The Hedge 67: Daniel Beveridge and the Structure of Innovation

Innovation and disruption are part the air we breath in the information technology world. But what is innovation, and how do we become innovators? When you see someone who has invented a lot of things, either shown in patents or standards or software, you might wonder how you can become an innovator, too. In this episode of the Hedge, Tom Ammon, Eyvonne Sharp, and Russ White talk to Daniel Beveridge about the structure of innovation—how to position yourself in a place where you can innovate, and how to launch innovation.

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The Hedge 64: Brian Keys and Burnout

Burnout stalks most network engineers—and most people in the world of information technology—striking at least once in every career, it seems, and often more than once. In this episode, Brian Keys joins Eyvonne Sharp, Tom Ammon, and Russ White to discuss his personal experience with burnout. The discussion then turns to general strategies and ideas for avoiding burnout on a day-to-day basis.

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Pulling Back the Curtains

One of the major sources of complexity in modern systems is the simple failure to pull back the curtains. From a recent blog post over at the ACM—

The Wizard of Oz was a charlatan. You’d be surprised, too, how many programmers don’t understand what’s going on behind the curtain either. Some years ago, I was talking with the CTO of a company, and he asked me to explain what happens when you type a URL into your browser and hit enter. Do you actually know what happens? Think about it for a moment.

Yegor describes three different reactions when a coder faces something unexpected when solving a problem.

Throw in the towel. Just give up on solving the problem. This is fairly uncommon in the networking and programming fields, so I don’t have much to say here.

Muddle through. Just figure out how to make it work by whatever means necessary.

Open the curtains and build an excellent solution. Learn how the underlying systems work, understand how to interact with them, and create a solution that best takes advantage of them.

The first and third options are rare indeed; it is the second solution that seems to dominate our world. What generally tends to happen is we set out to solve some problem, we encounter resistance, and we either “just make it work” by fiddling around with the bits or we say “this is just too complex, I’m going to build something new that simpler and easier.” The problem with building something new is the “something new” must go someplace … which generally means on top of existing “stuff.” Adding more stuff you do understand on top of stuff you don’t understand to solve a problem is, of course, a prime way to increase complexity in a network.

And thus we have one of the prime reasons for ever-increasing complexity in networks.

Yegor says being a great programmer by pulling back the curtain increases job satisfaction, helping him avoid depression. The same is probably true of network engineers who are deeply interested in solving problems—who are only happy at the end of the day if they know they have solved some problem, even if no-one ever notices.

Pulling back the curtains, then not only helps us to manage complexity, it can alos improve job satisfaction for those with the problem-solving mindset. Great reasons to pull back to the curtains, indeed.

The Hedge 62: Jacob Hess and the Importance of History

At first glance, it would seem like the history of a technology would have little to do with teaching that technology. Jacob Hess of NexGenT joins us in this episode of the Hedge to help us understand why he always includes the history of a technology when teaching it—a conversation that broadened out into why learning history is important for all network engineers.

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You can find the history of networking here.

Innovation Myths

Innovation has gained a sort-of mystical aura in our world. Move fast and break stuff. We recognize and lionize innovators in just about every way possible. The result is a general attitude of innovate or die—if you cannot innovate, then you will not progress in your career or life. Maybe it’s time to take a step back and bust some of the innovation myths created by this near idolization of innovation.

You can’t innovate where you are. Reality: innovation is not tied to a particular place and time. “But I work for an enterprise that only uses vendor gear… Maybe if I worked for a vendor, or was deeply involved in open source…” Innovation isn’t just about building new products! You can innovate by designing a simpler network that meets business needs, or by working with your vendor on testing a potential new product. Ninety percent of innovation is just paying attention to problems, along with a sense of what is “too complex,” or where things might be easier.

You don’t work in open source or open standards? That’s not your company’s problem, that’s your problem. Get involved. It’s not just about protocols, anyway. What about certifications, training, and the many other areas of life in information technology? Just because you’re in IT doesn’t mean you have to only invent new technologies.

Innovation must be pursued—it doesn’t “just happen.” We often tell ourselves stories about innovation that imply it “is the kind of thing we can accomplish with a structured, linear process.” The truth is the process of innovation is unpredictable and messy. Why, then, do we tell innovation stories that sound so purposeful and linear?

