Slow Learning and Range

Jack of all trades, master of none.

This singular saying—a misquote of Benjamin Franklin (more on this in a moment)—is the defining statement of our time. An alternative form might be the fox knows many small things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The rules for success in the modern marketplace, particularly in the technical world, are simple: start early, focus on a single thing, and practice hard.

But when I look around, I find these rules rarely define actual success. Consider my life. I started out with three different interests, starting jazz piano lessons when I was twelve, continuing music through high school, college, and for many years after. At the same time, I was learning electronics—just about everyone in my family is in electronic engineering (or computers, when those came along) in one way or another.

I worked as on airfield electronics for a few years in the US Air Force (one of the reasons I tend to be calm is I’ve faced death up close and personal multiple times, an experience that tends to center your mind), including RADAR, radio, and instrument landing systems. Besides these two, I was highly interested in art and illustration, getting to the point of majoring in art in college for a short time, and making a living doing commercial illustration for a time.

You might notice that none of this really has a lot to do with computer networking. That’s the point.

I once thought I was a bit of an anomaly in this—in fact, I’m a bit of an anomaly throughout my life, including coming rather late to deep philosophy and theology (perhaps a bit too late!).

After reading Range by David Epstein, it turns out I’m wrong. I’m not the exception, I’m the rule. My case is so common as to be almost trivial.

Epstein not only destroys the common view—start early, stay focused, and practice hard—with reasoning, he also gives so many examples of people who have succeeded because they “wandered around” for many years before settling into a single “thing”—and sometimes just never “settling” throughout their entire lives. People who experience many different things, experimenting with ideas, careers, and paths, have what Epstein calls range.

He gives several reasons for people with range succeeding. They learn how to fail fast, unlike those who are focused on succeeding at a single thing—he calls this “too much grit.” They also learn to think outside the box—they are not restricted by the “accepted norms” within any field of study. It also turns out that slower learning is much more effective, as shown by multiple experiments.

There are three warnings about becoming a person with range, however—the fox rather than the hedgehog, so-to-speak. First, it takes a long time. Slow learning is, after all slow. Second, range works best in a world full of specialist—like the world we live in right now. In a world full of generalists, specialists are likely to succeed more often than generalist. What is different stands out (both in bad and good ways, by the way). Third, people with range do better with wicked problems—problems that are not easily solved with repetition and linear thought.

Of course, computer networks are clearly wicked problems.

That original quote that bothers me so much? Franklin did not say: jack of all trades, master of non. Instead, he said: jack of all trades, master of one. What a difference a single letter makes.

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.

Quitting Certifications: When?

At what point in your career do you stop working towards new certifications?

Daniel Dibb’s recent post on his blog is, I think, an excellent starting point, but I wanted to add a few additional thoughts to the answer he gives there.

Daniel’s first question is how do you learn? Certifications often represent a body of knowledge people who have a lot of experience believe is important, so they often represent a good guided path to holistically approaching a new body of knowledge. In the professional learning world this would be called a ready-made mental map. There is a counterargument here—certifications are often created by vendors as a marketing tool, rather than as something purely designed for the betterment of the community, or the dissemination of knowledge. This doesn’t mean, however, that certifications are “evil.” It just means you need to evaluate each certification on its own merits.

As an aside, I’ve been trying to start a non-vendor-specific certification for the last two years but have been struggling to find a group of people with the energy and excitement required to make it happen. To some degree, the reason certifications are vendor-based is because we, as a community, don’t do a good job at building them.

The second series of questions relate to your position—would a certification give you a bonus, help you get a new position, or give credibility to the company you work for? These are all valid questions requiring self-reflection around what you hope to achieve materially by working through the certification.

The final set of questions Daniel poses relate to whether a certification would give you what might be called authority in the network engineering world. Certifications, seen in this way, are a form of transitive trust. There are two components here—the certification blueprint tells you about the body of knowledge, and the certifying authority tells you about the credibility of the process. Given these two things, someone with a certification is saying “someone you trust has said I have this knowledge, so you should trust I have this knowledge as well.” The certification acts as a transit between you and the certified person, transferring some amount of your trust in the certifying organization to the person you are talking to.

