About networkingnerd

Tom Hollingsworth, CCIE #29213, is a former network engineer and current organizer for Tech Field Day. Tom has been in the IT industry since 2002, and has been a nerd since he first drew breath.

Cisco Live 2019 – Rededicating Community

The 2019 Cisco Live Sign Photo

Another Cisco Live is in the books for me. I was a bit shocked to realize this was my 14th event in a row. I’ve been going to Cisco Live half of the time it’s been around! This year was back in San Diego, which has good and bad points. I’d like to discuss a few of them there and get the thoughts of the community.

Good: The Social Media Hub Has Been Freed! – After last year’s issues with the Social Media Hub being locked behind the World of Solutions, someone at Cisco woke up and realized that social people don’t keep the same hours as the show floor people. So, the Hub was located in a breezeway between the Sails Pavilion and the rest of the convention center. And it was great. People congregated. Couches were used. Discussions were had. And the community was able to come together again. Not during the hours when it was convenient. But a long time. This picture of the big meeting on Thursday just solidifies in my mind why the Social Media Hub has to be in a common area:

You don’t get this kind of interaction anywhere else!

Good: Community Leaders Step Forward – Not gonna lie. I feel disconnected sometimes. My job at Tech Field Day takes me away from the action. I spend more time in special sessions than I do in the social media hub. For any other place that could spell disaster. But not for Cisco Live. When the community needs a leader, someone steps forward to fill the role. This year, I was happy to see my good friend Denise Fishburne filling that role. The session above was filled with people paying rapt attention to Fish’s stories and her bringing people into the community. She’s a master at this kind of interaction. I was even proud to sit on the edge and watch her work her craft.

Fish is the d’Artagnan of the group. She may be part of the Musketeers of Social Media but Fish is undoubtedly the leader. A community should hope to have a leader that is as passionate and involved as she is, especially given her prominent role in Cisco. I feel like she can be the director of what the people in the Social Media Hub need. And I’m happy to call her my friend.

Bad: Passes Still Suck – You don’t have to do the math to figure out that $700 is bigger than $200. And that $600/night is worse than $200/night. And yet, for some reason we find ourselves in San Diego, where the Gaslamp hotels are beyond insane, wondering what exactly we’re getting with our $700 event pass. Sessions? Nope. Lunch? Well, sort of. Access to the show floor? Only when it’s open for the random times during the week. Compelling content? That’s the most subjective piece of all. And yet Cisco is still trying to tell us that the idea of a $200 social-only pass doesn’t make sense.

Fine. I get it. Cisco wants to keep the budgets for Cisco Live high. They got the Foo Fighters after all, right? They also don’t have to worry about policing the snacks and food everywhere. Or at least not ordering the lowest line items on the menu. Which means less fussing about piddly things inside the convention center. And for the next two years it’s going to work out just great in Las Vegas. Because Vegas is affordable with the right setup. People are already booking rooms at the surrounding hotels. You can stay at the Luxor or the Excalibur for nothing. But if the pass situation is still $700 (or more) in a couple of years you’re going to see a lot of people dropping out. Because….

Bad: WTF?!? San Francisco?!? – I’ve covered this before. My distaste for Moscone is documented. I thought we were going to avoid it this time around. And yet, I found out we’re going back to SF in 2022.

WHY?!?!?!?

Moscone isn’t any bigger. We didn’t magically find seating for 10,000 extra people. More importantly, the hotel situation in San Fran is worse than ever before. You seriously can’t find a good room this year for VMworld. People are paying upwards of $500/night for a non-air conditioned shoe box! And why would you do this to yourself Cisco?

Sure, it’s cheap. Your employees don’t need hotel rooms. You can truck everything up. But your costs savings are being passed along to the customer. Because you would rather them pay through the nose instead of footing the bill yourself. And Moscone still won’t hold the whole conference. We’ll be spilled over into 8 different hotels and walking from who knows where to get to the slightly nicer shack of a convention center.

I’m not saying that Cisco Live needs to be in Vegas every year. But it’s time for Cisco to start understanding that their conference needs a real convention center. And Moscone ain’t it.

