The Inner Ring

An avid reader of C.S. Lewis, I often find his thoughts and statements applicable far outside his original intent. For instance, in 1944 (at least a few years before I was born I feel safe to say), he gave an amazing lecture at the Memorial Lecture of King’s College, University of London. The entire speech can be found here, but to gain a sense of his statement, consider the following quote:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

The point he is making is a moral one (technically, he is calling out the dialectic process, showing the moral results of pitting relationship against principle, but this isn’t a philosophy blog — don’t even get me started — so I’ll leave off the heavy stuff at this point). The point I take from this, on a practical level, is that I should seek out the work I can do, rather than the acceptance of those I consider “important.” This desire for acceptance is, in fact, probably one of the greatest points on which I have strayed in my own life.

To bring this to a more pure “engineer’s life” thought — how many times have you felt a little like you’re getting behind when you read the technical press? Admit it — half of the life of any engineer in the world is running from technology to technology, in fear that if I don’t have the “right” set of skills on my resume then my next job search will be hopeless. That if I don’t keep up with the “latest and greatest,” then I don’t have any sort of a real chance to “make it” over the long haul as an engineer.

And yet — let’s be a little realistic, shall we? Can you really know every new data center fabric that’s proposed or implemented? Can you really know all the nuts and bolts of ESXi while remembering what the latest hard drive to motherboard connector, or the latest bits and capabilities added to OSPF, or…

In a word, no.

This isn’t about knowing your limits, though — it’s about stopping the constant worry that you’re not learning fast enough, you’re not keeping up, you’re choosing the wrong things to learn, you’re…

Let me explain something. I’ve spent 20 years in the networking industry. I started by installing terminal emulation cards in Z100’s, and inverse multiplexers to build a T1 out of ancient copper wrapped in lead hanging off telephone poles. There are just a couple of lessons I learned in my years in the industry that relate to this problem.

First, stop worrying. You’re not any dumber than anyone else in this industry. You’re not any smarter, either, so get over both of these. No-one can really learn at the rate the networking industry requires. No-one really knows everything. It just doesn’t happen in the real world. Sip from the firehose long enough, and you end up with busted lips. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Second, be intentional about what you do learn. Remember my first post — jack of all trades, master of one? If you don’t, you need to go reread it, because it’s important.

Third, stop asking others to be something you can’t. Everyone worth their salt who works in the network industry is replacing their entire skill set every five years — seriously. If someone’s been in the industry for more than five years, then they’re probably not stupid, so stop treating them like they are. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of puppet, or they don’t know C — it’s okay. It’s more important to know the foundational concepts of how networking technology works, than to try and know every CLI every designed by any set of coders in the world. Trust me. This means that when you interview someone, try and learn how to actually get at their core skills, their core knowledge, rather than playing the esoteric game.

Fourth, learn the basics yourself. Learn how SPF works, not which bit is what in OSPF. Think through how BGP converges, rather than memorizing a list of BGP communities. Learn how to use models and ideas to relate things together. See through the skin of a technology and grock how it works. Yes, LISP and ATM LANE really are similar. Yes, VLANs and Frame Relay circuits really have a lot of things in common. It’s not just your imagination — it’s an important skill to see these similarities, and understand how to use them to your advantage.

Just because I’m a huge fan of Lewis, I’m going to leave you with another quote from that same speech.

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

This is the heart of a good engineer.

Write Like You Mean It (Part 2)

old-booksIn the first part of this two part series, I talked about why it’s important to learn to write — and to learn to write effectively. But how do you become an effective writer? I started with the importance of reading, particularly difficult and regular reading across a broad array of topics. Is there anything else you do to improve your writing skills? Yes — specifically, get yourself edited, and get some practice.

Hey — I’m a pretty good writer, why do I need to get myself edited? After all, I’ve written nine books, hundreds of articles, tens of research papers, and… But that’s just the point, isn’t it? I wrote several large papers (at least I considered them large at the time) while I was in the Air Force, but they never seemed to have the impact I thought they should have. Weren’t they well written? Weren’t they well organized? Well researched? As it turns out, no, not really. I started on my first white paper just after I’d started in the Cisco TAC, reading through the EIGRP code and writing a paper — for internal use only — based on what I could find. Don and I backed up each assertion by setting breakpoints in the code and watching the actual variables change in real time, and then back checking everything on the wire using various packet capture tools. The paper was eventually published on Cisco’s public web site, and I thought I’d pretty much reached the pinnacle of my writing skills.

Then I started on my first real book, through Pearson Education. I quickly discovered my writing skills just weren’t what I thought they were. The drafts came back looking like a river of red ink. It took me two or three books to get over taking the editing personally. But I learned. I learned where and how to use an image instead of words. I learned how to organize information in way that made sense to people — to pay attention to the flow of the text.

