On Losing

frustration-pencilWhen I got off the phone, I knew I’d blown it. I’d gotten so wrapped up in the discussion on eVPNs that I might have crossed over that magical line between, “this is a really neat technology,” to, “this technology will solve world hunger.” It brought back to mind my first “real fight” in the world of technology, a long ago argument between two network operating systems (Novell Netware and Banyan Vines).

At the time, I was a buck sergeant in the USAF assigned to the Small Computer Support Office. We were building a new base backbone, and trying to decide what network operating system to standardize on as an organization (as a base). The decision had come down to two options — Novell Netware and Banyan Vines. I was in the camp that wanted Vines. In fact, I’d written two papers (long’ish, on the order of 80 pages each), going through the positives and negatives in each direction. I’d been to a number of meetings, and we had small networks set up running both in our lab. In the end, though, I lost. The technology I was advocating for wasn’t chosen by “the powers that be,” and so we went in a different direction. To make matters worse, I was scapegoated as “the leader of the opposition.”

Looking back now, I can see elements of this same situation playing out in many conversations through my life — like the one this week over eVPNs. We engineers tend to get so emotionally wrapped up in a solution that we tend to think it will not only boil the ocean, it already has boiled the ocean. And when we lose, the fallout can be dramatic, painful, and career altering.

Losing is one of the toughest things in the technical world to handle. Words of advice from a the battles I’ve lost? Let’s look at the reasons we lose these technical battles and see if we can learn anything.

First, we lose because our idea really wasn’t that good in the first place. Solution? Don’t get emotionally attached to a technology or a plan. We engineers like to think we’re Spock-like in our ability to detach ourselves from an idea, to hold the idea up to the “cold light of reason,” and evaluate it like a scientist does the results of an experiment. Well, a little bit of cold water — scientists aren’t so great at holding their theories up to the cold light of reality, either. We’re all just humans, and as humans we want to have our choices, our lines of thinking, our inventions, validated by other humans. This desire for validation creates a “buy in effect,” producing “fan boys” (and “fan girls”). The fact is no plan — and no technology — survives first contact with the enemy. Get used to it.

Second, we lose because we fail to listen. Detective stories, as a genre, depend on the audience coming to a false conclusion early in the story, and then sticking to that conclusion until the very end — when the audience is suddenly confronted with a reality different than what they imagined. It’s called the twist, and it’s entertaining in a movie or a book. In real life, not so much. Our propensity to become emotionally attached to a solution, a technology, makes this problem worse, of course — while you’re insisting on how your solution will, in fact, solve the problem, the problem is shifting under your feet. New evidence is coming to light, and new ideas are coming to the fore. Pay attention, and maybe the twist won’t happen to you all the time.

Third, we lose because someone else isn’t listening. There is an old saying in the self defense world — if what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t do it faster. Do something different. Shouting louder doesn’t work. Shouting at different people doesn’t work. Shouting, in fact, doesn’t work. If you can’t seem to get someone to hear what you’re saying, try a different angle. You’re an engineer, you should know about angles. Like the kids in Big Hero 6, if you’re trapped in a cocoon of microbots, don’t just sit there, think of another way out.

Finally, sometimes we just have to accept that we’ve lost. It’s just the way life is, after all. So, when you lose, don’t mope, and don’t pout, and don’t quit. Treat the loss as a chance to learn something new, something different. Even if you don’t think it’s going to work, think about it as a chance to learn how things fail, and hence how to do them better next time. Think about loss as just a part of what happens in the real world.

And try not to look like the “after” picture of my frustration pencil. It’s only cute if you’re a pencil.