Better: Going Back to Orlando – As you can see above, I’ve edited this post to include new information about Cisco Live 2022. I have been informed by multiple people, including internal Cisco folks, that Live 2022 is going to Orlando and not SF. My original discussion about Cisco Live in SF came from other sources with no hard confirmation. I believe now it was floated as a trial balloon to see how the community would respond. Which means all my statements above still stand regarding SF. Now it just means that there’s a different date attached to it.

Orlando is a better town for conventions than SF. It’s on-par with San Diego with the benefit that hotels are way cheaper for people because of the large amount of tourism. I think it’s time that Cisco did some serious soul searching to find a new venue that isn’t in California or Florida for Cisco Live. Because if all we’re going to do is bounce back and forth between San Diego and Orlando and Vegas over and over again, maybe it’s time to just move Cisco Live to Vegas and be done with the moving.


Tom’s Take

Cisco Live is something important to me. It has been for years, especially with the community that’s been created. There’s nothing like it anywhere else. Sure, there have been some questionable decisions and changes here and there. But the community survives because it rededicates itself every year to being about the people. I wasn’t kidding when I tweeted this:

Because the real heart of the community is each and every one of the people that get on a plane and make the choice time and again to be a part of something special. That kind of dedication makes us all better in every possible way.

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The CCIE Times Are A Changing

Today is the day that the CCIE changes. A little, at least. The news hit just a little while ago that there are some changes to the way the CCIE certification and recertification process happens. Some of these are positive. Some of these are going to cause some insightful discussion. Let’s take a quick look at what’s changing and how it affects you. Note that these changes are not taking effect until February 24, 2020, which is in about 8 months.

Starting Your Engines

The first big change comes from the test that you take to get yourself ready for the lab. Historically, this has been a CCIE written exam. It’s a test of knowledge designed to make sure you’re ready to take the big lab. It’s also the test that has been used to recertify your CCIE status.

With the new change on Feb. 24th, the old CCIE written will go away. The test that is going to be used to qualify candidates to take the CCIE lab exam is the Core Technology exam from the CCNP track. The Core Technology exam in each CCNP track serves a dual purpose in the new Cisco certification program. If you’re going for your CCNP you need the Core Technology exam and one other exam from a specific list. That Core Technology exam also qualifies you to schedule a CCIE lab attempt within 18 months.

This means that the CCNP is going to get just a little harder now. Instead of taking multiple tests over routing, switching, or voice you’re going to have all those technologies lumped together into one long exam. There’s also going to be more practical questions on the Core Technologies exam. That’s great if you’re good at configuring devices. But the amount of content on the individual exam is going to increase.

Keeping The Home Fires Burning

Now that we’ve talked about qualification to take the lab exam, let’s discuss the changes to recertification. The really good news is that the Continuing Education program is expanding and giving more options for recertification.

The CCIE has always required you to recertify every two years. But if you miss your recertification date you have a one year “grace period”. Your CCIE status is suspended but you don’t lose your number until the end of the one-year period. This grace period has informally been called the “penalty box” by several people in the industry. Think of it like a time out to focus on getting your certification current.

Starting February 24, 2020, this grace period is now formalized as an extra year of certification. The CCIE will now be valid for 3 years instead of just 2. However, if you do not recertified by the end of the 3rd year, you lose your number. There is no grace period any longer. This means you need to recertify within the 3-year period.

As far as how to recertify, you now have some additional options. You can still recertify using CE credits. The amount has gone up from 100 to 120 credits to reflect the additional year that CCIEs get to recertify now. There is also a new way to recertify using a combination of CE credits and tests. You can take the Core Technologies exam and use 40 CE credits to recertify. You can also pass two Specialist exams and use 40 CE credits to recertify. This is a great way to pick up skills in a new discipline and learn new technologies. You can choose to pass a single Specialist exam and use 80 CE credits to recertify within the three-year period. This change is huge for those of us that need to recertify. It’s a great option that we don’t have today. They hybrid model offers great flexibility for those that are taking tests but also taking e-learning or classroom training.