I then took on a fiction book. Again, I thought I was pretty good by this time. Again, I was completely and utterly wrong. I hired a retired English professor to work through the edits. Again, entire rivers of red ink ensued. But I learned — I learned how to meter out information, to slow down, to find ways to describe things, to make things happen, rather than talking about what was happening. I’m still not an accomplished fiction writer, but the rivers of red ink certainly taught me.

Finally, I started working on a degree in theology. Certainly, after all the writing I’ve done, and all the times I’ve been edited, I’m a pretty good writer by now. Yeah, right. The rivers of red ink were even larger, longer, and redder (if that’s possible). But I learned to structure an argument, to think through the counterpoints, the other side, to actually research and think through what other people said, to catalog the options, to really read the entire article around someone making a point in the area in which I was working…

In short, editing has taught me to write. If you’re going to learn to write, you need to put yourself at the mercy of editors who are good, and learn to listen. Don’t take the red ink personally, take it professionally. Take it as a chance to learn.

Finally, get some practice. One of the reasons I actually began blogging, and continue blogging, is not to become famous, or to win friends and influence people, but rather to practice. There are different sorts of writing, each with its own rhythm. But I’ve learned that if I’m going to really learn to write consistently, I must give myself a reason to write consistently. Blogs, if nothing else, consume text. Day in and day out, it’s a challenge to find a topic, stick to it, make a point, and move on.

So there it is. It’s important to learn to write if you’re going to be an effective engineer. For practical advice, I can give three points: read hard stuff, get edited, and get some practice. Am I a perfectly practiced writer at this point? Can I churn out text whenever I feel like it? Certainly not. I still struggle with volume and speed. I still sit and tell myself to focus.

But I think, maybe, I might have finally reached the point of being a pretty good writer. No matter where you are, you should make a commitment to start your journey to good writing skills now. It will make you a better engineer.

Write Like You Mean It (Part 1)

old-booksEngineers are supposed to be able to gather information, arrange it in a way that makes sense, and then propose a solution that actually solves the problem at hand — right? So why is it I’m almost constantly astounded at the lack of writing skills in the engineering community? Why don’t engineers know how to write, given the almost complete overlap between the way the engineering process is supposed to work, and the way writing is supposed to work?

I suspect there are a number of reasons, probably foremost of which is that engineers don’t think in the logical chains we like to believe. Engineers are too often caught in the modern “search engine world” — find a thesis, search for a few exports to support your belief, and declare the issue decided. We’re sorely lacking the serious interplay between ideas, the pros and cons way of thinking, that exist in many other intellectual pursuits (though honestly, on a decreasing level every day).

If you need some encouragement, let me put it another way: learning to write will not only enhance your thinking skills as an engineer, it will also advance your career. Seriously.

What to do? Well, we can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves. Forthwith, a few ideas on learning to be a better writer.

Read. This might sound stupid, but the best way to learn to write is to read. I’m always astounded when I meet someone who hasn’t read a book in years (and often, they’re proud of it). Stop it! Not reading is nothing to be proud of.

But let me qualify — not just technical stuff. Read philosophy, theology, fiction (and not just science fiction!), history, biographies, and lots of other stuff. Let me give you two reason you need to read a lot.

First, you’re never really going understand language until you’re awash in it, buried in it, absolutely filled to the gills with it. Communication is an art as much as an engineering problem; the only way to really grock it is to do some serious reading.

Second, reading gives us the chance to peer into someone else’s mind (unless you’re a real postmodernists who believes there is no such thing as “the other mind,” or that reading is all about the reader bringing value to the text). The more minds you encounter, the more you’re going to understand people, and the more you understand people, the more you’re going to understand the world around you. Reading is the fastest and easiest way to gain access to another mind.

Read old stuff, too, and not just new stuff. Let’s not get into what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery.

Figuring out how the Romans built roads might just teach you how to manage apparently insurmountable engineering problems in real life.

Learning about the real life and work of the average sailor might just make you appreciate how similar a ship is to an office.

Read classics. Read religious stuff. I’ve learned more about logic in studying theology than I ever did in engineering school — really.

Part 2

Get Out of the Way

I have a lot of memories that have emerged from my years as a network engineer — from funny stories to profound moments to those times when I felt like a complete idiot (because we’re all idiots sometimes). One of those formative moments was when I was agonizing over the decision to leave the Global Escalation Team in customer support and move into an engineering focused role. I agonized over the change for a number of reasons.

I was moving out of something I knew well, directly supporting customers in a very real way. The Escalation Team was the last stop in customer support. If we couldn’t solve it, it couldn’t be solved. That meant a lot of high pressure customer interaction, doing troubleshooting work on really hard, really big problems. I learned a ton. The Escalation Team was also the top of the hill in my world. There wasn’t anyplace, really, I could imagine wanting to be more than working directly with customers, being able to say at the end of the day, “I helped someone solve a real problem,” or even better, “I helped someone learn how to solve a real problem.” Not only for external customers, but also internal ones, from engineering to technical support, I was on line all the time, helping people constantly.

