Awesome Conferences

Recently in Personal Growth Category

Today is my last day at Google. After 7 years I'm looking forward to doing nothing for a while, writing a book or two (oh yeah, I have a big announcement: I've signed 2 book contracts! More info soon!), and I'm getting married.

Please, no speculation on why I'm leaving. I was at Bell Labs 7 years too. It's just time.

(FunFact: I found a draft of a "goodbye message" I wrote. The file's datestamp was Nov 10, 2010.)

The annoying thing about job hunting is that usually you have to take random days off from your current job claiming "something came up" or taking vacation days or faking sick days. It is disruptive to coworkers, especially if you are in a team environment with lots of meetings. This time will be different: I'll be free to go at my own pace. (I'm looking only in NYC at this time.)

Officially I'm taking 4 days of vacation so that my last day is April 1st. Yes, my last day is April Fools Day. This is not a PR stunt to promote the April Tools RFCs book but wouldn't have that been hilarious if it was?


Realizing that I've recommended a lot of books lately. I thought I'd list them here for others to benefit. I'm not saying I've read them all and these are the best, but these are the ones I've read and found useful.


Layout and web design:


  • Improve your memory: Page-a-Minute Memory Book by Harry Lorayne
  • Go from depressed to feeling better: The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns (Note: this book is rather big but don't worry... the first 2 chapters are the good part. Read them then pick-and-choose the rest of the chapterse.)

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Personal Growth

I have a pretty bad memory, which is why I write it down if I need to remember it. In TM4SA I remind people to write things down in practically every chapter.

Alternatively I have tried to improve my memory. Having improved memory helps all aspects of life. It turns out that memory is like a muscle: exercise it and it gets stronger, don't use it and it gets weaker. The techniques I learned help me in many little ways.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Personal Growth

My high school had a radio station.  Volunteering there taught me lot about planning, timing, music, and electronics.  Plus, we had a CP/M machine that was used to store our inventory of albums and that gave me an excuse to spend hours with a real live computer.

One of the pieces of equipment they had was a machine that recorded the station any time the microphone was on.  Firstly, this kept students from saying "bad words" on the air, as it provided evidence.  More importantly it was a training device.  After a show we could listen to the tape to understand what we sounded like and make improvements.

My first tape sounded something like this:
  • That was a really great song.  Now here's ____ with ____.  It's a really great song.
  • click
  • That was a really great song.  Now here's ____ with ____.  It's a really great song.
  • click
  • That was a really great song.  Now here's ____ with ____.  It's a really great song.
  • click
  • That was a really great song.  Now here's ____ with ____.  It's a really great song.
  • click
You see, dear readers, it seems that I felt it was really important for you to know that the music I was playing was, and I clearly meant this in a heart-felt way, "great."

It was laughable how how repetitive I was. My adviser explained two things:
  1. We only play great music on this radio station. Therefore, you don't have to tell the audience it is a great song.  In fact, one would say that the fact that we played it means it is a great song. We're a great station; we define greatness.
  2. Every new DJ makes the same mistake.
These points were learned and relearned by every student that joined the DJ staff.

When introducing a song you don't need to say something is great. It is more powerful to talk about the song's qualities and let the listener realize that it is great. For example one might say that it is "their newest release", that it was "requested by a caller", or that "I've been waiting to play this all week".  All of those things say volumes more about the song than it is "great".

This holds true for anything we introduce: Introducing a friend to another, introducing information we're about to give to co-workers (formally or informally), introducing new software to users [Ever see an IT person spend 15 minutes telling users the new software is fantastic, wonderful, great, amazing, and awesome but forgetting to say what the software does?  I have!], and especially when introducing speakers at a conference.

I was reminded of this concept because yesterday I saw someone making this same mistake. At a day-long mini-conference the chair introduced every single speaker as "awesome" or "incredibly awesome."  That's how the audience was introduced to the person that came to say a few words as a representative of the event's co-sponsor.  That's how the audience was introduced to the world-famous, award-winning, well-published, keynote speaker who had traveled 200 miles to be there.  The audience did know that the keynote speaker was particularly important because her introduction included the word "awesome" at least six times. The representative of the co-sponsor was only called "awesome" once.

It was painful to watch these introductions.  I wanted to grab the microphone and offer to do the introductions myself.  I would have stated 2-3 biographical details from their bio (which were written in the program) and let those points speak for themselves.

And my introductions would have been... well... awesome.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Personal Growth

The biggest problem with transforming Art into Science is that people would rather be Artists than Scientists.  No, wait, you say, I love Science!  Yeah, now would you rather be a Rock Star or a Lab Tech?  Yes, you see the problem.

