Interview with Tom Limoncelli

There’s so much at LISA to be excited about this year, it can be hard to know where to start. So I asked Tom Limoncelli to tell me what he’s most looking forward to (spoiler alert: there’s robots involved!), what sysadmins both new and old can learn, and even some thoughts on the future of our field.


With so much that's new at LISA this year, what are you most looking forward to?

When I look at the schedule, it seems to me that the unofficial theme of this year’s LISA should be one word: “new”. Everything is about new ways of thinking about IT (devops, SRE), new technologies, new speakers we haven’t heard from before, and so on. That gets me really excited! LISA has a unique ability to draw speakers from places that no other conference reaches out to, and as a result I can “see them first” at LISA. Nobody has a monopoly on devops culture. Therefore my focus this year is going to be attending sessions by people I haven’t seen anywhere else. As I read their bios and google their names, I get more and more excited about the opportunity to see up-and-coming speakers before they “make it big” in the sysadmin/operations world.

Of course, there are many presentations by “big names” that I’m also excited about. Three that come to mind are devops guru Gene Kim (co-author of The Phoenix Project), Mikey Dickerson (who helped save, and Janet Vertesi’s presentation about what sysadmins can learn from NASA’s robots (because… ROBOTS!). (Editor’s note: Seriously, there’s no way you can NOT be excited about robots!)

I also have to give a shout out to the talk about the first ever IDE for monitoring/alerting called “Bosun”. First, the presentation is by my boss. Second, it is about the monitoring system we developed at Stack Exchange which will be open-sourced in time for the conference and I can’t wait for everyone to hear about it.

I’m also looking forward to just hanging out in the hallway chatting with whoever is around. I love meeting new people and learning from them. I didn’t get to do this much last year and I miss it.


Who should attend LISA?

Senior sysadmins who want to keep their knowledge “fresh” as well as junior sysadmins looking to become senior. A lot of my early growth from “newbie” to senior sysadmin came from hanging out at LISA and learning from the people around me. LISA is the kind of conference where anyone feels comfortable to talk with anyone else. It is very friendly that way.

Occasionally I hear someone say that LISA is “just for expert sysadmins”. I disagree. I think LISA tutorials are the school room that creates expert, senior, sysadmins. Gene Kim is fond of saying “You're only as smart as the average of the top five people you hang out with.”; I spent my first few years at LISA just listening and enjoying the feeling of being awash in waves of knowledge. I didn’t understand it all, but the parts I didn’t understand became guides for what I needed to research and learn on my own after the conference was over.

LISA goes beyond system administration. People that attend are in operations and engineering. There are sessions for coding, metrics, and other analytical sessions that way beyond the “user support” stereotype of IT.


You've got a very busy schedule (3 trainings, 1 talk, and 1 mini-tutorial!) - what are some key takeaways you're hoping people will have?

All my presentations are new material from from our new book, The Practice of Cloud System Administration. While it has “cloud” in the title for marketing purposes, it’s really a book about devops and running services, as opposed to desktop support like I’ve written about in previous books. It is all new material which makes me very excited to get it out there.

The goal of my writing and teaching is to spread best practices widely. There is a lot of pain and despair in the IT world, and most of it is unwarranted because “there is a better way” but people don’t know it. I can’t claim I’ve invented most of what I write about - I’m simply spreading the word of better ways to do things. I don’t want to just reduce the pain, I want to revolutionize IT and help IT be the central reason that businesses and society are a success.

How is system administration changing?

Over the last 2 decades system administration has gone from “user support” to being more focused on service engineering and operations. One of the first tutorials I taught at LISA was about how to manage a helpdesk. That kind of class would be totally out of place at LISA now. User support has mostly been outsourced (at big companies) or become a specialized field for people that are highly technical, but not engineers. Consider the average iPad, laptop, desktop environment: Everything has become more standardized, easier to use, and “wipe and reload”.

Today most sysadmins are responsible for a service, usually a web-based service. Whether it is a payroll system, a virtualization cluster, or a major website, we are service administrators. Our engineering time is spent creating the system, scaling it, and keeping it running. Whether we are running home-grown applications or off-the-shelf systems, we’re more focused on uptime and performance. As a result, the skills we need to have are more about operations engineering, reliability, and how to monitor and analyse systems.


What keeps you coming back to LISA year after year?

The dessert! Just kidding... but the food at LISA is better than other conferences I attend… and I attend a LOT of conferences. The reception on Thursday night is particularly great.

But seriously….

The conference by-line is “LISA: Where systems engineering and operations professionals share real-world knowledge about designing, building, and maintaining the critical systems of our interconnected world.”

That’s a lot to parse, but it reflects the magnitude of LISA. When operations is done right, we are happier in our jobs and we make society better. I come to LISA because I want to make the world a better place.


Anything else you'd like people to know?

Conferences that are 1-2 days are good for focusing on a particular technology or solutions to a particular problem. Longer conferences like LISA let you take a step back and focus on the big picture. People that attend LISA get “vision”. It is a lot more difficult to put a price tag on that, but it is more valuable than anything else.

When we were writing The Practice of Cloud System Administration we had to make every deadline or it wouldn’t be done in time for LISA 2014. That was our inspiration to stay on schedule. We’re excited to launch the book at the conference!



Tom Limoncelli’s newest book is The Practice of Cloud System Administration ( He has attended LISA since 1992, which makes him official an old fart. His past books include Time Management for System Administrators (O’Reilly) and The Practice of System and Network Administration (Addison-Wesley). He works in New York City at Stack Exchange, home of and He tweets @YesThatTom and blogs at