The destination I was aiming for was a complete unknown. What would I do in engineering? Would I be any good at interfacing coders and customers? Could I code well enough to at least be effective in my interactions with coders? Could I do design well enough to really help build new architectures? Could I really bring new ideas to the table?

On the other hand, there wasn’t much growing left to do where I was. How many more problems could I learn to troubleshoot? I could learn the in’s and out’s of a few more protocols, and I could learn a new generation of hardware and software, but in terms of principle skill sets, I was at a dead end. I’d written my first book, and was doing pretty good with speaking engagements. Was there anything more?

So on the one side was the comfortable world I knew well, and on the other was a great big unknown. On the one hand, there was not a lot of growth left, on the other hand, I wasn’t certain I was ready and able to take on the growth that was out there on the “dark side.” (If I’m to be honest, I would actually say I’m not convinced I’ve really done as well as I could on the engineering side of life, nor that I’m as good a designer as I could be. There’s still room for growth where I am, even today.) On the one hand, there was a lot of good I could still do, and on the other, I wasn’t really certain who would be able to step up and take my place. Would the team fall apart without me there? Would the customers I was so engaged in helping be harmed?

Into what was an agonizing decision stepped a close friend — Don — who approached the problem from a completely different way. What he offered was a simple piece of advice: “If you don’t step out of the way, others will never grow into your spot.” Less than a week later, I was in engineering.

This one thought dovetails with a primary point I’ve learned over the years: being an engineer isn’t about me, or what I can get. It’s about what I can give. And sometimes, giving means getting out of the way so others can grow to where you are.

So if you’re struggling with that next career move, think about it from another perspective. Sure there are scary things out there to learn and deal with. And maybe the leap won’t be the best thing in the world over the longer term. Maybe, in fact, you find yourself in a sea you never completely feel like you’ve mastered.

But no matter what you do, if you don’t get out of the way every now and again, no-one else is going to have the chance to grow into where you are.

Jim — I’m an Engineer, not a…

mcoyDoctor McCoy, on the original Star Trek series had a signature line — he was forever complaining about this or that with the exclamation that he was just a doctor, and not a… Well, whatever, from shuttle driver to politician.

And how many times, in my career, have I wanted to stop in the middle of some meeting and scream, “Jim — I’m an engineer, not a politician!”

After all, there’s some sense in which engineers become engineers because we’re focused on the problem at hand, we’re focused on the technical issue, not the people issue. I once saw a cartoon that expressed the feeling in the technical community almost perfectly — an engineer talking to her manager, who has apparently just been told she needs to work on her “people skills.” Her answer? “I only went into computers in the first place because I don’t like people.”


And there used to be a time when engineers could get away with this. There was once a time when IT was in the basement (we used to joke about putting on the asbestos suites when going down to the basement to get to our desks in one large company). There was once a time when It was somehow magical, something behind the glass wall, something you were either “in” or “out” of.

Whether or not we like it, those days are gone.

Today everyone is in IT. At least some companies are starting to realize that all companies are information companies, even if they’re not information technology companies. IT has moved out of the basement, and into the boardroom.

What am I saying? That you have to be a socialite? No. I’m widely known as being antisocial — I don’t do event socials, I don’t go out on the town at night, and I don’t really talk about myself at a personal level to very many people. But you don’t have to be an extrovert or a socialite (or a partier) to be social. You don’t have to be world’s biggest sports fan to talk to people (even though, yes, there are services where you can keep up with the sports world without being “involved” in sports). But just because you’re not an extrovert, or a partier, doesn’t mean you can’t be social in a normal, polite, ordinary way. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk to people on a normal basis, or cultivate a social network. We often lose the distinction between being “popular” and “social.”

Am I saying you have to be a politician? No, not really — though we do need to realize that IT is now about people, and people are naturally political creatures. Most of the problems we really face are, in the end, political problems, rather than technical ones.

Or am I saying we need to “blend in” to the “corporate culture?” Not even this, really. It’s okay for engineers to have a different culture — honestly. I was once asked to make certain I didn’t wear a suite and tie to a particular customer because if I did, they’d think I was just another salesman. Good thing, because I don’t really own much in the way of suits and ties anyway (and the ties I do own are all cartoons). But having a different culture doesn’t mean engineering has to be the sort of culture that breeds in the dark on top of leftovers in the refrigerator. Different doesn’t have to mean “toxic,” or “gross,” or…

So be proud of your choice to be an engineer. Revel in your logic. Being Spock is okay (for even Spock was social, in the end). But the next time you get the urge to scream, “Jim, I’m an engineer, not…,” think twice. It might be better to suck it up and listen. You might learn something.

