Interview with Kyrre Begnum, SESA '13 Program Chair

SESA '13 The inaugural Summit for Educators in System Administration (SESA '13) will be co-located with LISA '13. In this interview, SESA '13 program chair Kyrre Begnum talks about sysadmin education and plans for the first SESA workshop.

What are the "hot topics" in sysadmin education?

Kyrre: System administration education is a relatively new topic in higher education. We are seeing it being taught as undergraduate and graduate courses, and sometimes as a theme for a whole program. The field is changing and we are still trying to properly grasp what the industry needs and wants. New trends, like DevOps, need to be introduced to the students regardless of whether they aim to become a sysadmin or just take an optional course as part of a software developer education. There is a constant struggle to provide as realistic hands-on experience as possible while still making the labs scale to the number of students and without spending too much time on lab maintenance.

One of our key challenges is lack of network between the different educators. Most are left to themselves to define course content, learning goals, and curriculum. SESA collocated at LISA is a great way to change this. We already have a small community of educators who used to meet at the system administration education workshop at LISA. With SESA, we can invite a broader group and focus on building a strong network within the higher education sector but still with close ties to the profession.

In some cases, sysadmin courses are taught by a local sysadmin. We need to provide them with a network, too, as they often do not have formal teacher training and may look for other approaches for grading and assessment. On the other hand, my experience is that these sysadmins —through their hacker nature— have some pretty impressive ways to manage lab environments, so there is something to learn from them as well.

Rikki: What do you expect attendees to get out of the SESA event?

Kyrre: You are not alone! We want educators to connect and build a robust group in which we can compare experience and provide advice to peers who are in the process of creating programs in their local institution. Many processes in higher education rely on the creation of committees for quality assurance and accreditation. SESA should be a place where you can learn names of people who understand the importance of system administration education and who you may want to involve in your processes later on.

Rikki: Creating the "inaugural" summit is a big task, but obviously there is a need for this kind of event because there is huge demand for sysadmins. Are there currently any sysadmin training programs (university or otherwise) that are good models for educators to consider?

Kyrre: There are generally three ways in which sysadmin is offered: a single course as part of a general computer science education, a BSc program, or an MSc program.

I would like to highlight the Michigan Tech School of Technology's Computer Network and System Administration program for how they seem to integrate good industry contact with a lot of realistic training. Rochester Institute of Technology has an undergrad and graduate program, which is adapted for distance learning and part-time students. The University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands has managed to provide their MSc in System and Network Engineering as a one-year track. In our own program at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences in Norway we try to maintain a strong focus on the research aspects of the sysadmin profession.

All programs mentioned above may provide insight into how to shape a local program. It depends on the local institution's culture and preference. Once we can collect and compare the existing programs, it will become clear that there are more than enough to chose from.

Rikki: What tips, topics, or suggestions do you have for people who want to submit proposals for SESA '13?

Kyrre: We want SESA to be a place where we can share our experiences and compare notes. If you have tried to create and launch a single course or program and would like to share your experience so we may learn from it, we would strongly invite you to send in a proposal. If you have a burning question that you feel is halting the progress internally, ask the question as your proposal and we can find a way to discuss it with you. If you have specific insight into formal processes of accreditation and could educate the rest, then that is valuable to everyone. If you are a researcher from the field of teaching or higher education and are looking at how system administration is taught, then please come and tell us about your research. If you have some tips and tools on how to provide student labs or do automated assessment in order to make your class scale, please send in a proposal.

We have even more topics listed in the CFP, so please have a look at it:

Rikki: Is there anything you'd like to add?

Kyrre: The LISA conference has become a flagship representing more than just tools and approaches. It is a conference that represents professionalism, passion for the craft, and pride in our collective achievements. Educators may not be sysadmins per se, but we would not teach these topics unless we had a passion for the field and a sense of its importance in society. The fact that LISA invites educators to come and meet and host our summit is outstanding and very motivating. It tells us that the USENIX Association wants to play a role in how sysadmin education is being shaped and that the best way to do so is to make practitioners and educators meet and get to know each other. I cannot wait.

The CFP for LISA '13 closes April 30, 2013. The SESA '13 CFP is open until July 30.