Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why do you attend LISA?

Why do you attend LISA?

Instead of another message from me saying you should go to LISA, I thought it would be interesting to try to collect people's thoughts on why they attend LISA. 

Selena Deckelmann, LISA '12 Plenary Speaker "Education vs. Training" on Thursday morning

LISA is the conference where I get to meet people using the same open source technology running the internet that I use, and also the people who wrote the tools. People like Eric Allman, kc klaffy and Tobi Oetiker roam the halls. It's lovely to be able to shake an author's hand.

Pat Cable, Sysadmin, program committee member

LISA gives me the opportunity to present ideas and concepts (formally and informally) to other professionals, and meet and talk to people that are trying to make life better for ops staff everywhere. Through LISA i've been able to create my own network of folks that I can seek out when I encounter roadblocks (be they technical, social, personal), that last regardless of where I work or who I work for.

Adam Moskowitz, past LISA chair and tutorial instructor

  1. As a professional, I have an obligation to continue to learn about my field; LISA is the foremost conference for sysadmins in the world, so what better place to learn about the latest research and hear talks from all the "big names?"
  2. LISA is a great place to meet other sysadmins face-to-face. Online connections are OK but in-person ones are invaluable, whether for finding a new job or getting help with a particularly hard problem or just finding someone to have a drink with when I'm traveling.
  3. Local meetings are useful, but where else can you go for a full week of "talking tech" with people who "get it?" At LISA I can immerse myself in discussions about tools, the profession, the future, other related technologies, and often some cool unrelated stuff as well. It's great to be able to sit down with any person or group and know that we almost certainly have a dozen things in common and can start talking about any of them -- all without having to explain what I do to someone who won't understand what I say.
[Adam usually pays his own way to attend LISA. -Carolyn]

 Doug Hughes, past LISA co-chair and current program committee member

It's the best place to learn about the solutions to problems you face today and the problems you are likely to face tomorrow.

It's the largest conference organized for and by system, network, and IT administrators in the world.

Mike Ciavarella, current program committee member and tutorial instructor

Distance isn't always measured in miles; the trip to LISA takes somewhere between 24 and 40 hours for me each way after factoring in transfers and layovers.  So why do I put myself through that "pain" every year?  For the simple reason that LISA is *worth it*.  Let me try to quantify that with a short story that's typical of my personal experiences at LISA.  I was sitting around a table with some quite well-known security folks, talking about black-box vulnerability analysis.  Another attendee approached, and after a few seconds, without knowing the history of our conversation, starts making some extremely astute observations and contributing to the discussion.  After a few minutes, our "interloper" apologised that he had to go to a talk and departed.  We continued on in a much more interesting direction (thanks to our visitor) for about half an hour, at which point someone says that "It was great to talk with X".   At the risk of sounding overly clich├ęd:  ZOMG!  Our visitor was one of those individuals whose contributions to the field are so fundamental that nowadays we all take them for granted.   And he was at our table, as a peer, sharing his ideas and insight.  This is what 
makes LISA worth the international pilgrimage.

Cory Lueninghoener, IT coordinator

I attend LISA for the ability to run around for a week with the people who build the tools I use, design the technology I rely on, and research the systems software that I will be using in the future.  LISA gives me the opportunity to learn from people who have already made the mistakes that I haven't even thought of making yet, and to discuss my problems and ideas with people well outside of my organization and field.  I also attend to make use of the networking opportunities that LISA presents - I've met people from around the world who work for tiny university IT teams up to enormous globe-spanning corporations, and everybody in between.  And in recent years I've begun attending LISA to be able to give back to the community by hosting workshops and BoFs and by helping with the organizing committee.  The unique combination of technology, education, and personal contacts that LISA provides has helped me immensely in my day-to-day system administration life.


These are the people who believe strongly in the value of this conference. They believe it enough that they volunteer their time to keep bringing it back for another year. You'll find these people and others like them in the hallway track at LISA.

If you're a repeat LISA attendee, use the comments section to answer: 
Why do you attend LISA? 
It isn't too late to register:

If money is a problem because you have to pay your own way, consider 
  • Share a room. Ask in irc (freenode #lopsa has a lot of LISA attendees) or your local LUG list.  
  • Join the LISA SIG for $45 a year. You save much more than that on your conference registration. 
  • Ask for a hardship pass from
Invest in yourself!  Say hi in the hallway track if you do make it to San Diego!

LISA '12 Program Chair

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why aren't you embracing automated configuration management?

Automated configuration management, why aren't all professionals embracing this technology?

I spend most of my time in what I consider my professional community. I consider this group my friends and peers I have met through the USENIX LISA conference and LOPSA organization. These people are pretty firmly in the open source camp, they tend to push technology to new levels, and they are the ones who see the benefits of automation and standardization.  When I'm hanging with my professional circle, there's friendly banter about configuration management; it tends to be a popular topic from year-to-year. Whether your views lean toward Cfengine, Bcfg, Puppet, or Chef... at least you're using these tools to automate your environments. When you hang with the same group from year-to-year, you tend to think that they represent the international sysadmin community at large.

I cannot imagine any medium-to-large sysadmin shop that isn't using something akin to one of the tools above to manage their environment in today's complex IT world. Yet, the more I talk to sysadmins outside of my USENIX/LOPSA circles, from fairly sizeable organizations, I find that they're not using anything to manage their configurations. Some of them have heard of these tools and are starting to look at them, some claim there's no management support for such things. I'm amazed at the number who are using home grown scripts or rely on complex databases of configuration differences (excel spreadsheets anyone?).  I want to yell "there's a better way!"

