LISA Build: Where The Network Meets Networking

Our profession is one without a lot of formal training (though that's changing...). Instead, most of our knowledge is picked up on the job. We learn by doing.

But this has its downsides. Sure, nobody wants a "paper tiger" -- all certificates and no practical experience -- but how do you learn to do X on the job, if your job doesn't need you to do X right now? Or what if there's no one around to teach you X, or who knows the pitfalls to watch out for?

That's why LISA Build is such a great opportunity. Over 16 hours, you'll work with experienced network administrators and fellow attendees to set up a production-ready network for a little thing called the LISA conference. It's the perfect way to get hands-on experience and expert guidance.

I had the chance to speak with organizers Branson Matheson and Brett Thorson, and ask them about LISA Build.

Q: What's your professional background, and how long have you been attending or involved with LISA?

Branson: I've been a professional System Administrator and Architect for over 25 years for many different groups and projects and love what I do. I have been speaking and attending USENIX conferences since the early 1990's, as well as many security conferences. I got involved with LISA in the last few years, first as a speaker .. then as a teacher, program committee member and now as a direct contributor. It's exciting for me as I have a lot of passion about giving back to this community and I feel LISA Build is one of the best venues for me to contribute.

Brett: I've been finding bad people on the Internet since 1996, and that takes knowing a significant amount of random things about the Internet and the systems that run them. During that time I've administered all kinds of boxes from Solaris to DEC to the more common stuff today. I split my time between learning things about the Internet, mostly security related, still administering boxes and helping others do the same. I've been involved with LISA for exactly 6 months during my time putting together LISA Build with Branson.

Q: What's the LISA Build all about? For those who haven't built a network this size before, what's involved and what are the challenges?

Branson: LISA Build is the brainchild of me and Brett. It's based on other similar events we've worked on in the past. The event is designed to be very dynamic. where attendees and organizers get together in a short period to discuss, design and implement the network used by the conference staff and attendees. We will start in the morning with a space, some tables and chairs, computer gear, piles of cables and gaff tape and by the end of the event, we will have constructed a fully operational, secure network for our attendees to use.

Brett: It is rare in this day and age that you get to experience the full life cycle of a network and systems build. From planning, some hotstaging, on site assemble and configuration, running, fixing and then tear down. With LISA Build, the participants get a chance to do all of that and in the company of people who are as committed to succeeding as they are. It also allows people to work and learn in areas in which they might be weak, while at the same time mentoring those who need help where they might be an expert.

Q: What skills are you looking for in participants? Is it open to non-network admins?

Branson: All skills! This is both an opportunity to bring what you know to the table and learn new things. We will need Unix admins, network people, admins familiar with wireless. We need people with a strong desire to learn and contribute, to listen and explore; and mostly with a great sense of humor and patience.

Brett: We've had people attend who barely knew how to work their laptop at some of the other events Branson and I have been fortunate enough to run. While we can't have everyone show up like that, it really is a great mix of skills from across the board. So no matter where you are strong or weak, LISA Build is for you. The attitude though really is the key part -- we need people who can see a problem, detect if a viable solution exists and is in action, and if not, step in and offer sound advice and work to get the solution in place.

Q: What was the inspiration for LISA build? Was it a hard sell for the conference organizers?

Branson: The inspiration for this project came from the many years I have attended and seen the problems and issues that the conference has had with locally managed service. I addressed this at the conference and suggested that I would love to help make things better. I have worked many conferences, many on shoestring budgets, that were able to leverage the capabilities of the attendees to build and manage the systems while also providing a fantastic opportunity for people to meet each other, learn and build an amazing environment. And so LISA Build was born.

Brett: We both have been doing events like this for other conferences as well. I actually used to do this for the IETF with a group of volunteers. I've never had a bad time doing it, so I'm excited to expand the program and things like it to other conferences such as LISA.

Q: What do you hope people will take home from this experience?

Branson: People who attend will get the opportunity to work with current technologies and learn new systems and ways of approaching problems. They will meet and network with people from across the industry and develop contacts that will prove valuable in the future.

Brett: Participants usually walk away with two things from LISA Build: a sense of accomplishment, and a list of friends they will have for a long time. Right, Branson? :-)

Q: What's unique about LISA Build? Conversely, how does it fit into the rest of LISA?

Branson: LISA Build is not your typical structured workshop or training session. We work in a very fluid environment where an objective is defined and attendees organize and work together to meet the objective.

Brett: LISA Build isn't a classroom, it is a giant experiment that has to succeed in some way when we are done. There is no other place I know of where people can build something like this from the ground up in a short period of time (and have an incredible amount of fun doing it too). I have no idea how this fits in with the rest of LISA -- this will be my first LISA and USENIX conference. I look forward to bringing what I know, and learning even more.

Q: Other than the Labs, what's your favourite feature of LISA? Is there a talk or tutorial you'll be seeking out at this year's conference?

Branson: My favorite part of LISA Is seeing and meeting friends, old and new, who are peers in my chosen profession. We get to both participate in amazing training and get together to share stories and experiences. I've got 25 years in this profession, yet I learn more from just meeting and talking to people at this conference than any other.

Brett: So far my favorite part has been hearing the stories Branson has told me about the incredibly intellectual conversations and diversions of thought. Sometimes the topic of conversation is silly and sometimes it's serious, but in all cases it always sounds interesting.

Q: Anything else people should know about LISA Build?

Both: No one should be worried they won't be good enough for Build. We have tasks that will get you started learning whatever it is you want to know. If you are willing to say “I don't know”, get pointed in a direction to learn more, learn a little on your own, ask questions along the way, and try your hardest, then you are perfect for Build.

Never once have we met a person who was unfit to be in this environment. Chances are they wouldn't have attended this kind of conference in the first place. So if you made it this far, please keep on clicking to apply!

Oh, and don't think that your entire time at LISA will be in the build room watching a network. That is what the two of us are for. Usually, once things are up and running, Build becomes a bit of an adhoc learning environment -- one where we can talk with people about what we did, what the issues were and how we solved them.

If you'd like to learn more, or apply to the Build team, send a brief email to explaining why you would like to participate, what your areas of expertise are, and what technologies you might be willing to learn. See you at LISA Build!