Curiosity and chaos: A Unix newbie’s journey

A newbie is off to a grand start in the tech world, until an innocent mistake brings down the house

Curiosity and chaos: A Unix newbie’s journey

I was in! I was on the team of system administrators responsible for a large component of a government agency using something called Unix—SunOS 3.5, to be exact (yeah, I’m dating myself). 

At the time, I was working in the armed forces and had recently returned from duty overseas. I was ready for something different. I’d been interested in computers for some time and was self-taught but didn’t have any background in administering computers. But luck was on my side: There was an opening in this office, and they needed to put me somewhere.

They placed me at an after-hours desk to learn the ropes. I had a few tutorials from those with more experience, and I continued teaching myself, watching and learning all I could. It was fascinating.

Little by little I was given more tasks and moved to a shift during more normal hours. And I kept exploring this new world of technology.

The wonderful world of commands

I was learning all the wonderful power of vi (a common Unix editor) and exploring the magic of sed (an app for processing text files line by line—for instance, to perform search-and-replace operations). I was gleaning wonderful data from grep search queries. The horizon was clear and bright, especially with the power of the root password. I found it fascinating to explore the directory structure of the /bin, /usr/bin, and /ucb directories.

What did all those other wonderful commands do? I was keen to find out and kept going.

Then came init … um, what is that? What does it do? I started typing.

I knew from the shuffling of chairs, the exclamations of “What the?!” from adjacent cubes, and the sudden deluge of ringing phones that something had happened. But I didn’t know at first that I was the cause of the trouble.

It was as if an alarm had gone off. The senior SAs were up and consulting with each other, trying to figure out what had caused the computer chaos. I wasn’t really sure I done anything at first, but after the word “init” came out of my mouth the mystery was solved.

Live and learn

With the innocence of a babe taking its first steps, I had brought down one of our primary servers (turns out that init controls startup operations and a great deal else besides). Good to know!

It wasn’t the end of the world, though. Once the server was rebooted, we settled down.

Needless to say I was then introduced to “the man”—that wonderful purveyor of knowledge, that keeper of the secrets, my new best friend, man (short for “manual,” the typical program included in a Unix system that is used to read help files), and his (or her) pages of wisdom. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t been introduced to the man earlier, but there you have it.

Time healed my embarrassment, and yet one more bullet point was added to my school-of-hard-knocks resume.


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