No Capes, No Wands

As a keen observer of the network engineering world for the last twenty… okay, maybe longer, but I don’t want to sound like an old man telling stories quite yet… years, there’s one thing I’ve always found kind-of strange. We have a strong tendency towards hero worship.

I don’t really know why this might be, but I’ve seen it in Cisco TAC—the almost hushed tones around a senior engineer who “is brilliant.” I’ve seen it while sitting in a meeting in the middle of an argument over some technical point in a particular RFC. Someone says, “we should just ask the author…” Which is almost always followed by something like: “Really? You know them?”

To some degree, this is understandable—network engineering is difficult, and we should truly honor those in our world who have made a huge impact. In many other ways, it’s unhelpful, and even unhealthy. Why?

First, it tends to create an “us versus them,” atmosphere in our world. There are engineers who work on “normal” networks, and then there are those who work on, well, you know, special ones. Not everyone needs those “special skills,” so we end up creating a vast pool of people with a strong skill set at a more basic level, but… who never seem to progress beyond the CLI and a GUI. There are those who know how to write standards, those who know how to read them, and then—finally—those who know how to buy products from vendors that hire people who know how to read and write the standards.

Second, this “us versus them,” situation seems to build itself into an almost impenetrable barrier. People are almost afraid of getting in touch with someone who’s famous, or really smart, or whatever. Like there is some sort of force field around those smart people that makes it impossible to talk to them. Or perhaps they will talk in a different language, or maybe yell at you.

There were, in fact, people in the “old days” who you would only email as a last resort. They would always answer your question, but the answer would be buried in an old fashioned, hair raising, spine tingling flame. I keep hoping we’ll moved past this point in the network engineering community, although I know there are still pockets of it out there.

Finally, this barrier has the effect of stopping people in their careers at a point that’s not helpful for them personally, and for the industry as a whole. We do not need a wide swatch of expert beginners. We do not need tons of people who truly believe they can never rise to the level of Fish, or me, or—just whoever. We do not need a broad, shallow, group of people who are more interested in what is practical right now, than how and why it works that way.

We don’t need more keyboard jockeys. We need more engineers.

The bottom line is this. I don’t have a cape, and I don’t have a magic wand. I can’t recall ever meeting anyone in the network engineering world who actually does (other than perhaps as a joke). There are some really smart people out there, but they are still, after all, people.

Don’t be afraid to take up and learn something beyond the CLI and “what I need to know right now.” Don’t be afraid of learning more than you need to run the network you work on right now. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to send an email to someone asking about a particular technology.

Yes, we’re all overwhelmed, and there is a good chance that you won’t get an answer at all. Or maybe you’ll get a flame that will burn the hairs off your head (if you have any left after working as a network engineer, that is).

But maybe, just maybe, you will actually get an answer, and perhaps even a little inspiration—and discover that no, they don’t have a cape, nor do they have a magic wand.


  1. alan.wijntje on 15 June 2016 at 3:16 am

    He Russ,

    Although a entertaining read it handles a very serious topic (being afraid to ask questions for whatever reasons) and one which we need to communicate strongly to the community “don’t be afraid to ask questions, learn from and with each other”.



  2. Dave Taht on 15 June 2016 at 11:40 am

    In my earlier days (80s), I was totally in fear of asking questions and sounding stupid. What I did then was create a burner email account and email the expert anyway. (well, it was more netnews then). Having our permanent identity tied up in our ignorance strikes me as a lose. Our identity shifts over time, as does our ignorance.