Interview with LISA14 Chair Nicole Forsgren Velasquez

There are things that are clearly a lot of work, even to people on the outside. Organizing a conference the size of LISA is an example. Everyone at USENIX, from staff to program committee to conference chair, works hard each year to educate, to entertain, to entrance, and to surprise more than a thousand attendees. It might go on behind the scenes, but the results are obvious and impressive.

Some things, though, take just as much effort, but are less visible from the outside. Outsiders are left to scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is. Sysadmins are often in that very position: we work on invisible scaffolding that you only miss when it's gone. Our customers have to take our word that what we build actually exists and is valuable. Our work is hard to see, harder to explain and justify.

So we're lucky to have Nicole Forsgren Velasquez as LISA chair this year; she's seen both sides of this conversation, knows how it usually goes and how it should go instead. She's been a software engineer and a sysadmin, but along the way got a Masters in Accounting and a PhD in Management Information Systems too. She knows what both sides bring to the table, and can explain what each side is saying in ways the other can understand. This has shown up in her work (DevOps survey, anyone?) and was a strong theme in my interview with her.

Q: What's your background at LISA? When did you first attend, and what keeps you coming back?

A: My first LISA was 2007 in Dallas -- I was a grad student, trying to collect data for my dissertation research. I had a solid background in tech and in systems administration, and someone at IBM Watson labs recommended I go to LISA. So I bailed on a cruise I had planned and hopped a flight to Dallas. And then I stumbled into the "hallway track"... and realized this -- this community and the deep-dive conversations that can happen among both friends and strangers -- was what I had been missing in my tech career. And that's what keeps me coming back: the solid technical content in the conference and the friendly, welcoming community.

Q: How did you come to be LISA14 Chair?

A: Honestly, I'm not sure! A lot of it stems from my continued engagement and involvement in the community. I submitted a paper to the next year's LISA, and then was invited to be on the Program Committee (PC). I have served on a few PCs over the years, and then was invited to be the Chair about two years ago. And thank goodness for those two years! I was Invited Talks coordinator (with Cory Lueninghoener) last year, which helped me better understand another piece of the conference planning process, and then this year, we decided to shake things up and have the Chair coordinate the whole shebang.

For some history: in the past, the LISA Chair has primarily had input in the papers process or maybe the talks... but just one area. We realized last year that a much more organized approach, with all areas of the conference carefully curated around central themes and topics, would provide attendees with a fantastic experience. And with a background in business, it just made sense to me... so I pow-wowed with the USENIX Executive Director and Board of Director liaisons and we decided to go for it and dive right in. It has been a huge undertaking, and there is no way I could have pulled it off without the help of some amazing committee members -- seriously! Check out my committees! I think you'll agree that we have a pretty amazing program this year.

Q: Are there any talks or presentations that you're looking forward to?

A: Oh, man. There are so many good ones this year. I love that we have opening keynotes for Wednesday morning, Thursday morning, and our closing session on Friday. Ken Patchett will be speaking about the Open Compute Project on Wednesday, Gene Kim will speak about DevOps Patterns on Thursday, and Janet Vertesi will talk about the fascinating things she saw while studying scientists and their robots at NASA -- and what that might mean for us and our work with technology.

We also have some amazing talks from Jeffry Snover (he invented PowerShell!), Mikey Dickerson (he fixed!), a mini-tutorial from Caskey Dickson (I fought HARD to get this in a good slot just so I could attend -- and metrics are so important!)... plus Tom Limoncelli, Dinah McNutt, John Willis, Ben Rockwood, Theo Schlossnagle, an amazing remote work panel with Mike Rembetsy... I have to stop now because I'm basically listing the entire program at this point. Check it out!

Q: You will be giving four tutorials in addition to your role as chair: two on statistics, one on budgeting and one on "Navigating the Business World". This seems to span a very wide range of subject matter (math, coding and business); is there anything that unifies them? Why did you propose them, and why do you think they were accepted?

A: Those topics make sense for me, because my background is in tech, business and analytics. (I have a BS in Management Information Systems, which is a technical degree but offered from a business school, a Masters in Accounting, and a PhD in MIS.) That undergrad degree in MIS always served me well because while I was very technical -- I was a programmer, sysadmin, and even a software/hardware engineer -- having solid understanding of business and accounting helped me understand how my work fit into the organization, and helped me "sell" my work and value to my managers. It also helped me ask for the resources I needed -- and get them. Over the years, I realized that not everyone in tech understood how they fit into organizations, and not understanding that fit really hindered their ability to understand what their value to the organization was. I choose those words carefully -- we all know our value to our team and to the IT function. But can you explain your value to the *organization?* That's the key. And can you do it in language that is meaningful to your management team? Using concepts they are familiar with? I think it's incredibly important, because only then will you get a seat at the table and truly be empowered to make the decisions you need to make and get the resources you need.

This is where the statistics tutorials come in: it's so important to understand your environment. Without that understanding, you can't communicate what your value is to the organization or what you need in order to be more effective or more efficient in your work. I was never more effective in tech -- and business -- than when I had a handle on my metrics. Basic stats can always be done in spreadsheets, so Kyrre Begnum and I will be doing some basic stats concepts in one tutorial. In another tutorial, Jason Maughan and I will be covering basic stats while introducing the R language, visualizations and predictive analytics.

I think the reasons I proposed these tutorials are pretty well covered above, and I think that's also why they were accepted. I tried to articulate very clearly in my proposals why I think a solid understanding of the business environment is important for anyone in IT, and also why metrics and monitoring are so essential to ops professionals. One interesting thing to note about the Tutorial program: while I was involved in recruiting content, this is the one piece of the program where the Chair has no input on the final selections that are made. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that my tutorials had been selected for inclusion in the program.

Q: You mentioned the hallway track at LISA earlier; do you have any stories to share about your own hallway track meetings? (New collaborators, things you never would have learned otherwise, "You wrote that book!", etc).

A: All of LISA for me is the hallway track. I'm not totally sure I want to admit this, but there has been at least one year that I've only attended the hallway track. I'm not sure I have clear stories about the hallway track, but that's how I always meet people, and realize what absolute rockstars they are. I mean c'mon... Tom Limoncelli, Mark Burgess, Dinah McNutt, Narayan Desai... Everyone I know, I know from the hallway track. The reason I come to LISA is because of that first hallway track in Dallas. I owe everything to the LISA hallway track. I do love the talks and the content. But I know how to Google and I know how to research and read. LISA is its people, and its people are in the halls.

Q: A more light-hearted question: Your interests and research include both business and technical issues. A big part of technical culture is disdain for management in general, and business buzzwords in particular. Do you have a buzzword that annoys you?

A: Oh man, there are so many! Maybe strategize... but I use it, and it's a good one! Or synergies. The real key here is to over use them. It's especially powerful if you can combine them. I point you to this, and you're welcome.