So what are the benefits of automation and standardization? Well, for years I've seen my job as trying to automate myself out of what I currently do so I can use that time to do new stuff. If I spend all of my time keeping track of server and client configurations, performing upgrades, and monitoring individual logs then I don't have time to figure out the next thing that will save my customers time/money or make their lives better. I think of professional sysadmins as always trying to make the IT world better by reducing complexity, increasing consistency and system resiliency, and helping customers be the most productive with their IT. These lead to better IT security, reduced downtime and support costs, and increased overall value of IT to the organization. For my group, it means we work on new and fun projects for our customers instead of spending most of our time slogging through manual methods to perform basic day-to-day sysadmin functions.

Someone recently told me that only about 10% of medium-to-large organizations are using any kind of automated configuration management. If that number is remotely close to reality, it amazes me.

We started using configuration management ~10 years ago with Cfengine. We quickly saw the benefit of standardizing the way we configured Unix machines. Even machines that had configuration differences, such as servers, were easier to manage with Cfengine. Here we are 10 years later and there are more Open Source tools available to choose from, but the concept is still the same: use something to automate and manage your machines. We've expanded from Unix/Linux servers to clients including all of our Macintosh computers (automated configuration management, it's not just for Linux/Unix anymore).

We keep our Macs configured according to our organization's IT security requirements. Building a new Mac is so easy. Load OS, load our Cfengine package, reboot, done. All of the configs are magically loaded and the machine is ready for use. It has made deploying and managing hundreds of Macs simple. Mac under the hood is not your typical "Unix/Linux" though it may seem so on the surface. Getting MacOS X management under the same system as your Linux machines makes them seem much more manageable (and that's saying a lot for OS X).

With automation, we have the ability to audit our configs and to check whether a certain state applies to every machine. We have the ability to see if all Macs have a critical patch or if the antivirus is up-to-date. All of this is reportable to a central location. We also decentralize authority so people who aren't sysadmins can monitor machines within their own areas to ensure compliance and IT security. All of this is possible through automation. I love that even machines that don't connect every day can phone home when they're on-line. It means home computers can benefit from this technology, connecting when they VPN into the internal network. I can also see by our management console which machines are connecting now and which haven't connected in a while.

We're even using this system for some of our scientific devices such as robots that run the Cfengine configuration to ensure IT security compliance. I cannot image a life without automated configuration management.

I admit there is a learning curve, but isn't there always learning curve when you're a sysadmin? I got into this profession because there was always something new to learn and a better way to solve a problem. Go out and do some research, figure out what is important in a tool, and set up a test network. There are a lot of resources for all of these tools to help you with recipes and getting started. I won't list them all here because I'm sure your Google foo can produce help on any of the tools listed at the beginning of this rant... er, post.

Automated configuration management isn't bleeding edge, it isn't new, it should be a part of any mature enterprise.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Why attend LISA and how to get there on a budget

How to attend LISA on a budget

LISA '12 registration is open! The USENIX Large Installation System Administration (LISA) conference is the gathering place for some of the best in the industry.

If your job resembles system administration then you should make an effort to be in San Diego sometime between December 9 - 14th. Vint Cerf opens the technical conference on Wednesday with his Keynote then you've got an eclectic menu of choices and topics. LISA covers the broad swath of skills and technologies that a modern sysadmin needs to know to advance in the profession. I've been attending since 1995 and I still pick up gems every year. 

Why should you attend LISA?

I get it, conferences can be expensive. If you only look at them as a perk your employer provides, then you're missing the real reason to attend a conference. Of all of the reasons to attend, supporting yourself is the biggest reason to go. If your employer doesn't value your professional development, that's their prerogative. The only person who is ultimately responsible for your development is you.

To attend a full week of LISA including tutorials every day and three days of tech sessions, you could drop a pretty penny. If you're paying on your own dime, cut costs but still get there:
  • Book a flight early. As we get closer to the conference, flights will only increase. In looking at the total cost to attend, flight isn't the biggest cost.
  • Hotel - This seems like one of the bigger costs. $179/night adds up if you're staying 6 or 7 nights. 
    • So only go half the week. That cuts your hotel cost considerably.
    • Roomshare -- I get it, not everyone can share a room. A double is $199/night but if you split it in half, it's still cheaper than a single. Most of us don't spend that much time in the room. It's basically a place to sleep and shower. Just think of it as college when you shared a dorm room, only this time it is only a few nights instead of a few semesters.
    • Join the USENIX roomshare mailing list to look for people to help share costs. 
  • Conference registration -- the technical conference costs $985 before any discounts
    • Take advantage of USENIX ($125/yr) or LISA SIG ($45/yr) membership to save $170 off of the LISA technical conference.
    • See the conference discounts page for details. Here's a sampling:
      • $100 off as a government employee
      • $100 off as an employee of a non-profit
    • Do you have another hardship such as you're currently unemployed or living on a fixed income? Email to request hardship assistance.
  • Ask for a refrigerator in your room and eat on the cheap 
    • Go shopping! Ask at the hotel for a local grocery and pick up something that could make lunches--PB&J, cold cuts and bread, veggies, chips.
    • Save your leftovers. Restaurants give us way too much food, so save half and eat it for lunch the next day.
    • Remember that lunch is provide to tutorial attendees on the days of their tutorials.
I encourage students to come. I could write a whole thread on students in the community. If you're a student in system administration, or even a junior level sysadmin, LISA is the place to talk to others in the profession. What skills do they have, what are they recruiting for, what specialties exist and what do you need to break into a specialty? Companies like Google are always recruiting at LISA. Think you have what it takes? Come and talk to the companies at LISA. The people you meet just might lead to your next opportunity. How do you get past the flood of applicants for a desired job? You get to know people in the company and pre-interview in the hallway track at LISA. It's valuable to anyone in the profession but it seems vital to those just starting out...

I hope you find investment in yourself worthwhile and I hope to see you at LISA. I'd love to hear if you found any of this useful.