The biggest change, however, is in the test-only option. Historically, all you needed to do is pass the CCIE written every two years to recertify. With the changes to the written exam used to qualify you to take the lab, that is no longer an option. As listed above, simply taking the Core Technologies exam is not enough. You must also take 40 CE credits.

So, what tests will recertify you? The first is the CCIE lab. If you take and pass a lab exam within the recertification period you’ll be recertified. You can also take three Specialist exams. The combination of three will qualify you for recertification. You can also take the Core Technologies exam and another professional exam to recertify. This means that passing the test required for the CCNP will recertify your CCIE. There is still one Expert-level exam that will work to recertify your CCIE – the CCDE written. Because no changes were made to the CCDE program in this project, the CCDE written exam will still recertify your CCIE.

Also, your recertification date is no longer dependent on your lab date. Historically your recert date was based on the date you took your lab. Now, it’s going to be whatever date you pass your exam or submit your CEs. The good news is this means that all your certifications are going to line up. Because your CCNA and CCNP dates have always been 3 years as well, recertifying your CCIE will sync up all your certifications to the date you recertify your CCIE. It’s a very welcome quality of life change.

Another welcome change is that there will no longer be a program fee when submitting your CE credits. As soon as you have amassed the right combination you just submit them and you’re good to go. No $300 fee. There’s also a great change for anyone that has been a CCIE for 20 years or more. If you choose to “retire” to Emeritus status you no longer have to pay the program fee. You will be a CCIE forever. Even if you are an active CCIE and you choose not to recertify after 20 years you will be automatically enrolled in the Emeritus program.

Managing Change

So, this is a big change. A single test will no longer recertify your number. You’re going to have to expand your horizons by investing in continuing education. You’re going to have to take a class or do some outside study on a new topic like wireless or security. That’s the encouragement from Cisco going forward. You’re not going to be able to just keep learning the same BGP and OSPF-related topics over and over again and hope to keep your certification relevant.

This is going to work out in favor of the people that complain the CCIE isn’t relevant to the IT world of today. Because you can learn about things like network automation and programmability and such from Cisco DevNet and have it count for CCIE recertification, you have no excuse not to bring yourself current to modern network architecture. You also have every opportunity to learn about new technologies like SD-WAN, ACI, and many other things. Increasing your knowledge takes care of keeping your CCIE status current.

Yes, you’re going to lose the ability to panic after two and a half years and cram to take a single test one or two times to reset for the next three years. You also need to be on top of your CCIE CE credits and your recert date. This means you can’t be lazy any longer and just assume you need to recertify every odd or even year. It means that your life will be easier without tons of cramming. But it means that the way things used to be aren’t going to be like that any longer.


Tom’s Take

Change is hard. But it’s inevitable. The CCIE is the most venerable certification in the networking world and one of the longest-lived certifications in the IT space. But that doesn’t mean it’s carved in stone as only being a certain way forever. The CCIE must change to stay relevant. And that means forcing CCIEs to stay relevant. The addition of the continuing education piece a couple of years ago is the biggest and best thing to happen in years. Expanding the ability for us to learn new technologies and making them eligible for us to recertify is a huge gift. What we need to do is embrace it and keep the CCIE relevant. We need to keep the people who hold those certifications relevant. Because the fastest way to fade into obscurity is to keep things the way they’ve always been.

You can find more information about all the changes in the Cisco Certification Program at http://Cisco.com/nextlevel

Home on the Palo Alto Networks Cyber Range

You’ve probably heard many horror stories by now about the crazy interviews that companies in Silicon Valley put you though. Sure, some of the questions are downright silly. How would I know how to weigh the moon? But the most insidious are the ones designed to look like skills tests. You may have to spend an hour optimizing a bubble sort or writing some crazy code that honestly won’t have much impact on the outcome of what you’ll be doing for the company.

Practical skills tests have always been the joy and the bane of people the world over. Many disciplines require you to have a practical examination before you can be certified. Doctors are one. The Cisco CCIE is probably the most well-known in IT. But what is the test really quizzing you on? Most people will admit that the CCIE is an imperfect representation of a network at best. It’s a test designed to get people to think about networks in different ways. But what about other disciplines? What about the ones where time is even more of the essence than it was in CCIE lab?