What I Learned by Being Laid Off

There’s nothing quite so unnerving as being laid off. I know, because I’ve been let go in a “limited restructuring” twice in my life. Through the process, I learned some “life lessons,” that apply to just about every engineering in the world. While I’m safely ensconced in a great place at Ericsson, I thought it might be useful to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned — especially as it seems to be layoff season in other places (or maybe it’s layoff season all the time?).

First, it doesn’t matter if it’s about you, the politics, or just a random event. I still harbor a suspicion that both times I was laid off there was more going on in the background than just “we don’t need your services any longer.” There were probably politics. On the other hand, the politics in these situations are always bigger than you, no matter how personal it might seem. There’s always some back story, there’s always some power play in progress, there’s always some internal struggle.

But the truth is — it doesn’t matter. You can either stew on the past, or move on with your life. Stewing in the past isn’t going to get you a new job, nor is it going to improve your skill set, nor is it going to change anything in any material way. The first lesson to learn is: move on.

Second, you need to learn to balance between investing in someone else’s brand, and investing in your own. We read a lot now-a-days about how you need to build your own brand, take care of yourself first. This entire concept violates my first rule of business — business is about asking what you can give, not what you can take. I know, I know, folks who put themselves first always seem to come out on top. They always seem to take advantage, to get the better deal, to grab the brass ring (do you know where this phrase comes from?)… But the truth will out, in the end. It doesn’t matter whether you’re eventually recognized, what matters is if you can look back on your life and see the things you’ve done for others. He who dies with the most toys does not win.

What this all means is this: It’s great to work for a company with a brand. It’s important to support that brand. It’s important, at the same time, to build your own brand, separate from the logo on your shirt. If you invest so much in your own brand that you forget who you work for, they’ll forget you work for them. But if you invest so much in their brand that you’re completely without any platform when you next end up on the street, well…

Third, your real network is your friends. And I don’t mean “facebook friends,” or “linkedin connections.” I mean real, honest to God friends. A lot of people are amazed at the number and scope of people I know in the networking industry. While working with a customer recently, they got to the point of asking me, “I assume you know someone there, too.” Actually, I do.

But I “grew up” with a lot of these people. I put time and trouble into cultivating and keeping relationships with other people, even though I’m not a “partier,” and I’m generally an introvert. I’ve learned that you can’t think of someone as “that person I know at x,” but rather as another person. It’s not about where they work, or “who they are,” what matters is they’re just there.

Finally, I learned to keep my resume up to date. I’ve found it a necessary discipline to keep my resume up to date no matter whether or not I’m looking for another place to land. By really looking at my resume on a regular basis, rather than just “pursuing the product in hand,” I try and keep it in the realm of being a “jack of all trades, master of one.” My pursuit of knowledge must be intentional if I’m to have something to give (see the first lesson above).

Whether you’re in the position of being laid off, or not; whether you think you should be in the job market, or not; whether you’re ready to move, or not — whatever your situation, be intentional about giving rather than taking, balancing the investment you make in your brand verses someone else’s, what you’re learning, and, finally, about making and keeping real friends.

Jack of All Trades

“Jack of all trades, master of none…”

How many times have you heard that in your life? In your career as an engineer? I’ve probably heard it hundreds of times, if not thousands, from working on RADAR and various sorts of radio and other electronics in the US Air Force to as recently as last week. There seems to be a feeling that if you can’t know one thing really well unless you somehow give up on knowing a lot of other things — perhaps there is some sort of limiter in our brains that keeps us from learning more than a certain amount of “stuff” in a single lifetime, or some such nonsense. We’ve all seen the Sherlock Holmes moment, for instance, when Sherlock says something about not remembering something because he has so much other stuff to remember.

And we come back to this idea: Jack of all trades, master of none.

Now I’ll readily admit that I only have so much time to read, and therefore to learn new things. I have four or five wish lists on Amazon, each of which has more than 100 books on it. I have a reading list in Logos Bible Software that’s somewhere beyond 100 books. I have a reading list in Safari Books that’s quite long, as well. I subscribe to some 15 or 20 magazines and journals of different sorts, from theology to technology. And I subscribe to a dozen podcasts, and something more than 100 RSS feeds.

And I can read about 60 to 100 books a year. I’m obviously a little backed up on my reading.

But it’s important to be lateral as well as deep. Take a look at the chart below; it might help explain what I’m talking about here.


One thing I can tell you is that as network engineer (or just about anyone living their lives, in fact), it’s important to target the chart on the far right, rather than the one on the left or the one in the middle.

What you want to become is what ol’ Ben Franklin really said:

Jack of all trades, master of one.

Some other posts that might help you extend your thinking in this area:

Effective Habits of the Network Engineer
The Perfect and the Good
New Ways of Thinking
Rule 11 is Your Friend