Reflections

An old theory of personality holds that people fall into two types–A and B.  Put simply, Type A personalities are highly aggressive and competitive, whereas Type B are not.  We all have seen this broad difference in personalities.  Some people we encounter seem ready to walk over their own grandmothers to get ahead.  Like all stereotypes, this is a gross oversimplification, but there’s a lot of truth in it.

In the corporate world, type A personalities tend to rise to the top.  Why?  Because their very personality is aggressive and competitive.  They like to push, push, push for what they want and are willing to drive their agenda at any cost.  They frequently are talkers but rarely listeners.  They also judge people through their own lens.  If you’re an introvert, quiet, or deliberative, if you’re a listener instead of a talker, they think you are not “driven” and probably not worth listening to or promoting.

The question is:  does being type A make you right?  Does it make your opinions more valuable?  I cannot think of any reason why being aggressive and competitive makes you more likely to be correct about anything.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  If you don’t listen well and are always pushing your own agenda, you’re less likely to consider the opinions of others, which means your decision-making is less well-rounded.

I’ve pointed out before, that quiet, deliberative people, type B’s, are often the ones you really want to listen to.  However, in the corporate world, they are often kicked to the curb.  “He never says anything in meetings,” the type A’s say.  Well, if you hired him maybe he’s actually a smart person but has a hard time contributing in a meeting with 20 people all talking fast.  Maybe he needs time to digest what he heard before providing recommendations.

Type A’s tend to be in positions of power not necessarily because they are smarter but because they fight for position in hierarchies.  This is not to say they are without value.  Their decisiveness and drive are very important to a healthy organization.  They can break indecision and move companies forward in ways type B’s cannot.

The key for both personality types is the old Greek maxim:  know thyself.  If you’re type A, you need to be careful not to be too aggressive.  Listen to your quieter colleagues, accept that they may have a different personality, and meet them where they are at.  Call on them in meetings, give them time to deliberate and come back to you.

For type B’s, you need to learn to speak out more.  You’re probably more respected than you realize, and when you do speak, you’re probably listened to.  Try to find forums that are more comfortable for you, like expressing your opinion in writing or 1:1’s.

Sadly, because of the cutthroat nature of the business world, I see little self-awareness and frequent domination of businesses by type A’s.  At the end they may get people to follow them, but if they’re leading you off a cliff, their drive may not be such a good thing.

I’ve been thinking about the corporate world, how it operates, and the effects of corporatism on our lives.  If you’re a network engineer and think this is boring, pay attention.  Corporate culture, the influence of Wall Street, and the rise of a non-skilled management class have direct impact on your work and personal life.  The products you use are heavily influenced by corporate culture.  Why vendors release certain products, when, and how, are all controlled by corporate culture.  When a company tries to sell you something that doesn’t work and doesn’t serve your needs, when the company discontinues support for a product you bought after crashing and burning with it, when companies force products down your throat with buzzword messaging that means nothing to you, corporate culture explains it.

If you work in a corporation, the culture creates politics which affect what projects you work on, your career trajectory, and how you interact with your team.  In your personal life, the food you eat and drugs you take are very much explained by corporate culture.

I wrote in a previous post about the lack of anything permanent in the corporate world.  Everything seems to be temporary, everything is always in flux.  Companies are afflicted by short-term thinking, and short-term thinking is killing everyone.

One way this manifests itself is quarter-by-quarter thinking.  We all know sales people are judged on a quarterly basis, but corporations in general are as well.  Publicly traded companies have to present results to analysts, and thus to investors, every single quarter.  The results are compared against the last quarter, against the same quarter the previous year, and against other companies in the industry.  The results have a huge impact on stock price, executive compensation, and even executives’ jobs.

The effect of this trickles down to all levels of a public company.  Business units are judged by the quarterly performance of their products.  This means product managers are judged by the quarter, much like sales people.  Product managers are not commissioned directly like sales people, but they live and die by quarterly numbers.  As a result, they want to do everything possible to ensure quarterly numbers shine.

Now, imagine you are a product manager.  You have a deal worth, $20 million on the line if you deliver specific features the customer wants.  You are going to do anything possible to win the deal, so your quarterly numbers look good.  Now it probably is the case that the $20 million customer’s feature requests are specific to their environment.  That is, adding the features will help that one customer, but probably very few others.  So, instead of trying to build a product that caters to a broad range of customers who might bring smaller deals, you end up building a product that caters to a narrow set of customers that make you look good in your quarterly business reviews.

Now this type of short-term thinking might be an obvious problem if you planned to spend twenty years at your company.  But instead you spend two years at a company, so you only have to pull this off for eight quarters.  You can put big happy numbers in your LinkedIn profile (“successfully drove record quarter of $100 million in sales!”) and then exit stage right to repeat the process elsewhere.  And the folks left-behind have to clean up the mess.  Keep in mind your success within the company is also being judged by non-technical MBAs who are looking to do the same thing you are.

The companies that do the best long-term are those that eschew short-term thinking.  Apple is a great example of this.  They’ve had some disasters, but have generally taken risks to build products with long-term appeal.  I often mention Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, who while he had serious personal problems, forsook short-term gain for long-term performance.  Even within a company, quarterly thinking can vary by business unit and leader.