Red Team Go!

I was at Palo Alto Networks Ignite19 this past week and I got a chance to sit down with Pamela Warren. She’s the Director of Government and Industry Initiatives at Palo Alto Networks. She and her team have built a very interesting concept that I loved to see in action. They call it the Cyber Range.

The idea is simple enough on the surface. You take a classroom setting with some workstations and some security devices racked up in the back. You have your students log into a dashboard to a sandbox environment. Then you have your instructors at the front start throwing everything they can at the students. And you see how they respond.

The idea for the Cyber Range came out of military exercises that NATO used to run for their members. They wanted to teach their cyberwarfare people how to stop sophisticated attacks and see what their skill levels were with regards to stopping the people that could do potential harm to nation state infrastructure or worse to critical military assets during a war. Palo Alto Networks get involved in helping years ago and Pamela grew the idea into something that could be offered as a class.

Cyber Range has a couple of different levels of interaction. Level 1 is basic stuff. It’s designed to teach people how to respond to incidents and stop common exploits from happening. The students play the role of a security operations team member from a fictitious company that’s having a very bad week. You learn how to see the log files, collect forensics data, and ultimately how to identify and stop attackers across a wide range of exploits.

If Level 1 is the undergrad work, Cyber Range Level 2 is postgrad in spades. You dig into some very specific and complicated exploits, some of which have only recently been discovered. During my visit the instructors were teaching everyone about the exploits used by OilRig, a persistent group of criminals that love to steal data through things like DNS exfiltration tunnels. Level 2 of the Cyber Range takes you deep down the rabbit hole to see inside specific attacks and learn how to combat them. It’s a great way to keep up with current trends in malware and exploitive behavior.

Putting Your Money Where Your Firewall Is

To me, the most impressive part of this whole endeavor is how Palo Alto Networks realizes that security isn’t just about sitting back and watching an alert screen. It’s about knowing how to recognize the signs that something isn’t right. And it’s about putting an action plan into place as soon as that happens.

We talk a lot about automation of alerts and automated incident response. But at the end of the day we still need a human being to take a look at the information and make a decision. We can winnow that decision down to a simple Yes or No with all the software in the world but we need a brain doing the hard work after the automation and data analytics pieces give you all the information they can find.

More importantly, this kind of pressure cooker testing is a great way to learn how to spot the important things without failing in reality. Sure, we’ve heard all the horror stories about CCIE candidates that typed in debug IP packet detail on core switch in production and watched it melt down. But what about watching an attacker recon your entire enterprise and start exfiltrating data. And you being unable to stop them because you either don’t recognize the attack vector or you don’t know where to find the right info to lock everything down? That’s the value of training like the Cyber Range.

The best part for me? Palo Alto Networks will bring a Cyber Range to your facility to do the experience for your group! There are details on the page above about how to set this up, but I got a great pic of everything that’s involved here (sans tables to sit at):

How can you turn down something like this? I would have loved to put something like this on for some of my education customers back in the day!


Tom’s Take

I really wish I would have had something like the Cyber Range for myself back when I was fighting virus outbreaks and trying to tame Conficker infections. Because having a sandbox to test myself against scripted scenarios with variations run by live people beats watching a video about how to “easily” fix a problem you may never see in that form. I applaud Palo Alto Networks for their approach to teaching security to folks and I can’t wait to see how Pamela grows the Cyber Range program!

For more information about Palo Alto Networks and Cyber Range, make sure to visit http://Paloaltonetworks.com/CyberRange/

The Good, The Bad, and The Questionable: Acquisition Activities

Sometimes I read the headlines when a company gets acquired and think to myself, “Wow, that was a great move!” Other times I can’t really speak after reading because I’m shaking my head too much about what I see to really make any kind of judgement. With that being said, I think it’s time to look at three recent acquisitions through the lens of everyone’s favorite spaghetti western.

