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How a USENIX Student Grant Can Lead to a Career in Technology

Today I sent out a note on our Twitter, Facebook, and G+ accounts, encouraging students to apply for one of our upcoming grant opportunities. @selenamarie responded:

I know Selena and I was surprised to learn that she got started in technology by applying for a USENIX student grant and attending one of our events. Selena Deckelmann is a well-known conference speaker, contributor to PostgreSQL, chair of Postgres Open, and founded the Open Source Bridge conference. In this interview, she shares her first experiences with USENIX and our student grant program.

Rikki: You say you got started in tech with the USENIX student grant program. How did the student grant program help you?

Selena: It helped me attend my first technical conference, LISA. I hope that was what I got the grant for, anyway! It was a long time ago. I also applied and was awarded a software development grant a few years later — I know that I got that one. :)

Rikki: Which event did you first attend?

Selena: LISA 1997.

Rikki: What did you get out of the event?

Selena: I met Linux Torvalds. I also met a group of women, one of which was one of the first IBM field technicians. She told some great stories about her early career.

There was a pretty hilarious costume party where Marcus Ranum, original founder of Network Flight Recorder, wrapped himself in saran wrap and wrote TCP on his chest — get it? TCPWrappers? — and the women I met wore a giant witch's hat with punchcards in it.

My mentor, Steve VanDevender, was there and he introduced me to a bunch of sysadmins from Portland, Oregon. I was attending the University of Oregon at the time. [editor's note: Steve is on the LISA '12 Program Committee]

I also saw some of the first talks about what I find most interesting about devops today — distributed systems management and large network research. I attended LISA four times, and was exposed to lots of exciting research and people, who I then invited to speak at conferences I created later!

Rikki: What would you tell other students who are considering applying for a student grant?

Selena: Conferences are a great way to connect with people, find out what really excites you in the working world, and have real conversations with people about what you want to do with your life. They're places to try out ideas and test yourself by giving talks. So many of the people at conferences are willing to share their experiences and their contacts. It's really a no-lose situation. And definitely join the social events.

Rikki: Many people who attend USENIX events have been attending them for years. In fact, a lot of them come at their own expense and use "vacation" time to do it. Why should someone who has never attended a USENIX event make it a priority to attend one this year?

Selena: For me, it's how I stay connected to my industry. I work with open source databases, and the rate of change in the technology that's standard is incredible. Whether that's map-reduce, non-relational DBs, Chef/Puppet, cloud tech... I rely so much on friends and contacts in the industry to fill me in, train me, and share whatever interests them. I can't stay on top of it without friends referring information to me all the time.

Rikki: Anything else you'd like to add about USENIX, our events, or our community?

Selena: I've just enjoyed my experiences with USENIX people and conferences. There's a practical streak running through the community. Theory paired with practice. They're my kind of people.

Rikki: Thanks, Selena! I hope to see you at an event soon.

The deadline to apply for a student grant to attend 9th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI '12) is Monday, March 26, 2012. Learn about the NSDI '12 student grant and our other grant opportunities at: https://www.usenix.org/students/grants

And follow @usenix and #usenixgrants on Twitter.