Taking care of yourself at LISA14

I’ve been going to LISA and USENIX ATC conferences for a long time.  A conference is an intense experience.  You have limited time and you want to want to meet everyone and see everything. While I enjoy the experience thoroughly, there have been times when I had less fun than I might have. If this is your first conference there are a few things you’ll want to think about both before you arrive and as the week goes on.

When I first set out to write a post I was going to address a list of things to pack and things to do -- but it felt to me that I was just doing things you’ve probably already done.  You don’t need me to tell you to travel light, to pack your shampoo bottle in your checked bags and any urgent meds in your carry-on. What I really want to address is how to think to help you get the most from the conference experience.

Think about Rest

It’s very tempting, especially once the conference program has started, to try to fill every moment, to see everything.  It’s likely that talks and meetings that you want to go to are scheduled at conflicting times or are back to back to back. You can easily go from the break of dawn to far into the night without taking a real mental break. As you go through the days, listen to your body.  Of course those from other time zones may not be happy with when it talks to you, but it’s important to listen.

Personally, I like to take a 30-60 minute nap sometime in the middle of the day. This gives me an opportunity to quiet my mind , to  let it sort and file my experiences from the morning, and prepare for the rest of the day. I’m not suggesting a formal siesta time at LISA, but if you find yourself with the 2:00pm nods you might consider giving your body a little of what it wants rather than reaching for the coffee.  Look for a gap in your day and prepare for the late night.

Listen to your body, too, when you find yourself in that energetic after-midnight conversation in the lounge.  Your conversation partners may still be going strong when it’s time for you turn in. Trust yourself.  On the other hand, if you’re one of the true night-owls remember to respect your partners when they decide to call it a night. There is always tomorrow and everyone will get more out of the time if they sleep well (without too much caffeine getting in the way).

Think about Nourishment

This year, for the first time, the conference organizers are providing breakfast and lunch for all attendees (not just  the tutorials and workshops) and that’s a welcome addition  There are also snacks and drinks during breaks, but it’s a long week. It’s nice to stay close to the action during the day, but in the evening people often want to get out and Seattle has a lively dining culture.

Luckily for us a number of the organizers and contributors are also natives of Seattle.  They’ve put together several resources for the rest of us to help us find what we’d like. You need to get where you’re going so the page on getting around Seattle will be a good starting point.  For dinner options you’ll want to take a look at the restaurant list. And for those who are looking to try the local brews, there’s a list of pubs and micro-breweries.

In an unfamiliar city many people are uncomfortable going out alone. If you want to try something new and are willing to have an adventure, watch the meal board.  It’s not always an official thing but people often post dinner plans on the message boards.  They’ll indicate a meeting place and time, and maybe where they plan to go.  If you see something interesting, show up and ask if you can tag along.  Alternately, if you’re with a small group and would like some fresh faces or ideas, post to the board and take someone new along.

We’re all used to working in low humidity and air-conditioned environments, but we don’t generally live there (at least I don’t).  While it’s not quite the same as a workout in the sun, spending a lot of time in air conditioning can dehydrate you slowly without you noticing. .  All of the tutorials and workshops will have water set out.  Look for pitchers in the halls at the break times as well.  

As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, I have an idea to plant in the ears all well-meaning social drinkers. In this one case I will presume to speak for others.  It is a kindness to offer to buy someone a drink and I appreciate it when you do. When I decline though, please listen. People who don’t drink mean it when they say “no, thank you” and don’t want to be singled out for it. The best way to include someone who’s not drinking is to let it pass and get back to the real conversation.

Practice Safe (USB) Sticks

What we do is manage software and hardware.  LISA is about exchanging information.  I’m not as rigorous about my computer security as some people I know...but I just like to be sure that I’m not giving anything away without knowing it.  Remember your good habits when you’re using the networks at the hotel or at nearby restaurants.  Check your encryption and use your corporate VPN if possible.   Your conference registration likely includes a USB stick with PDF copies of the conference proceedings. If you’re trading files with people either over the net or with a USB, use normal caution.

Safety among Strangers

This topic makes me anxious. I really want to think the best of everyone. I don’t want to advise people to be overly cautious.  Nearly all of the people you meet will be good people. It only takes one to mess up your whole week.

The first thing to think about is just to maintain ordinary caution. Trust your instincts. If something smells fishy or makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t ignore that.

The social environment, in our industry and at conferences in particular, has become a foreground topic recently.  It is critical that everyone who is interested in attending feel comfortable and welcome. USENIX has developed a Code of Conduct which addresses unwelcome behavior or harassment during the conference.  Everyone should read it to understand both what is expected of them and what they should expect of others.  If you observe behavior that you feel violates the policy, the organizers recommend speaking to the person directly and immediately. You should notify the organizers if this is not possible, or if the behavior does not stop on request.

Think about Others

When I told my wife what I was writing about, she did have a few more concrete suggestions.  (I am sure these are no particular reflection on me….)

Remember to bring business cards.  A lot of us don’t have a lot of contacts with customers or other outsiders as part of our regular work, and so may not be in the habit of carrying and distributing cards. If there was ever a place for it, this is it.  Carry a pen too. You can always have someone write their information on one of your cards.

She also suggested carrying some breath mints or chewing gum.  This actually expands to include general hygiene.  You’re going to be in fairly close contact with a whole bunch of strangers, some of you’re going to want to make connections with.  Keep that in mind when you’re getting ready each day and after that big meal with onions or curry.

We’re coming on cold and flu season in the US.  It’s not a bad idea to carry some tissues for those occasional sneezes, and to avoid touching potentially unsanitary surfaces.  You can help yourself and others by washing your hands often, (the single strongest recommendation from the CDC to prevent spread of communicable nastiness).  I have been lucky enough to miss the colds that have marred the experiences of several of my friends at  conferences.  With a little care and luck you can too.

Have a Good Time

Reading over what I have above, I see “caution, caution caution”.  All of that is to serve a purpose: to learn and have fun.  I do what I do because I enjoy it.  System Administration is challenging and interesting to me.  You feel the same way or you wouldn’t be going to a conference of people who want to do it better.  My biggest hope for you attending is that you can go back to work and tell your boss and their co-workers about what you found, both the content and the community.

Think about it, and I’ll see you there.