The Art and Necessity of Refocusing

Over at his blog The Forwarding Plane, Nick Buraglio posted about embracing change and how technology is mostly unimportant. In the technology-driven world networking folks live in, how can technology be mostly inconsequential? One answer is people drive technology, rather than the other way around—but this misses the real-world consequences of technological adoption on culture. To paraphrase Andy Crouch, technology makes some things possible that were once impossible, some things easy that were once hard, some things hard that were once easy, and some things impossible that were once possible.

There is another answer to this question, though—the real versus the perceived rate of change. When I was a kid, I would ride around with my uncle in his Jeep, a 1968 CJ5 with a soft top and soft doors. He would take the doors off when he took the top down, and—these older Jeeps being much smaller than current models—you could look just to your right and see the road passing by just there under your feet. What always amazed me was I could make myself think I was moving at different speeds just by changing my focus. If I looked across a field at a telephone pole in the distance, it didn’t seem like I was moving all that quickly. If I stared down at the white line on the side of the road, it looked like I was moving very fast indeed. By shifting my focus from here to there, I could adjust my perceived speed.

Here is where the focus on details becomes critical in networking. We do tend to focus on the details. To make matters worse, the average network operator tends to be something of a generalist. Being a generalist focused on details can be a frightening experience.

If you live entirely in the world of Ethernet, then you see past and future changes in the context of the history of Ethernet. This is something like looking at an object a few hundred feet off the road, perhaps. Things are moving quickly, but they aren’t insanely fast, blurry, up close and personal. If you live in wholly in the world of routing protocols, you are going to have a different picture, but the apparent speed is going to be similar, or perhaps even slower.

If you’re a generalist who focuses on detail, though, you’re going to be staring at the white line—at all the features, physical form factors, and products created by a combination of the changes made in routing and Ethernet. If there are two changes in Ethernet, and two in routing, product marketing will create at least four, and probably eight, new features out of the combination of these two, across twenty or thirty product lines. Each of these features will likely be called something different and sold to solve completely different problems.

Staring at the white line is fun at first, then mesmerizing, then it is frightening… then finally it is just plain dull. But let’s talk about the terrifying bit because it’s the scary stage that makes us all reject change out of fear for the future. And, trust me, a kid sitting in a car with no doors staring down at the white line while his uncle drives 60 miles-per-hour is going to be frightened from time to time.

The point Nick is making is we should back off the details and embrace the change. This is great advice—but how? It can feel like you’re going to run off the road if you don’t keep staring at the white line. The answer lies in putting your eyes someplace else—on the posts way out in the field. Ethernet still solves the same problems Bob Metcalf designed it to solve, and it always solves those problems using a small’ish set of solutions. Routing still solves the same problems it did when Dijkstra was mulling around toy problems to show off the processing power of a new computer some 60-odd years ago, and it still solves these problems using a small set of tools.

If you stop looking at the white line and start looking at the poles out in the distance, you’ll not only save your sanity, you’ll also permit yourself to start looking at the sociological and business impacts of new technology, including what matters and what doesn’t.

Two hundred years ago, if you wanted to get from Memphis to say… Lake Providence, Mississippi, you could take a boat directly between the two. Today you would take a car, and the only paths between the two are pretty round-a-about and “small country road” sorts of affairs. On the other hand, getting from Memphis Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia, is now easy, while a couple of hundred years ago would be a big deal indeed. The sociological changes wrought by moving from rivers to roads are almost impossible to fathom. But you wouldn’t know that if you just stared at the white lines.