At the end of the day, however, it’s Wall Street that encourages this.  Like any metric, execs end up chasing their stock price like a dog chasing its tail.  It doesn’t get you anywhere, however much progress you may think you are making.  Meanwhile, you may get rich, but you leave disaster in your wake.

Some years ago, I worked for a company with a CEO who had a background in marketing.  It was 2010, and he decided to use his marketing skills to launch a huge new campaign called “Mission 10”.  Our goal:  to become the next $10 billion company.  At the time I think I revenue was less than five billion.  Slick slides were drawn up, pep rally company meetings were held, and everyone in the company began pivoting their work to fit the new agenda.  Anyone who has worked in the corporate world has been there more than once.  Suddenly every initiative had to have a “Mission 10” theme.

The problem?  Despite the rah-rah of our CEO, we never achieved even close to $10 billion in revenue.  In fact, that company is still below $5 billion last I checked.  The bigger problem?  The CEO moved three years after that, having never really achieved this or any other goal he set.  He later ended up CEO of an even larger and more famous company that has nothing to do with technology.  This is known as “failing upward”.

In light of the “great resignation” I’d like to write a little about permanence, or the lack thereof.  We live in a temporary world.  People pick up a job and stay for two or three years, and then move on.  This was true even before COVID.  I myself have several two-year stints on my resume.  The longest I’ve worked anywhere is six.

Three years is just long enough to kick off some major initiative and get out at the peak, just before the whole thing crashes.  The damage done by corporate executives pursuing this short-term strategy is massive.  It works like this.  An exciting new executive is hired on from a big company.  The new executive launches a new product, architecture, marketing campaign, acquisition, whatever.  Everyone rallies around it because, well he’s the boss, and because if you want funding for anything it needs to be tied to the boss’ initiative.  The new initiative (let’s say it’s a product) is pumped up with cash, the marketing engine kicks in, the company oversells the product, and then customers start snapping it up.  It doesn’t perform as expected.  Things start to crash.  Money dries up.  The executive exits.   And whoever decides to stay is left picking up the pieces of the mess that this guy created.

In Ancient Greece, you faced consequences for this sort of thing, usually exile, sometimes death.  While I’m not advocating the death penalty for corporate screw ups (although in some industries they do cost lives), what’s fascinating is that in the corporate world, the consequences are the opposite.  Said executive who just screwed up royally walks away with huge bonuses, lots of stock, has a nice sabbatical, and begins the cycle again somewhere else.

If you think executives are the only problem, think again.  It happens at every level of the corporate world.  When a junior IT guy messes up a new system and then bolts for another job, you have the same issue at a smaller scale.  He just doesn’t get the bonus and sabbatical.  As a leader of technical marketing engineers, we face all sorts of challenges when an experienced TME leaves and takes knowledge with him.  Features can be stalled when the people who were working on them leave.

In my grandfather’s era, and even my father’s, it was expected that you would start and end your career at the same company.  There was an expectation of permanence.  People were proud of their companies and how they were treated, and bragged about the excellent pension they’d receive when leaving.  Now, we spend three years and jump ship to boost our salary.

Companies, are of course, largely responsible.  Often they don’t create the sort of employment experience that anyone would want to tolerate for long.  People stopped being human beings and started becoming human “resources”.  Executives, under various pressures, began to see their workforce as mere “metrics” to be manipulated as they learned in their B-school classes.  Times are good?  Dial up the workforce.  Times are bad?  Lay off 3%.  People are just numbers on a slide to many execs, and the difficulties of terminating employment are a remote problem to be dealt with by line managers.  As a result, employment is not a long-term commitment but a short-term business transaction on both ends.

The temporary workforce has an interesting effect on longer-term employees as well.  Someone who has worked at the same company for 15 or 20 years sees executives and initiatives come and go, ebbing and flowing like the tide on a beach.  They often develop an apathy and callousness that makes their own work unproductive.  They tend to focus on the day-to-day instead of the long-term, and often dismissively ignore the plans of new leadership, figuring the leaders will just be replaced and the cycle will start over.  Thus, while they have a long-term career, they often have a short-term level of focus.

We all live in a temporary world now, and permanence is in short supply.  If you want to understand why companies build bad products, why executives start disastrous programs and leave, and why there never seem to be consequences, this is a huge part of it.  I don’t really have a solution I’m afraid. Some of the causes are:  greedy hedge-fund finance people who take over corporate boards, an undisciplined corporate press/media, the instant availability of information leading to a lack of deliberation, and the rise of a management class who are not actually experts in anything other than management itself.  We can all point fingers at ourselves for up and going when the going gets tough.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that you cannot step in the same river twice.  He meant that, if you cross a river, each time you take a step the water you were originally standing in has passed on, and you’re in new water.  Thus, there’s really no river.  Sometimes the tech world, and the corporate world in general, feel like Heraclitus’ River.  Even if you stand in one place, everything just moves on.