Your friendly neighborhood 2012 LISA program chair

Friday, October 5, 2012

Third day at the Grace Hopper Conference

Winding down the Grace Hopper Conference

It's the 3rd day at Grace Hopper in Baltimore and I have had more time to immerse myself in the conference.Unfortunately I missed yesterday's keynote by Nora Denzel's but I was told by several people that it is a must see. Luckily, if you too missed it, it is available online

I'm finding more sessions that apply to a mid or upper-level tech woman.  I still walked into a couple of sessions to find that they were slanted toward students. How can we fix that?  There are woman who are mid-to-upper career who want support and have questions. The hallway track was the best today.  I met some great women who are more like me and not just starting out in their careers. It was wonderful to connect with other women.  I had a great time people watching. I was amazed at the number of extroverts. I don't know if it was because it was a mostly-women event (there were a few men, but not many) or because we were told to meet each other...

Things I would have liked to do better:
  • Find other women in system administration. I saw the table topics but I didn't figure out how they worked until today. It didn't seem like 3600 women were doing the table-topic thing so could I really reach the attendees by hand-writing "sysadmin meetup" on the backside of the table topics board?  Someone suggested emailing Systers but of the 3600, only 300 Systers were in attendance. Plus, after seeing the Systers statistics from the survey tonight, sysadmin is not one of the primary careers represented on Systers.
  • Let me add that I'm hiring. I don't have a corporate booth with bling to hand out, but I do have a legitimate tech job. I was hoping there would be a jobs board or some way for an attendee to advertise a job without committing to a booth. I didn't see a way so I left with my lonely job opening.  I can post it to the Systers list, but again only 300 of the 3600 attendees are on Systers.
  • Talk to even more people. There were a few times I missed getting into a session so I sat in the hallway and did work. Work would be happy to know that I did that, but I missed out on some opportunities to talk to more attendees.
Dinner was super!  After the Systers meetup, our table decided to hike to dinner together. We started talking about how much of the conference was aimed at students. All of us were beyond that stage and most of us were well into our careers.  Our group conspired to organize a track for mid-to-upper-level technical women for next year.  We'll see if it comes to fruition. We all ponied up our contact info so... it may actually happen. Thanks to Laura, Anne Marie, Terri, Lugene, Nicole for a lovely dinner and Miche for speed-walking to dinner with me. Sorry you couldn't eat with us but we understand you had to get to the 25th anniversary celebration ON TIME!

And Lugene did lead everyone out to the dancing with bling! I knew it!

There is still one more day. If you're a coder, then Saturday is for you. It's Open Source day. As I'm more a user of Open Source and not really a coder, today was my last day. It was sad to see it end but boy am I wiped out!

Would I go again?  Yeah, probably, but I'd look more closely at the sessions and map out what I would want to attend before I booked the flight.

Next year is supposedly in Minneapolis so it is an event that makes itself attainable to women all over the US.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

First look at the Grace Hopper Conference

So can a woman with 2 decades of professional computing experience find something applicable at the Grace Hopper Conference?

This is my first time at the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC). Being a woman in computing, it sure sounded like an amazing event: 3600 women in computing under one roof. Luckily it's in my backyard this year (Baltimore) so I decided to go.

I spent the first day getting a feel for the sessions. It's only the second day so I don't have a complete perspective on the event, but I thought it was reasonable to provide a first impression of the conference.

My experience at conferences is 90% USENIX events. I admit that USENIX won my heart years ago with the LISA conference. As a Unix system administrator, it continues to be the place to go to keep up with the community, changes in technology, and the profession as a whole.

It's hard not to compare. It's a different event, different organizing body, different community. This is a good thing. I want to broaden my exposure; different is good.

GHC looks like something I would have loved when I was a student, or at least early in my career. Many of the sessions are aimed at students (e.g. resume writing, going to grad school, PhD programs, mentoring). There is a huge career fair with every national lab I can think of (e.g. Oakridge, Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, Los Alamos... ), many universities, and the big companies that hire computing professionals (e.g. Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.).  People looking for a job can wander through the "vendor" area to talk to companies that are hiring. There are also on-site interviews and a special area designated for this purpose. I've talked to several students who had technical interviews schedule with Yahoo or Facebook right here at the conference. You see a lot of young people dressed in their interview clothes wandering through the halls and sessions.

This is a great opportunity for women to support women.  In several cases, a nervous student talked to those of us seated around her and received sage advice and encouragement "be yourself" "interviews are two-way" "don't sweat the whiteboard part--writing code on a whiteboard is hard to do perfectly. Focus on the problem you're trying to solve and be able to explain your logic." It was pretty cool to be a part of that.  I hope the encouragement I attempted to provide really did help because I do remember being the green techie, unsure about my skills. These kids are just starting out. Experience is not a strength for these applicants; what they've learned through school and summer jobs and their willingness and ability to apply that to new skills and experiences is big.

So what am I getting out of GHC so far?  I'm not sure. It is interesting to see 3600 women in computing. I feel like I've helped in some small ways (helping a couple of students with resumes, talking to students pre-interview, talking to some young women about the industry) but I feel like something is missing.  Maybe these sessions are up and coming.  So far I've heard a lot of "we can" as far as being a woman in computing. I'm not hearing a lot about what the real world can be like, for instance: walking into a meeting where the only other woman is the secretary, being on a team of guys where you feel like an outsider because of the overwhelming male culture of beer and high-fives, navigating the sensitivities of gender differences (e.g. being the only team member who has or will be pregnant), how to interview a company to see if you'll fit there.

It's great that we have this 4 day gathering where we can safely talk to anyone. In one of the opening sessions, one of the organizers described this conference as different from others you'll attend. She went on to say something to the effect of 'here you can walk up to anyone and introduce yourself and talk about what you do and the other person really wants to talk to you.'

