Signs of Triviality

Opinions, mostly my own, on the importance of being and other things.
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It's a Book!

Well, it's gonna be. And I'm writing it!

Back in February, I received a message from an old Professor of mine -- out of the blue -- which pretty much read in it's entirety:

How about writing a book?

Huh. How about that. I liked the idea, and upon my asking how one might go about such a project, and he kindly put me in touch with his publisher and gave me a sample book proposal.

In the following weeks -- which coincided with my teaching Aspects of System Administration during the Spring semester -- I kept coming back to the idea. Having taught the class for a number of years, I've never had a course book to go by; none of the existing materials seemed a good fit when I first created the syllabus for the class (back in... 2004 or thereabouts); only, it had never occurred to me to write my own. (This is surprising in that I'm rather accustomed to write my own software if I can't find the right solution. Then again, writing (and getting published!) a book is, I fear, an order of magnitude more complicated or time- and labor-intensive than writing a simple tool and putting it on the internet.)

Hence I started researching how to write a book proposal, using Wiley's Proposal Guidelines for Higher Education as a starting point. (Not very surprisingly there's an entire market for books on how to write books, as well as a large number of websites -- here's a useful one, as is this one.) As it turns out, this task is actually reasonably simple (as in "straight forward"), but requires a certain amount of commitment, confidence in your material and organization. In my case, the overall outline of my book proposal -- or rather, the anticipated table of contents -- was already defined by my class syllabus, I "just" needed to research the remaining questions (such as why such a book would be necessary, what existing works might overlap, target audience etc.).

In the end, I used the following template to draft my proposal for a System Administration coursebook:

[toggle proposal template visibility]

As you can see, this turned out to be quite a bit of work. Aside from the formalities and the only vague idea I at this point had regarding what this book would be about, I had to critically compare it to what already is out there. That is, I needed to review the books that I had used and regard as the best on the topic and see why exactly they were unsuitable for my needs. My viewpoint on what I really want to accomplish with my class needed to be analyzed and clarified, and I'm happy to say that I actually do believe that this helped me understand and structure the class I was holding better.

I will spare you my entire proposal; (a) because it's really long and (b) because I don't know at this point if it's appropriate for me to make it public. However, I do want to give you an idea about why I did not use any of the "competing" books in my class as a course book, and why I think that another System Administration book would have a market.

System Administration has traditionally been a practiced profession, not an academically learned one. Up until fairly recently, only few schools even offered classes in System Administration. As a result, most existing books relating to System Administration have a practical "howto" approach or are targeted towards people already in the profession. In the past, I've recommended to students a few different books, but none sufficed as a strict course book to follow:

SysAdmin books

  • Essential System Administration by Æleen Frisch -- I found this book to be an excellent companion for anybody wishing to become a system administrator. It covers a lot of ground and provides ample technical detail and even a number of step-by-step examples or a discussion of different implementations. However, I do not think that this book lends itself as a course book, as it focuses too much on specific examples; nor does it provide for course-related exercises and the target audience appears to clearly be professionals rather than students.
  • The Practice of System and Network Administration by Thomas A. Limoncelli, Christine Hogan, Strata R. Chalup -- This book has quickly become the system administration handbook for many. It strikes a wonderful balance of relaying fundamental principles with practical real-world examples. These are the main reasons why I have always combined this book together with ``Essential System Administration'' as the books to recommend to my students: the latter gives practical details while the former covers basic principles. However, once again this book does not lend itself as a course book. It is geared toward the professional system administrator, not at young engineers taking a class in this area of interest. Even though the book includes suggested exercises, I have found that the overall content is too advanced for my students, which is why I could assign reading from this book only rarely (despite my considering the book a wonderful and useful work on the topic).
  • UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook by E. Nemeth et al -- Another great, practical and hands-on approach, guiding System Administrators by example. Widely popular with professionals of varying levels of expertise, it is nonetheless not suitable to teach the fundamentals of the profession to young students.

These three books were the closest I have come to choosing a course book, but the more often I taught my class, the more did I find that the reading I assigned was really only supplementary, not essential.

Another author deserves mention here: Mark Burgess. While his books ``Principles of Network and System Administration'' and ``Analytical Network and System Administration : Managing Human-Computer Systems have the academic background I thought I was looking for in a course book, I have found that they are too academic for my purposes. That is, they integrate well with a full graduate program leading to a Masters degree in System Administration, but they do not adequately cover the matter as I happened to need it.

The book I am proposing falls in between these two categories of books -- it is not purely practical and targeted at professionals, but it is also not so specialized as covering a particular academic area of the large field of System Administration. I believe that I am not alone in teaching System Administration in a single semester: the matter is too broad to be covered in its entirety in a single semester and obviously consists of a large number of other topics covered in dedicated classes. However, more and more universities and schools have started to offer classes in system administration or grant professional certificates in the area. For those schools, there currently does not exist a good text book specifically developed to be taught in an academic class.

As noted above, the general table of contents derives more or less directly from my current syllabus, with a few extended/added topics here and there. (In the beginning, I had hoped to have roughly 12 chapters or so, allowing me to attempt to write one chapter per month based on my class notes; in the end, I came up with 19 chapters.)

I submitted the proposal at the beginning of August, made a few minor changes based on some initial feedback and then... waited. Until, two days ago, I received an email from Wiley noting:

[...] we have discussed your proposal with members of our publishing committee here at Wiley, and I am delighted to confirm Wiley's offer for a publishing contract for your book proposal. I will e-mail a copy of your contract to you shortly.

Yesterday, I signed said contract. I'm incredibly excited and quite scared - I'm writing a book!

October 16, 2011

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