The LISA Hallway Track: A Study in Social Brownian Motion

It's your third day at LISA, and the morning session just broke for coffee and muffins. The tutorial has been every bit as good as you hoped it would be, and you have a ton of notes to decipher when you get back to $WORK. There's a workshop in the afternoon, the BoF in the's incredible how much rushing around there is! The muffin is about done, and you're about to find a quiet place to check email, maybe see how the rest of the team's doing back at $WORK.

Hold that're about to miss one of the best resources LISA has to offer: the Hallway Track.

If you haven't come across the term already, the Hallway Track is the informal Brownian motion that brings people together at a conference, often in the hallway (get it?) between scheduled presentations and talks. And LISA's Hallway Track is especially strong. Whether it's an author whose book saved your infrastructure, a researcher with a novel approach to a long-standing problem, or someone whose job you never could have imagined, casual interaction is a huge benefit to attending the conference. If you're new to LISA it's easy to overlook -- after all, the wonders laid out in the schedule really are amazing! But it would be a shame to miss the chance to meet your fellow sysadmins.

So how do you start a conversation in an environment like this? There's no question it can be intimidating. Looking around, sometimes it seems like everyone but you already knows everyone else. Look a little harder, though, and you'll see lot of people in the same situation you are: slightly wide-eyed, surveying the room, not talking to anyone. Here's a handy algorithm for getting a conversation started:

  1. Pick a random direction.
  2. Head for a solitary person in that direction.
  3. Ask "What talk/tutorial were you just in?"

Before long, you'll be the one in the middle of a crowd.  (No, thank you.) Another trick for meeting people is to watch for the groups organizing dinner expeditions. Keep an eye on IRC and Twitter, or head out to the USENIX desk and check out the whiteboards; you'll find there are lots of open invites to join folks for an evening meal.  The rock stars gotta eat too --  why not tag along and see what you and they have in common?

But why do this? Why bother? Simple: our work can be isolating and isolated; that's not only lonely-making, but it can limit your effectiveness. If you're the only sysadmin at work, or if you're part of a small team, it can be hard to find the answer to questions. Even if you are part of a larger team, you're not going to have every skill set you need. Having a diverse set of contacts who won't respond with "RTFM" when you ask a question can save you time and frustration.

All right, then, let's assume it's worth it...what do you talk about? Silly sysadmin -- computers, what else? Ask where they work, what challenges they have, what they can't believe they've only just found out about. Swap war stories about the RAID card that used ROT13 to hash data blocks. Ask them about that nagging problem you haven't been able to get to the bottom of. Or maybe you'll turn out to be the helpful one -- it's easy to forget, in a big crowd of people, that your own experience and knowledge can be helpful to others too.

When talking about LISA to your manager, it might seem that the Hallway Track is something to keep quiet about. ("They're not gonna pay me to wander around eating muffins!") It's true that a focused approach can seem easier to sell. After all, the benefits are obvious, and the investment in a fix for an immediate problem is compelling. But the Hallway Track is research, and it's valuable. Part of our job is staying on top of trends and developments in the field. There's no better way to do that than by talking to our fellow sysadmins, and a good manager will realize the value you'll bring back.

So remember: there is a lot more to be gained from the muffin tray than just carbs. Say "Hi!" to the person standing next to you at the coffee bar, and learn what they know.  Call it research, call it networking, call it finding new friends -- but whatever you do, don't miss out.