That seems like an opportunity for GHC to provide a session on how to meet people at other events that aren't this one!  It seems like a missed opportunity to bring these women together to pitch that you need to come to this one event in order to safely meet other peers.  While it's great to have this as an introduction to networking at conferences, I'd like to see GHC lead the way for these women. So, the next time you attend that "other" computing conference in your specialty, here's how you meet people. Most other computing conferences are going to sway heavily to the male demographic unless they specifically target women attendeees. I want to be able to meet people who specialize in my computing area at these events rather than feeling like I should become part of the wallpaper there.

The downside to networking at GHC is the breadth of specialties. I can talk to any woman in the hall but the likelihood that she and I are in the same computing area is not high.  I've talked to web developers, programmers, women interested in robotics, and some other extremely specialized areas. As a former Unix sysadmin and now an IT manager, I'd love to meet some other sysadmins, but I don't see how.  I've talked to a few other women here who are in a similar boat. They'd love to meet up with some other women in their sub-specialty, but how do you find them?   The answer is probably, go to a different event to get that kind of community exposure. This circles right back to "but how do I talk to people at my speciality conference?"

FWIW, you can meet people at other gender-mixed events. Be prepared that there are trolls everywhere in computing so not all of your attempts will be successful, but I have found (in the past 17 years of conference attending) that the community is interested in making connections. Reach out to other like professionals. Take advantage of the social meet ups at other conferences and discount the trolls in favor of the other great people you will meet.


Ok, that horse is probably dead.

I don't want this to be a negative review of this amazing event. It may not be the event for me, specifically, where I stand in my career. We'll see. The jury is still out. I think it presents a unique opportunity for all the women in college who need help getting to the next level whether that is grad school or their first real computing job.

Things I really like so far:
  • 3600 women in computing under one roof
  • Friendly hallway track - everyone wants to meet you and hear your story.
  • Everyone, all the way to the top of the Anita Borg institute, wants to create a safe environment for women.  Sweet!
  • Great attendees!

Things I'm not enamored of:
  • Sessions fill up too quickly. If you're not there 10 minutes early, you risk that the room will fill and the room monitor will turn you away. I think conferences should consider that some sessions will be more popular than others and space should be reserved with that in mind.  Who cares if a room is half full. I'd rather have empty space than a closed door. Telling rejected attendees to find another session doesn't work if that was the session you were looking forward to.
  • Due to the above, I'm skipping all of the social breaks (e.g. what USENIX calls the hallway track) in order to get a seat in the next session. It sorta defeats the purpose of the networking break if you're worried about getting a seat.
  • The perception that this is the only place you can meet people at a conference. Let's change that!

Unrelated to GHC but tangentially having an impact, I have to mention the Starbucks in the conference center while I'm here.  7 to 8 of the most inefficient team I've ever seen at a Starbucks.  They could see a long line of women who were doomed to miss their sessions as cobwebs collected on us in line. The employees were busy joking, hugging, standing around waiting for direction, and taking orders in a serial fashion. To an intelligent observer, you could easily see some efficiencies they could implement on the fly.

They seemed nice enough when I mentioned that we really needed to get through the line faster or risk missing the conference we paid to attend.  I got a free scone, but I would rather have the manager look at the line and redistribute his/her staff to improve customer service. I have a feeling nothing will change. Ah well!

My advice to attendees: Plan ahead!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Where you come from shouldn't matter as much as where you're going.

Can't we all just get along?

On Slaughter's article...

I don't care about all of the press slamming her for the "dream job" and her revelations about living away from her family making it hard to parent. Yeah yeah. I get it, you are poking holes in her dream world and her public admission of the inner struggles she faced as she gave up an amazing professional opportunity to return to her family. Whatever.

The author admits that she writes about her own sphere which are high powered women who juggle parenting with successful careers. Great, a view from the top. You mean it isn't all rainbows and unicorns?  OK, nuff said critics.

Having just finished the Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) summit it seems that instead of focusing so sharply on one woman's confessions, we should look to ourselves and our community. Women seem too critical of one another. There are the mommy wars and women who pick on the successes or failures of one another. Men are smart to stay out of that battle.

What we need instead is a community that supports our individual choices as well as the situations that are not necessarily by choice.

It appears that those of us who have found successful careers work too much because we have something to prove, whereas the woman who is scraping by to make a living is working too much because that's what she has to do to make ends meet. Do we women professionals with that additional income feel left out if we aren't as busy as the single woman with great aspirations?  Gosh I hope not (looking in the mirror a bit here to figure out why I'm running myself ragged... ).

I currently have a good career and a spouse who contributes both financially and as a strong parent to our children. It wasn't always that way. Growing up the child of a single mother, I had a first-hand view of her stress as she tried to work and parent. She didn't have a degree though she did eventually put herself through college to earn an AA. Working a job that barely provided for both of us, there were many conversations about how we'd pay the bills or fix a broken car. She had only me to confide in which wasn't always the ideal situation for a kid.  There were also a lot of things I witnessed other kids my age doing and having because they had a larger household income and two parents. My mother used to say "life's not fair" and that was her way of teaching me to accept reality.

That said, I also don't think you have to be a single parent to struggle with your career choices. There are some women who might not have had the opportunity to go to college out of high school or didn't realize how hard it would be to work without a degree or specific professional skills. Some of these women work hard to put themselves through school later in life so they can change careers, re-invent themselves.

There are days that it feels like it's too much to balance work and home and do both successfully. Then I remember that my mother didn't have another parent to share the home workload or to provide an income and it seems like I can make it work.

How do single women (parents and non-parents) cope with their hope of a successful career (to increase their earning potential, to necessitate working one job to pay the bills, to feel fulfilled) and balance the rest of their lives (desire to have a family, raising kids on their own, desire to get a degree, desire for a better job)?

