro Tip: Improving documentation is a fantastic way to contribute to an open source project if you’re not a coder. Giving a talk or creating a blog post on what you’ve learned are also valuable.) Giving back to the community has given me far more back in return; I recommend this highly, even if your motives are (paradoxically) selfish.
But if that’s all I had to say, it probably wasn’t worth posting until I actually retired and wanted to look back. Instead, I want to look forward. The Mac admins community is pretty young. We’ve only had the Mac platform since 1984. Being a full time Mac systems administrator has only been a thing for three decades at most. In our current era, someone could reasonably be in this field for 30 to 40 years. Not only are we starting to mature as a community, we are beginning our first generational shift.
Because of this, we are just starting to see longtime members of this community retire (or, sadly, die). As a community, we haven’t come to terms with this. We may be good at lifecycle management with the devices under our charge, but we seem to be less aware of the professional and physical lifecycle of the members of our community. There is a lot to unpack here.
First is recognition. I can count on one hand the number of attempts at formally recognizing the contributions of people in our community to our community. The MacSysAdmin Conference celebrated 10 years by creating the ADA Awards, notably to recognize Greg Neagle and Per Olafsson for their work on Munki and AutoDMG respectively. In the corporate space, Jamf’s annual user conference (JNUC) recognizes public contributors to their product community and in 2019 created of a Hall of Fame of same. But these are exceptions to the rule.
This issue became very obvious to me at the 2017 Mac Admins Conference at Penn State. At an event in the large room where we all shared meals, Justin Elliott announced that this was his last year on the Conference Committee, as his role on campus had changed to where he was not doing Apple-centric work any more. Justin was a co-founder of the Conference in 2010 with Rusty Myers and Dave Test. It was clear that this was a difficult moment for Justin, even though the Conference Committee had become very strong over the intervening years and a smooth transition was assured. At the end of his remarks, the audience responded with a nice round of applause. So what made me flag this event as notable? It was the fact that only a handful of the hundreds of people in the room rose to their feet at the end of his remarks to acknowledge one of the early leaders and contributors to our community. It is worth noting that the Mac Admins Conference regularly draws 40% newcomers and Justin was relatively low key as a leader (he wasn’t the obvious public face of the Conference as its Chair). So people in the audience could be excused for not knowing the significance of what was happening.
But I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where someone is receiving a long-service or merit award and, at the end of the presentation, people rise to their feet out of respect, even if they really don’t know this person. We really don’t have that baked into our community structure yet. It’s something that would make our community better, more mature.
To be clear, formal recognition is not always the ticket. Some people, like the developer of Suspicious Package and Apparency, want to make their contribution relatively anonymously, consciously avoiding the public spotlight. Others choose a pseudonym, allowing us to have ongoing conversations with them online with few people knowing their true identity. Even with these limitations, we can always find a way to say, “I see you; I appreciate you.” Conferences are the most obvious place to do this collectively. Meetups are also a good space to recognize contributions important to your local area. Individual action is also possible—the good news is that almost everyone in our community is very approachable, so even dropping someone a note to say, “thank you for your contributions,” is something each of us can do. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of that kind of gesture; believe me when I say it makes a difference.
We now have Mac admins who have been working in the field for 15, 20, 25 years or more. Some will be retiring in the years to come (for me, it could be as early as mid-2023). When we‘re not in an active pandemic, such people will probably get their retirement party at their current place of business. In some cases, that will be the most appropriate place. But for others, the Mac admins community is their greatest place of connection—think of the accidental Mac admin, or the Mac admin supporting a specific field like Music, who found this community out of necessity and whose most valued colleagues are scattered around the world. Like most of you reading this, I have been truly blessed with the excellent people I have come to know through Mac adminery. I want to celebrate with these people when I decide to step back (and when they do the same).
But retirement is more than just celebrating. It is a blinking Vacancy sign. Mac-adminery is growing as a field, so we already see a lot of movement between worksites. Retirement, however, can move some of the bigger chess pieces (much like when a tenured professor retires from a University, for example). That’s the good news—opportunity. The bad news: expertise and historical knowledge can be lost to the community. At a (good) place of work, there is usually a transition plan that tries to capture the most currently relevant bits and perhaps even an offer for the retiree to be a consultant on occasion. For something as structured as a conference, such a transition plan is often possible, as proven by both the MacSysAdmin and Mac Admins conferences in recent years.
But the Mac admins community is more amorphous than your typical workplace. I am specifically thinking in the context of open source projects used daily by Mac admins. We’ve lost some tools because people’s jobs changed and no one picked up the mantle to keep it current. As our community goes through its first major wave of retirements, we will have to confront this more often. (Spoiler Alert: Greg Neagle will not be providing world-class software to you for free forever.) At a business, you hire a replacement for the retiree if you still need the work done. In the Mac admin community, people need to step up and contribute to fill the void. For me, that not only means contributing where I can, how I can, but it also means making space for others who are interested in contributing to the projects that I support. As an example, the MacDeployment Conference Committee got better this year precisely because I stepped back from being Chair; it opened the door for more people to contribute and quite frankly made my life more manageable come conference time—it was a win-win.
There are plenty of people who think in terms of a larger Mac admins community, but we could use more. That will help sustain the community when vacancies inevitably occur.