The Good – Palo Networks Alto Buys Twistlock: This one was kind of a no-brainer to me. If you want to stay relevant in the infrastructure security space you’re going to need to have some kind of visibility into containers. If you want to stay solvent after The Cloud destroys all infrastructure spending forevermore, you’re going to need to learn how to look into containers. And when you’re ready and waiting for the collapse of the cloud, containers are probably still going to be relevant.

Joking aside, this is a great move for Palo Alto Networks. They’re getting a lot of container talent and can start looking at all kinds of ways to integrate that into their solution sets. It lets people in the organization justify the spend they have for security solutions by allowing them to work alongside the new constructs that the DevOps visionaries are using this week.

By the way, you can check out more about Palo Alto Networks June 19th at Security Field Day 2

The Bad – HPE Buys Cray?: Hands up if you were waiting for Cray to get purchased. Um, okay. Hands up if you thought Cray was actually still in business? Wow. No hands. Hmmm…

HPE has a love affair with HPC. And not just because they share a lot of letters in their acronyms. HPE has wanted to prove it has the biggest, baddest CPUs on the block. From all their press about The Machine to all the work they’ve done to build huge compute platforms, it is very clear that HPE thinks the future of HPC involves building big things. And who has the best reputation for having amazingly awesome supercomputers?

Here’s my issue with this purchase: Why does HPE think that the future of compute lies outside the cloud? Are they secretly hoping to build a supercomputer cluster and offer it for rent via a cloud service? Or are they realizing they have no hope of catching up in the cloud race and they’re just conceding that they need to position themselves in a niche market to drive revenue from the kinds of customers that can’t use the cloud for whatever reason? There isn’t a lot of room for buggy whip manufacturers any more, but I guess if you make the best one of the lot you win by default.

Given the HPE track record of questionable acquisitions (Aruba aside), I’m really taking a wait-and-see approach to this. I’d rather it be an Aruba success and not an Autonomy debacle.

The Questionable – NXP Buys Marvell Wi-Fi: This one was the head scratcher of the bunch for me. Why is this making headlines now? Well, in part because NXP is scrambling to fill out their portfolio. As mentioned in the linked article, NXP had been resting on their laurels a bit in hopes that the pending Qualcomm acquisition from last year would give them access to the pieces they needed to move into new markets like industrial and communications infrastructure.

Alas, the Qualcomm deal fell apart for political reasons. Which means people are picking up the pieces. And NXP is getting one of the pieces their desperately needed for just shy of $2 billion. But what’s the roadmap? Sure, Marvell has a lot of customers already that use their wireless and Bluetooth chipsets in a wide range of devices. But you don’t make a acquisition like that just for an existing customer base. You need synergy. You need expansion. You need to boost revenues across both companies to justify paying a huge price. So where’s the additional market going to come from? Are they going to double down on industrial and automotive connectivity? Or are they thinking about different expansion plans?


Tom’s Take

Acquisitions in the tech sector are no different from blockbuster trades in the sports world. Sometimes you cheer about a big pickup for a team and other times you boo at the crazy decisions that otherwise sane people made. But if you follow things closely enough you can usually work out which people are crazy like a fox as opposed to just plain crazy.

Will Spectrum Hunger Kill Weather Forecasting?

If you are a fan of the work we do each week with our Gestalt IT Rundown on Facebook, you probably saw a story in this week’s episode about the race for 5G spectrum causing some potential problems with weather forecasting. I didn’t have the time to dig into the details behind the story on that episode, so I wanted to take a few minutes and explain why it’s such a big deal.

First, you have to know that 5G (and many other) speeds are entirely dependent upon the amount of spectrum they can use to communicate. The more spectrum available to them, the more channels they have available to communicate. Which increases the speed they can exchange information and reduces the amount of interference between devices. Sounds simple right?

Except mobile devices aren’t the only things that are using the spectrum. We have all kinds of other devices out there that use radio waves to communicate. We’ve known for several years that there are a lot of devices in the 5 GHz spectrum used by 802.11 that interfere with wireless devices. Things like ISM radios for industrial and medical applications or government radar systems. The government has instituted many regulations in those frequency ranges to ensure that critical infrastructure isn’t interfered with.

