Dare To Be Stupid

I was fortunate to be a guest again on the Packet Pusher’s Podcast recently, and one of the topics was an audience question regarding how to keep up with all that’s going on in the networking world. The group as a whole came up with some great insights, but I thought this would also make a great blog post.

Depending on your point of view, it can either be an exciting time or a terrifying time to be in data center networking. Here’s a small list of all the new stuff that you’re likely going to have to be familiar with: LISPOTVSPBFabric Path,TRILLFCoEFCoTRIPv6IS-ISVXLANNVGRENPVNPIVEVB, as well as technologies that have been around for a little while but are much more prominent in a networker’s life such as iSCSI and Fibre Channel. And that’s just the data center. With campus and enterprise networking, you’ve got VOIP, unified communications, MPLS, VPLS, metro Ethernet, and more.

So how do you keep up with all this? I’ll admit, it can be a bit overwhelming. But the answer comes from the timeless wisdom of Weird Al Yankovic: Dare to be stupid.

One of the greatest mistakes I see people making in IT is that they stop learning. This is a common folly, and it never ends well. I know this because this is a mistake I’ve made big time. Let’s take the wayback machine to the late ’90s, early 2000′s.

This was a period in my career where I thought I was hot stuff. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I was an expert in load balancing, and everyone who wanted to know information about load balancing came to me. I was Mr. Load Balancer.

That’s Mr. Load Balancer To You

But there were huge, huge gaps in my knowledge. Gaps in networking, gaps in system administration, and gaps in my HTTP knowledge. During the heyday of the First Great Internet Bubble, technical talent was a scarce and precious resource, and anyone with experience and skills did very, very well. It made for a great living, but the downside was that it made it very easy to ignore skills gaps, and ignore those gaps I did. I thought that because I was hot stuff, that I didn’t need to spend too much time learning. I didn’t dare be stupid.

But it caught up with me. I did a telephone interview with a load balancing vendor, and I got ripped to shreds. They found the gaping holes in my knowledge easily, and it was quite a humbling experience. Initially I was angry, and I thought they were being overly pedantic (something I still dislike). But it wasn’t the IP header overhead of an unlayden swallow that I didn’t know, there were core concepts that I didn’t know.

It took a while, but my ego healed enough to realize I had a problem: I had to get my act together. They were right to rip me to shreds (they were nice about it, but having large areas of ignorance in an area you thought you knew well is fairly unpleasant).

Moral of the story? Don’t rest on your laurels, and dare to be stupid. Otherwise, it will be your undoing. And if you’ve been too chicken to be stupid, it’s not too late. I eventually got my act together. When I started my tract to become a Cisco Certified Systems Instructor (CCSI), I confronted those huge gaps head on, and it was humbling. On my first attempt at the CCNA, I failed so badly that I thought Johns Chambers was going to get a phone call. I thought I was good at networking, but I couldn’t even do proper subnetting. (Like most sysadmins, if it wasn’t a class C subnet, 255.255.255.0, I was completely lost.)

255.255.255.224? That’s not a subnet mask!

Eventually I learned subnetting, networking, and filled in the gaps. And I know what 255.255.255.224 means. So always be learning. And a trick I’ve used to continually learn is to learn something not related to computers. You’d be amazed at the insights you can get from learning a completely unrelated skill. For instance, in the past 5 years I’ve learned how to scuba dive, fly a plane, and blues dance. Each one of those gave me incredible insights into how I learn. Keep at it.

The Magic Words

The three magic words in IT are also among the most painful to say: “I don’t know”. That’s especially true for me, an IT instructor. I’m supposed to know the answer, but I don’t always do. So saying “I don’t know” is quite painful.

In IT, knowledge is our currency, and ignorance is poverty. So it’s really tough to admit ignorance. But it’s important to fight that urge, and say the words “I don’t’ know”.

Even with that motto, part of me still cringes when those words escape my lips. I have a confession to make: During the most recent podcast I was on, Ethan Banks asked me if I knew about vPC with the Nexus 2000 FEX. My response was “It’s been so long since I taught Nexus 7000″. That was basically me being too much of a chicken to say “I have no frakkin’ clue.”