I think the first step is realizing that not everyone is like you. We all traverse individual paths to where we are today. We make choices yet some paths are not always available or unclear when we are making these choices. Stop throwing stones and instead be a role model or a mentor. As Madeleine Albright said "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Where you come from shouldn't matter as much as where you're going.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Women in Computing, Is There a Problem?

Women in Computing, Is There a Problem?

This is one of the questions we'll ask on June 12th at the Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) summit in Boston.

Has it been reduced to a level where no longer impacts us in reality? Is it all in our heads? Do you have an opinion?

If you think there is a conversation worth having around women in computing, join us for Federated Conferences Week June 12th through the 15th. Each day promises a variety of topics, Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) is just one of these!

Your registration to Federated Conferences Week allows you to wander between events within the schedule so you get more than the registration for a single summit.

Men are welcome and encouraged to attend the WiAC summit. We need your outlook and contribution to the conversation. This isn't just a women's issue and having a well-rounded discussion helps us to frame the issues and outline some actionable things we can do to move forward.

I hope to see you there!

and Nicole
WiAC Co-Chairs

Use discount code 100WIAC12SPCL to save $100 on your WiAC registration!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why should sysadmin folks publish?

Why Should Sysadmin Folks Publish?

You're an operational-type, not a researcher or an academic-type. You enjoy troubleshooting and solving problems, finding new ways to make your job easier and making things work. Writing!? That's one of the last things you think of doing. Documenting your infrastructure is already a struggle for you. Why would you ever write a paper, certainly not for fun!

There are a lot of you out there. I've heard quite a few reasons why you don't think you should or could publish:

  • I don't do anything interesting.
  • I can't write (alternate: I hate writing or writing is hard.).
  • I'm just a junior-level sysadmin.
  • I'm not smart enough (alternate: What if I look stupid?).
  • My boss doesn't care about publishing.
  • I don't have time.
  • My work isn't finished.
  • I don't have money to travel to the conference to present my paper (alternate: My boss won't pay for me to attend the conference).
Great. That's a wonderful list of reasons why you shouldn't publish. I'm going to give you a few reasons why you should.

It opens doors

IMO, this is the biggest benefit for you as an individual. 

Publishing gets your name out to the community. People who read your work or attend your talk start to remember your name. You get recognized in the hallway at community events, people see your name on mailing lists or forums and link you to your work. This is networking. It might lead you to your next job or new friends or give you some additional cred in the community.

Once published, you are always published. Others may continue your research or branch off from it, but it will always be yours. 

I spent over a decade attending conferences and hanging on the periphery of the community. I made contacts and learned new skills, but the value of the community skyrocketed when I got involved. In a few short years I've made so many new contacts and friends. I feel less intimidated by smarter people in industry and more like I'm part of the community. You don't have to be a raging extrovert to make this happen. Publish a paper and see where it takes you.

Advancing the industry

Your ideas could be the next big thing. Someone had to begin by realizing that log monitoring was important, or configuration management, or network monitoring. What solution are you working on that might change the industry?

You may not have the solution perfect, but maybe you'll share ideas or provide the template for others to create the next Nagios or Cfengine.

Stretch yourself and grow

Publishing can also mean presenting at the conference. Presenting at a conference is good practice and gets you out of your work bubble and in front of a new group of peers. It stretches you, and encourages you to try something new. Even if you present often at work, that isn't the same as presenting to a conference audience of technical peers.  

You might be surprised what you learn about yourself and what you learn about the industry.  You might learn that your job excels compared to others in the industry or that maybe it's time to move on because your company is stuck in the dark ages.  Either way, you grow through the experience and you have a broader view of the world.

Get out of the office

Getting out of the office and taking in a bit of community atmosphere can be a refreshing break from the day-to-day. Meet up with some friends or make new ones. There are social activities almost every day (the hallway track is a social activity in itself) to help sysadmins get to know one another. 

Not into beer parties? At LISA there is board game night, the LISA quiz show, the LISA reception, technical BOFs, the hallway track (people hanging out in the conference area between sessions or after-hours to meet and talk with other sysadmins). I always find enough opportunities to socialize with peers outside of beer parties.

It is not rocket science

We think of publishing at conferences as rocket science, but it doesn't have to be. Look at the types and examples of submissions to some of the various tech conferences Cascadia, PICC, LISA.  Are there any topics for which you have as much knowledge as some of these authors? Are there solutions you have implemented that solve real-world problems?

There are also alternatives to the stereotypical research paper. LISA, for example, has a structured papers track for research papers, but we also have a practice and experience report track suitable for stories from the trenches. 

An experience report doesn't have to be something completely new or bleeding edge. Sometimes during an implementation you took a few obvious paths that led you to some serious learning on the job and a change of direction to achieve your goals. Sharing these kinds of experiences can help others avoid similar pitfalls. It could be something as simple as bringing up a new service, implementing some industry best practices, or developing a solution for work. If there are lessons to share, then you may have a good practice and experience report topic.

If you're not a research scientist and you don't feel like the formal papers track is right for you, consider the experience reports track. 

LISA also has a program committee made up of helpful volunteers willing to mentor potential authors through the submission process. The process has built-in support all along the way. I think that's a huge benefit. You aren't flying blind because someone is there to help nudge you in the best direction.

What if I get rejected?

Even some of the best repeat authors get rejected.  We cannot accept every submission or we'd have to run the conference for a whole month to fit them all into the schedule. The program committee works very hard to choose the topics and submissions that they think best fit current industry needs and illustrate the best ideas.  

Getting rejected for the conference might still lead to an article in a journal (such as ;login:) or a poster session or maybe the program committee will ask you to resubmit the next year after you've had more time to collect results or more time to test your hypothesis.

I still cannot afford to go

Publishing at a conference doesn't require you to attend the entire conference (for LISA that would be 6 days). I believe it is such a worthwhile professional growth opportunity, that I pay my own way to go to some events that my employer doesn't cover. Minimally, you need to be there for the day of your presentation. If travel money is an issue, focus on events that are within driving distance or cheap airfare (if you're on the East Coast of the US then you'd consider PICC over Cascadia, which is on the West Coast). 