That’s the nature of good storytelling. It takes a naturally scattered collection of moments and puts them neatly into a beginning, middle, and end. It smoothes out all the rough patches and makes a result seem inevitable from the start, despite whatever moments of uncertainty, panic, even despair we experienced along the way.

Innovation just happens. Either the inspiration just strikes, or it doesn’t, right? You’re just walking along one day and some really innovative idea just jumps out at you. You’re struck by lightning, as it were. This is the opposite of the previous myth, and just as wrong in the other direction.

Innovation requires patience. According to Keith’s Law, any externally obvious improvement in a product is really the result of a large number of smaller changes hidden within the abstraction of the system itself. Innovation is a series of discoveries over months and even years. Innovations are gradual, incremental, and collective—over time.

Innovation often involves combining existing components. If you don’t know what’s already in the field (and usefully adjacent fields), you won’t be able to innovate. Innovation, then, requires a lot of knowledge across a number of subject areas. You have to work to learn to innovate—you can’t fake this.

Innovation often involves a group of people, rather than lone actors. We often emphasize lone actors, but they rarely work alone. To innovate, you have to inteniontally embed yourself in a community with a history of innovation, or build such a community yourself.

Innovation must take place in an environment where failure is seen as a good thing (at least your were trying) rather than a bad one.

Innovative ideas don’t need to be sold. Really? Then let’s look at Qiubi, which “failed after only 7 months of operation and after having received $2 billion in backing from big industry players.” The idea might have been good, but it didn’t catch on. The idea that you can “build a better mousetrap” and “the world will beat a path to your door,” just isn’t true, and it never has been.

The bootom line is…Innovation does require a lot of hard work. You have to prepare your mind, learn to look for problems that can be solved in novel ways, be inquisitive enough to ask why, and if there is a better way, stubborn enough to keep trying, and confident enough to sell your innovation to others. But you can innovate where you are—to believe otherwise is a myth.

The Senior Trap

How do you become a “senior engineer?” It’s a question I’m asked quite often, actually, and one that deserves a better answer than the one I usually give. Charity recently answered the question in a round-a-bout way in a post discussing the “trap of the premature senior.” She’s responding to an email from someone who is considering leaving a job where they have worked themselves into a senior role. Her advice?

Quit!

This might seem to be counter-intuitive, but it’s true. I really wanted to emphasize this one line—

There is a world of distance between being expert in this system and being an actual expert in your chosen craft. The second is seniority; the first is merely .. familiarity

Exactly! Knowing the CLI for one vendor’s gear, or even two vendor’s gear, is not nearly the same as understanding how BGP actually works. Quoting the layers in the OSI model is just not the same thing as being able to directly apply the RINA model to a real problem happening right now. You’re not going to gain the understanding of “the whole ball of wax” by staying in one place, or doing one thing, for the rest of your life.

If I have one piece of advice other than my standard two, which are read a lot (no, really, A LOT!!!!) and learn the fundamentals, it has to be do something else.

Charity says this is best done by changing jobs—but this is a lot harder in the networking world than it is in the coding world. There just aren’t as many network engineering jobs as there are coding jobs. So what can you do?

First, do make it a point to try to work for both vendors and operators throughout your career. These are different worlds—seriously. Second, even if you stay in the same place for a long time, try to move around within that company. For instance, I was a Cisco for sixteen years. During that time, I was in tech support, escalation, engineering, and finally sales (yes, sales). Since then, I’ve worked in a team primarily focused on research at an operator, in engineering at a different vendor, then in an operationally oriented team at a provider, then marketing, and now (technically) software product management. I’ve moved around a bit, to say the least, even though I’ve not been at a lot of different companies.

Even if you can’t move around a lot like this for whatever reason, always take advantage of opportunities to NOT be the smartest person in the room. Get involved in the IETF. Get involved in open source projects. Run a small conference. Teach at a local college. I know it’s easy to say “but this stuff doesn’t apply to the network I’m actually working on.” Yes, you’re right. And yet—that’s the point, isn’t it? You don’t expand your knowledge by only learning things that apply directly to the problem you need to solve right now.

Of course, if you’re not really interested in becoming a truly great network engineer, then you can just stay “senior” in a single place. But I’m guessing that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in becoming a truly great network engineer.

Pay attention to the difference between understanding things and just being familiar with them. The path to being great is always hard, it always involves learning, and it always involves a little risk.