Interview with LISA '13 Blog Team lead Matt Simmons

In a fit of meta-ness, I decided to interview Matt Simmons. He is a well-respected blogger and has become a LISA fixture. Every year, the blog team chronicles LISA events for posterity. Here Matt tells us a litle bit more about the team.

Ben Cotton: This is your 5th year on the blog team and your 4th as team lead. What brought you here, and what keeps you coming back?

Matt Simmons: It's kind of hard to believe it's been five years, but you're right. The first LISA I ever attended was LISA'09 in Baltimore, MD. At the time, I had been blogging for about a year at my own site, Standalone SysAdmin, and I saw an ad somewhere, maybe on one of the blogs that Planet SysAdmin aggregated, that mentioned USENIX was looking for potential conference bloggers to attend the conference and write about it.

I was working for a small risk analytics firm, and we didn't have any training budget at all. I'd never been to a tech conference at all, let alone something on the scale of LISA, but I thought it would be fun, so I applied, and I spoke with the USENIX Blog Team Founder, Matthew Sacks. He approved me, and I got to attend LISA for free.

As you know, the blog team gets into the conference for free, but we're responsible for our own flights and hotel, and since my company didn't have it, I paid out of pocket in the hopes that it would be worth it. The fact that I've done I paid out of my own pocket three times after that should tell you that I found it incredibly valuable.

And that's a lot what really brings me back. It's such an incredible value. At the time, there weren't any online streaming options - it was "Go to LISA" or "Don't go to LISA". If it weren't for the blogging thing, I'd never have gone. Now, there are streaming options for training, which makes it great if you've got a smaller budget. If you've got *no* budget for training, though, as a bit of personal advice, I might suggest that you spend some time investigating alternative employers. Professional training is that important. On the other side of "what brings me back" is the people. Because of LISA, I've made so many great friends all over the world. Coming back to LISA is like a reunion every year. I move around a lot, and my friends from school have scattered, too. We don't have any kind of annual get-together, but with my sysadmin friends, it's like every year, we get to spend an entire week in close quarters hanging out and wandering around some strange city. It's a lot of fun, and getting lost trying to find dinner can build a surprising amount of camaraderie.

BC: As a blogger, you generally spend the first three days in training sessions. Do you ever feel like you've seen it all by now?

MS: Not even close. Even though the question begs the answer, allow me to be really emphatic: No Chance. In five years, I've not signed up for the same class twice. I've only spent a class with the same instructor a few times, and there is ALWAYS a list of classes I can't go to, but wish I could.

In a few days, LISA has 40-some classes. Each of those classes is lovingly hand picked from a much larger pool. And the classes change each year. This year, for instance, there are 20 completely new classes. As an attendee, how do you even pick? Historically, my responsibilities as a sysadmin were wide ranging. That means that of 40-some classes, most of them appealed to me in some way. That's a hard choice.

The plus side is that, as a 5-year blogger, I have a really cool perspective on trainings. Although most of the training is really good, some classes are just simply amazing, and those are the ones that I almost strong-arm my friends into taking.

Since I consider our readers my friends, here are the classes that you absolutely, positively, need to take, based on my experiences:

Linux Performance Tuning with Ted Ts'o

This guy was literally the first North American Linux kernel developer, and he's the maintainer of ext2-4. His half day class was the most valuable 4 hours of my technical learning in my life. That class is now a full day. Just take the class. Sign up now. Go to the conference for this class, if you have to.

Mike Ciavrella's Documentation class

Mike is hilarious. He has a very good perspective on documentation, and he makes you ask yourself very important questions. Examining what you need to document and what you don't, and really doing evaluations of your current practices is a great way to look at your world through new eyes. You won't regret taking this class at all. And it's a half day. Very valuable.

Navigating the Business World (two parts) (Nicole Forsgren Velasquez and Carolyn Rowland)

You probably weren't a business major. You probably concentrate on technical work, and you're probably very good at it. There's an entire other side to our jobs, though, and that's communicating with the rest of the business. Generally speaking, we're really bad at it, and Nicole and Carolyn have built an AMAZING class to help fix that.

This is a new class, but it's adapted from other classes, and I don't even know how to describe how valuable it was. I've been an IT Administrator for 13+ years now, and there were things I learned in this class that I didn't even know that I didn't know.

If you don't have time to go to business school, just attend this class instead. It's great.

BC: What value does the blog team add to the LISA conference, and how can it continue to evolve?

MS: I think that the biggest value is that we can tell the story from the perspective of the attendees. We're kind of like embedded journalists - we're working for USENIX, but we're taking part in the conference as an attendee, and we're writing from their point of view. We have a lot of leeway in terms of what we can say, since we don't speak for USENIX.

In terms of how it can evolve, it's hard to say a priori. The first year I was involved, I was the only dedicated writer, and there were some other bloggers going around doing multimedia stuff. I liked that idea, but we didn't really do a good job of managing the media distribution, and I think that it's something we could work on again in the future.

The second year, we added more writers with solid blogging backgrounds, and I think that worked really well. I'm lucky to know really talented people, like yourself and Marius Ducea who worked with us for a few years, then Greg Riedesel, who's also a very good writer. The addition of the USENIX Community Manager, Rikki Endsley, helps a lot. When she first joined USENIX and started contributing to the blog, I thought she was a ringer - if you didn't know, Rikki has been an editor for lots of actual publications that you've heard of. Things like SysAdmin Magazine, Linux Pro, Ubuntu User, ADMIN, and more. She's the real deal, and I'm so glad she's on our side :-D

It's hard to tell what the future will bring, but I look forward to it!

BC: What's one thing you're most excited about for LISA '13?

MS: This is such a hard question. I don't know! I'm very interested in seeing how the LISA Lab goes. I really want it to be awesome. The idea behind it is that hands on experience during class is difficult, because you're trying to do new things while learning from the instructor. Wouldn't it be great if, after your class, you could go to a lab and actually do the things you just learned about? It'll be both freestyle and there will be scheduled instructor hours, apparently.

I dig the idea a lot. I think it has a lot of potential, and I haven't seen that done at any other conferences I've been to.

BC: This year's theme seems to involve bowling pins. What's your best bowling score? Do you have a favorite bowling alley snack?

MS: My highest bowling score is around 200. It's kind of a funny story. I'm a terrible bowler. My average bowling score is about 100, and I don't bowl often, but years ago, a girl and I had our first date at a bowling alley with another couple. I spent a lot of time trying to tell her that I wasn't a good bowler and that I'd just embarrass her in front of her friends, but she insisted. As it turns out, the guy in the other couple was a league bowler. Through some fluke, I managed to roll somewhere in the ballpark of a 200, and I actually got the highest out of all of us. I felt like a schmuck because I'd spent all that time telling them I was terrible. Which I was. I've probably never scored within 50 points of that game ever again in my life.

And if I'm going to be snacking in a bowling alley, it had better be generic nacho chips (round, please) with Genuine Cheeze Sauce(tm).

Thanks for interviewing me, Ben! It was a lot of fun answering your questions. I hope to see all of our readers at LISA. And if you do come, make sure to find Ben or I and say hello!