LISA2005 Diary: Tuesday

by Thomas A. Limoncelli

[In the interest of getting this up on my blog, it isn't going to be as heavily proofread as usual. Please excuse the typos.]

The Usenix LISA 2005 Conference is happening this week. This is the big Open Source system administration conference. I'm trying to summarize each day's activities. Tuesday I taught a full-day tutorial called, "Help! Everyone hates our IT department!" and went to dinner with people that had interesting things to say about some new technologies.


Today I taught my full-day tutorial "Help! Everyone hates our IT department!".

Under a different title, I've taught this workshop 3+ times before in both the US and Europe. The workshop goes over the basics of making sure that when a user arrives in your organization they have a "soft landing" and you make a good first impression. You only have one chance to make a good first impression. Then there are techniques for making sure they have a pleasant stay. How do we do that? Have a helpdesk, communicate effectively, and use monitoring tools so that you find problems before they are reported. Lastly the class talked about training strategies for IT staff. As you can guess, most of the class is oriented towards managers.

Good first impression: Discussed techniques for making sure someone's first day is productive: that they have a PC, a phone, their accounts are created, etc. Subtopics included the politics of getting permission (funding) to have preloaded machines, get notification that a new person is coming (so you can prepare), and so on. Students brought up an interesting issue: they are in environments where new people "aren't in the database" for days until after they are hired. Solutions? Bribe spies that are "in the know" about who is being hired in each department (for example, the department secretaries).

Having a good stay: About 2 hours were spent on advice for managing a helpdesk. Theory about why the 2-tier system works, a model for how a helpdesk can work, and the policies that (if they are written down) make everything flow a lot easier. For example, if you have a written "scope" document, then your staff is empowered to say "no" (politely, of course).

Visibility: The problem with system administration is that if you do a good job, people don't see you, and they think you don't do anything. Thus, to do a great job you have to create your own positive visibility. A number of techniques for advertising your goodness were presented.

Communication: How we communicate with users determines how they see us. Tips on mass-emails (keep it brief, put the important info in the Subject: line), "Town Hall" Meetings, status web pages, and so on.

Monitoring: Discussed the value of monitoring: real-time monitoring means that you get alerts when there is a problem. If you can fix an outage at midnight before people come into the office at 9am, then they don't see an outage, right? Historical monitoring lets you prevent problems in the long-term. For example, if you collect info about network utilization, you can predict when you'll need to upgrade your internet connection. Otherwise, you'll wait until its overloaded, people complain, and then the upgrade will eventually happen.

Training: Strategic training gives people vision, tactical training gives you specific technical skills. Also discussed mentoring, books, and other educational forums.

Commentary: I have to say that having taught this material 4+ times I kept getting a feeling that what I was saying was "old hat". I kept thinking to myself, "wow, I'm boring these people. Who doesn't know this already?" However, at each break people kept coming up to me saying how much they were learning and pointing out specific examples of what they liked about the tutorial. That made me realize that no matter how long I teach this tutorial there will always be people with these kind of issues; these issues are timeless.

In all, I enjoyed teaching the tutorial.


During the evening I had dinner with a bunch of people that had attended the Advanced Technology Workshop (ATW). This is an informal day of facilitated discussions about what's new and hot in system administration. I didn't learn a lot, but I had a good meal. I'll get the notes emailed to me soon and/or will provide a link.


At night there are Birds-of-a-Feather (BoF) sessions where people of various communities get together. I wasn't able to make any because (1) I went to the Usenix Open Board meeting (where nothing happened except people were very positive about the SAGE/LOPSA split, and I think both sides want to see the other have a good future; they're going to be providing mostly-non-overlapping services which tells me they will be successful), (2) I really needed to spend time in the hottub. Primarily because my back was killing me and the hot water would do wonders. Secondarily because a little known fact about LISA is that some of the best industry gossip happens at the hot tub.

I got to sleep around 1am. It was a very full day.