When Nature Calls

However, sometimes you can’t regulate away interference. According to this Wired article the FCC, back in March, opened up auctions for the 24 GHz frequency band. This was over strenuous objections from NASA, NOAA, and the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Why is 24 GHz so important? Well, as it turns out, there’s a natural phenomenon that exists at that range.

Recall your kitchen microwave. How does it work? Basically, it uses microwave radiation to heat the water in the food you’re cooking. How does it do that? Turns out the natural frequency of water is 2.38 GHz. Now, thanks to the magic of math, 23.8 GHz is a multiple of that frequency. Which means that anything that broadcasts at 23.8 GHz will have issues with water, such as water in tree leaves or in water pipes.

So, why is NOAA and the AMS freaking out about auctioning off spectrum in the 23.8 GHz range? Because anything broadcasting in that range is not only going to have issues with water interference but it’s also going to look like water to sensitive equipment. That means that orbiting weather satellites that use microwaves to detect water vapor in the air that reacts to 23.8 GHz are going to encounter co-channel interference from 5G radio sources.

You might say to yourself, “So what? It’s just a little buzz, right?” Well, except that that little buzz creates interference in the data being fed into forecast prediction models. Those models are the basis for the weather forecasts we have today. And if you haven’t noticed the reliability of our long range forecasts has been steadily improving for the past 30 years or so. Today’s 7-day forecasts are almost 80% accurate, which is pretty good compared to how bad things were in the 80s, where you could only guarantee 80% accuracy from a 3-day forecast.

Guess what? NOAA says that if the 24 GHz spectrum gets auctioned off for 5G use, we could see the accuracy of our forecasting regress almost 30%, which would push our models back to where they were in the 80s. Now, for those of you that live in places that are fortunate enough to only get sun and the occasional rain shower that doesn’t sound too bad, right? Just make sure to pack an umbrella. But for those that live in places where there is a significant chance for severe weather, it’s a bit more problematic.

I live in Oklahoma. We’re right in the middle of Tornado Alley. In the spring between April 1 and June 1 my state becomes a fun place full of nasty weather that can destroy homes and cause widespread devastation. It’s never boring for sure. But in the last 30 years we’ve managed to go from being able to give people a few minutes warning about an impending tornado to being able to issue Potential Dangerous Situation (PDS) Tornado Watches up to 48 hours in advance. While a PDS Tornado Watch doesn’t mean that we’re going to get one in a specific area, it does mean that you need to be on the lookout for something that day. It gives enough warning to make sure you’re not going to get caught flat footed when things get nasty.

Yes Man

The easiest way to avoid this problem is probably the least likely to happen. The FCC needs to restrict the auction of that spectrum range identified by NOAA and NASA until it can be proven that there won’t be any interference or that the forecast accuracy isn’t going to be impacted. 5G rollouts are still far enough in the future that leaving a part of the spectrum out of the equation isn’t going to cause huge issues for the next few years. But if we have to start creating rules for how we have to change power settings for device manufacturers or create updates for fixed-position sensors and old satellites we’re going to have a lot more issues down the road than just slightly slow mobile devices.

The reason why this is hard is because an FCC focused on opening things up for corporations doesn’t care about the forecast accuracy of a farmer in Iowa. They care about money. They care about progress. And ultimately they care about looking good over saving lives. There’s no guarantee that reducing forecast accuracy will impact life saving, but the odds are that better forecasts will help people make better decisions. And ultimately, when you boil it down to the actual choices, the appearance is that the FCC is picking money over lives. And that’s a pretty easy choice for most people to make.


Tom’s Take

If I’m a bit passionate about weather tech, it’s because I live in one of the most weather-active places on the planet. The National Severe Storms Laboratory and the National Weather Center are both about 5-6 miles from my house. I see the use of this tech every day. And I know that it saves lives. It’s saved lives for years for people that need to know

You Don’t Want To Be A Rock Star

When I say “rock star”, you probably have all kinds of images that pop up in your head. Private planes, penthouse suites, grand stages, and wheelbarrows full of money are probably on that list somewhere. Maybe you’re a purist and you think of someone dedicated to the craft of entertaining the masses and trying to claw their way to fame one note at a time. But I’m also sure in both of those cases you also think about the negative aspects of being a rock star. Like ego. And lack of humility. I want to touch on some of that as it pertains to our jobs and our involvement in the community.

