Rule 11 is your friend

It’s common enough in the networking industry — particularly right now — to bemoan the rate of change. In fact, when I worked in the Cisco Technical Assistance Center (TAC), we had a phrase that described how we felt about the amount of information and the rate of change: sipping through the firehose. This phrase has become ubiquitous in the networking world to describe the feeling we all feel of being left out, left behind, and just plain not able to keep up.

It’s not much better today, either. SDNs threaten to overturn the way we build control planes, white boxes threaten to upend the way we view vendor relationships, virtualization threatens to radically alter the way we think about the relationship between services and the network, and cloud computing promises just to make the entire swatch of network engineers redundant. It’s enough to make a reasonable engineer ask some rather hard questions, like whether it’s better to flip burgers or move into management (because the world always needs more managers). Some of this is healthy change, of course — we need to spend more time thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing, and the competition of the cloud is probably a good thing. But there’s another aspect here I don’t think we’ve thought about enough.

Sure there’s a firehose here. But there are fields all over the world where there’s a veritable firehose of new information, new thinking, and new products being designed, developed, and introduced. The actual work of building buildings has radically changed over the last 50–100 years. There have been some folks thrown out of the business in the process, but what we tend to see is more buildings being put up faster, not a bunch of mid life hamburger flippers who used to design buildings. All around us we see tons of new technology being pressed into service, and yet we don’t seem to always have the massive fear of dislocation combined with the constant angst that always seems to be in the air in network engineering (and the information technology industry at large).

I know it’s easy to fly the black flag and say, “well, if you can’t keep up, get out.” I don’t know if this is precisely fair to the old, grizzled folks who have families and lives outside work. I don’t even know if this is fair to the newbies coming in—a career field that eats people by the time they are 50, and says, “just save up while you make enough to do so, and forget having a family,” just doesn’t seem all that healthy to me. Instead, we need to find ways to mitigate the firehose. Somehow, we need to learn to cut it down so we can actually learn, and understand, and still live our lives.

But before I talk about Rule 11, let me be honest for a second — this industry isn’t going to change unless we change it. There’s no real reason for it to change. After all, 20 year olds cost less than 50 year olds to keep on staff, the firehose makes a lot of money for vendors, and it’s a large ego boost in asking questions like, “did you see the latest vendor x box,” or in “beating” someone in an interview.

For those of us who do want to change the networking world, or even just to keep up without sipping from the firehose, what can we use as a handle? This is where Rule 11 comes in. To refresh your memory—

Every old idea will be proposed again with a different name and a different presentation, regardless of whether it works.

Most people sniggle when they read this, because it really is funny. But if rule 11 is true, 90% of the water coming out of the firehose is, in fact, recycled.

Do you see it yet? If you can successfully build a mental model of each technology, and then learn to expand that mental model to each new technology you encounter, you will be able to mitigate the firehose.

If we’re going to survive as an industry, we need to get past the firehose. We need to stop thinking about the sheet metal and the cable colors, and start thinking about processes, ideas, and models. We need to stop flying by the seat of our pants, and start trying to make this stuff into real engineering, rather than black magic. Yes, I moved from working on airfield electronics to network engineering because I craved the magical side of this world, but magic just isn’t a sustainable business model, nor a sustainable way of life.

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