Look for other ways to share expenses such as cab fare from the airport (or take the subway which is available in some cities) or share a room with a colleague to halve your room expenses. Usenix provides LISA presenters with a discount on the technical conference so you do get a break on your registration. Students can apply for the student grant program and take advantage of reduced conference fees or can volunteer to work at the conference for additional financial assistance.

The time to publish is now

I hope I've convinced you even a tiny bit that publishing could be a good thing for a sysadmin. You aren't staying in this job forever are you? Where will you go next, what challenges will you face? Publishing might be action you take that leads you to your next opportunity.

There's still time to submit something to the 2012 LISA conference. Check out the call for participation and think about some of your work stories. There is probably something there you've seen or done that others could learn from and find interesting. 

Your friendly neighborhood Program Chair for the 2012 LISA conference
LISA 12 submission site

Saturday, March 24, 2012

It's a community issue

It's a community issue...

The last time I wrote, I made suggestions to women in system administration, what they could to do address some of the issues we face in the community and our profession. I realize this isn't just a women's issue, it is a community issue. If we want better diversity and the benefits of all of the capable tech people, then we need to adjust our gauges so we aren't just observing, but actively engaging our community. Asking both men and women to be part of the solution has broad reaching implications. Those who don't get it will find themselves in the minority as more people support the diverse path. As I said in a previous post, I hope these conversations have a positive impact on all tech people who face stereotyping and discrimination in our community.

It seems like a lot of people are writing about women in tech at the moment. Maybe they always have been and I'm only just noticing. I've spent the last few weeks reading writings by other people discussing the challenges women face in technology careers. As a result of my lurking, I have a few observations from the various viewpoints I've read and my own experiences.

Be open to our differences.

I'm gonna start with the guys. Consider your words before you speak and your deeds before you act. Realize that we are all calibrated differently based on our wiring and experiences. What doesn't offend me might offend another because of these differences. Try to be open to comment and critique of your actions and improve your outlook based on your interactions with people, both men and women, who contribute to your betterment. Don't judge us when we speak up. Many women hesitate to speak up when they feel there is an injustice because we fear being labeled, criticized or threatened by you. Sometimes you may think we overreact, but please give us the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this is the third time today we've heard the same negative reference or seen a woman objectified. A person can only take so much and even the most accepting person reaches her limit at some point.

It wasn't that long ago that women did not have careers outside the home, that we were considered the lesser sex, that men thought we needed to be taken care of and provided for. We are playing catchup for decades of these attitudes. We could sure use your respect and encouragement.

Now I'd like to speak to the women. There will always be some men who don't get it. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I know a lot of guys who will call out a peer who is being disrespectful or oppressive toward women. Somewhere in the middle are the men with varying levels of clue. I believe that many of the guys have good intentions. I encourage you to give the benefit of the doubt where possible. Use awkward[1] conference moments as teaching opportunities. Some tech guys are used to their insular environments. Seeing a smart, geeky, tech woman might be the equivalent of spotting a unicorn for these people. This doesn't excuse bad behavior but it might explain some of the social awkwardness we experience at tech events.

[1] Note I said "awkward" not "threatening." If you ever feel threatened in a conference environment, get out of the situation and tell someone: an organizer, staff of the sponsoring organization.

Men, Speak Up

Women should be able to speak up, but that isn't always easy or possible. Sometimes when a woman speaks up, she is treated with derision or threatened (or even feels threatened). There's a recent example on twitter between the founders of Geeklist and @shanely. Review the conversation and come to your own conclusions.

We've learned from experience that speaking up sometimes results in a bad scene, labeling, ostracizing. She used to be fun until she spoke up for gender equality and now she's a wet blanket. Don't include/invite her. Really? I'm sorry she rained on your parade, but it really bothered her what you said/did. Go back to "Be open to our differences" please.

When men speak up to other men, it is one of their own calling them out. If what you said or did offended another of your gender, you must need some behavior modification! It's hard to call a guy an overly-sensitive female when he tells you that you're out of line. I'm sure some men reserve their bad behavior for times when women are out of earshot. It doesn't make it any better because it continues to encourage a divide between the genders. Enlisting both men and women to help increase awareness and reduce negative stereotyping helps us all in the end.

It doesn't mean we need to be saved or we need men to fix things. It's a community issue. Our community is stronger when everyone has a chance to be part of it, not just one gender or one race or one orientation. Those of us, both men and women, who speak out for each other help create a better community. Thank you guys! I know who some of you are and I have the highest respect for you.

People are sometimes attracted to one another.

We don't have control over our internal reaction to someone for which we feel an attraction. We do have control over what we say and do about it. In the right situation, two people might try to get to know one another. In a professional situation such as an IT conference, we don't do this. We stifle the feelings of attraction. Even when there are social gatherings and alcohol that allow the brain to let down its guard, we should not see the IT conference as a dating pool (for either gender). What does a guy do who is attracted to another guy at a conference? I've gotta think that there is still professional respect between these two parties. There isn't a tech woman I know who attends a technical conference to hook up with you, so don't use it as your personal singles bar.

Women fight strong stereotypes.

Yes our repressive history is still fresh in our minds. My mother's generation did not have the opportunities I have, nor the opportunities my daughter will have. That's one part of this. It takes generations to change cultural beliefs like these. Even as we make progress with each new generation, we continue to face a media machine that does a great job of fortifying the image of women as sex symbols. I can barely take a step without tripping over a magazine, billboard, web site, etc. displaying a voluptuous overly-made-up woman displaying a lot of skin and a sultry look. Both men and women are faced with these images daily. What does this do to the man/woman professional relationship? I believe it must have an impact. I'm not going to blame media for all of our woes, but there are times that I wonder if those images aren't making it harder for us to be taken seriously (Cheesy Enjoli commercial from the 70s/80s comes to mind--arg).