Great Like Elvis. Without The Tassels.

The rock star mentality at work is easy to come by. Perhaps you’re very good at what you do. You may even be the best at your company or even at the collection of companies that are your competitors. You’re the best senior architect there is. You know the products and the protocols and you can implement a complex project with your eyes closed. That’s how people start looking at you. Larger than life. The best. One of a kind.

And that should be the end of it, right? That person is the best and that’s that. Unless you start believing their words more than you should. Unless you think that you really are the best and that there is no one better than you. It’s a mentality I see all the time, especially in sports or in places with small sample sizes. A kid that knows how to pitch a baseball well in the 8th grade thinks he’s the king of the baseball diamond. Until he sees someone that pitches way better than he does or he gets to high school and realizes he’s just the average of everyone else around him.

IT creates rock stars because we have knowledge that no one else does. We also fix issues for users, which creates visibility. No one talks about how accountants or HR reps are rock stars. Even though they have knowledge or solve problems for their users. It’s because IT is so practical. Anyone can do math, right? Or fill out a form? IT is hard. You have to know computer stuff. You have to learn acronyms. It’s like being a doctor or a lawyer. And both of those groups produce their own rock stars. So too does IT. And it causes the exact same issues that it does in the medical or legal fields.

Rock stars know it all. They don’t want to listen because they’ve got this. They can figure this out and they don’t need you telling them what to do. Why call support? I’ll just look up the problem. Go do something else and stop bothering them because they’re not going to fail here. This is what they do. Any of that sound familiar? If you’re on the team with a rock star it probably does.

Trade This Life For Fortune And Fame

The rock star mentality extends into the wider community too. People get vaulted into high esteem for their contributions. They get recognized for what they do and held up as an example for others. For most that are thrust into that rarified air of community fame that’s the end of it. But some take it as an invitation to take more.

You’ve seen them. The prima donnas. The people that take the inch of fame they’ve been given and stretch it into a mile. The people who try to manipulate and cajole the rest of their fellows into outlandish things for no other reason than they can do it. Again, if you’ve ever been around people like this in a community you know how toxic and terrible it can be.

So how do you combat that? How can you keep rock stars from getting an ego the size of Alaska? How do you prevent someone from getting an attitude and poisoning a community? How do you keep things together and on-track?

Sadly, the answer doesn’t lie much in preventing the rock star behavior in the first place. Because it’s going to happen no matter what you do. People that do good things are going to be held above others. It’s the nature of recognition to want to reward people’s outstanding behavior and showcase the attributes and traits that they want to see in others. And that can often cause people to take those traits and run with them or assume that you want to showcase all of their traits, even the bad ones.

Cut My Hair and Change My Name

The key that I’ve found most successful in my time working with communities is to highlight those traits and refer them back to the collective to remind the person they are part of a greater whole. If you praise someone for organizing an event, tell them, “Thank you for giving the community a place to meet and talk.” You’re still holding them up for doing a good job, but you’re referencing the community. For the workplace rock stars, try something like “Thanks for working all night to ensure that the entire office had email service this morning.” It reinforces that Herculean tasks like that have a real payoff but that the work is still referenced to a greater whole and not just the ego of someone working to prove a point.

You have to positively identify the traits you like and tie them to greater success in order to select them out and prevent someone from highlighting negative traits that could be detrimental. It’s easy for some that’s good at organization to take it too far and start running everything for a community without being asked. It’s also likely that someone that has a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips could start interjecting into conversations without permission because they think they know the answer. But if you reinforce the value of those traits to the community you’ll make the members think more carefully about their contributions as they exercise them.


