The Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) role often seems a bit mysterious to folks working at smaller and mid-sized companies, where the team isn’t large enough to separate into SRE, operations, and other teams. What does and SRE do, and how is it different from what the average network engineer does? In this Network Collective Off the Cuff, we sit with Michael Kehoe of LinkedIn to discuss the role of the SRE.
Networks are complex. But why? There are two fundamental reasons. The first is complexity is required to solve hard problems, specifically in the area of resilience. The second is that complexity sells. In this short take, I look at the second reason in a little more depth.
How many times, on reading my blog, a book, or watching some video of mine over these many years (the first article I remember writing that was publicly available, many years ago, was the EIGRP white paper on Cisco Online, somewhere in 1997), have you thought—here is an engineer who has it all together, who knows technology in depth and breadth, and who symbolizes everything I think an engineer should be? And yet, how many times have you faced that feeling of self-doubt we call impostor synddome?
I am going to let you in on a little secret. I’m an impostor, too. After all these years, I still feel like I am going to be speaking in front of a crowd, explaining something at a meeting, I am going to hit publish on something, and the entire world is going to “see through the charade,” and realize I’m not all that good of an engineer. That I am an ordinary person, just doing ordinary things.
While I often think about these things, what has led me down the path of thinking about them this week is some reading I’ve been doing for a PhD seminar about human nature, work and leisure. Another part of the reason is that I have been struggling recently with some specific things at work. And, finally, another part of the reason is that I ran into a terrific post over at The Humble Lab on the topic of the impostor syndrome.
Some of this will be in agreement, and echoing, what I’ve read in other places. Other parts of this will be unique to my worldview (worldview warning here, for those too delicate to read things from a different perspective). Yes, this is going to be an honest post. Yes, this is going to be a long post.
Why do I feel like an impostor? For me, it is often fear. I think this is probably true of most people, if we are to be honest with ourselves.
I know many people who are afraid of public speaking. When talking to them in depth about this, what I normally find is a fear of failure. Some people who don’t get a degree or certification are hindered by a fear of failure. There are two kinds of fear of failure, I find: looking foolish in front of others, and losing control. I used to be able to climb tall towers without clips, and without fear. I could monkey the side of the RADAR tower at McGuire, 90 feet tall, and walk around on the top platform knocking wooden blocks out of their stays with a sledge. I could shimmy a 30 foot pole to reach the wind bird. I would struggle in doing those things now; I think more about what I cannot control.
So part of what drives the impostor syndrome is these two kinds of fear: fear of failure, and fear of losing control. Both of these tend to manifest themselves in another fear: the fear of missing out.
What can we do to address these fears? One answer I often hear is “man up and deal with it.” In other words, just address your fears, and get over them. There is some truth in this answer. Sometimes this is really what is necessary. My daughters have a hedgehog; this is one scared little animal. The only way the little hedgie is going to learn that it’s okay is to be placed in traumatic situations, and for nothing to happen. Sometimes we are hedgehogs, and our nails just need to be trimmed for our own good.
Sometimes you just have to deal with fear and keep going. Sometimes you are going to fail. It’s okay to fail.
To quote The Humble Lab here—
The point is, it’s what you do with that failure that defines you—not the fact that you failed at all. We need to drive a culture that encourages people to learn from failure, and grow from it.
But there is a danger in this answer, as well—that we will take this as the only answer. That whenever we face something we fear, or some obstacle, we will say to ourselves, “you can do anything you set your mind to, if you just try hard enough.” Or even “you can use every failure to learn something,” which implies that if you don’t learn from a failure, you are… a failure. The danger here is when stated absolutely, this is a lie. You cannot do anything you want to if you just set your mind to it. I cannot be a great baseball player, ice skater, or Olympic swimmer. I simply do not have the bodily attributes to do such things. And no amount of failure, with the attendant learning, is going to make me any of those things. Sometimes what you need to learn is I cannot do this.
This leads to a second answer to the impostor syndrome: learn to live in your limits There is a difference between pushing yourself to achieve something and pushing yourself too hard. I cannot tell you how to know the difference, because I think it is different for every person, but I know there are times in my life when I have pushed too hard. The more you realize that everyone has limits, the less limited you will be by your own limits.
