The Inner Ring

An avid reader of C.S. Lewis, I often find his thoughts and statements applicable far outside his original intent. For instance, in 1944 (at least a few years before I was born I feel safe to say), he gave an amazing lecture at the Memorial Lecture of King’s College, University of London. The entire speech can be found here, but to gain a sense of his statement, consider the following quote:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

The point he is making is a moral one (technically, he is calling out the dialectic process, showing the moral results of pitting relationship against principle, but this isn’t a philosophy blog — don’t even get me started — so I’ll leave off the heavy stuff at this point). The point I take from this, on a practical level, is that I should seek out the work I can do, rather than the acceptance of those I consider “important.” This desire for acceptance is, in fact, probably one of the greatest points on which I have strayed in my own life.

To bring this to a more pure “engineer’s life” thought — how many times have you felt a little like you’re getting behind when you read the technical press? Admit it — half of the life of any engineer in the world is running from technology to technology, in fear that if I don’t have the “right” set of skills on my resume then my next job search will be hopeless. That if I don’t keep up with the “latest and greatest,” then I don’t have any sort of a real chance to “make it” over the long haul as an engineer.

And yet — let’s be a little realistic, shall we? Can you really know every new data center fabric that’s proposed or implemented? Can you really know all the nuts and bolts of ESXi while remembering what the latest hard drive to motherboard connector, or the latest bits and capabilities added to OSPF, or…

In a word, no.

This isn’t about knowing your limits, though — it’s about stopping the constant worry that you’re not learning fast enough, you’re not keeping up, you’re choosing the wrong things to learn, you’re…

Let me explain something. I’ve spent 20 years in the networking industry. I started by installing terminal emulation cards in Z100’s, and inverse multiplexers to build a T1 out of ancient copper wrapped in lead hanging off telephone poles. There are just a couple of lessons I learned in my years in the industry that relate to this problem.

First, stop worrying. You’re not any dumber than anyone else in this industry. You’re not any smarter, either, so get over both of these. No-one can really learn at the rate the networking industry requires. No-one really knows everything. It just doesn’t happen in the real world. Sip from the firehose long enough, and you end up with busted lips. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Second, be intentional about what you do learn. Remember my first post — jack of all trades, master of one? If you don’t, you need to go reread it, because it’s important.

Third, stop asking others to be something you can’t. Everyone worth their salt who works in the network industry is replacing their entire skill set every five years — seriously. If someone’s been in the industry for more than five years, then they’re probably not stupid, so stop treating them like they are. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of puppet, or they don’t know C — it’s okay. It’s more important to know the foundational concepts of how networking technology works, than to try and know every CLI every designed by any set of coders in the world. Trust me. This means that when you interview someone, try and learn how to actually get at their core skills, their core knowledge, rather than playing the esoteric game.

Fourth, learn the basics yourself. Learn how SPF works, not which bit is what in OSPF. Think through how BGP converges, rather than memorizing a list of BGP communities. Learn how to use models and ideas to relate things together. See through the skin of a technology and grock how it works. Yes, LISP and ATM LANE really are similar. Yes, VLANs and Frame Relay circuits really have a lot of things in common. It’s not just your imagination — it’s an important skill to see these similarities, and understand how to use them to your advantage.

Just because I’m a huge fan of Lewis, I’m going to leave you with another quote from that same speech.

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

This is the heart of a good engineer.

4 Comments

  1. Steven Iveson 29 October 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Russ, quite simply, hands down the best blog post you’ve ever written in my view. Thanks.

    • Russ 29 October 2014 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks!

  2. EtherealMind 3 November 2014 at 3:35 am

    Brilliant and inspiring. Thanks.

  3. kencelenza 3 November 2014 at 10:43 am

    Impostor Syndrome, this was my first blog post (only a few weeks ago) http://itdependsnetworks.com/2014/10/i-am-network-expert/

    ” It doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of puppet, or they don’t know C — it’s okay. It’s more important to know the foundational concepts of how networking technology works, than to try and know every CLI every designed by any set of coders in the world. Trust me. This means that when you interview someone, try and learn how to actually get at their core skills, their core knowledge, rather than playing the esoteric game.”

    Couldn’t agree more, and I’m jealous you wrote it before I did 🙂 I have lived and interviewed based on the same concept, “what’s your favorite routing protocol” then ask about that, rather than worry that the person is an expert on BGP yet. You understand one routing protocol, you will understand the next.

    I love seeing job descriptions where, vendor X experience is a must, If you believe that, you are doing it wrong.

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