How often have you learned about a new technology, and couldn’t understand it?  How many trainings and presentations have you sat through that left you in a mental fog?  It amazes me how many technologies we are supposed to master in our industry, and how many we never do.

Let me give an example.  When I heard about “Cloud Computing” I could not, for the life of me, understand what it meant.  I went to meeting after meeting where we talked about “the Cloud” without any understanding of what it actually was.  I knew I used clouds a lot of Visio diagrams, but the MBA-types who were telling me we needed to migrate to the cloud would never be able to understand the Visio diagrams that network engineers make.  It seemed to involve using centralized computing resources, but I’d been doing this for years.  My first ISP accounts were shell accounts.  My email and other services were hosted on their computers.  Nothing was new about this.  In fact, Larry Ellison gave a hilarious talk in which he asked “What the hell is Cloud Computing?”

We all know the “cloud” has in fact made significant changes in how we engineer computing resources, but the truth is, the idea of centralized “compute” is not a new one.  (Side note:  I hate turning nouns into verbs.  “Compute”, “spend”, and “ask” are verbs, not nouns.  The MBAs who invent these terms apparently don’t have to study grammar.)  The scale is certainly different, but we all know that mainframes had both centralized computing and virtualization long before anyone said “cloud.”

SDN is another one.  I was told we needed SDN, but I couldn’t figure out what it meant.  I was a hard-core routing protocols guy.  BGP and OSPF are software.  Ergo, networks are already software defined.

Someone sent me a video from Nicira, later acquired by VMware.  The vague video described slicing networks into pools, or something like that.  I couldn’t understand what this meant.  Like a VLAN?  I finally found a document that described SDN as separation of the control plane from the data plane.  OK, but we already had been doing that in routers and switches for years?  Yes, but SDN was a centralized control plane.  Kind of like BGP route reflectors?  I couldn’t figure it out.  I spent some time getting OpenFlow up and running to try to understand it from the ground up.  What a waste that was.  Whatever SDN has become, it’s certainly not what it was originally defined to be.  And don’t get me started on SASE.

I used to think maybe I was stupid, but now I realized all of these things confused me because they were (a) confusing in themselves, or (b) so badly explained that nobody really understood them.  A little more detail:

  • Some technologies are simply vague marketing terms.  They don’t correspond to anything precise in reality.
  • Some technologies do correspond to reality, but they are simply bucket terms.  That is, the marketers took five, six, ten technologies, and slapped a new label on them.  In this case, you’re looking for some precise definition of term X and you realize term X refers to ten different things at once.
  • Sometimes new technologies are invented, and the inventors don’t want to cough up too much proprietary information.  So the produce vaguely worded marketing content that appeals to “analysts” with MBAs in marketing, but which technical people realize are meaningless.  Said “analysts” now run around creating hype (“You need software-defined cloud secure-access zero trust!”) and now we’re told we to implement it.
  • A lot of technical people are really bad explainers.  Sometimes there is a new technology which is clear and well-defined, but the people sent to explain it are completely incapable of explaining anything at all.

My point is, it’s ok to be confused.  A lot of times we’re in the room and everyone seems to be getting it, but we have no idea what is going on.  Chances are, nobody else really understands what is being said either.  Ask questions, drill down, and if you don’t understand something, chances are it’s hot air.  In a world where we prioritize talk over reality, there seems to be an abundance of that.

We’ve moved into a wireless world, which is too bad for me because I love, more than anything, wiring.  I miss the days of good old Cat 3 cable, T1 lines, and ISDN BRIs.  I miss 66 blocks, punch down tools, cross-connect wire, and tone/probe kits.  And butt sets.  Especially butt sets.  Now I just have to add random wall receptacles around my house since, thank goodness, 120 volts cannot be delivered wirelessly.  But phone and network wiring was much more fun.

I first got interested in wiring when I was working at a small museum exhibit design and fabrication company in Marin, California.  One day, I had to have a new phone line installed, and I called in Pacific Bell to do the work.  Under the receptionist’s desk was a wall plate with two RJ-11 jacks, already in use.  “There aren’t any free jacks,” I told the phone guy.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as there is enough wire,” was his cryptic response.  I let him do his work, and when he was done I saw a little surface-mount RJ11 jack on the wall.  It had two blue and yellow wires running from it, going underneath the existing faceplate and somehow into the wall.  How on earth did he do that?  I remember thinking.

I waited until everyone went home.  I unscrewed the faceplate and found that the blue/yellow wire pair was spliced to the brown pair of wires in the cable that serviced the existing jacks.  The splice was a 3M UR-type, which looked like a piece of candy.  I was captivated.  How did he know where the brown wires went?  Where did the incoming phone line enter the building?  How did he connect them up?

The fun thing about the days before ubiquitous Internet was that you couldn’t get answers immediately.  When I found the 66-type punchdown blocks that formed our little MDF, I couldn’t Google the part number to figure out what they were.  Google didn’t exist.  I had no idea how to terminate a wire on one of them.  While thumbing through a Jensen Tools catalog our purchasing agent had I got an idea of how it worked.  There, I saw listed a “66 punch-down tool” and I had noticed the numbers “66” on the block.  OK, so they go together and the wire gets in the clip by “punching down.”

