Visualize a pit crew. There’s someone who keeps tabs on the driver, another person who tracks the fuel and others who change the tires. Then there’s the head mechanic, the one who makes sure everything and everyone works smoothly together.
For a company’s infrastructure, that’s the computer systems analyst, according to Paul Haze, a senior systems analyst for health insurance provider Anthem.
What Is a Computer Systems Analyst?
Instead of managing a race car, a computer systems analyst maintains a company’s computer infrastructure and applications. This includes everything from the computers and everyday programs employees use at work to the firm’s servers or cloud-based systems to the suite of internal and external software a company uses.
Their job is to make sure everything runs smoothly. For example, if a domain name system issue starts redirecting users to the wrong place on a company’s website, a computer systems analyst is the one responsible for investigating what went wrong and correcting it.
Computer systems analysts often work on teams of other IT professionals including developers, site reliability engineers, systems engineers and help desk analysts. They also collaborate closely with business systems analysts and project or production managers. The interconnectivity of their work with other teams makes it a good role for people with strong communication skills and a background in system administration or network engineering.
And like that pit crew head mechanic, a computer systems analyst has to be creative, able to think on the fly and have a wide familiarity with pretty much every technology within a company.
Meetings, Tickets and Getting Things Fixed
Since computer systems analysts work with a lot of different departments across the company, a typical day for Haze starts with meetings — a lot of meetings.
First up is a status meeting with his team of analysts to review the systems. On a bad day, a status meeting might reveal issues like network congestion, data access restrictions or even that key databases are down. Their goal is to catch those issues and fix them as soon as possible to make sure the daily activities of the company are not disrupted. Mondays are typically the busiest day of the week, Haze said, thanks to weekend release activities that create a higher potential for issues to occur.
After the status meeting comes the defect meeting, where they prioritize the bugs and discuss potential solutions. If there are any pressing problems, like a hardware failure or a downed network, that will get its own meeting to resolve the issue.
“We call them SWAT calls, where some part of the system fails … and it’s causing communication issues,” Haze said. At these meetings, people from across the affected teams analyze the problem to try to determine the root cause. Once a cause is identified, Haze said there are two main strategies for addressing system failures.
“It’s pretty much everything that isn’t development or [quality assurance].”
“One is to fix it as fast as you can, so the users are back up and running,” Haze said. “And the other is to fix it properly, so it doesn’t happen again.”
Determining which strategy is the best for any given failure is a balancing act, Haze said, since each situation is unique.
Outside of meetings, most of Haze’s day involves addressing user tickets and general maintenance. This can include managing and setting up servers, deploying applications, creating network layers, maintaining data, fine-tuning how storage and databases interact with different applications and aiding with the deployment of new applications.
“It’s pretty much everything that isn’t development or [quality assurance],” Haze said.
For Haze, a good day is one in which meetings go smoothly, there are no unexpected system failures and he and his team can get through several user tickets.
Reducing the backlog of tickets allows the team to spend more time improving — not just maintaining — the system. In the long run, this means a smoother, more efficient infrastructure.
Security Documentation and Tickets
Computer systems analysts often have a wide array of responsibilities from managing servers and company-wide software to helping new employees get their computers set up. The larger a company gets, the more a computer system analyst has to do. As a result, some larger companies will have computer systems analysts who specialize in specific areas.
For example, Charity Matta is a computer systems security engineering manager for information and technology giant, Lockheed Martin. Her role is similar to that of a typical systems analyst but with an emphasis on fixing security issues.
Her team assesses the work other systems analysts have done to make sure the data is secure. “We’re telling them that they’ve not only met their requirements, but they can rest assured that their data is not going to end in the hands of somebody it’s not supposed to end up in,” Matta said.
Matta will also work with the company’s information security officers and system administrators on security documentation. They review plans for system security, security contingency and security testing to make sure that everything works as intended.
As a manager, most of Matta’s day revolves around helping her team. This means reviewing firewall changes, explaining complex or unfamiliar concepts to junior members and documenting changes in the system architecture, such as when a new operating system is being used.
“I try to make sure that our team is documenting data flows between systems just to make sure that our systems are inspection ready, because that’s what we’re there for,” Matta said.
The Never-Ending Demands on a Computer Systems Analyst
The duties of a computer systems analyst are endless. Since the system has to remain up and running, an analyst is always on call.
This is the one area that keeps Haze up at night. Not because of stress, but because people will call him in the middle of the night.
“If something broke, and the people who are working the problem don’t have an answer, but they know you have the answer, they’re going to call you,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the beast. You have to get the system up and running.”
Being on call is not the only place where the duties don’t end. A computer systems analyst must always be learning because the tools they use — the hardware, the applications and the infrastructure — are constantly evolving.
Changes can be anything from updates to foundational programming languages to the decision to shift from on-premises servers to the cloud to advances in data security practices. Whatever they are, Haze stressed that a computer systems analyst must always be prepared and plan for them ahead of time. Their job is to help users interact effectively with the system when those changes are put into place, which means they need to be experts in them from the get go.
Security-focused computer systems analysts also need to keep up with the constantly evolving threats to data. Matta has kept up with the security threats and changes in technology through certification courses and formal classes.
“If something broke, and the people who are working the problem don’t have an answer, but they know you have the answer, they’re going to call you ... It’s just the nature of the beast. You have to get the system up and running.”
“There are new vulnerabilities that are being exploited every single day,” said Matta. “We have to work diligently to stay abreast of those and make sure we understand them.”
Still, there’s only so much a computer systems analyst can learn from certification courses and formal classes. A lot of knowledge is shared on the job from your teammates.
“You can learn a lot by sitting down and taking your time to know who’s on your team,” she said.
For Matta, her own experience being in the Air Force helps her communicate with people in the military — a common customer for Lockheed Martin. It’s a unique skill that she shares with other team members to help them better interact with that user base.
As Matta has moved into more senior roles, she has tried to serve as a mentor to more junior members of her team. When Matta first started 10 years ago at the help desk, she benefited from a mentor who showed her the ropes and gave her on the job training. She said it’s part of her job to pass the baton and make sure her less experienced colleagues have the tools they need to be successful. After all, there’s a lot to learn to keep the system running.
“If you’re looking for a challenging role, this is definitely it,” Matta said. “The learning never stops.”