I don't know how to combat these stereotypes other than to be the best professional person I can be and try not to let gender play into my career. I spent the first 10 years of my tech career downplaying my femaleness and hoping that my abilities would speak for themselves. It made me one of the guys and led me to shun femininity. I thought it was necessary to fit into the male culture. I'm not sure if it was necessary but it was the tool I employed to attempt to bridge the gap between me and everyone else.

We're still women.

Sometimes I want to be seen as a person and sometimes I want to be a woman. Jewelry, perfume, dresses and nice shoes... some women still like that stuff along with technology. Why can't we have both?

As I mentioned above, I stifled my gender to fit in. I did this by wearing shapeless clothes, no makeup and acting like one of the guys. It wasn't really acting, I acclimated to a male culture fairly effectively. I found that, as a result, I didn't have much in common with other women. I felt adrift and uncomfortable if I ended up in a conversation about cosmetics, clothes, "cute" guys or, gossip. I played along when I had to but I couldn't wait to get back to my androgynous role. I admit, it made me feel a bit like an oddity. I wasn't a guy and I didn't fit in with women. It has taken me several years to become comfortable in my own skin. I had to accept being a woman and allow myself to not be afraid of that fact. I wouldn't recommend to a woman starting out in the profession that she mask her femininity to be one of the guys.

In my recent readings, I became an observer to a thread relating to this topic. The women in the thread started talking about how much they liked coding, computers, technology but they still liked nail polish, high heels, the color pink, dresses and other accoutrements of our gender. These varying interests don't diminish the women's contribution to the technical professions. It makes them that much more human to admit who they really are, despite stereotypes. We shouldn't have to repress the things that make us unique in order to fit in with the other gender in our community. There should be room for men and women with all of their varying likes and passions as long as they don't impose upon or oppress the opposite gender.

Are we the weaker sex?

Some of the angst I've had in my readings has been the advice to women, men, employers, managers on how to make business more appealing and friendly to women. This one just bothers me for some reason. For example, there have been a couple of different write-ups that specifically recommend avoiding the use of masculine words because those don't appeal to women and cause less women to apply for jobs using those words. Some of these hot-button words include leader, assertive, driven, ambitious.

Seriously? These are masculine words? I see myself as all of these things. None of these words would scare me away from a job posting if I thought the rest of the job sounded interesting. Some of the suggested replacements included the following: understand, compassionate and nurturing. How many system administrator job descriptions have you seen use the words compassionate and nurturing?

Do employers really need to stop using the earlier "masculine" words in order to attract more women or can we, as women, learn to see ourselves as driven, ambitious, assertive leaders? If I'm a hiring manager and I need someone who is driven and a good leader, I don't care if that person is a man or a woman, but I can't see changing the job description to remove those words if they are key to the role.

So for those women who say "that's fine, but I don't want to..."

I understand that it gets old feeling like all of the responsibility lies with you. As a woman in tech, you aren't required to fix all of the problems you see. I only suggest things we can do, collectively, to make the community stronger. So...
  • I've heard women say that they don't like to hold the responsibility for representing the entire gender. Then don't. You really only represent yourself. No one can force you to represent all woman-kind. If the men are going to generalize for our entire gender based on interactions with you, then that's their problem.
  • For those women who don't feel like they should be responsible for social interactions with awkward male geeks. Then don't. Again, it isn't your responsibility. I feel like it's easier to talk to a guy who seems socially awkward then to constantly feel awkward because he's not approaching me to talk.
If you just want to attend a professional event without turning it into a feminist rally, then go and have a great time. Don't feel that every event has to turn into a teaching moment. I spend a week at LISA every year and I certainly don't walk the halls looking for unenlightened men to engage.

Parting thoughts

I understand this one writeup won't solve all of our issues. There are complexities and situations that cannot be addressed here and those must be addressed at the time and with the appropriate people.

I would love to see my professional community welcome and encourage all interested parties regardless of gender, color, orientation, etc. There is already a pretty solid group of sysadmins in the LOPSA and USENIX organizations that believes this too. We have a good start. There will always be some percentage of attendees or members who don't get it or are unable to see how their behavior creates an unfriendly environment. Let's make them the minority!


Someone asked me to include some links that I read. I wish I had saved them all. Here are a few:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What can the sysadmin community do to be more inclusive of women?

What can the sysadmin community do to be more inclusive to women?

Part 2 of the conversation about women in sysadmin. [1] Last time I asked if we were a friendly community. Many who answered the question thought it was getting worse for women. Hmm...

As a friend posted to Facebook "The sysadmin community isn't inviting to anyone."

Have we created a community around our profession that leaves one with the impression that nobody is welcome? That doesn't bode well for the profession. In reality, I know a lot of men and women in our community who are actively trying to change these negative stereotypes.

Many of the women I've spoken to about sysadmin conferences and the community have tried, a few times, to throw themselves into the general pool. They've felt like outsiders or had encounters with awkward or creepy men so they've made the decision to stay away.

It seems the alternative is women finding or creating their own groups outside of the general community. Is there still interest in the general sysadmin community? I think the sysadmin community offers some wonderful opportunities for professional advancement and I'm not the only one who believes this. If so, how do we show these talented tech women that they are welcome?

I've heard that there are a lack of role models, but role models aren't enough. In groups that look for new members, "who you know" is still known to be the most common recruitment mechanism. If the community is mostly men, who know mostly men then it follows that new members to the community will also be men. Maybe what we need is outreach by the women who are part of the community? Successful women who have found their way can extend a hand to their peers who haven't made it through the door yet.

