This morning, to give Lee Damon (coordinator) a break, I volunteered to introduce Tom Limoncelli at his guru session on writing papers for LISA. Lee must have been desperate for gurus for this slot since Tom's never had a single paper accepted to a USENIX-sponsored conference: he's always been accepted in doubles. Either two papers, or a paper and a talk, at LISA (twice) and NETA (the once).
Tom started why noting why publishing a paper was good. It helps the community and it starts to change your career (allowing for both peer and management recognition, and providing ammunition when your boss needs to justify your next raise).
How does one start writing a paper? The advice here is to write what you know. Are you doing anything to make your life easier? Automating a task? Writing a cool tool? Working on a neat project? Providing a case study, whether positive ("Here's what we did and it worked") or negative ("Here's what we did, how it broke, what we did to fix it, and what we should've done to begin with")? Asking yourself "What have I done that nobody else has" is an excellent way to start. Then follow that up with the terms and concepts, stating the problem, its scope, and how you solved it provides a good basis for your paper.
Don't forget to survey the literature. Now that the new book, Selected Papers in Network and System Administration, or "The Best of LISA" as it's been called, is published, there's a single place to start for finding references. Add to that the resources available to all USENIX Association members on the http://www.usenix.org/ web site and you're definitely off to a good start.
Tom also discussed the evaluation process, based on his experience serving on or alongside several program committees. The readers consider whether the paper is enduring and whether it can result in a good presentation. Papers are evaluated on several criteria, including the technical quality of the work, the presentation of the paper, whether it advances the state of the art in systems administration, and whether it's relevant for LISA or somewhere else.
If your paper is not accepted, don't consider that anything more than a setback. Papers are usually returned with commentary that explains why it was not accepted and suggestions on where to submit it (if not LISA next year), along with commentary on the paper and its quality and presentation and so on.
If your paper is accepted, meet your deadlines. Work with your shepherd, whose job it is not only to nag you to meet them but also to help you by providing constructive feedback on what is good and what isn't. The shepherd is a resource to help make your paper the best it can be. Remember that they have their own lives to live but they are willing to help you out — just don't deliver a draft and expect same-day turnaround.
Some other additional commentary included:
Finally, we discussed some paper ideas and how best to present them for future conference paper tracks. I won't go into detail here because I hope they all become good papers, accepted to future LISA conferences, where they can be summarized in ;login:.