Workshopping: What is a Workshop?

This document is aimed at defining what we want in a workshop for LISA16. It is by no means exhaustive but should be viewed as a starting point and guideline.

Basic Starting Point

One of the main differentiating points between a workshop and a tutorial or training is the idea of many to many vs one to many presentations. Workshops should be a gathering of peers to discuss a topic (many to many) while training involves a presenter and those being presented to (one to many).

Training frequently involves workshop-like elements in the exercises but the basic goal of training is to bring everyone in the room up to some basic level of expertise. Workshops start with the presumption that everyone in the room is already at a reasonable level and do not need additional training on that topic before being able to contribute effectively.

Types of Workshops

While all workshops should start from the basis of many to many conversations there are several branching points after that which serve to define basic types of workshop. There are at base two types of workshops that work best for the LISA conference. There are many others but they are less likely to fit or work well with the conference structure and goals.

How Do We...

A group of people who are practitioners of a specific type of activity sharing information and knowledge on how they practice. Frequently, but not always, the goal is to help define best practices. A primary example of this is the HPC workshop where people who run HPC clusters discuss their methods and share information on tools and policies that work well for them. Other examples could include topics like:

  • How do we increase diversity in the workforce
  • How do we design a useful datacenter (what are the desirable traits)
  • How do we improve the LISA conference

In the past there has been a generic “how do we advance the state of the art” type of workshop but it was so broad ranging that it often failed to make progress year-to-year. Focusing on a specific topic is critical to the long-term success of this type of workshop.

Establishing a Standard

While USENIX and the LISA conference are not standards bodies we do and should have input into how system administration as a profession works and is practiced. Standards workshops are frequently viewed as a committee or group that is attempting to establish a state of the art or establish requirements that help to define the current state of the art. Prime examples of this type are the configuration management workshops that became the basis for an entire field of system administration. Other examples of this could include:

  • Certification levels or targets
  • Creating other new fields of practice/subspecialities in system administration

Desirable Traits and Outcomes

None of these are hard and fast requirements but they should be goals for any workshop organizer.

The primary trait of a workshop is many to many communications in a gathering of peers.

All participants in workshops are expected to participate and contribute. Towards this end workshops are small group activities. They should not have so many people participating that any attendee is crowded out or does not contribute. The established limit for this is 30 people but most workshops would likely benefit from a limit of 20 or even 10.

Workshops should be focused on a common goal of establishing or moving a baseline of some sort.

Workshops should aim to produce tangible results in the form of a report or presentation that can guide others in the same direction.

It is important to note that no one workshop is expected to complete everything related to the topic in one session. Some achieve that but many require multiple years and multiple meetings. This should be expected and allowed for.

Why Have Workshops

Workshops are small group events that take a lot of space and special organization from the USENIX staff. They have considerable overhead for the number of attendees who participate. When they were first proposed the goal was to give the more experienced admins/attendees a place to go and a reason to attend the conference. They were viewed as a way to recapture the form and format of the early LISA Workshops (LISA I-IV or thereabouts).

We still want and need these more experienced people to participate as they bring valuable expertise to the conference, contribute greatly to the effectiveness of the hallway track and other conference-related activities, and can be important parts of the conference community. However, workshops themselves are probably not a good way to engage this community due to their narrow scope and limited attendee counts.

Workshops provide valuable venues for attendees where there is a direct match. This may be a small set of attendees vs the entire conference but it does mean some people who otherwise would not have come chose to attend.

They can provide valuable resources for long-term growth and health of the conference or even spin off into other USENIX conferences (e.g. SEAS and configuration management).

Some workshops, like those on diversity, may never be popular per-se. However, they address a critical need in the industry and provide an opportunity for the conference to make an impact where one is desperately needed.