I didn’t have the money to afford a punch-down tool.  So I got a pair of pliers and a pair of forceps and started doing terminations myself, guiding the wire into the clip.  Sure, sparks were flying, but phone systems are robust, aren’t they?

It turns out not as robust as you might think.  Back in the day, phone lines provided by the phone company (POTS service) were indeed robust and could handle quite a bit of sparking and shorting.  But the Nitsuko (emphasis on the “suk”) system we used did not take kindly to my laissez-faire approach to wiring.  One day, while doing a move, I shorted out a couple terminals and all the phones in the building went out.  I came out of the closet with pliers in hand and everyone knew what happened.  This being before cell phones, business was done for the day.  Luckily we got our phone company out to replace the bad part, and they did it under warranty.  It was at this point I invested in a proper punch-down tool and learned how to wire correctly.

The author’s tools: Butt set, punch down tools, tone/probe set, and connectors

I saved up a lot of money and eventually got a test set, otherwise known as a “butt set”.  The butt set looks like an oversized telephone handset, and is the official sign of a telco wiring guy.  It also was my passport into telephone wiring closets–when a security guard sees you have a butt set, they just assume you’re a real phone guy.

I practiced my technique in my father’s 1910-era house.  The decades brought with them layers of phone wiring, including two 50-pair feeder cables and a 66-style punch-down block.  Why and how the feeder cables ended up in a house with 3 phone lines is a mystery to this day.  But I used the 66-block for practice and dissected the criss-crossing wires in his house, tracing them out with my trusty tone/probe set.

Wiring skills came in handy many times in my career as a network engineer.  I remember one customer I had in the late nineties who had ordered 8 Centrex lines from Pacific Bell.  The technician showed up to do the cross-connects, but he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, did two of them, and left.  Using my butt set passport, I got access to the MDF, figured out the right punch-down block that fed to the customer’s suite, and ran the cross-connects myself.

When I worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, we actually had an in-house wiring tech.  Her name was Mona Lesa.  She couldn’t care less if I did my own wiring, as long as I adhered to her standards.  One day I had a frame relay T1 installed in our Sacramento bureau office, and once again, Pac Bell forgot to connect it to the suite.  The bureau was located in the Old Senator Office Building across from the state capitol.  I got the security guard to let me in to the MDF in the bowels of this historic building.  I figured out that one of the interconnects was in the office of a lobbying firm, and the receptionist dutifully let me in to do the wiring.  With my butt set I could clip into any of their phone lines and listen to their conversations without them knowing.  I didn’t but I was amazed that I could go anywhere to do cross-connects.

On another occasion, a customer of mine had two phone lines installed and had a weird problem.  If she picked up one line and dialed the other, she’d hear both ringing and a busy signal at the same time.  I found where the Pacific Bell guy had done the cross-connect, and realized he mixed the tip and ring wires for the two phone lines.  A couple punches and all fixed.

Phone wiring was always the perfect blend of mind and body to me.  To do it you need to work with your hands, but you also need to use your mind.  Some wiring closets were rats nests of 24-gauge wires color-coded with more colors than a tie-died shirt.  Finding that one pair you needed, and marrying it up to the other end was always a nice diversion from staring at a screen.

Alas, my tools mostly sit unused.  Regular POTS lines rarely exist now, and even they aren’t delivered on single copper pairs from the CO switch.  PBXs and key systems have gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by voice-over-IP and now by cellular phones.  Nobody wants to be tied to wires anymore, and yet by un-encumbering ourselves in the name of freedom, we’ve paradoxically lost our freedom.  When you don’t need to be physically tied to a location for connectivity, you can never escape connectivity.  And that’s not entirely a good thing.

When I first started at Cisco (the second time), I remember being in a customer meeting where I had no idea what was going on.  As is typical for vendor meetings, Cisco employees outnumbered the customer by 3 to 1.  Someone from our side was presenting, though I don’t really remember about what.  I didn’t say anything because I was still pretty new, and frankly didn’t have much to say.  A Distinguished engineer, whom I know opposed my hiring, pulled me aside after the meeting and said to me with a smile:  “You know at Cisco we judge people on how much they speak in meetings.”  He was obviously implying that by keeping my mouth shut, I was proving my lack of value to the company.  I never really held it against that engineer, who wasn’t a bad guy.  But he reminded me of a problem in the corporate world, this belief that you have to always be talking.

I default to keeping my mouth shut when I don’t have anything important to say.  This probably is the result of being a child of divorce, but regardless I’ve always hated how much noise and talk are valued in our society.  Twitter is just a permanent gripe session, talk radio (whether the in-your-face conservative or sedate NPR variety) is just ceaseless hot air, and the more channels of communication we open up, the worse it becomes.  In the corporate world, decisions are often made in meetings based on the opinions of the most verbally aggressive in the room.  There is an underlying assumption to this approach to decision making:  that the loudest have the most valuable opinions, and the quietest the least.  But isn’t the opposite the case?  How many loudmouths have you known who spout nonsense, and how many super-intelligent quiet people do you know?  Some of the smartest people I’ve met are introverts.  And yet we seem to think if you’re willing to express an opinion loudly, then you’re worth following.