There are other ways to build this kind of trust, of course. For instance, if you blog, or run a podcast, or are a frequent guest contributor, or have a lot of code on git, or have written some books, etc. In these cases, the trust is no longer transitive but direct—you can see a person has a body of knowledge because they have (at least to some degree) exposed that knowledge publicly.

All of these reasons are fine and good—but I think there is another point to think about in this discussion: what are you saying to the community? Once you stop “doing” certifications, you can be saying one of two things. The first is certifications are useless. If all the reasons for getting a certification above are true, then telling someone “certifications are useless” is not a good thing. Those who don’t care about certifications should rather take the position first, do no harm.

A stronger position would be to carefully evaluate existing certifications and help guide folks desiring a certification down a good path rather than a bad one. Which certifications are primarily vendor marketing programs? Which are technically sound? If you are at the point where you are no longer going to pursue certifications, these are questions you should be able to answer.

An even stronger position would be—if you’re at the point where you do not think you need to be certified, where you have a “body of knowledge” that allows people to directly trust your work, then perhaps you should also be at a point where you are helping guide the development of certifications in some way.

Certifications—whether to get them or not, and when to stop caring about them—are rather more nuanced than many in the networking world make out. There are valid reasons for, and valid reasons against—and in general, I think we need to do better a developing and policing certifications in order to build a stronger community.

Is it planning… or just plain engineering?

Over at the ECI blog, Jonathan Homa has a nice article about the importance of network planning–

In the classic movie, The Graduate (1967), the protagonist is advised on career choices, “In one word – plastics.” If you were asked by a young person today, graduating with an engineering or similar degree about a career choice in telecommunications, would you think of responding, “network planning”? Well, probably not.

Jonathan describes why this is so–traffic is constantly increasing, and the choice of tools we have to support the traffic loads of today and tomorrow can be classified in two ways: slim and none (as I remember a weather forecaster saying when I “wore a younger man’s shoes”). The problem, however, is not just tools. The network is increasingly seen as a commodity, “pure bandwidth that should be replaceable like memory,” made up of entirely interchangeable parts and pieces, primarily driven by the cost to move a bit across a given distance.

This situation is driving several different reactions in the network engineering world, none of which are really healthy. There is a sense of resignation among people who work on networks. If commodities are driven by price, then the entire life of a network operator or engineer is driven by speed, and speed alone. All that matters is how you can build ever larger networks with ever fewer people–so long as you get the bandwidth you need, nothing else matters.

This is compounded by a simple reality–network world has driven itself into the corner of focusing on the appliance–the entire network is appliances running customized software, with little thought about the entire system. Regardless of whether this is because of the way we educate engineers through our college programs and our certifications, this is the reality on the ground level of network engineering. When your skill set is primarily built around configuring and managing appliances, and the world is increasingly making those appliances into commodities, you find yourself in a rather depressing place.

Further, there is a belief that there is no more real innovation to be had–the end of the road is nigh, and things are going to look pretty much like they look right now for the rest of … well, forever.

I want you, as a network engineer, operator, or whatever you call yourself, to look these beliefs in the eye and call them what they are: nonsense on stilts.

The real situation is this: the current “networking industry,” such as it is, has backed itself into a corner. The emphasis on planning Jonathan brings out is valid, but it is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is a hint in this direction in Jonathan’s article in the list of suggestions (or requirements). Thinking across layers, thinking about failure, continuous optimization… these are all… system level thinking, To put this another way, a railway boxcar might be a commodity, but the railroad system is not. The individual over-the-road truck might be a commodity, and the individual road might not be all that remarkable, but the road system is definitely not a commodity.

The sooner we start thinking outside the appliance as network engineers or operators (or whatever you call yourself), the sooner we will start adding value to the business. This means thinking about algorithms, protocols, and systems–all that “theory stuff” we typically decry as being less than usefl–rather than how to configure x on device y. This means thinking about security across the network, rather than as how you configure a firewall. This means thinking about the tradeoffs with implementing security, including what systemic risk looks like, and when the risks are acceptable when trying to accomplish as specific goal, rather than thinking about how to route traffic through a firewall.

If demand is growing, why is the networking world such a depressing place right now? Why do I see lots of people saying things like “there will be no network engineers in enterprises in five years?” Rather than blaming the world, maybe we should start looking at how we are trying to solve the problems in front of us.