Random Thoughts

This week is very busy for me, so rather than writing a single long, post, I’m throwing together some things that have been sitting in my pile to write about for a long while.

From Dalton Sweeny:

A physicist loses half the value of their physics knowledge in just four years whereas an English professor would take over 25 years to lose half the value of the knowledge they had at the beginning of their career. . . Software engineers with a traditional computer science background learn things that never expire with age: data structures, algorithms, compilers, distributed systems, etc. But most of us don’t work with these concepts directly. Abstractions and frameworks are built on top of these well studied ideas so we don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty details on the job (at least most of the time).

This is precisely the way network engineering is. There is value in the kinds of knowledge that expire, such as individual product lines, etc.—but the closer you are to the configuration, the more ephemeral the knowledge is. This is one of the entire points of rule 11 is your friend. Learn the foundational things that make learning the ephemeral things easier. There are only four problems (really) in moving data from one place to another. There are only around four solutions for each of those problems. Each of those solutions is bounded into a small set (again, about four for each) sub-solutions, or ways of implementing the solution, etc.

I’m going to spend some time talking about this in the Livelesson I’m currently recording, so watch this space for an announcement sometime early next year about publication.

From Ivan P:

What I’m pointing out in this rant is the reverse reasoning along the lines “vendor X is doing something, which confirms there’s a real market need for it”. I’ve been in IT too long, and seen how the startup/VC sausage is made, to believe that fairy tale… and even when it’s true, it doesn’t necessarily imply that you need whatever vendor X is selling.

There are two ways to look at this. Either vendors should lead the market in building solutions, or they should follow whatever the customer wants. From my perspective, one of the problems we have right now is everything is a massive mish-mash of these two things. The operator’s design team thinks of a neat way to do X, and then promises the account team a big check if its implemented. It doesn’t matter that X could be solved some other way that might be simpler, etc.—all that matters is the check. In this case, the vendor stops challenging the customer to build things better, and starts just acting like a commodity provider, rather than an innovative partner.

The interaction between the customer and the vendor needs to be more push-pull than it currently is—right now, it seems like either the operator simply dictates terms to the vendor, or the vendor pretty much dictates architecture to the operator. We need to find a middle ground. The vendor does need to have a solid solution architecture, but the architecture needs to be flexible, as well, and the blocks used to build that architecture need to be usable in ways not anticipated by the vendor’s design folks.

On the other hand, we need to stop chasing features. This isn’t just true of vendors, this is true of operators as well. You get feature lists because that’s what you ask for. Often, operators ask for feature lists because that’s the easiest thing to measure, or because they already have a completely screwed up design they are trying to brownfield around. The worst is—“we have this brownfield that we just can’t get rid of, so we want to build yet another overlay on top, which will make everything simpler.” After about the twentieth overlay a system crash becomes a matter of when rather than if.