The problem with meeting culture in particular is that it doesn’t value thought.  I once had a VP complain to me that someone couldn’t “think on his feet”.  Most of the time, thinking on your feet doesn’t mean thinking at all.  It is simply reaction.  Thought takes time.  It requires reflection.  In corporate culture, we often prize how quickly you react, not how deeply you think.

This is not to say introverts should never try to overcome their shyness, nor that vocal people are always less intelligent.  However, I think as leaders in the corporate community, we can take steps to improve our meeting culture so that unheard but important voices have their chance to contribute.  This can be done a few ways:

  • Ensuring equal air time for participants in meetings.  If someone is talking too much, limit his time.  Call on the quiet folks and introverts explicitly to get their opinions.
  • Don’t make major decisions in meetings unless there is legitimate time pressure to do so.  At the end of a meeting, allow people to go back and reflect on what was discussed, possibly run through it in a chat room, and reconvene later when people have had time to think about the subject at hand.
  • Stop evaluating people simply on how much they speak in meetings.  Realize, particularly if you are a vocal-type, that people contribute in different ways.
  • Try to minimize interruptions in presentations and to save questions for the end.  I like to hear a presenter lay out a story in a logical fashion, and when presenters are constantly interrupted, it disturbs my ability to follow.  For those of us who are more contemplative thinkers, our ability to participate is hampered when presenters can never finish a thought.

Part of the problem is that many, if not most, who rise to leadership positions in the corporate world are the verbally aggressive and highly vocal type.  They often cannot understand how anyone could possibly approach things in a different way, and take quietness as a sign of weakness, indecision, or unintelligence.  For those leaders, recognizing the value of quieter individual contributors and leaders will help them and their organization.

Now that I’m done spouting off it’s time to log off for some silence of my own.

Getting a session at Cisco Live is not a given, even for a Principal TME.  I started at Cisco in October 2015, and I certainly didn’t expect to present at, or even go to, Cisco Live Berlin in January 2016.  Normally, there are three ways to secure a session at CL:

  1. Submit an idea during the “Call for papers” process about six months before a given event.  The Session Group Managers (SGMs) who manage individual tracks (e.g., security, data center) then must approve it.  It can be hard to get that approval.  SGMs need to have faith in your ability as a presenter, as well as believe your topic is relevant and unique.
  2. Carry over a session from the previous CL.  If you’ve presented a session, you can check a box in the Cisco Live management tool to ask for it to be carried over to the next CL.  Again, this is dependent on the SGMs approving it.
  3. Be handed a session by somebody who had it approved, but is not going to present it.  Perhaps they are leaving, taking a new job, or just don’t want to do it any more.  Usually the SGMs need to approve any re-assignments as well.  (You can see the SGMs are rather powerful for CL.  It helps to know them well, and it hurts when they turn over!)

When I joined Cisco, I was assigned to a wonderful and humble team working on programmability.  We met and discussed the various assignments and approvals we had for Cisco Live, and they kindly offered my two:  booth duty for an Ansible with Nexus demo, and a session at DevNet called “Automation with NXOS:  Let’s get started!”

A Principal TME is a director-level position, and normally a PTME would not be expected to spend all day at a booth.  However, since I was new to the company, position, and team, I decided it would be a good idea to do some of the grunt work a normal TME does, and experience booth duty.

My 2016 Berlin CL Booth before opening

As for the DevNet session:  DevNet, Cisco’s developer enablement team, runs a large section of the Cisco Live show floor.  DevNet has theaters which are open-seating and divided from the rest of the show floor.  A typical CL breakout takes place in a room, whereas DevNet sessions are out in the open.  In 2016, it was pretty easy to get DevNet sessions, and nobody cared when the team re-assigned it to me.  I had a free trip to Europe and plenty to do when I got there.

What you see at Cisco Live is the fruit of months of preparation.  I had to develop the entire booth demo from scratch–I was supposed to have help from another TME from a different team, but he was totally worthless.  I set up the lab and wrote the demo script myself.  For the DevNet session, I pulled together slides from my colleagues and did my best to master them.  Keep in mind, I came to Cisco after six years at Juniper.  I didn’t know a thing about Nexus, and programmability was new to me.

Every new speaker at CL is required to undergo speaker training, so I signed up for mine.  In 1 hour the non-technical trainer gave me a few pointers.  I’ve been through enough speaker training in the past that it wasn’t terribly helpful, but the box was checked.

Arriving in Berlin, I registered at CL and as a speaker and staffer was given an “all-access” pass.  I could go anywhere at the show.  Personally, I’ve always loved having backstage access to anything, and so I headed to the World of Solutions (WoS, the show floor) and spent a long time trying to find my booth.  WoS before it opens is a genuine mess–people running cherry-pickers and forklifts, laying down carpet, and well-dressed booth people all contending for space.  There are usually challenges getting the demo computers up and running, connected to demos back home, etc.

WoS is a mess when we arrive

Working a booth can be frenetic or boring.  The positioning of my booth and the content of the demo (Ansible automation of NXOS) did not generate a lot of traffic.  I spent hours standing at the booth with nothing to do.  For the occasional customer who would show an interest, I’d run the demo, and possibly do a little white boarding.  Then, reset the demo and wait for the next guy. It wasn’t a lot of fun.

Eventually, the time came for the DevNet session.  I was really nervous for my first time in front of a CL audience. Would I mess up?  Would I choke up due to nerves?  Would my audience ask questions I couldn’t answer?

Seeing your own name on the board is exciting and nerve-wracking

As I said, the DevNet sessions are presented out on the show floor, and it’s a terrible speaking environment.  It’s noisy, you cannot hear yourself, and the participants were given headphones so they could hear.  It was like speaking into a void.  I remember one gentleman bouncing between sleep and wakefulness, his head nodding down and then coming alive again.  The presentation was not one of my best, but I got the job done acceptably and the participants filled out their paper score sheets at the end.  I mostly had 5’s, and a few 4’s.  At that point DevNet sessions did not receive an official score, so my numbers didn’t “count”, but I could show them to my boss and get some credit, at least.

My wife had traveled with me and we took a few sightseeing trips.  We saw the amazing museums on Berlin’s “museum island” and also hired a driver to give us a tour.  We had several team events around the city–Cisco Live is famous for parties–and ate some very good German food.  One of my colleagues was well known for arranging parties that went until four or five AM, and many TMEs would show up to their 8am session with only a couple hours of sleep.  In fact, one of the other Hall of Fame Distinguished Speakers claims this was his secret to success!  I myself, avoid parties like that and spend hours in my room practicing my presentation before giving it.  To each his own, I suppose.

Ah, the perks of Cisco Live!

Network engineers are a breed unto ourselves, and I think we have a distinct feeling of community.  Our field is highly specialized, and because we often have to defend our domain from those who do not understand it (“it’s not the network, ok?!”), we have a camaraderie that’s hard to match.  I left Berlin on a real high, feeling more a part of that community than ever having been there in a Cisco uniform, and having gotten up in front of an audience.  I didn’t know what my future held at Cisco, but it was the first of many such experiences to come.

The last Cisco Live I attended was in Barcelona in January 2020.  As I was in the airport heading home, I was reading news of a new virus emerging from China.  I looked with bemusement at a troop of high-school-age girls who all had surgical masks on.  Various authorities told us not to wear masks, saying they don’t do much to prevent viral spread at a large scale.  The girls kept pulling the masks on and off.  I thought back on my performance at Cisco Live, and looked forward to Cisco Live in Las Vegas in the summer.  Who knew that, a few months hence, everyone would be wearing masks and Cisco Live,  physically, would be indefinitely postponed.

For Technical Marketing Engineers (TMEs), Cisco Live (technically Cisco Live!) measures the seasons of our year like the crop cycle measures the seasons of a farmer’s year.  Four times annually a large portion of our team would hop on an airplane and depart for Europe, Cancun, Melbourne, or a US city.  Cancun and Melbourne were constant, but the European and US cities would change every couple of years.  In my time with Cisco, I have traveled to Cancun and Melbourne, Berlin, Barcelona, Las Vegas, Orlando, and San Diego to present and staff Cisco Live.

A trade show may just be a corporate event, but for those of us who devoted our career to that corporation’s products, it’s far more than a chance for a company to hawk its products.  The breakout sessions and labs are critical for staying up-to-date on a fast-moving industry, the keynotes are always too high-level but with entertaining productions, and the parties are a great chance to connect with other network engineers.  CL was fun for participants, exhausting for those of us staffing it, but still my favorite part of the job.

Cisco Live was originally called Networkers, and started in 1990.  For many years I badly wanted to go to this temporary Mecca of networking technology, but I worked for companies that would not pay the cost of a badge and the travel fees, a total of thousands of dollars.  Even when I first worked at Cisco, from 2005-2007, as a lowly TAC engineer I never had the opportunity to attend.  My first trip to CL came in 2007, when I was working for a Gold partner.  They sent several of us to the Anaheim show, and I remember well the thrill of walking into a CL for the first time.  I walked the show floor, talked to the booth staffers, and attended a lot of breakout sessions of varying quality.  I was quite excited to go to the CCIE party, but I’m not sure why I thought a party full of CCIEs would really be all that exciting.  I remember hanging out by myself for an hour or so before I gave up because I didn’t know anyone there.

The same partner sent me to Orlando in 2008 as well, just barely.  The recession was starting and we were short on cash.  My boss wanted me to share a badge with a colleague, and I didn’t like the idea of having to juggle time slots nor or trying to explain to security how my name could be “Nguyen”.  Thankfully, they ponied up the cash for a second badge.  I’m not a fan of loud music, so I generally don’t go to the CL party, but for Orlando they opened up Universal Studios for us and the aforementioned Nguyen and I, along with a couple others, had a great time on the rides and attending the Blue Man Group.  (OK, some loud music there, but it is an entertaining show.)

I attended CL once more before I came back to Cisco–in 2014, ironically, as an employee of Juniper.  Somehow I convinced my boss to give me a pass on the grounds of researching what Cisco IT was doing.  (They do present at Cisco Live.)  I remember sitting in just a few rows back at the keynote as John Chambers presented, amused I’d be bringing a report back to Juniper about what I’d heard.

 

My view of Chambers at CL 2014

It was actually at Cisco Live when I first got the idea to be a technical marketing engineer.  It’s a bit embarrassing, but I sat in a presentation given by a TME and thought, “I could do better than this guy.”  It took a few years, but I finally managed to get into tech marketing.

I became a Principal TME at Cisco in late 2015 and was told I’d be presenting at Cisco Live in Berlin in January, 2016!  Needless to say, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity, humbled, and more than a little nervous about standing up in front of an audience at the fabled event.

It’s been a sad year in so many ways.  After I came home from Barcelona in January 2020, I received another Distinguished Speaker award and knew I would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  This was a dream of mine for years, but instead of standing up in front of my peers at Cisco Live Vegas to receive the award, it was mailed to me.  There would be no show floor, no breakouts, no CCIE parties.  The event would go virtual.  I must say, I am impressed with the CL team’s ability to pivot to a virtual format in so short a time.  Still, it was a sad year for those of us who organize the event, and those who were hoping to attend.

In the next couple posts, I thought I would offer a little behind-the-scenes look at how we put on CL, and look at a few events from the past.

I have written more than once (here and here, for example) about my belief that technological progression cannot always be considered a good thing.  We are surrounded in the media by a form of technological optimism which I find disconcerting.  “Tech” will solve everything from world hunger to cancer, and the Peter Thiels of the world would have us believe that we can even solve the problem of death.  I don’t see a lot of movies these days, but there used to be a healthy skepticism of technological progress, which was seen as a potential threat to the human race.  Some movies that come to mind:

  • Demon Seed (1977), a movie I found profoundly disturbing when I was taken to see it as a child. I have no idea why anyone took a child to this movie, by the way.  In it, a scientist invents a powerful supercomputer and uses it to automate his house.  Eventually, the computer forms a prosthesis and uses it to inseminate the doctor’s wife to produce a hybrid human-computer being.
  • The Terminator (1984) presented a world in which humans were at war with computers and robots.
  • The Matrix (1999), a move I actually don’t like, nevertheless presents us with a world in which, again, computers rule humans, this time to the point where we have become fuel cells.

Most readers have certainly heard of the latter two, but I’m guessing almost none have heard of the first.  I could go on.  From West World (1973) to RoboCop (1987), there has been movie after movie presenting “tech” not as the key to human progress, but as a potential destroyer of the human race.  I suspect the advent of nuclear weapons had much to do with this view, and with the receding of the Cold War and the ever-present nuclear threat, maybe we are lest concerned about the destruction our inventions are capable of.

The other day I was thinking about my own resistance to Apple AirPods.  It then occurred to me that they are only one step away from the “Cerebral Communicator” in another movie you probably haven’t heard of, The President’s Analyst.

Produced in 1967, (spoilers follow!) the film features James Coburn as a psychoanalyst who is recruited to provide therapy to the President of the United States.  At first excited by the prospect, Coburn himself quickly becomes overwhelmed by the stress of his assignment, and decides to flee.  He is pursued by agents of the CIA and FBI (referred to as CEA and FBR in the movie), the KGB, and the mysterious organization called “TPC”.  Filmed in the psychedelic style of the time, with numerous double-crossings and double-double-crossings, the movie is hard to follow.  But, in the end, we learn that this mysterious agency called “TPC” is actually The Phone Company.

1967 was long before de-regulation, and there was a single phone company in the United States controlling all telephone communications.  It was quasi-governmental in size and scope, and thus a suitable villain for a movie like The President’s Analyst.  The ultimate goal of TPC is to implant mini-telephones into people’s brains.  From Wikipedia:

TPC has developed a “modern electronic miracle”, the Cerebrum Communicator (CC), a microelectronic device that can communicate wirelessly with any other CC in the world. Once implanted in the brain, the user need only think of the phone number of the person they wish to reach, and they are instantly connected, thus eliminating the need for The Phone Company’s massive and expensive-to-maintain wired infrastructure.

I’ve only seen the movie a couple times, but I wonder if the AirPods implanted in people’s ears remind me too much of the CC.  Already we have seen the remnants of the phone company pushing us to ever-more connectivity, to the point where our phones are with us constantly and we stick ear buds in our heads.  Tech companies love to tell us that being constantly connected to one another is the great path forward for humanity.  Meanwhile, we live in a time as divided as any in history.  If connecting humanity were the solution to the world’s problems, why do we seem to be in a state of bitter conflict?  I wonder if we’ve forgotten the lesson of the Babel Fish in Douglas Adams’ science fiction book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  The Babel fish is a convenient device for Adams to explain a dilemma in all science fiction:  how do people from different planets somehow understand each other?  In most science fiction, the aliens just speak English (or whatever) and we never come to know how they could have learned it.  But Adams uses his fictional device to make an amusing point:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe…if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish…[T]he poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

 

I was working at Juniper when the CIO asked me to apply for a government security clearance.  There were a number of hacking attempts on our network, and a security clearance would make me eligible for briefings from the government on the nature and scope of the threats against the United States’ networks.  Being one of the few US citizens in our department, and having a security background, it made sense.