Unfortunately, we also have people leave our community through death. As a first-generation community, we have been able to avoid dealing with this in any significant manner, but as we enter a second generation, we won’t want to deny our way out of it. How do we respond? The same principles about retirements and how the community responds to fill the void still apply, but there are the added dimensions of grieving and remembering.
You will all be familiar with how people and established groups in your life deal with such inevitabilities. How does this translate to our Mac admins community? For people in the geographic vicinity of the deceased person, the most common way would be to attend the memorial service planned by the family and perhaps add some specific tributes from our community. But what about those people outside of the deceased’s local area? If you are active in the Mac admins community, I’m certain you can think of a significant number of people whose loss you would grieve that are physically distant from you. Grieving is done both individually and collectively, so how do we act together despite distance? Pre-pandemic, the obvious choice would have been when community members gather at an in-person conference, but the last 15 months has provided valuable insight to how we can do this virtually. Both might be appropriate—online for immediacy, in-person for greater connection.
And then there is remembering. Our field evolves quickly, so the work we do feels ephemeral sometimes. But there are clearly people who give back to this community year after year, even if the specifics change. Long term communities tend to honour their major contributors with named honours (“The Person X Award”), ideally before the contributor dies. Who are our founding parents? Whose memory do we want to preserve long after they are gone because their story will both honour their contribution and encourage the next generation to contribute in that way? And how do we want to remember those people with a lower profile who fought in the trenches like the rest of us? Is something like the “In Memoriam” reel we see each year at the Oscars something we would want to adapt for our community?
The Next Generation
These “three Rs” pose two distinct but related questions: “How do we acknowledge and keep in our collective memory the major contributors/contributions to our community?” and “How do we maintain (avoid losing) software projects and accumulated knowledge when people active in our community leave for whatever reason?” I have not tried to be too prescriptive in the discussion above because I don’t pretend to have the answers. I just know that a mature community of any type talks about this kind of stuff.
The incredible Mac admins community we have was built on the desire of people in our field to help each other. We have no central authority, no formal leadership. This actually makes the questions I posed harder to answer because we can’t just assign it to a committee and be done with it.
I find the lack of hierarchy in our community to be a strength—it’s one of the reasons that people who are the most prominent in our community are also very approachable. Any sub- or super-groups that have formed (e.g., around an open source project, a conference) have done so to meet a specific need. Our community is the ultimate grassroots organization, similar to how 12-Step recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous structure themselves in a decentralized manner. Those groups seem to have sustained themselves successfully over many decades using this model, so perhaps we will as well.
Our structure (or lack thereof) seems to suggest that the key to addressing the questions posed by the three Rs will be small actions by individuals or the aforementioned autonomous sub-groups (as opposed to large, grandiose ones). As a member of our community reminded me recently, the Mac admins community is not that big and the group of people who are actively contributing is really fairly small. That last fact leaves us vulnerable. And yet, the MacAdmins Slack has thousands of active members, so there are people who could potentially fill the void (even if more than one person is needed to fill the shoes of an established community member).
If you have received value from the Mac admins community, I suggest you ask yourself, “what can I do to give back to the Mac admins community?” Perhaps you will find your answer in helping our community grow when dealing with recognition, retirement, and remembrance. At the very least, I hope this article engenders some discussion in our community about the issues facing us as we head into our next generation.
Update (2021-07-19): The discussion has already begun! Check my Twitter feed for shorter comments, but here are some longer responses:
- Gratitude and Leadership – Tom Bridge
- Reaction to “Recognition, Retirement, and Remembrance” – Greg Neagle
 After I wrote this paragraph, Episode 222 of the Mac Admins Podcast was published. Greg Neagle addressed this exact question about 50 minutes in. He said one of the best ways to give back was to “help others.” Answering user questions (these days, in the MacAdmins Slack) is one additional way to take the load off the core maintainers that I didn’t mention. [Return to main text]
 Patrik Jerneheim provided these details about the awards: “The award was partly named after Ada Lovelace, regarded as the world‘s first programmer, and [Conference founder] Tycho’s mother, also named Ada. It is also the name of a woman in a lot of stories / jokes from Göteborg, where Kal and Ada are the two main characters. …The laureates were Per Olofsson, Best non-commercial Mac sysadmin tool for AutoDMG, Greg Neagle, Best non-commercial product for Mac management for Munki, Jamf, Best commercial Mac sysadmin product/tool for Casper and Apple for Best source of knowledge for Mac sysadmins.” [Return to main text]
 I consciously avoided the term they use to describe their product-centric community because I believe that term, whether it describes the users of a product or the supporters of a sports team, to be exclusionary. I understand why a company would want to create a sense of belonging around their products, but there are ways to do that without “other”-ing. I don’t recall Apple using this term to describe their customers, for instance. Jamf’s recent refresh of their hosted forum puts emphasis on the word “community” (even in the subdomain they now use for the forum), which is a positive change. It does seem like a missed opportunity to not fully rebrand in that direction, though. Hopefully, this latest move is a transitionary step to doing just that. [Return to main text]
 Of course, the leadership transition from Justin Elliott to Gretchen Kuwahara (Mac Admins) was different than the transition from Tycho Sjögren to Patrik Jerneheim (MacSysAdmin) in a number of ways, most notably because we lost Tycho to cancer (#FuckCancer). Nevertheless, they were managed similarly and successfully. The death of someone adds an extra dimension to such transitions, which I discuss in the next section of the article. [Return to main text]