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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.