Papers and Reports: Community and Teaching

The second Papers and Reports session on Thursday morning, chaired by Andrew Hume, focused on education and training. The first to present was Rudy Gevaert from Ghent University. In his talk, entitled "A sustainable model for ICT capacity building in developing countries", Rudy discussed lessons learned over nearly a decade of bringing information and communication technology (ICT) skills and resources to developing nations. The Flemish Inter-University Council for University Development Cooperation (VLIR-UOS) has been working partner universities in Cuba and Ethiopia.

In the years that VLIR-UOS has been running these programs, they've been able to provide resources and training so that local staff can set up local email services, build infrastructure capacity, enable the development of modern web applications, and set up centralized datacenters with disaster recovery sites. Along the way, many lessons were learned. Perhaps the most striking is the limited availability of bandwidth. The Universidad Central Marta Abreu de las Villas in Cuba has only a 2 Mbps connection to the Internet. Managing this bandwidth -- by implementing local email services, a caching web proxy, local software mirrors, and by restricting use of social networking and streaming video sites during business hours -- allows the university to make much more efficient use of a limited resource.

Another lesson learned is the need to build human capacity instead of infrastructure. Training the local staff who can train their colleagues is helpful, not only to maximize the effectiveness of the VLIR-UOS personnel, but also to help ensure the sustainability of the program. The level of education that IT staff in developing countries have can often be much lower than in developed nations, but the local staff are eager and motivated to learn and to be successful in the project.

Access to hardware is an additional challenge. Local vendors often have limited offerings and may not always provide reliable products. Overseas purchases present logistical challenges, especially in regards to ship times. This was particularly true in Cuba, where the U.S. trade embargo makes the closest foreign suppliers unavailable. In order to prevent extended downtimes, spare parts should be brought in advance.

VLIR-UOS is wrapping up the 10-year program with one of the Ethiopian partners, and still has five years left on the other project. In Cuba, the success of the project has lead to to a new one beginning in 2013. More information about VLIR-UOS can be found at

Second to present was Steve VanDevender, who discussed his twelve years of teaching an undergraduate-level system administration course at the University of Oregon. After serendipitously attending an education workshop at LISA '99, Steve approached the faculty in the Computer Science department about starting a system administration course at the university. It took two attempts to find a professors willing to champion the idea, and in the summer of 2000, the first 8-week offering began.

Working in groups, students can use their chose of freely-available Unix or Linux distributions to complete projects in a dedicated lab. Over the course of the term, students install and develop a system, including updates, network services, account management, logging, access control, and scripting. The Apache httpd and sendmail packages are compiled from source to help give students a deeper understanding of the work package managers have to do.

The course also includes a "system emergency day", where Steve disables a machine or service and the students must diagnose and repair the problem. This exercise is among the most popular with the students, who find the challenge entertaining. While not as popular as the first few years it was offered, the course continues to enroll double-digits ever year. By presenting his work, Steve hopes it inspires others to begin similar efforts at their own universities, in order to raise the baseline of knowledge for the system administration community.

Last on the agenda was Taos Mountain, Inc.'s George William Herbert. George described the professional development and technical training strategies employed by Taos Mountain, an IT consulting firm, over the last 15 years. Taos Mountain has invested in training and development because it benefits both individuals (by way of career advancement and providing an intellectual challenge) and employers (who have more capable employees). in fact, employers who consistently promote training and development activities see a higher staff retention rate than those who do not.

Early efforts in the 1990s focused on reimbursement of development expenses, expert presentations, self-paced training between assignments, peer mentoring, and creating a technical support network. The peer mentoring and self-paced training were generally found to be ineffective, although reimbursement and expert presentations were widely popular and generally effective.

In the wake of the dot-com bubble's burst, the organization contracted, but the focus on training remained. The formerly monthly expert presentations became weekly and added some roundtable-format discussions. When economic troubles struck again in 2009, the company temporarily eliminated the reimbursement program. In addition, the home office was moved several miles further away from the highway, which resulted in a drop in attendance at the expert sessions.

Some of the lessons learned over the course of the training problem are to track metrics reliably. Sign-in sheets are a poor method of tracking attendance, since the writing is often illegible, making correlation of events difficult.  Monitoring use is helpful as well. With the advent of online book options, many participants used less reimbursement funding to purchase books. This frees up additional funds for training courses and other, more expensive programs.