Interview with Matt Simmons

I got to interview Matt Simmons, a veteran LISA blogger and attendee as well as a member of this year’s organizing committee. Matt is also the Standalone Sysadmin - if you haven’t read any of his work there yet, go do that now! Then come back and see what he has to say about LISA14.


This is now your 6th year on the blog team - do you still have the same level of excitement for this as you did your first year?

Yeah, I think so. Maybe more. Most of what I was feeling was curiosity, and some serious nervousness. LISA '09 was only the second conference of any kind that I'd ever attended, and I didn't really know what to expect. On top of that, I was very truly a standalone sysadmin, and that would be my first full week away from my infrastructure. So yes, there was a lot of stuff going on, and I was mostly nervous that I would show up to a conference with a thousand people, not know anyone, and that I would screw up, and that things would fall down while I was away.

On the plus side, since LISA '09 was in Baltimore, MD, and I lived in New Jersey, it did give me a chance to take the Amtrak Acela down the Northeastern Corridor, which I'd wanted to do forever. So that was cool.         

As it turns out, I showed up, I didn't screw up completely, and nothing really happened to my infrastructure while I was gone. I didn't actually know a lot of people, but much to my surprise, everyone was actually very friendly, and I made a lot of good friends that I hung out with all week, one of which was our fearless leader, Hugh Brown!

This year, I would say that the ratio of nervousness and excitement is approximately reversed. I'm really, really excited because I think that the program of LISA14 is maybe the strongest of any conference I've ever seen. Not of any I've ever attended, but of any I've ever seen. You can scroll through the conference program and it's a Who's Who and a What's Hot of leading edge tech in 2014/2015. James Turnbull is speaking on Docker? Theo Schlossnagle is speaking on Monitoring??? Jeffrey Snover is speaking on Powershell?!? And that's the first day!!!

I've never seen a program like this. Ever. And I don't just say that because I was involved in the planning committee.

Speaking of, that's why I'm nervous. I've never been involved with the LISA planning committee before. In previous years, I'd had some involvement with the training side, but this year, I was an Invited Talk Coordinator and a Tutorial Coordinator. I'm going to have to go introduce people, and not screw that up. It seems like a small thing, but it makes me nervous.

There's a funny parallel with my first LISA: because this year is in Seattle, WA, I'm actually going to be taking the train to it again. Since I was a kid, I've wanted to take the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle and cross the Rocky Mountains by train, and this year, I'll be doing it. It's going to be a nice pre-conference vacation. Three days and two nights on board a train, crossing the midwest and mountains. It should be a great way to unwind.


With so much changing about the program this year, what are you most looking forward to seeing? Is there anything from previous years that you think might be missed?

I'm mostly looking forward to seeing people's reactions. :-D

Seriously, we worked *really* hard to get nothing but solid talks, valuable content, and I didn't realize how well we'd done until the other day when the entire schedule was published. People who are perennial LISA attendees can come to this and be assured that there's fresh content. People who have never been to LISA because they perceived it as being academic and stodgy can look at this program and see the value in an instant.

In terms of a particular talk, I can't name one. There are just too many. I've never seen Gene Kim speak, and I think he'll probably do a great job as the Thursday keynote. If you twisted my arm and made me pick something, I'd ask you to open up the training schedule and check out Sunday. In the morning, we have Kyrre Begnum and Nicole Forsgren teaching Statistics for Ops, and then in the afternoon, you have James Maughan and Nicole again teaching R for SysAdmins. It's not an accident that those courses are set up like that.

I think that a greater understanding of stats will enable senior-level sysadmins and operations staff to be much better at their jobs. I pushed especially hard for both a stats class and to include R, and while I can't take all (or even most) of the credit for these being in the schedule, I 'm *so glad* that they are, and I am going to be in those classes, taking notes, and then in the LISA Lab afterwards to work on the material. I have so many ideas for how to apply it to my job. GAH! Why is November so far away?!?


This year you’re also on the organizing committee in addition to the blog team. How has that experience been for you so far?

Amazing. The Program Committee (PC) is being chaired this year by Nicole Forsgren Velasquez (same one teaching the stats and R classes in another question), the world's leading researcher on DevOps in the business world, and a dear friend of mine. My co-coordinators on the Invited Talks committee were Pat Cable and Doug Hughes, and in Tutorials, Rik Farrow and Tom Limoncelli, all friends of mine, and people I highly respect.

It's always a pleasure to work with people who are competent, and I really felt like the entire PC was full of competency. They say if you're the smartest person in the room, then you're in the wrong room. This was like that, but in reverse. Everyone there was so good, and so competent, I felt like I was just holding down a chair, but even so, when I had opinions, people listened and considered what I said. It was a really nice experience, although at times stressful, because whenever you get 15-20 people of that level together in a room, there are going to be disagreements and arguments, but that kind of conflict has to happen to make the conference good. If there had been no contention, then that would be a sign that the conference wouldn't have been quality. But I assure you, that wasn't the case.

As someone who is going to attend this conference, I want to take this chance to thank all of the other members of the PC for their time and devotion. I knew that a huge amount of work went into this, but I didn't realize that it was an *epic* amount of work. It is, but to see the program come together like it has, I can't help but feel that the Herculean effort was worth it. I hope the rest of the attendees feel the same way.


How do you feel about the theme of “less cruft/more craft”, as it applies to the conference and system administration in general?

As I get older, I see why homeostasis is so prevalent. It's because it's comfortable. Inertia is a real thing, and if you are moving, then it's easier to stay moving. If you stop, though, it's easy to stay stopped. That's true whether you're talking about how you manage an infrastructure or if you're planning a conference.

I think that, in the past, we've seen a lot of LISA efforts working toward fixing what may actually be intractable problems. If you don't believe me, look at the Advanced Topics Workshop Notes from 1998. That's the year I graduated high school - 16 years ago. The problems are a lot of the same problems that we have now:

  • * Big Data (called explosive storage growth)
  • * Security
  • * Limited staffing resources

Really, the only issues from that page that have gone away are Y2K and Windows NT. The rest are problems that… maybe "intractable" isn't the right word, but they're omnipresent. It doesn't matter what year it is, storage sucks and we need more of it. Tools and techniques change, but storage doesn't go away. You can't *solve* storage.

Because you can't solve storage, but you always have to deal with it, there is always going to be a place for learning to deal with storage *right now*, no matter when *right now* is. The thing is, until this year, (and this is my own personal view), I've felt that inertia has kind of kept LISA perpetually presenting ideas that were a little behind the times. It's not that the ideas weren't great when they were new, but the third or fourth year you present the same topic, it just doesn't have as much value.

We've worked really hard to try to make sure that this is an amazing conference to attend in 2014, not 2008. I think we've succeeded. I hope we have, anyway. In 2019, I want to be able to look back at 2014 and say, "We were right on the money on what we needed to show people to help with the next few years".