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Why Sys Admins Should Write

Our guest blogger today, Carolyn Rowland, LISA '12 Program Chair, offers plenty of reasons why sys admins should write a paper and submit it to LISA '12:

You're an operational-type, not a researcher or an academic-type. You enjoy troubleshooting and solving problems, finding new ways to make your job easier and making things work. Writing!? That's one of the last things you think of doing. Documenting your infrastructure is already a struggle for you. Why would you ever write a paper — certainly not for fun!

There are a lot of you out there. I've heard quite a few reasons why you don't think you should or could publish:

  • I don't do anything interesting.
  • I can't write (alternate: I hate writing or writing is hard.).
  • I'm just a junior-level sysadmin.
  • I'm not smart enough (alternate: What if I look stupid?).
  • My boss doesn't care about publishing.
  • I don't have time.
  • My work isn't finished.
  • I don't have money to travel to the conference to present my paper (alternate: My boss won't pay for me to attend the conference).

Great. That's a wonderful list of reasons why you shouldn't publish.

I'm going to give you a few reasons why you should.

It opens doors

IMO, this is the biggest benefit for you as an individual.

Publishing gets your name out to the community. People who read your work or attend your talk start to remember your name. You get recognized in the hallway at community events, people see your name on mailing lists or forums and link you to your work. This is networking. It might lead you to your next job or new friends or give you some additional cred in the community.

Once published, you are always published. Others may continue your research or branch off from it, but it will always be yours.

I spent over a decade attending conferences and hanging on the periphery of the community. I made contacts and learned new skills, but the value of the community skyrocketed when I got involved. In a few short years I've made so many new contacts and friends. I feel less intimidated by smarter people in industry and more like I'm part of the community. You don't have to be a raging extrovert to make this happen. Publish a paper and see where it takes you.

Advancing the industry

Your ideas could be the next big thing. Someone had to begin by realizing that log monitoring was important, or configuration management, or network monitoring. What solution are you working on that might change the industry?

You may not have the solution perfect, but maybe you'll share ideas or provide the template for others to create the next Nagios or Cfengine.

Stretch yourself and grow

Publishing can also mean presenting at the conference. Presenting at a conference is good practice and gets you out of your work bubble and in front of a new group of peers. It stretches you, and encourages you to try something new. Even if you present often at work, that isn't the same as presenting to a conference audience of technical peers.

You might be surprised what you learn about yourself and what you learn about the industry. You might learn that your job excels compared to others in the industry or that maybe it's time to move on because your company is stuck in the dark ages. Either way, you grow through the experience and you have a broader view of the world.

Get out of the office

Getting out of the office and taking in a bit of community atmosphere can be a refreshing break from the day-to-day. Meet up with some friends or make new ones. There are social activities almost every day (the hallway track is a social activity in itself) to help sysadmins get to know one another.

Not into beer parties? At LISA there is board game night, the LISA quiz show, the LISA reception, technical BOFs, the hallway track (people hanging out in the conference area between sessions or after-hours to meet and talk with other sysadmins). I always find enough opportunities to socialize with peers outside of beer parties.

It is not rocket science

We think of publishing at conferences as rocket science, but it doesn't have to be. Look at the types and examples of submissions to some of the various tech conferences Cascadia, PICC, LISA. Are there any topics for which you have as much knowledge as some of these authors? Are there solutions you have implemented that solve real-world problems?

There are also alternatives to the stereotypical research paper. LISA, for example, has a structured papers track for research papers, but we also have a practice and experience report track suitable for stories from the trenches.

An experience report doesn't have to be something completely new or bleeding edge. Sometimes during an implementation you took a few obvious paths that led you to some serious learning on the job and a change of direction to achieve your goals. Sharing these kinds of experiences can help others avoid similar pitfalls. It could be something as simple as bringing up a new service, implementing some industry best practices, or developing a solution for work. If there are lessons to share, then you may have a good practice and experience report topic.

If you're not a research scientist and you don't feel like the formal papers track is right for you, consider the experience reports track.

LISA also has a program committee made up of helpful volunteers willing to mentor potential authors through the submission process. The process has built-in support all along the way. I think that's a huge benefit. You aren't flying blind because someone is there to help nudge you in the best direction.

What if I get rejected?

Even some of the best repeat authors get rejected. We cannot accept every submission or we'd have to run the conference for a whole month to fit them all into the schedule. The program committee works very hard to choose the topics and submissions that they think best fit current industry needs and illustrate the best ideas.

Getting rejected for the conference might still lead to an article in a journal (such as ;login:) or a poster session or maybe the program committee will ask you to resubmit the next year after you've had more time to collect results or more time to test your hypothesis.

I still cannot afford to go

Publishing at a conference doesn't require you to attend the entire conference (for LISA that would be 6 days). I believe it is such a worthwhile professional growth opportunity, that I pay my own way to go to some events that my employer doesn't cover. Minimally, you need to be there for the day of your presentation. If travel money is an issue, focus on events that are within driving distance or cheap airfare (if you're on the East Coast of the US, then you'd consider PICC over Cascadia, which is on the West Coast).

Look for other ways to share expenses such as cab fare from the airport (or take the subway which is available in some cities) or share a room with a colleague to halve your room expenses. Usenix provides LISA presenters with a discount on the technical conference so you do get a break on your registration. Students can apply for the student grant program and take advantage of reduced conference fees or can volunteer to work at the conference for additional financial assistance.

The time to publish is now

I hope I've convinced you even a tiny bit that publishing could be a good thing for a sysadmin. You aren't staying in this job forever are you? Where will you go next, what challenges will you face? Publishing might be action you take that leads you to your next opportunity.

There's still time to submit something to the 2012 LISA conference. Check out the call for participation and think about some of your work stories. There is probably something there you've seen or done that others could learn from and find interesting.

Carolyn: lisa12chair AT usenix DOT org
Your friendly neighborhood Program Chair for the 2012 LISA conference

LISA 12 submission site