Don’t Be A Jerk

Have you ever worked with someone who made you feel small? Where they seem to take delight in showing you how you messed up? And more than just pointing out a mistake, did they take what seems like sheer joy in highlighting your ignorance? Someone who enjoys a good gotcha?

Avoid those people.

Avoid them like the plague. They create environments that are not conducive to learning, to growing. Learning is filling in the gaps of knowledge, and it’s tougher to do that when you don’t feel safe to admit you don’t know the answer.

I used to work with a guy like that back in 1998. I was a green Unix administrator whippersnapper, and there was a senior admin who used his powers for evil. He would lord his knowledge over us lesser experienced people. It was a hostile environment for growing. It backfires on them, however, since they stop growing too. They’ll be stuck at their skill level, because they’ll avoid areas where they aren’t the smartest person in the room. They don’t dare to be stupid.

And for Kirk’s sake, don’t be one of those people. Don’t be a jerk, be a teacher. If you’re insecure in your knowledge, crack a book, or Kindle, or whatever. If someone has a lesser level of knowledge on a subject, don’t berate them, don’t lord it over them, help them understand. Want to know how well you know a subject? Explain it to someone who isn’t familiar. You’ll figure out a topic much more comprehensively that way. In fact, that’s one of the secrets of blogging, you learn more about a subject simply by writing about it and organizing your thoughts on it (and coming up with clever pictures and captions).

Pull A Superman 2

I’m fortunate enough to have been invited to be a delegate for Network Field Day 2. If you’re not familiar with Network Field Day, it’s a networking-oriented offshoot of Tech Field Day, the brain child of Stephen Foskett, storage expert extrordinarre (check out his great talk on iSCSI and FCoE). If you want to keep up with the future of IT developments, whether it’s storage, networking, or virtualization, pay attention to Tech Field Day and its offshoots. The companies that present (for the most part) aren’t pitching old ideas, they’re pitching what’s next. (For instance,Fsck It! We’ll Do It All in SSDs!)

When I take a look at the other delegates for the upcoming Network Field Day 2, I can only come to one conclusion: I’m not worthy.

Ivan Pepelnjak, Greg Ferro, Ethan Banks, Tom Hollingsworth, Brandon Carrol, (along with my fellow former condescending Unix administrator Mrs Y.) these some of the smartest, most experienced people in networking. And they love to share. I’m not at their level, and I’m likely going to embarrass myself. But I’m going anyway, because it’s a great opportunity to soak up as much knowledge from them as I can. I’m even preparing my own Superman 2 chamber, where I can steal their powers and abilities. And I’m doing it by daring to be stupid.

Surround yourself with people who know more than you, and like sharing that knowledge. You’ll naturally soak up their power.

So if you want to increase your kung fu, learn all the things, and bring out your inner networking superman, then dare to be stupid.

Tony Bourke
Tony Bourke is an IT instructor teaching Cisco and other courses for various organizations. He writes about the hilarity of the converged roles at datacenteroverlords.com and random musing on twitter @tbourke. He's also an amateur pilot, skydiver, scuba diver, marathon runner, and crazy cat lady.
  • jcc

    I really like this post! Thanks to Twitter, Packet pushers, all Blogs, etc it is now easy to hear all these new concepts that are appearing everyday and humbly accept that it is almost impossible to understand all of  them perfectly. 

    P.S. Can you please highlight FCoTR!

  • Michael_K

    Rules of chess: The only way to get smarter is by playing a smarter opponent

    • http://datacenteroverlords.com/ tonybourke

      Josh Waitzken, the chess master and marshal arts champion, learned “push hands” by facing off for a guy way better than him for 3 months. For 3 months, he got his butt kicked every day in training, day in and day out. Until the end of the three months, that is, when Josh started to win. 

  • http://www.mplsvpn.info Shivlu Jain

    do agree with “One of the greatest mistakes I see people making in IT is that they stop learning”

  • Adam Melong

    Fantastic Post! Sums up what all wet behind the ears admins need, even the senior guys. The greatest success stories of our time are made by people who dare to fail. It’s the way to learn, to grow, and to expand horizons!

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  • Dave

    One thing I have learned about computer support and admin. The more I learn, the less I now!

    • Dave

      Doh! I meant ‘the more I learn the less I know”.