For instance, I recently picked up a small bit of thinking by reading about Keith’s Law in the area of complexity. One of the corollaries of Keith’s Law is this:
You can only know what is at your layer, and a little above and below. The rest is rumor and pop psychology.
We work on complex systems. When I was in tech school in the USAF, we had one classroom where all the circuit diagrams for the AN/FRPS-77 RADAR system had been pieced together into one large diagram on the wall. This is before the days of the computer being common, of course, so everything was on paper. Folks from other career fields would borrow that room from time to time, and that set of patched together diagrams always gave them a start. Yes, a RADAR system is complex. But the systems I deal with now, networks and their environment, are far more complex. I can describe the intersection topological aggregation and summarization, virtualization, and protocol stacks, but there is no way I could draw it.
The reality is I cannot know it all. And that means there will be many times when I push a button, thinking it will do one thing, and it will actually do another. In other words, I will fail. Not because I intended to fail, but simply because I do not have all the knowledge in the world.
Not knowing does not make me a bad person, or a bad engineer; it just makes me human. It is okay to be human, and it is okay to fail because I don’t know everything.
Another answer to the impostor syndrome is to learn more. This is in tension with the second point, I know, but it is still an important point. Just like being afraid does not let you off the hook of dealing with hard situations, accepting that you cannot know everything does not let you off the hook of learning new things. There is a technique to learning, of course, but I have talked about this enough in other places (here, for instance), and this post is already too long.
Intentionally learn to counter your fears.
Finally, there is something else that needs to be said here: perhaps the best guard against impostor syndrome is to live and work in a community. Not a community of competitors, or a community of followers, but rather just a community. This means you need to stop trying to compete with everyone around you, and it means you need to stop treating everyone around you as competitors. It means not thinking I am better than another person because I know more, or I have done more. It means opening up about my fears with that community, and not being afraid to ask for help when I don’t know. It means accepting that I am never the smartest person in the room.
Intentionally build, and be a part of, a community. It’s okay to fail in front of other people.
I recently joined Ethan Banks for a Packet Pushers episode around the trade offs of hiding information in the control plane. This was a terrific show; you can listen to it by clicking on the link below.
Today on the Priority Queue, we’re gonna hide some information. Oh, like route summarization? Sure, like route summarization. That’s an example of information hiding. But there’s much more to the story than that. Our guest is Russ White. Russ is a serial networking book author, network architect, RFC writer, patent holder, technical instructor, and much of the motive force behind the early iterations of the CCDE program.
I had about four hours of highway driving yesterday. Even though I probably could’ve navigated it on my own, I opted to use Apple Maps, which is integrated with my car’s Apple CarPlay “infotainment center.” It was nice. It told me how many miles I had remaining and my expected time of arrival. But it wasn’t a life changer. @The Old Reader
More than ever before Internet users are now interacting with people living/working in other economies. And as a result of these interactions, there are an increasing number of ‘legal contracts’ (intentional or not). Internet policy researchers and academics debate about the changing landscape and the boundaries of the international and domestic laws, without conclusive agreements. —Yeseul Kim @APNIC
The plague that is Spectre continues to evolve and adapt, showing up in two new variants this week dubbed Spectre 1.1 and Spectre 1.2 that follow the original Spectre’s playbook while expanding on the ways they can do damage. —Curtis Franklin Jr. @Dark Reading
These vast routing events that are propagated globally already provide a hint that some ISPs do not set filters at all, or there are vastly malformed AS-SETs. We decided to measure the number of filters that were already bypassed by routing anomalies. To do so, we checked the way route leaks were propagated: if a route leak is received from a customer link and it does not belong to the customer cone then IRR filters were malformed. —Alexander Azimov @APNIC
Recently, a CEO of a roaring unicorn in Silicon Valley drew my attention to the following: “If you compare Amazon’s stock price over the recent years against the cost of housing and the rise of homelessness in Seattle, the progression is identical…” —Frederic Filloux @MondayNote
Why do many problems in life seem to stubbornly stick around, no matter how hard people work to fix them? It turns out that a quirk in the way human brains process information means that when something becomes rare, we sometimes see it in more places than ever. —David Levari @The Conversation
Two web-based attacks against IoT devices made the rounds this week. Researchers Craig Young and Brannon Dorsey showed that a well known attack technique called “DNS rebinding” can be used to control your smart thermostat, detect your home address or extract unique identifiers from your IoT devices. —Gunes Acar