Trip Report: USENIX-LISA '08
I've recently returned from the 22nd Large Installation System Administration (LISA) Conference, which was held in San Diego, California on November 9-14, 2008. I attended Technical Sessions on the last three days of the conference.
The question I always feel compelled to answer is: Why do I choose to attend this conference -- not just choose to attend, but pine to attend, to the point of often paying all or part of my own way. After all, this is a conference for system administrators, not technical writers. I spend an awful lot of time at this conference introducing myself to people by saying, "I'm not actually a system administrator." My system administrator friends roll their eyes in exasperation at this, and one year my friend Bob replied by saying, "You may not be a system administrator, but you speak our language."
There in a nutshell is the reason I attend. This conference, for me, is my language immersion course in Sysadmin (UNIX dialect). If I'm going to write documentation for system administrators, it's useful for me to be bilingual in English and Sysadmin.
More specifically, here are some of the reasons I attend the LISA conference:
- I get a sense of what's happening in the industry, from the IT and administrator point of view.
I don't follow Slate and Slashdot or monitor the various administrator mailing lists, as for the most part I'm not concerned with the specifics of day to day system administration or purchasing equipment or downloading software. But at a LISA conference I learn what the system administrators are talking about and what they are advising each other. Here are some examples of things I've picked up at recent LISA conferences:
* System administrators use configuration management tools -- and fight bitterly over which is the best. This relates directly to the areas I document, but I didn't even know what a configuration management tool was until I went to a session at a LISA conference.
* Administrators of SUN systems are very interested in using ZFS on their boot disks. Learning why helps me figure out why I need to document related tasks using Red Hat's technologies -- like booting from a multipathed device.
* System administrators are relying more on hosted applications and cloud computing. At the risk of sounding embarrassingly ignorant, I point out that I didn't even know these terms before this year's conference. I certainly knew the concepts and I knew their relevance, but I didn't know these jargon names. As how would I? I read two print newspapers and two online news sites every single day, and I'd never seen these terms.
- At a LISA conference, I hang around for a few days with people who are tech-savvy in a pragmatic sense. By this I mean they know why Internet voting is not a good idea, and they know what goes in to all the IT technology that supports our modern world. Despite this knowledge, they don't run off about all sorts of fantasy scenarios involving "technology" such as you hear from popular pundits who speak about "the future". It's refreshing.
- In my job, we are continually working on better communication channels with our employees who support our customers in the field. Their advice and direction is precious and invaluable to me. Even though the attendees at a LISA conference may not specifically use the Red Hat systems I document, my time at a LISA conference feels like three solid days of reports from the field -- from people who are interested in talking with me about their concerns.
- It is often tricky for me to explain to people what I do for a living. I usually leave it as "I'm a technical writer; I write about computers." Which more often than not leads to complaints about instruction manuals for appliances and I have to say something like, "Yeah, but actually I write about operating systems." You can see how quickly that conversation will spiral downward.
At a LISA conference I can say "I wrote the LVM manual" and that's enough. In one case it was enough to have somebody get down on his knees and bow three times in my direction. It appears nobody knows much about GFS, or CLVM -- which are technically what Red Hat pays me to document and it just happens that CLVM is pretty much the same as LVM and that's why there's an LVM manual -- but nonetheless a lot of people were quite aware that for a long time there was no LVM documentation and now there is. People are willing to buy me drinks for that alone.
Although it's no more than my job, this is quite flattering. It makes me feel as if I have a place in the community, that what I do matters to other people -- just as if I had written a nice open source tool that other people find helpful.
- Plus: Attending a LISA conference is fun. The conversations may center around all things technological and the jokes may be esoteric (I got a big laugh at dinner one night by using the word "netmask") but to have as much companionship as you desire for every meal and every evening is, for me, a pleasant time.
As I say, from there I describe the various sessions I attended -- on subjects like "Reconceptualizing Security" and "The State of Electronic Voting". You can probably tell that this is not necessarily how I'd summarize the conference in a standard livejournal entry, but I post this in case anyone is interested in this slice of my worklife.