  • Feel free to contact me if you want to give the LISA conference a chance. I'd be happy to be your first contact at LISA so you go to the conference knowing someone.
  • I'm also available to assist with paper submissions.
  • I also plan to have a women of sysadmin birds of a feather (BOF) session on Wednesday to allow all of us to make some connections within the community.

What can you do?
  • Resist imposter syndrome. When you feel that nagging voice inside, call upon some reserve confidence. The guys aren't always sure of themselves either.
  • Actively work to stop inequalities in hiring, management, and treatment of other sysadmins (this goes for anyone, not just women). Men and women can contribute to our success here.
  • Get to know other sysadmins. Create your own place in the community. If you know nobody, I recommend starting with LOPSA. Just joining isn't enough:
    • Join the lopsa-tech mailing list,
    • hang out in the #lopsa irc channel,
    • attend one of the LOPSA local conferences: PICC or Cascadia or
    • contact LOPSA to become part of the mentoring program either as a mentor or as a mentee.
  • Join us at LISA. Hey, I'm not doing my job as program chair if I don't say this. Seriously, I have been going to LISA since 1995 and I have found it to be one of the biggest professional steps I take for myself. Sure, my employer benefits from having a sysadmin who got a week away from the office, some additional tech training and ideas for the future. The real benefit has always been to me as a professional. It's the people and possibilities that I get there that really keep me going. It's my annual trek for a professional recharge.
  • Reach out. Do you see another woman hanging out on the fringe at a community event? Walk up and introduce yourself. She may know nobody and not know how to take that first step.

These things may seem small but every opportunity we give ourselves or someone else increases our overall success. If you help 2 people and each of them helps another 2 people, our community will grow more diverse over time. I think it's a win-win to shape the culture into one that is more diverse.

If the community is about broadening your professional network and making contacts, then it seems both sides are missing out by avoiding the connection.

It isn't just a women's problem. If people want to see better diversity (race, religion, orientation, gender, etc.) then all sides need to step up and commit to supporting change.

What are the next steps?

[1] I understand there are other underrepresented groups. I'm just talking about women today but maybe some of this conversation will benefit others. That would be great too.

'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.' - Eleanor Roosevelt

It isn't just the IT industry either. The literary world has their own gender issues.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Is the sysadmin community inviting to women?

Is the sysadmin community inviting to women?

As program chair for the 2012 Usenix LISA conference, I've been busy recruiting papers and trying to spread the joy of a LISA conference for the professional sysadmin. Along the way I've had some discouraging feedback from some fellow female sysadmins. They don't attend because they feel like outsiders at the conference. One even went so far as to say it was a men's club.

Could we make the conference more welcoming with some subtle changes: more women as speakers, a woman as keynote, gatherings for women (a women's BOF?), maybe a women of LISA sub-group?

There are certainly more women at LISA than there were 10 years ago. It probably feels odd for a new person to walk up to a random woman in the hallway just because she's a woman. "Hi, we have gender in common, do you want to be friends?"

Issues relating to women and system administration started brewing in my head when a friend asked me to sit on a panel of women in system administration at the 2011 Usenix LISA conference. My gut reaction was "no" because I didn't think there was anything constructive to say on this subject. I'd been in the field for 2 decades and did I really think that being a woman had held me back? In the end, I did the panel and it was eye opening for me. It was strange how many of us were thinking these odd thoughts but we hadn't voiced them out loud. As soon as they were out there, the room was full of nods of agreements and "me too" reactions.

Some issues were raised that I had not previously considered:

  • Professional women are intimidated by other professional women. I think it has to do with the effort it takes to be "just one of the guys" or at least accepted and respected. Most of this is in our own heads. There is some fear that there can be only one accepted and respected woman in a group of guys. Even if you have no desire to compete, you still enter a room with 10 men and 1 woman dreading the 1 woman. We admitted that we felt silly about this.
  • Women are apologetic compared to men. On mailing lists, in meetings, even in interviews we tend to apologize and phrase our answers using words like should, could, and maybe which makes us seem less confident about our capabilities.
  • Women don't always feel welcome in a culture where ribbing and ridicule is the norm. One of the panelists brought up her experiences on IRC where some of the channel members would be rude and nasty when she posed a question. Men seem more comfortable in this arena of name-calling and "friendly" abuse.
I'm trying not to write this so it sounds like a bunch of fixed generalizations. There are of course exceptions to any attempt to generalize.

I can imagine that any open gathering of people from our profession would sway toward mostly male attendance. So how do women deal with that on a daily basis: at work, in community meet-ups (e.g. irc, mailing lists, LUGs)? Personally, I see several women in the #lopsa channel on IRC. It's kinda refreshing when I think about it. That said, I don't think I walk around thinking about gender issues in system administration all the time. In fact, before the LISA '11 panel, I hadn't given it much conscious thought at all. For the most part, I've found the conference (Usenix ATC, LISA & LOPSA PICC) community friendly and inviting.

In talking with a friend, also in the profession, she asked why more women don't write papers. It's true, there is a lack of female authors in the conferences we attend and organize. The common response when one of us approaches a fellow tech woman about a paper topic is "I'm sure someone has already done that." If we think you have a cool idea, then maybe it really is a cool idea. Stop doubting yourself. There is a review process and the worst that can happen is a rejection from the program committee with comments from the reviewers. In fact, your submission is confidential and cannot be shared outside of the group of official reviewers.

So let's get back to the conference and sysadmin community as a whole. Are there things we could to to make the sysadmin community more inviting to tech women? I'm interested in workable ideas.

For those who want to see more women in the profession and the community, I don't think the gender balance can change overnight. If there is a change, it will happen gradually, over generations. I think the first step is to find our own way in the community which might just create a path for others to follow.

Here are some resources I've stumbled upon for women in tech:

Shared on Google+ by a fellow tech woman:
Thanks to jtrucks, I can link directly to the Google+ thread.