Tom’s Take

I’m no expert on community building. Or rock stars for that matter. I’m just a person that does what I can to help others succeed. And I think that’s the mark of a real servant leader and perfect community mentor. The rock star mentality is the polar opposite of this. Rock stars want personal fame at the expense of the group. Servant leaders want group success even if it means not being recognized. Some of the best people in the community I know prefer to hide in the background and avoid the “fame” of being recognized. We would do well to follow their examples when the time comes for us to step on stage.

IT And The Exception Mentality

If you work in IT, you probably have a lot in common with other IT people. You work long hours. You have the attitude that every problem can be fixed. You understand technology well enough to know how processes and systems work. It’s fairly common in our line of work because the best IT people tend to think logically and want to solve issues. But there’s something else that I see a lot in IT people. We tend to focus on the exceptions to the rules.

Odd Thing Out

A perfectly good example of this is automation. We’ve slowly been building toward a future when software and scripting does the menial work of network administration and engineering. We’ve invested dollars and hours into making interfaces into systems that allow us to repeat tasks over and over again without intervention. We see it in other areas, like paperwork processing and auto manufacturing. There are those in IT, especially in networking, that resist that change.

If you pin them down on it, sometimes the answers are cut and dried. Loss of job, immaturity of software, and even unfamiliarity with programming are common replies. However, I’ve also heard a more common response growing from people: What happens when the automation screws up? What happens when a system accidentally upgrades things when it shouldn’t? Or a system disappears because it was left out of the scripts?

The exception position is a very interesting one to me. In part, it stems from the fact that IT people are problem solvers. This is especially true if you’ve ever worked in support or troubleshooting. You only see things that don’t work correctly. Whether it’s software misconfiguration, hardware failure, or cosmic rays, there is always something that is acting screwy and it’s your job to fix it. So the systems that you see on a regular basis aren’t working right. They aren’t following the perfect order that they should be. Those issues are the exceptions.

And when you take someone that sees the exceptions all day long and tries to fix them, you start looking for the exceptions everywhere in everything. Instead of wondering how a queue moves properly at the grocery store you instead start looking at why people aren’t putting things on the conveyor belt properly. You start asking whey someone brought 17 items into the 15-items-or-less line. You see all the problems. And you start trying to solve the issues instead of letting the process work.

Let’s step back to our automation example. What happens when you put the wrong upgrade image on a device? Was there a control in place to prevent you from doing that? Did you go around it because you didn’t think it was the right way to do something? I’ve heard stories of the upgrade process not validating images because they couldn’t handle the errors if the image didn’t match the platform. So the process relies on a person to validate the image is correct in the first place. And that much human interaction in a system will still cause issues. Because people make mistakes.

Outlook on Failure

But whether or not a script is going to make an error doesn’t affect the way we look at them and worry. For IT people that are too focused on the details, the errors are the important part. They tend to forget the process. They don’t see the 99% of devices that were properly upgraded by the program. Instead, they only focus on the 1% that weren’t. They’re only interested in being proved right by their suspicions. Because they only see failed systems they need the validation that something didn’t go right.

This isn’t to say that focusing on the details is a bad thing. It’s almost necessary for a troubleshooter. You can’t figure out where a process breaks if you don’t understand every piece of it. But IT people need to understand the big picture too. We’re not automating a process because we want to create exceptions. We’re doing it because we want to reduce stress and prevent common errors. That doesn’t mean that all errors are going to go away overnight. But it does mean that we can prevent common ones from occurring.

That also means that the need for expert IT people to handle the exceptions is even more important. Because if we can handle the easy problems, like VLAN typos or putting in the wrong subnet range, you can better believe that the real problems are going to take a really smart person to figure out! That means the real value of an expert troubleshooter is using the details to figure out this exception. So instead of worrying about why something might go wrong, you can instead turn your attention to figuring out this new puzzle.


Tom’s Take

I know how hard it is to avoid focusing on exceptions because I’m one of the people that is constantly looking for them. What happens if this redistribution crashes everything? What happens if this switch isn’t ready for the upgrade? What happens if this one iPad can’t connect to the wireless. But I realize that the Brave New World of IT automation needs people that can focus on the exceptions. However, we need to focus on them after they happen instead of worrying about them before they occur.