On Originality: More Art Than Science

One of the reasons I don’t hang out much on Facebook or Google Plus is that the information stream is mostly a repeated regurgitation of someone else’s wit or wisdom. Animated GIFs, funny cats, the same news story forty times, and inane observations about foodstuffs are fine. Breaking up a stressful workday with humor is useful in keeping a network engineer from ramming a keyboard through a monitor. But…what I really am looking for is originality. I like to see the world from other perspectives. I want to know techie tricks, life lessons, or significant shifts real people have experienced by doing, thinking, or considering the world from their own point of view.

Admittedly, you can find those sorts of gems posted on Facebook or G+, but it’s hard to cull them out. The signal to noise ratio is terrible. And in all fairness, my Twitter timeline is far from free of effluvia. While I try to keep my tweets interesting, humorous, and/or original, they’re hardly always captivating. Or even coherent.

The people whose content I enjoy reading the most are the original thinkers. If they retweet, you know it’s good. If they link, it’s worth reading. If it’s their own original content, it will be interesting on some level. We should all aspire to be so. To be original. To think for ourselves. To step on out there and take a position without being too worried about what someone else might think.

When Blogging

Blogging is where it’s at for the best original content. While I do subscribe in my newsreader to several news sites, my favorite content is generated by bloggers. The newsfeeds of technical publications tend to be regurgitations of vendor press releases, which are usually hyperbole. While you can glean useful information from the professional news, I usually get more information from the guys in the trenches who are affected by what’s going on, or who are using the technology in question. I believe that independent blogging is increasingly necessary in the data networking industry. The unfettered opinions and experiences of those who use vendor products day to day are key to helping the rest of us make informed decisions about what we might do going forward.

If you think that you have nothing to add to the blogosphere, you’re wrong. Why? Because you’re you, and the rest of us aren’t. So get out there and write. Have an opinion, solve a problem, or consider a situation, and then express your thoughts. Not everyone will agree with you, but that’s the point.

When Tweeting

If your timeline is nothing but retweets and lurking, that’s a bummer. Twitter is a great way to engage the networking nerd culture. Get in there and say nerdy things. Ask packet-y questions. Explode in 140 characters of sarcastic anger when your WAP locks up and requires a power cycle to fix. If you discover a cat made out of Legos that acts as a console server, we want to hear about it, especially if it’s rack mountable. How much bandwidth might a light saber provide? And what throughput degradation would a light saber suffer if being used to open a blast door?

When Problem Solving

Sometimes it’s okay to throw the book out, think about the problem from a different angle, and try something that’s scribbled on a whole new whiteboard. We all get in a design rut when tackling network challenges. We know what worked before, and new territory is scary business, especially if there’s any additional risk to the production environment. But don’t let FUD get in the way of a clever resolution to a problem.

FUD is rife in the networking world. The network affects everything. If the network is broken, great swaths of the IT infrastructure are also broken, with end user wrath soon to follow. Therefore, change comes slowly. But there are times when you’ve got to break out of the shackles that bind you to that router template you wrote 3 years ago. Times change. Capabilities change. The problems to be solved change. And you’ve got to change as well. So make it happen. Consider throwing out your old designs, and try something new this year. Maybe your old designs will hold up just fine, but I’m betting some upgrades are in order if you’ve been stagnant for a while.

When Considering Career

The number one topic Greg and I get asked about in the podcast mailbox regards career. How do I advance? How do I get this job or that job? What certifications will help me the most? Etc. We’ve tried to address those questions both through podcast discussions and blog posts. The reality is that landing that gig you want will be mostly up to you. The big secret about career advancement is no secret at all. In fact, it’s more of an elephant in the room. If you’re driven, work hard, and aren’t a pain in the butt, you’ll most likely excel. But (and this is a big one) you’ve got to figure out the specifics on your own. If you aren’t motivated, forget it. If you like the easy road, forget it. If you’re a miserable jerk most people can’t stand to deal with, forget it.

There is no single formula for career success. There’s not even a single definition of career success. Looking back on some of my career choices, I have made a few hugely wrong employer decisions. One person I worked for was dishonest and put me in uncomfortable, awkward situations with my customers. One company was a startup that was buried under the burden of astonishingly bad management and crushing operating expenses. It happens. Not every job you’ll take is a winner. And that’s my point. You have to figure it out on your own. Do your homework, consider the risks, make a decision, and see how it goes. Keep at it, and eventually, you’ll get to where you want to be.

When Being Creative

The networking world has bred some heroes. Often because of our hero worship, our own creativity is stifled. Well, I could never do X, because my hero said in his blog that X would be A Very Bad Idea. You know what? Forget your hero. Do you think X is a good idea? Fine. Give it a shot. Try it out. Networking is more art than science. Every network is different. X might work for you, where it didn’t for your hero. Stand on your own and go for it.

While I don’t always voice my dissent because I tend to be quiet and introverted by nature, I at times disagree with opinions expressed on the podcast. Why? Because my experiences often differ from someone else’s who is vehemently expressing a viewpoint. And yours might differ, too. For example, I don’t like Check Point much these days, after working with the platform for several years. I think their software is stagnant, their support underwhelming, and products expensive. They have long ceased to be innovative or market-leading. I know of many others who disagree with that perspective. Perfect. Run your UTM boxes. I’m running ASAs today. That said, do I love Cisco firewalls? No. However, they’re (mostly) reliable and cheap. Besides, I don’t have that many of them to cope with. They are the best fit in my world today all things considered, and I can easily defend my decision to run them.

My point is to know what you believe and why, and then stand on your own two feet. Don’t hide behind your hero.

If you’ve made it to the end of this little rant inspired in part by this article and Chris Marget, then congratulations. Now go forth and tweet about it. :P

Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, has been managing networks for higher ed, government, financials and high tech since 1995. Ethan co-hosts the Packet Pushers Podcast, which has seen over 2M downloads and reaches over 10K listeners. With whatever time is left, Ethan writes for fun & profit, studies for certifications, and enjoys science fiction. @ecbanks
Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks
  • Sigwo

    Very good read. Thanks for the last paragraph, reminds me why I built a lab. To do ‘X’. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/rovinguser rovinguser

    Great article Ethan, the hiking has cleared your mind obviously :-) Keep up the good work.

  • http://twitter.com/DmitriKalintsev Dmitri Kalintsev

    Don’t mean to sound like an old fart, but what about mailing lists and/or speciality discussion groups (USENET or otherwise)? I used to enjoy reading and contributing to these in the past when I was an engineer at an ISP; however I found it difficult to find equally high quality community as I shifted my focus, and now it is similar to what you describe – a fragmented field of many blogs and other sources. :(

    • http://packetpushers.net/author/ecbanks Ethan Banks

      The last mailing list I was on for any length of time was GroupStudy, but I gave up on it. I think the best modern replacement for that is a moderated forum with e-mail option, something Greg and I have talked about.

      • http://twitter.com/DmitriKalintsev Dmitri Kalintsev

        This would need some high quality participants with common interests and desire to spend time sharing / helping to be adequately useful. Hope you have good ideas on how to pry those peeps off their twitter feeds – sadly what we have nowadays is attention fragmentation.

  • Anonymous

    Nicely put, Ethan. Thanks for the perspective.

  • Jawed

    Very well said —

    Know what you believe and why, and then stand on your own two feet–

  • http://twitter.com/gavmcbain Gavin McBain

    After years of resisting you’ve convinced me to join twitter :o

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