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Interview with Kyrre Begnum and Charles Border, JESA Chief Editors

Julie Miller recently interviewed Kyrre Begnum and Charles Border, the Chief Editors of the newly launched USENIX Journal of Education in System Administration (JESA).

UPDATE: The submission deadline has been extended to Sunday, August 3, 2014!

Read on to learn more about JESA, including the reasoning for its creation, the Call for Articles, and why you should attend SESA '14!


JBM: Why and how did SESA and JESA come into existence?

KB and CB: One of the predominating challenges in computing for our generation is that of scale. How can we build and maintain the architecture needed to support our connected society?  Closely allied to this is the question, how can we educate the people to create and maintain this incredibly complex architecture? This is the challenge that the Summit for Educators in System Administration (SESA) seeks to address. The mission of SESA is to create a community of educators in system administration. System administrators are part of our digital infrastructure like never before. Our society practically depends on them doing a good job and inventing new ways to improve, secure and design our digital presence. Higher education has an important role in this.  At the same time the academic discipline of computing is undergoing a period of introspection. As the youngest "science" we have always drawn heavily from mathematics, science (as practiced in the traditional life, social and physical sciences) and engineering. Traditional computer science programs have emphasized the theoretical side of computing, we want to think about putting the emphasis on computing as a practical toolset to get things done. As our architectures get more complex and the demands made on them more central to more people's lives we want to review the topics that we teach our computing students and the ways that we teach them.  

Our industry partners, and the employers of our graduates, have been very forthright in letting us know that they wanted new employees with a more hands-on focus to their education. But the problem that we as educators face is how do we take into consideration the needs of industry for skilled employees and fit those needs into a model that is attractive to students, doable in an era of reduced resources and enhanced accountability for higher education, and still sufficiently rigorous?  How do we teach students about large-scale storage architectures when we can't give them access to a Storage Area Network?  These are some of the challenges that we seek to address through SESA and the allied Journal of Education in System Administration (JESA).

While there have been gatherings of educators at LISA conferences for many years, 2013 saw the first-ever SESA event and as is typical from the past we enjoyed a great interest among the USENIX community. Co-located with the LISA conference, the attendance was more than we expected and the enthusiasm for the event was very high.  Based on this and the long history of partnership between USENIX and higher education, the board felt that the time was ripe to formalize this partnership through the formation of SESA as an independent group within USENIX.  There was only one ingredient missing.  As educators we are required to disseminate our work to the wider computing community through the publication of our research.  With this in mind we decided to create JESA as a closely associated publication of SESA. This represents the first journal specifically related to the dissemination of educational research and practices for system administration. That makes it unique and very exciting. There are other journals that have engineering education in mind and also for security, but this is the first for our field and we are very happy that USENIX recognizes the need for it and are willing to support it.

JBM: Why should someone submit his/her work to JESA?

KB and CB: JESA is the first established body of knowledge for system administration education. We are all wrestling with finding the best ways to teach our students to be the best system administrators and we all have unique approaches and experiences to both how and what we teach to our students. We need to collect them so we can all learn from each other. 

Publishing at JESA as an educator will provide a unique impact directly to others in exactly the same situation as you. Publishing at JESA as a member of the industry you have the opportunity to communicate directly with the academic community and thereby impact future generations of sysadmins. Who knows, maybe on the students impacted by your article will become a future colleague or even your boss!

JBM: Who should attend SESA and why?

KB and CB: Everyone who is interested in how higher education approaches (or should approach) system administration education is welcome. Many universities today rely on adjunct faculty to teach their system administration curriculum.  Working professionals like yourself who may find teaching an occasional class of young people a fun challenge and a real change of pace.  We enjoyed our interaction with industry practitioners and educators mixed together last year and hope to repeat it. We have had hiring managers talk about what they look for and need. We have had technologists talk about lab environments we should use and we have had teachers talk about what they teach, how and why. Together we get the unique experience at SESA where the hiring manager talks with the educator about what is needed and the technologist adds how it can be done.

JBM: What can attendees expect to get from the event? 

KB and CB: We want to facilitate discussions and interactions as much as possible at SESA. We want the community to grow and for that we need people to connect and collaborate outside of SESA, perhaps on a paper for JESA? Attendees from the industry can expect to get an insight into how programs are built up and taught. They will find many eager listeners for their ideas and suggestions. They may also get their own ideas sent back to them seeking advice on practicalities or what should be prioritized.

JBM: What are your goals for JESA and SESA?

KB and CB: Our community is still in its infancy. Over the next years we want to see us grow and become more coherent. That way we will help define what the profession of system administration is all about. This will help provide the recognition it deserves and make it more of an established field. SESA and JESA are two tools at our disposal for building a community and recording our knowledge as it grows.

JBM: What else should we know?

KB and CB: There is only one thing left: Come join us at SESA ’14 in Seattle! You will never meet as many people fired up about system administration education anywhere else! Please consider submitting a talk proposal, poster or JESA paper! :)