Interview with SESA '13 Chair Kyrre Begnum

This year, a brand new conference is co-located with LISA. The inaugural Summit for Educators in System Administration (SESA) is a one-day conference bringing together educators from around the globe. The program includes invited talks, a poster session, mini workshops, and an evening BoF. Early bird registration is available through October 15.

I recently asked Kyrre Begnum, chair of the SESA program committee, a few questions about this new conference.

BC: SESA is a new conference. What was the impetus for starting it?

Kyrre Begnum: I cannot speak on USENIX' behalf, but I think USENIX has seen itself as an arena for educators in system administration to come together for some time. There has been a relatively small but consistent group coming together at the "System administration education workshop" for many years. With the increase of courses and programs with system administration as a topic and also the continuing discussion amongs sysadmins on the importance of a formal education in system administration, USENIX perhaps saw the need to make a more visible event which adressed education specifically so we may come together as a bigger group and build a network.

For me, being part of this very first event as the chair is obviously very exciting. We have had many submissions and support from all corners so I really feel the time was right for such an event.
BC: What's the main goal for this year's conference?
KB: The main goal is to get educators and other interested people together and let them know that there is a community that cares about sysadmin as a topic in higher education. Often it is the sysadmin at a university or college who teaches a sysadmin class on their own. There are only a few programs in world right now, so most likely there is only one or two out there at any school who teaches system administration. We need to get together, get to know each other and build a network that can help us advance the field and deliver the best education and future sysadmins. 
We have focused on talks that present how challenges we commonly face have been overcome. In our world we have to secure the proper accreditation for our courses, find the best way to run tests and asess students progress. We need to come up with ways to motivate students by showing the exciting and unique aspects of system administration in society. We need to find ways to bring students with very different backgrounds up to speed in things like the Linux command line before we can begin the really fun parts.
My hope is that other educators will see that some of these challenges have been overcome and later get in touch with each other in order to figure out how to apply other's approaches in their own school. We also have the mini-workshops, which is really a way to get us to sit down and discuss and not just listen to other's talks.
BC: What do you see as the main need in sysadmin education, currently and in the coming years?
KB: Hm. Ten years ago it was all about labs, but virtualization and simulation tools has solved most of this by now. I think one of the challenges we have today is the lack of textbooks that address the profession of system administration. We have books with a technical focus but they tend to not have exercises or not be written with a pedagogical plan in mind.
Look at other professions that require a higher education, like teaching and nursing. There is a plethora of books that prepare the student for a lifelong career in that field from a profession standpoint. Books like this would give credibility and maturity to the profession of system administration and are a great starting point for educators. 
Over the coming years I believe that more books will appear and revisions of "classics" may be adapted to suit an educational context. As more courses appear, the marked for these books grows and will make writing them more feasable. The challenge ahead will be to avoid fragmentation of terminology and subjects. For example, in most computer sciences programs there is a class teaching object oriented programming and another about algorithms. They may use different programming languages, but they remain very similar. I am not sure we have the same in system administration education. Will every "sysadmin 101" course basically be the same but perhaps with different technologies used? We will need to get there somehow and the way to go is to build a network,  a community and a place to talk. 
BC: What should attendees expect from SESA?
KB: We are very proud to have representatives from all the largest programs present. Educators should expect to meet likeminded colleagues, perhaps the biggest gathering to date. They should get to voice their own opinions and listen to others advice. Sysadmins who join us ( please do! ) will get an unique view into the world of education and can get a better understanding of how we work. They can provide advice and help shape education by sharing their own experience as professionals.
BC: What's next? Will SESA continue to co-conference with LISA, or does it become a larger conference?
KB: This is entirely up to USENIX. Being co-located with LISA is a great benefit to us as we get access to the luminaries in the field and can interact with them.
BC: This year's LISA Conference theme seems to involve bowling pins. What's your best bowling score? Do you have a favorite bowling alley snack?
KB: Oh. To be honest I really suck at bowling unless we talk about Wii sports, because then I'm a force to be reckoned with! :) Last time I bowled my main goal was to have a good time and not be last. :D