I recently read a New Yorker article that completely kicks ass in describing how medical science is poised on the cusp of a potential transformation into something that can save Even More Lives, but via a path that's difficult to take:  the humble, homely, not the science of the rocket, procedural checklist.   As the article states,

Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" tells the story of our first astronauts, and charts the demise of the maverick, Chuck Yeager test-pilot culture of the nineteen-fifties. ... But as knowledge of how to control the risks of flying accumulated--as checklists and flight simulators became more prevalent and sophisticated--the danger diminished, values of safety and conscientiousness prevailed, and the rock-star status of the test pilots was gone.
Reading this, I was instantly transported into familiarity. This is the exact problem that I spent a decade banging my head against in Systems Administration, and what drove me to spend the next decade in Project Mangement to try to solve.  A number of us in the Usenix and LISA communities seemed to have a handle on this, but the way the blind men had a handle on the elephant.  We specialized in dealing with our rope, our fan, our spear, our wall, our tree, and, umm, whatever the sixth thing was that the elephant was like-- oh yes, our snake.  We didn't have the problem space sharply defined.  Author, and doctor, Atul Gawande describes the dilemma precisely:

We have the means to make some of the most complex and dangerous work we do--in surgery, emergency care, and I.C.U. medicine--more effective than we ever thought possible. But the prospect pushes against the traditional culture of medicine, with its central belief that in situations of high risk and complexity what you want is a kind of expert audacity--the right stuff, again. Checklists and standard operating procedures feel like exactly the opposite, and that's what rankles many people.
"Expert audacity."  Yes.  Absolutely.  It's what the cool kids do.  Indiana Jones meets skatepunk, and checklists ain't got the cool.

While I have been able to leverage automation and some ticketing systems to bring reproducible, higher levels of support to some of my clients, until recently I didn't Get It.  I did not see clearly enough that many people, even very well-meaning ones, will resist changes that reduce the intensity level of their daily jobs.   They fear becoming bored, unappreciated, less vital to the organization.   The addiction to the adrenaline cycle and the kind of "cult hero" status that goes with it is very, very difficult for an organization to break.   As Brent Chapman noted, discussing resistance to automated network management, everybody wants to be a hero.    

While I have always seen career mentoring as an important part of managing a team, I didn't realize how important it is to build up a vision of what people will be doing when they're no longer playing superhero.

 Systems people are keenly aware of projects that are languishing while they respond to interrupts.  It's rare to meet someone who doesn't have a "someday I'll get to this" list.    Stabilizing the network and systems environment and establishing strong processes, including checklists, is vital for scaling services and being responsive to the needs of the organization.   A decrease in emergent crises ("complications", in medical parlance) frees up cycles for complex projects that present true depth and scope challenges for individuals and teams.   

Being a Rock Star is fun-- as countless Guitar Hero and Rock Band fans, including myself, can attest.   Quiet, directed competence can be just as much fun, though, and allow personal and career growth with a bit less drama and a bit more sleep.   While networks, legacy applications, and odd emergent behaviors of client desktops aren't as complex (perhaps!) as a living organism, there is plenty in common.  As Dr. G says:

It's ludicrous, though, to suppose that checklists are going to do away with the need for courage, wits, and improvisation. The body is too intricate and individual for that: good medicine will not be able to dispense with expert audacity. Yet it should also be ready to accept the virtues of regimentation.
Sing it, brother.  

People that have read my time management book often ask me if I have advice about procrastination. I generally don't.

Strata recently pointed me to an excellent audio workshop on the topic. It's a 2.5 hour MP3 that you listen to. There is a 10-page PDF that you need to print out first because the audio program pauses for you to fill out the blanks in the sheet. Don't try to just follow along viewing the PDF on the screen; having it on paper is worth it.

Download it here:

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Personal Growth

Bill LeFebvre, the con chair of LISA2006, has announced the call for papers.

Earlier in my career I had no thoughts of writing a paper for LISA. However, I had a manager that encouraged me to write a paper just to see what happened. It was the best bit of career advice I ever received. Writing papers got me noticed, helped my career, and lead to things like books (which leads to fame, fortune, and zillions of groupies... oh wait, that's what you get for being a member of the Rolling Stones. Oh well, it's really quite similar.)

So why don't you consider writing a paper? Is there something cool that you've invented that would impress other sysadmins?

The annual LISA conference is the meeting place of choice for system,
network, security, and other computing administrators. Administrators of
all specialties and levels of expertise meet at LISA to exchange ideas,
sharpen skills, learn new techniques, debate current issues, and meet
colleagues and friends.

The web site also includes instructions for people that would like to submit ideas for "invited talks."

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Personal Growth

Being Happy

The "Being Happy" chapter in The Practice of System and Network Administration talks a bit about Cognitive Therapy and a book called The Feeling Good Handbook. The London Times this Sunday had an article that shows that research in this area is alive and well.
The man who's trying to do for happiness what Newton did for gravity has found it a scarce commodity in life. Seligman describes himself as a "walking nimbus cloud" who spent 50 years "enduring mostly wet weather in my soul".
Since its origins in a Leipzig laboratory 130 years ago, psychology has had little to say about goodness and contentment. Mostly psychologists have concerned themselves with weakness and misery. There are libraries full of theories about why we get sad, worried, and angry. It hasn't been respectable science to study what happens when lives go well. Positive experiences, such as joy, kindness, altruism and heroism, have mainly been ignored. For every 100 psychology papers dealing with anxiety or depression, only one concerns a positive trait.
So what do you have to do to find happiness?

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Personal Growth