Giving a Presentation at the Tennessee Higher Education IT Symposium

I’m heading to the IT Symposium this morning to give a talk on creating a managed Unix infrastructure from scratch, somewhat of a summary of several things I’ve posted here over the last year or so. Thanks to the folks on #puppet who read over them and gave editing suggestions.

Update: So yesterday, I get an email regarding my presentation (well, the slides, at least). No reason to clutter up the main page with it though, so if you’re not happy with the slides and want to express your displeasure, read the rest after the jump and see if I’ve addressed your concerns already.

Hi Mike,

I’ve visited your site before and found your Debian preseeding info to be useful.

That said, I just went through your presentation slides and must say I’m very disappointed. It contains numerous examples of what gives sysadmins a bad name. Egotistical, “I’m right, you’re stupid”, “I did this because I’m way too busy doing more important things than you”, etc. comments abound.

On several occasions your first bullet-point was “just do it”, or “you need this”. Hey Mike, people don’t come to conferences and presentations to listen to a smart-ass.

You mentioned that the people in #puppet gave you useful feedback. Next time you give a presentation, also get feedback from non-geeks. They’ll help you filter out the cruft that makes you look like a spoiled 5-year old talking about his new widget set at show-and-tell.

I hope for the sake of the attendees that your verbal presentation was better than your slideshow.

To respond to the comments more or less in order:

  • Sorry you didn’t like my slides. At first, I thought you were an irritated audience member who waited a couple of weeks before emailing me. But since you’re apparently only judging this based off the slides, that’s different.
  • “I’m right, you’re stupid” is in the eye of the reader. Though you can’t tell without the soundtrack, it tended to work out more like “I used to do things one way, which probably is the most common way everyone else does it. It didn’t scale for the following reasons, and here’s what I’m doing instead.”
  • “I did it this way because I’m way too busy doing more important things than you” is a bit of an exaggerated inference. Am I busy? Sure. Am I busy doing things that most sysadmins don’t have to deal with? As far as I can tell, yes; most of the sysadmins in my immediate vicinity (and from past experience over the last 15-20 years) don’t have major duties outside systems administration, just like most of the engineers don’t have major duties outside their specialty or lab. These non-sysadmin tasks aren’t necessarily more important per se, but they’re important in my particular job description. The hours these other tasks take up in my week force me to find more efficient methods to do the systems administration tasks; others will possibly hit the same walls I have at different times — maybe when they have to keep track of 300 servers in 10 different roles, where all servers in a particular role have to be interchangeable. Maybe when they get a 1000 node cluster where a particular application has to be installed identically on every node, and on every node to be purchased in the future. My belief is that as time goes on, we’re all going to be managing more systems, not fewer, and that methods we use for managing a few systems relatively well don’t scale to larger groups of computers.
  • “Just do it” or “You need this” shows up in three places: using version control, using NTP for time synchronization, and using SMTP for email. I stand by each of those points, being entirely convinced by the verbiage at that was my primary source material. I cannot fathom why someone would use something other than SMTP for sending email, why they wouldn’t want version control of some form as the code that automates their systems administration tasks grows more complicated, or why they’d use a different protocol to synchronize their system clocks. To me, each of those is as self-evident as “your SAN should have redundant power supplies” and “racks are a good way to house a bunch of servers in a small space”. You may have counterexamples, but since you didn’t provide any, I’m left in the dark.
  • The folks on #puppet did give me some useful feedback. As for other feedback, I did ask a coworker to look at the slides, and he saw no problems with them. However, he’s a full-time Windows systems administrator, so his opinion may be suspect. As for non-geeks, they’re really not the intended audience, were generally absent from the conference, and aren’t too likely to be interested in systems administration techniques.
  • Cruft in the verbal presentation? Guilty, but some might call it illustrative anecdotes. Personally, I’ve always tried to work in Sidney Harris‘ “I think you should be more explicit here in step two” joke into at least one over-equationed lecture per semester. The students seem to enjoy it:
    I think you should be more explicit here in step two
    Cruft in the slides? Matter of opinion, I guess. I did run out of time, but I honestly hadn’t done enough practice runs to see how long it would actually take.
  • As for the spoiled five-year-old showing off his new widget set at show-and-tell, I have trouble understanding the issue. Lots of the talks at these conferences are basically a show-and-tell: other talks included “Software Deployment Using Ghost”, “Virtualizing Business Continuity — Getting Your Systems Back Online,” “DBA Task Automation II: Extending the Basics, Best Practices, Processes and Icing,” etc. When I submit an abstract saying that I’m going to give a talk about what goes into a “managed infrastructure,” its benefits over regular administration methods, and talk about a particular tool we use to accomplish some of these tasks, exactly what do I change in material? What do I change in delivery (that you didn’t see)? You’ve never told coworkers “holy crap, this Linux thing is awesome! It’s like Unix, but free and runs on regular PCs!” or similar? Nothing about using PHP to format stuff out of a database for some dynamic web pages? Nothing about a CMS or blogging platform that lets you do all the things a CMS or blog is supposed to do? Nothing about rrdtool, Nagios, cacti, apt-get, Perl/Python/Ruby or some other tool that you didn’t write, but by gosh it’s going to make all of your lives easier?

Join the Conversation


  1. I agree, animesh. Your link-spamming (to incorrectly-formatted addresses, no less) must take priority over reading my posts. (Come to think of it, I believe this is my first human spammer. It’s a bonus that he’s irritated at how long it took to find the comment form.)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *