Reflections

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.

It seems to be rank heresy for someone working in the valley to say it, but let me say it anyways.  I don’t agree with the axiom of the technology industry which states that all technological progress is always good.  Many in our society instinctively realize this, which is why they oppose genetic engineering and plastics.  Still, the technology industry is so persistently in love with itself, and so optimistic about its potential to solve every human problem, that when anyone points out the consequences of technological progress, we quickly respond with AI’s potential to solve the problems it’s bound to create.  (Sorry for the long sentence, but I’m going to quote Plato in this essay, and by Platonic standards that last sentence is short.)  AI is the solution to everything.  AI will unlock the mysteries of human existence.  AI will allow human beings to live forever.  AI will cure cancer.  AI will solve the dangers of, well, genetic engineering and plastics.

An example of this is the extraordinarily concerning essay in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago by computer scientist and 60’s icon Jerry Kaplan.  Dr. Kaplan reviews the recent accomplishments of functional brain imaging technologies, which are starting to become more precise in identifying how people are feeling, and even which words they are thinking.  “With improved imaging technology, it may become possible to ‘eavesdrop’ on a person’s internal dialogue, to the extent that they are thinking in words,” says Kaplan.  With a predictable dose of technological optimism, Kaplan sees nothing concerning in the possibility of machines being able to read people’s minds.  Instead, he thinks it opens up a world of possibilities.  For example, in civil lawsuits it’s difficult to ascertain how much pain and suffering an individual has undergone, and hence to assign damages.  Why, we could use brain imaging and AI to calculate precisely how much somebody was harmed!

I may not hold a doctorate, but I spend a lot of time working with computers in the real world, not the world of researchers.  I’m skeptical that functional brain imaging will be able to read people’s minds, but the possibility is alarming.  In today’s era of instant social media “viral” lynching, we all have to be quite careful what we say.  Even with innocent intentions, a slip of the tongue can set off Twitter mobs that will destroy your life and career.  Now, even guarding your speech won’t help you.  You may walk by an AI mind-reading machine and have your life ruined for thought-crime.  And we’re celebrating this?  Even Dr. Kaplan’s scenario of determining pain and suffering in lawsuits is ludicrous.  How quickly will people learn to game the machine, produce artificial emotional trauma, and reap the rewards?

And now to Plato.  In his Phaedrus, Plato tells the story of an inventor named Theuth who came to the Egyptian king and was showing off some of his creations.  This was in the time before writing existed.  After showing the king a number of inventions, Theuth showed him letters and writing:

And when he was talking about writing, Theuth said:  “King, this learning will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories.  For, I have found a medicine of both memory and wisdom.

The King said:  “Oh most artful Theuth!  While one person has the ability to create things skillfully, it takes another person to judge those things, and whether their use brings harm or help.  Now you, being the father of letters, through your love of them, have stated the opposite of their capability.  For, in the minds of those who learn this art, it will produce forgetfulness, by neglect of the memory, inasmuch as they have faith in writing, which consists of inscriptions outside of themselves, rather than remembering for themselves.”

Phaedrus 274E-275A.  (My own admittedly rough translation)

In other words, the inventor thinks writing will help memory, whereas the king points out it will hinder it!  I love this quote because it shows how the arrogance of inventors clouds their perception of their own inventions.  This is particularly true in Silicon Valley, where the pressure to always innovate removes any clear thinking about the consequences of the inventions. When confronted with the possibility of huge swaths of jobs being eliminated by their inventions, the lame response of the Silicon Valley innovators is to propose a universal basic income, hence making the movie Wall-E appear all too real.

This is a blog about network engineering, so how is this related?  Aren’t I involved in the automation of network systems?  Isn’t Cisco bringing AI to the world of networking?

Indeed we are, but I like to think that we’re a bit more realistic about it.  As a network engineer, and former TAC guy, I’ve spent countless hours doing nasty troubleshooting that, frankly, was hard and not particularly enjoyable.  Having executives looking over your shoulder, with the possibility of getting fired, with countless users freaking out, while trying to hunt down why the Internet just doesn’t work…  Well, if ML and AI will help me to locate the problem faster and restore operation to my network, I’m all for that.  If AI starts reading minds, I’m breaking out the tinfoil hat.

An old networking friend whom I mentored for his CCIE a long time ago wrote me an email:  I’ve been a CCIE for 10 years now, he said, and I’m feeling like a dinosaur.  Everyone wants people who know AWS and automation and they don’t want old-school CLI guys.

It takes me back to a moment in my career that has always stuck with me.  I was in my early twenties at my first job as a full-time network engineer.  I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle, at the time (early 2000’s) a large newspaper with a wide circulation.  The company had a large newsroom, a huge advertising call center, three printing plants, and numerous circulation offices across the bay area.  We had IP, IPX, AppleTalk and SNA on the network, typical of the multi-protocol environments of the time.

My colleague Tony and I were up in the MIS area on the second floor of the old Chronicle building on 5th and Mission St. in downtown San Francisco.  The area we were in contained armies of mainframe programmers, looking at the black screens of COBOL code that were the backbone of the newspaper systems in those days.  Most of the programmers were in their fifties, with gray hair and beards.  Tony and I were young, and TCP/IP networking was new to these guys.

I was telling Tony how I always wanted to be technical.  I loved CLI, and it was good at it.  I was working on my first CCIE.  I was at the top of my game, and if any weird problem cropped up on our network I dove in and got it fixed, no matter how hard.  As I explained to Tony, this was all I wanted to do in my career, to be a CLI guy, working with Cisco routers and switches.

Tony gestured at the mainframe programmers, sitting in their cubes typing their COBOL.  “Is this what you want to be when you’re in your fifties,” he said under his breath, “a dinosaur?  Do you just want to be typing obscure code into systems that are probably going to be one step away from being shut down?  How long do you think these guys will have their jobs anyways?”

Well, I haven’t been to the Chronicle in a while but those jobs are almost certainly gone.  Fortunately for the COBOL guys, they’re all retirement age anyways.

We live in a world and an industry that worships the young and the new.  If you’re in your twenties, and totally current on the latest DevOps tools, be warned:  someday you’ll be in your forties and people will think DevOps is for dinosaurs.  The tech industry is under constant pressure to innovate, and innovating usually means getting machines to do things people used to do.  This is why some tech titans are pushing for universal basic income.  They realize that their innovations eliminate jobs at such a rate that people won’t be able to afford to live anymore.  I think it’s a terrible idea, but that’s a subject for another post.  The point is, in this industry, when you think you’ve mastered something and are relevant, be ready:  your obsolescence commeth.

This is an inversion of the natural respect for age and experience we’ve had throughout human history.  I don’t say this as a 40-something feeling some bitterness for the changes to his industry;  in fact, I actually had this thought when I was much younger.  In the West, at least,  in the 1960’s there developed a sense that, to paraphrase Hunter Thompson, old is evil.  This was of course born from legitimately bad things that were perpetuated by previous generations, but it’s interesting to see how the attitude has taken hold in every aspect of our culture.  If you look at medieval guilds, the idea was that the young spent years going through apprentice and journeyman stages before being considered a master of their craft.  This system is still in place in many trades that do not experience innovation at the rate of our industry, and there is a lot to be said for it.  The older members of the trade get security and the younger get experience.

I’ve written a bit about the relevance of the CCIE, and of networking skills in general, in the new age.  Are we becoming the COBOL programmers of the early 2000’s?  Is investing in networking skills about the same as studying mainframe programming back then, a waste of cycles on dying systems?

I’ve made the point many times on this blog that I don’t think that’s (yet) the case.  At the end of the day, we still need to move packets around, and we’re still doing it in much the same way as we did in 1995.  Most of the protocols are the same, and even the newer ones like VXLAN are not that different from the old ones.  Silicon improves, speeds increase, but fundamentally we’re still doing the same thing.  What changing is how we’re managing those systems, and as I say in my presentations, that’s not a bad thing.  Using Notepad to copy/paste across a large number of devices is not a good use of network engineers’ time.  Automating can indeed help us to do things better and focus on what matters.

I’ve often used the example of airline pilots.  A modern airplane cockpit looks totally different from a cockpit in the 1980’s or even 1990’s.  The old dials and switches have been replaced by LCD panels and much greater automation.  And yet we still have pilots, and the pilot today still needs to understand engine systems, weather, aerodynamics, and navigation.  What’s changed is how that pilot interacts with the machine.  As a pilot myself, I can tell you how much better a glass cockpit is than the old dials.  I get better information presented in a much more useful way and don’t have to waste my time on unnecessary tasks.  This is how network automation should work.

When I raised this point to some customer execs at a recent briefing, one of them said that the pilots could be eliminated since automation is so good now.  I’m skeptical we will ever reach that level of automation, despite the futurists’ love of making such predictions.  The pilots aren’t there for the 99% of the time when things work as expected, but for the 1% when they don’t, and it will be a long time, if ever, before AI can make judgement calls like a human can.  And in order to make those 1% of calls, the pilots need to be flying the 99% of the time when it’s routine, so they know what to do.

So, are we dinosaurs?  Are we the COBOL programmers of the late 2010’s, ready to be eliminated in the next wave of layoffs?  I don’t think so, but we have to adapt.  We need to learn the glass cockpit.  We need to stay on top of developments, and learn how those developments help us to manage the systems we know well how to manage.  Mainframes and operating systems will come and go, but interconnecting those systems will still be relevant for a long time.

Meanwhile, an SVP at Cisco told me he saw someone with a ballcap at Cisco Live:  “Make CLI Great Again”.  Gotta love that.  Some dinosaurs don’t want to go extinct.

Cisco Live Orlando has wrapped up, at least for me, and I can relax until Cisco Live Europe in January.  I never realized how much work goes into Cisco Live until I became a TME.  Building labs, working on slides, preparing demos, and arranging customer meetings is a months-long process and always a scramble at the end.  It’s a great show, and I can say that having attended as a customer.  It’s more fun and less work to be an attendee, but for technical marketing engineers, it’s still a blast and the highlight of the year.

Orlando had a special significance for me because it was at CL Orlando in 2007 that I decided I really wanted to be a TME.  I attended several breakouts and thought that I’d love to be up in front of the room, teaching folks how about technology.  The only problem:  I was terrified of public speaking.

It took years of trainings, including many as a Toastmaster, before I became comfortable in front of an audience.  That’s a story for another time.  It also took years before the right job opened up, and there were a couple near moves into technical marketing that didn’t work out.  I have to say, I’m glad I have this job and love (almost) every minute of it.

Still, getting up in front of a bunch of your (rather smart) peer network engineers and claiming some sort of expertise is nerve-wracking.  Wanting to do well in front of an audience can lead to frustration.  My main breakout session, BRKCRS-2451, Scripting Catalyst Switches, won me two distinguished speaker awards in a row.  This year, however, the scores are looking quite a bit lower.

It didn’t help that the start time was 8am.  I’m not a morning person, and 8am in Orlando was 5am for me.  The old neurons just weren’t firing for the first 30-45 minutes of the presentation, and in front of 400 people that just isn’t good.

A dose of humility is a good thing, though.  I know TMEs who would kill for my “disappointing” score, so it wasn’t that bad.  And the comments were quite helpful, in fact, and make clear what people are looking for and where they didn’t think I delivered.

I structured BRKCRS-2451 as a journey through developing a script on IOS XE.  The session begins with a demo of a fairly simple script, which pulls some data down from a switch and then formats it and sends it to a Webex Teams (formerly Spark) room.  Then, I break down the script starting with installing Python, and some of the tools needed, like Git and Virtual Environments.  Then I move on to YANG/NETCONF, talk about REST, and then wrap it up by showing how it all fits together to build the script I demoed.

It was a winning formula for a while, but I’m suspecting network engineers have up-leveled their programmability skills in the last year or so.  When I used to explain what GitHub was, network engineers usually were relieved to have it explained to them.  Now I think they all know.

I have a few ideas for making the session more relevant.  Still, it was a great experience talking to 400 people, meeting customers around the show floor and halls, and visiting some of my colleagues’ sessions.  Hopefully my attendees got something out of the session, and I look forward to the next Cisco Live.

Two years ago I published my Ten Years a CCIE series.  Actually, I had written the series a couple years before I published it, but as I say in my introduction to the series, I felt it was a bit self-indulgent an uninteresting, so I scrapped it for a while.  The original pieces were dictated, and I’ve been meaning to go back and clean up some of the grammatical errors or grating phrases, but haven’t had the time.  Not a lot of people have read it, nor did I expect many to read it, since I generally don’t advertise the blog in social media, or anywhere really.  But the feedback from the few who have read it has been positive, and I’m gratified for that.

Things have changed a lot since I got into networking in 1995, and since I passed my CCIE in 2004.  But it’s also amazing how much has stayed the same.  TCP/IP, and in fact IPv4, is still the heart of the network.  Knowledge of OSPF and BGP is still key.  For the most part, new controllers and programmable interfaces represent a different way of managing fundamentally the same thing.

The obvious reasons for this are that networks work and are hard to change.  The old protocols have been sufficient for passing data from point A to point B for a long time.  They’re not perfect but they are more than adequate.  They are hard to change because networks are heterogeneous.  There are so many types of different systems connecting to them, that if we wanted to fundamentally alter the building blocks of networks, we’d have to upgrade a lot of systems.  This is why IPv6 adoption is so slow.

Occasionally I poke around at TechExams.net to see what newer network engineers are thinking, and where they are struggling.  I’m probably the only director-level employee of Cisco who reads or comments on that message board.  I started reading it back when I was still at Juniper and studying for my JNCIE, but I’ve continued to read it because I like the insights I get from folks prepping for their certifications.  People are occasionally concerned that the new world of controllers and automation will make their jobs obsolete.

I built the first part of my career on CLI.  Now I’m building it on controllers and programmability.  In this industry, we have to adapt, but we don’t have to die.  Cars have changed drastically, with on-board computer systems and so forth, but we still need mechanics.  We still need good network engineers.

To be honest, I was getting tired of my career by the time I left Juniper and came to Cisco.  I was bored.  I thought of going back to school and getting a Ph.D. in classical languages, my other passion.  Getting married helped put an end to that idea (Ph.D.’s in ancient Greek make a lot less than network engineers) but when I came back to Cisco, I felt revitalized.  I started learning new things.  Networking was becoming fun again.

I wrote the “Ten Years a CCIE” series both for people who had passed the exam and wanted to have some fun remembering the experience, as well as for people struggling to pass it.  Some things change, as I said, but a lot remains the same.  I still think, closing in on 15 years since I took the exam, that it’s still worth it.  I still think it’s a fantastic way to launch a career.  The exam curriculum will adapt, as it always does, with new technologies, but it’s an amazing learning experience if you do it honestly, and you will be needed when you make it through.