I met with our “FSO”, the on-site liaison to the clearance-granting agency, in this case the Department of Defense.  I’ll call him Billy.  Billy pointed me to the government web site which housed the application, called “OPM”.  The OPM application was extensive, requiring me to input huge amounts of information about myself and my family.  It required a bit of work to track down some of the information, and when I printed the PDF copy of the application it totaled around eighty pages.

One day Billy called me into his office and told me I had been awarded a secret clearance.  He let me know that I could be subject to the death penalty if I divulged any classified information.  I signed some documents, and that was it. “Don’t I get a card for my wallet or anything?” I asked Billy.  He just smiled.

Shortly after getting my clearance, one of our other cleared employees brought me into a secure office in one of Juniper’s buildings where we could look at classified information.  He pulled a secured laptop out of a locked drawer, and a password out of a sealed envelope.  We began perusing classified information.  None of it was relevant to us, and none of it was particularly memorable.  For example, we read an article about several criminal gangs, the existence of which was unclassified.  The only classified information in the article happened to be the names of particular gangs.  They didn’t mean much to me, and I probably forgot them within a day or two.

One day I was invited to the San Francisco FBI office, to receive a classified briefing.  Billy had to fax the clearance over, because the DoD and FBI didn’t have an electronic way to exchange clearances.  I showed up, excited, to the federal building in San Francisco and proceeded up to the floor where the briefing was to take place.  Nobody was there.  I wandered around the white hallway with locked doors unable to make contact with anyone.  The elevator opened after a few minutes, and another equally confused attendee emerged.  We were wandering around for several minutes before someone showed up and told us to go to a different floor.

On the new floor a couple of young-looking FBI agents setup a table, checked our ID’s, and then took our cell phones.  The security did not seem very rigorous.  They then admitted us to the SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.  The room we were led into was just a conference room, with a low ceiling and no windows.  Another young-looking FBI agent approached me, wearing a tie but no coat.  “Hi, I’m Elvis,” he said.

“I’m a special agent and the coordinator of the briefing today.  We’re very excited to have you here.”

We had a brief conversation about my job and role, and then I asked to use the bathroom.

“Go out the back door of the SCIF and hang a right, he said.”

I did this, and found myself walking with a wall on my right, and a row of waist-level cubicles on my left.  Nobody was in the the cubes, but paperwork was sitting on most of the desks. I wanted to peer at the paperwork as I walked by.  I have a clearance, I figured, so if I had a right to at least take a peek and see if the names of anyone I knew appeared.  Unfortunately, without pausing and staring, a chance I didn’t want to take, I couldn’t read anything.

I found the bathroom, and as I was participating in nature’s call, a couple of guys came in wearing ties but no sport coats.  They each had side-arms on their belts.  I wondered why these agents, who are basically office workers, needed to walk around armed.

As I came out of the bathroom, a female FBI agent was standing there, tapping her foot in anticipation of my emergence.  She looked like my school librarian.  Diminutive in stature, she had a side-arm that looked as big as she was.

“Are you FBI?” she asked pointedly.

“No,” I replied, thinking the answer was obvious.

She let out a long sigh, looking like a satisfied cop who has caught a perp.  “You can’t be here without an escort,” she scolded me.

“But Elvis told me I could!” was my retort.  I had a sudden realization that, in a large FBI office like San Francisco’s, it was entirely possible that not every FBI agent knew every other FBI agent, and that my host agent may have been entirely unknown to her.  Here I was, by myself, in the inner sanctum of an FBI office, explaining to an armed federal agent that I happened to be there because Elvis had sent me.

Fortunately, a glimmer of recognition flashed across her stern countenance.  “Oh, Elvis!” she said, exasperated.  “Come on,” she snapped, and led me back to the SCIF.

Back in the SCIF, the briefing began.  The first presenter was an FBI agent wearing a tie, with a coat this time.  Whatever he had learned at the FBI training center in Quantico, VA apparently did not include the fundamentals of haberdashery.  Anyone who buys a suit knows that you immediately have it tailored, as the pant legs are way too long.  Apparently this agent bought his cream-colored suit, with piping, and never sent it for alterations.  The trouser legs were so long he was actually walking on the bottom of his pant legs.  His presentation was no better than his tailoring.  Presenting on computer security, it was clear this was not somebody with even a basic knowledge of computing.

After him, two Homeland Security analysts presented.  They wore rumpled khakis with jacket and tie, and sported similar pyramid mustaches.  They presented on SCADA systems, a subject I could care less about.  Almost all of it was unclassified.

Shortly after my briefing, I learned that the OPM database had been hacked by the Chinese military.  All the personal information about myself and my family is in their hands now.  When I left Juniper, Cisco declined to renew my security clearance.

Some people hide that they have/had a clearance, as they can be targeted by foreign governments.  Personally, I don’t care.  What little classified information I saw, I can’t remember.  You could waterboard me and I wouldn’t be able to tell you a thing.