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WiAC Interview: Dawn Foster, Puppet Labs Community Lead

In a new Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) interview series, we focus on sysadmins. Recently Dawn Foster, Puppet's community lead, emailed me to ask for help recruiting speakers for Puppet Camps and conferences. So naturally, I recruited her to be my first interviewee.

RE: Tell us about yourself and what you currently do.

DF: I'm a geek, community manager, irregular blogger, vegan, and science fiction lover. I've been working in technology for almost 18 years in positions ranging from UNIX system administrator to market researcher to community manager to open source strategist.

Since September, I have been the Community Lead for Puppet Labs where I manage all aspects of our various communities, including the Puppet open source community. I can honestly say that I love my job. Puppet is IT automation software that helps system administrators manage infrastructure throughout its lifecycle, from provisioning and configuration to patch management and compliance. It's been great to be able to use my background as system administrator along with my many years of experience managing open source and other technical communities.

Before joining Puppet Labs, I was most recently the Community Lead for Intel's Open Source Technology Center. In addition to working at Intel, I've been an online community consultant and have worked at Jive Software, Compiere, and other companies. I also have a BS in Computer Science and an MBA. In effort to not bore everyone to death with my background, I'll just point you to my website if you want more details or contact info.

RE: How did you get started as a sysadmin?

DF: When I was a Computer Science student at Kent State University, one of our university's system administrators decided to teach a class about UNIX system administration. I took the class mainly because I needed another comp sci elective, it fit into my schedule, and I didn't know anything about system administration. During the course, after I figured out what system administration was, I realized that I enjoyed it way more than programming.

Right after graduation, I somehow managed to land a job as a UNIX system administrator on the IT team at a local manufacturing company that made bearings and steel. It was an amazing first job. It was an incredibly diverse environment from an operating system and application standpoint. I administered boxes running AIX, SunOS, Solaris, Ultrix, IRIX, HP-UX, and probably other variants that I'm forgetting. I also got to administer a wide range of applications, including engineering systems, DNS servers, the corporate firewall, Usenet, mail servers, and much more. As a result, I learned a lot about networking, hardware, scripting languages and so much more in a very short amount of time. It was also a fun job, since I was the person who could magically fix things that weren't working.

RE: What are the biggest changes you've seen for sysadmins and system administration since you started?

DF: The biggest change has been in the tools and processes, and this isn't just because I work for a company that makes these tools. When I was a system administrator in the mid-1990s, we didn't really have tools for automation and configuration management unless we wrote them ourselves. I wrote a lot of custom scripts to handle mundane tasks, and spent a lot of time logging into individual systems to run these scripts or make manual changes. The tools we have today make these mundane tasks easier and less prone to error.

The other big change has been access to information and the proliferation of online data sharing. The internet was still in its infancy when I started, and you couldn't get reliable answers from to almost every question with a search. We also couldn't order a book on any topic under the sun and have it arrive instantly on our favorite electronic reading devices. As a result, we spent way too much time working on problems that other people had already solved.

RE: Which resources would you recommend to women admins?

DF: More people should take advantage of the online communities that are available on almost any topic, and I don't say this just because I'm a community manager. We have communities around tools, technologies, women in computing, and more. Even if you are mostly reading and lurking, these communities are great resources to learn about any topic. But the benefits go way beyond just learning. Watching other people struggle and ask questions on topics helps us realize that we aren't alone. You also might find that you can help other people learn from your mistakes when you actively participate in these communities.

RE: If you could give one piece of career advice to women admins, what would it be?

DF: My one piece of advice is to be visible both inside and outside of your current company.

As a raging introvert myself, I know how uncomfortable and terrifying this can be for some people. While this comes naturally to some people, it didn't to me. I used to be terrified of speaking up even in front of small groups; I'd have sweaty palms, feel sick to my stomach and have a racing heart just from thinking about it. I knew that I would be more successful if I could get over this fear of public speaking, so I started focusing on it. I started volunteering to give presentations within my company, knowing that it would be painful, but that if I didn't practice, I would never get better. The more I did this, the easier it was. Fast forward to today, and I can honestly say that I easily get up in front of hundreds of strangers to give presentations without thinking twice about it.

Being visible has been the single best thing for my career over the years. I've met so many amazing people around the world through my writing and speaking. The best jobs that I've had have came through personal introductions, and most, if not all, of those introductions came from people that I met because I was visible. I've accepted job offers from people who saw me present, and I've been recruited onto a panels at big events, like SXSW, by people who knew me only by reading my blog.

In short, speak at conferences, write on your blog, write books and self-publish them, and get out to events and meet people. Even if it's hard at first, it will be worth it!

RE: What suggestions do you have for employers to help make their systems administration roles and company culture more inviting to women?

DF: This is a tough problem, since it's going to be different for every company and location. Start by actually hiring more women in technical roles and talk to them to find out what they like about the company culture and identify the things that make them uncomfortable. At this point, you have to actually be willing make changes at the company to address the issues, and make them quickly so that you don't lose more people. Employers also have to be willing to confront any employees who are making others feel uncomfortable even when they are otherwise rock star employees.

RE: As the Puppet Community Manager, you're eager to get more women to speak at Puppet camps and events. If a Puppet admin is considering speaking at an event for the first time, what advice would you give to help her prepare her talk?

DF: I really hope to be able to recruit more women as speakers at our events this year. For anyone who hasn't done a lot of speaking before, you might want to start with a presentation at a local Puppet or
DevOps user group or speak at one of our regional Puppet Camps.

We are always looking for people to do presentations about how you are implementing Puppet in your environment from both experts and relatively new users. We get a lot of people attending our camps and conferences who are just starting with or evaluating Puppet. Someone who has just finished implementing Puppet can often provide many useful tips about what to do/not do when getting started. We also look for people who have expertise in a particular technology to get them to talk about how that technology can be used with Puppet. In this case, you don't need to be an expert in Puppet, just familiar enough to use Puppet with another technology.

I am also happy to talk to people and brainstorm about what might be a good topic. If you aren't sure what you want to talk about, contact me, and we can probably figure something out!

RE: Anything you'd like to add?

DF: Feel free to ping me any time to talk about the Puppet community, speaking at, or attending our events. I'll be traveling to a lot of conferences in the next couple of months, so stop by and say hello if you are attending FOSDEM, SCALE, or Puppet Camps in Ghent, Stockholm, Oslo, Barcelona, London, or Amsterdam.

Thank you, Dawn, for suggesting this interview series and for kicking it off with me.

If you or someone you know would like to contribute to this women in system administration series, please email me.