[TUHS] How to Kill a Technical Conference (was: Zombified SCO comes back from the dead, brings trial back to life against IBM)

Clem Cole clemc at ccc.com
Mon Apr 5 04:22:22 AEST 2021

Note: These are my opinions/experiences not necessarily those of the
association or my employer.   And, yes, I am a former BOD member as well as
ex-President of same, as are a number of folks on this list.

On Sun, Apr 4, 2021 at 1:30 AM G. Branden Robinson <
g.branden.robinson at gmail.com> wrote:

> I'm too young to know--did USENIX follow the trajectory of reorienting
> its focus from engineering and research to sales?

Actually, quite the opposite, USENIX was getting more and more academic and
research-oriented and less 'trade show.'  The key is that USENIX and ALS
should have been an excellent match, unfortunately, some of the
personalities involved were at odds with each other.  IMO: it was more of a
crash of personalities/control issues - the details do not need to be
repeated or aired again. Note: I was on the BOD at that time and in fact on
the PC for that specific conference.  Ted may have been on the BOD at the
same time.

> Why does it no longer occupy the premier place it once did?
As they say on Quora, "*never ask a question based on a false premise*."
Sadly, this is  a false statement.

USENIX is extremely well respected in the systems research and security
community in particular.  And even during these Covid times has continued
to have some of the premier conferences on the same; al biet virtual (more
in a minute).    An issue during the time you are discussing, USENIX had
evolved into "two foci" between the practitioners (which included both FOSS
community and LISA types) and the more academic-oriented folks looking for
respected places to publish papers/develop their tenure files.

USENIX had moved from its earlier (anything goes) - pure practitioner
origins - which were also researchers, so at a meeting in a classroom at
NYU, you told people you had something to say and came and did it, to a
more structured (research) approach with program committees, submitted
papers, and vetting and a hotel.  Along the way, because it had both types
of people and these were the folks that influenced the buying
patterns, vendors started to show up to show off what they had.   At the
time of the ALS conference you mentioned, the things happening in the FOSS
community - was much more like the origins of USENIX.   What had for years
separated USENIX from IEEE/ACM was it was where the two foci were really a
single one, and thus had been together and actually considered what was
potential as well as practical.  In fact, USENIX was noted as the place
where some of the most influential papers of the time had shown (numerous
storage papers including Rusty's NFS and my EFS paper in the same session,
just about any important security papers, numerous other system papers -- I
could go a few pages here).

Part of the issue was ACM's SOSP was every 2 years and there was too much
good stuff going on in the system world (BTW - USENIX eventually created
OSDI on alternate years because ACM was just going to do it).     But
USENIX also published less formal papers.  In fact, one of my all-time
favorite practitioner papers is from another member of this list -- Tom
Lyon's "*All the Chips that Fit*" from the 1985 Summer USENIX [which if you
have never read, send me an email, offline and I'll send you a scanned PDF
-- note to Tom if you still have the original bits I bet USENIX would like
them]. I suspect that such a paper would never have been acceptable in any
of the IEEE or ACM conferences.   Also unlike ACM/IEEE (and frankly the
thing that happen at USENIX when I was President that I am most proud of)
is that they do not have a paywall.  Anything they published from the time
when all proceedings were electronic is available and slowly some of the
older papers are being scanned or reprinted from the source - as
needed/possible.  As much as possible, all of USENIX's papers
<https://www.usenix.org/publications/proceedings> are available to anyone
[which was a huge thing to do - as it cut down a lot of revenue for them --
a paywall for papers is one of the things other associations use].

A number of good things happened at the time you mentioned, as well as some
bad.  Knowing the parties involved both today and at that time, if today's
BOD and Executive Director was given the same choices that they had at the
time of the action, I suspect we might have had a different outcome. IMO to
the demise of FREENIX and ALS were two of the not-so-good choices that were
made, but I understand why those conferences did go away at that point in
history.   If it makes you feel any better, as a former PC Chair for a
couple of FREENIX (which was caught with the same bullet), and as I said a
member of the PC of ALS, I was very sad to see that happen and I personally
fought against it.  But, I was on the losing side of that argument.
Unfortunately, that ship sailed, and reviving them is unlikely to be
possible although I believe it has been discussed a number of times since I
left the BOD.

Back to your point, USENIX may have stopped being as important to many
practitioners, particularly ones in the FOSS community. Which I do find
sad, but I understand the issues on both sides and why that might be so.
For instance, Keith Packard of X11 fame, Steinhart,   and I were all
talking about "whence USENIX" at a Hackers conferences a few years back.
 So, if you come from that side of the world, you may not value membership
or the results (BTW: my own now hacker daughter,  who is a Googler, dropped
her membership last year as she felt it was of less value to her); but so
far USENIX has continued to be important to a large part of the research
community and a set of some practitioners.

That said, I also believe in 2021, that the USENIX BOD and their ED is
struggling with a financial model that works for them when they do not have
the conference revenue as they had before CV-19.  I hope for their sake,
the current treading water situation can find a way to bring them back to
what they were pre-CV-19 because the conferences they traditionally have
held, are excellent (premier in your words) and I would hate to see that
really go away because they have had a lot of value and so far have
continued to provide it.

Respectfully -- my 2 cents.

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