Writing Is Hard

Writing isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. There are a lot of times that people sit down to pour out their thoughts onto virtual paper and nothing happens. Or they spend hours and hours researching a topic only to put something together that falls apart because of assumptions about a key point that aren’t true.

The world is becoming more and more enamored with other forms of media. We like listening to podcasts instead of reading. We prefer short videos instead of long articles. Visual aids beat a wall of text any day. Even though each of these content types has a script it still feels better having a conversation. Informal chat beats formal prose every day.

Written Wringers

I got into blogging because my typing fingers are way more eloquent than the thoughts running through my brain. I had tons of ideas that I needed to put down on paper and the best way to do that was to build a simple blog and get to it. It’s been eight years of posting and I still feel like I have a ton to say. But it’s not easy to make the words flow all the time.

I find that my blogging issues boil down into two categories. The first is when there is nothing to write about. That’s how most people feel. They see the same problems over and over and there’s nothing to really discuss. The second issue is when a topic has been absolutely beaten to a pulp. SD-WAN is a great example. I’ve written a lot about SD-WAN in a bunch of places. And as exciting as the technology is for people implementing it for the first time, I feel like I’ve said everything there is to say about SD-WAN. I know that because it feels like the articles are all starting to sound the same.

There are some exciting new technologies on the horizon. 802.11ax is one of them. So too is the new crop of super fast Ethernet. We even have crazy stuff like silicon photonics and machine learning and AI invading everything we do. There’s a lot of great stuff just a little ways out there. But it’s all going to take research and time. And learning. And investment. And that takes time to suss everything out. Which means a lot of fodder for blog posts as people go through the learning process.

Paper Trail

The reason why blogging is still so exciting for me is because of all the searches that I get that land in my neighborhood. Thinks like fixing missing SFPs or sending calls directly to voicemail. These are real problems that people have that need to be solved.

As great as podcasts and video series are, they aren’t searchable. Sure, the show notes can be posted that discuss some of the topics in general. But those show notes are basically a blog post without prose. They’re a bullet point list of reference material and discussion points. That’s where blogs are still very important. They are the sum total of knowledge that we have in a form that people can see.

If you look at Egyptian hieroglyphs or even Ancient Greek writings you can see what their society is like. You get a feel for who they were. And you can read it because it was preserved over time. The daily conversations didn’t stand the test of time unless they were committed to memory somehow. Sure, podcasts and videos are a version of this as well, but they’re also very difficult to maintain.

Think back to all the video that you have that was recorded before YouTube existed. Think about all the recordings that exist on VHS, Super8, or even reel-to-reel tape. One of the biggest achievements of humanity was the manned landing on the moon in 1969. Now, just 50 years later we don’t have access to the video records of that landing. A few grainy copies of the records exist, but not the original media. However, the newspaper articles are still preserved in both printed and archive form. And those archives are searchable for all manner of information.


Tom’s Take

Written words are important. Because they will outlast us. As much as we’d like to believe that our videos are going to be our breakthrough and those funny podcasts are going to live forever, the truth is that people are going to forget our voices and faces long after we’re gone. Our words will live forever though. Because of archiving and searchability future generations will be able to read our thoughts just like we read those of philosophers and thinkers from years past. But in order to do that, we have to write.

Advertisements

2018 Is The Year Of Writing Everything

Welcome back to a year divisible by 2! 2018 is going to be a good year through the power of positive thinking. It’s going to be a fun year for everyone. And I’m going to do my best to have fun in 2018 as well.

Per my tradition, today is a day to look at what is going to be coming in 2018. I don’t make predictions, even if I take some shots at people that do. I also try not to look back to heavily on the things I’ve done over the past year. Google and blog searches are your friend there. Likely as not, you’ve read what I wrote this year and found one or two things useful, insightful, or amusing. What I want to do is set up what the next 52 weeks are going to look like for everyone that comes to this blog to find content.

Wearing Out The Keyboard

The past couple of years has shown me that the written word is starting to lose a bit of luster for content consumers. There’s been a bit push to video. Friends like Keith Townsend, Robb Boardman, and Rowell Dionicio have started making more video content to capture people’s eyes and ears. I myself have even noticed that I spend more time listening to 10-minute video recaps of things as opposed to reading 500-600 words on the subject.

I believe that my strengths lie in my writing. I’m going to continue to produce content around that here for the foreseeable future. But that’s not so say that I can’t dabble. With the help of my media-minded co-worker Rich Stroffolino, we’ve created a weekly video discussion called the Gestalt IT Rundown. It’s mostly what you would expect from a weekly video series. Rich and I find 2-3 tech news articles and make fun of them while imparting some knowledge and perspective. We’ve been having a blast recording them and we’re going to be bringing you more of them every Wednesday in 2018.

That’s not to say that my only forays on GestaltIT.com are going to be video focused. I’m also going to be writing more there as well. I’ve had some articles go up there this year that talked about some of the briefings that I’ve been taking from networking companies. That is going to continue through 2018 as well. I’ve also had some great long form writing, including my favorite article from last year about vendors and VARs. I’m going to continue to post articles on Gestalt IT in 2018 as well as posting them here. I’m going to need to figure out the right mix of what to put up for my day job and what to put up here for my Batman job. If there’s a kind of article you prefer to see here please make sure to let me know so I can find a way to make more of them.

Lastly, in 2018 I’m going to try some new things as well with regard to my writing. I’m going to write more coverage of the events I attend. Things like Cisco Live, WLPC, and other industry events will have some discussions of what goes on there for people that can’t go or are looking for the kind of information that you can’t get from an event website. I’m also going to try to find a way to incorporate some of my more detailed pieces together as reports for consumption. I’m not sure how this is going to happen, but I figured if I put it down here as a goal then I would be required to make it happen next year.


Tom’s Take

I like writing. I like teaching and informing and telling the occasional bad joke about BGP. It’s all because I get regular readers that want to hear what I have to say that I continue to do what I do. Rather than worry about the lack of content and coverage that I’m seeing in the community, I’ve decided to do my part to put out more. It is a challenging exercise to come up with new ideas every week and put them out for the world to see. But as long as folks like you keep reading what I have to say I’ll keep writing it all down.

Why Do You Still Blog?

After recording an excellent session on social media at Cisco Live with The Network Collective (@NetCollectivePC), I started thinking about blogging and where it stands in the grand scheme of information sharing. With the rise of podcasting and video blogging now in full swing, I was even asked by my friend Michael Stump “Do you see blogging as a dying form of content?” For obvious reasons, I said “no”, but I wanted to explain two major reasons why.

Needle In A Haystack

One of the major reasons why I still blog through written form is searchability. When I started blogging almost seven years ago I wanted to create a place where I could put down my thoughts about topics and share them with everyone. More by accident than design, many of those thoughts became popular topics of conversation. Even today, some of my posts are being used to help people figure out problems and address issues that aren’t well documented in other places.

But why? How can posts many years old still be relevant to audiences today? Because of searching. Use of Google, DuckDuckGo, and even Bing allow people to search for specific error messages or topics and find things that I’ve written down. That’s because text on posts is easily indexed by web crawlers. Even when my posts are excerpted on other sites it just drives more people back to my blog to find my content. The power of being able to find something can’t be understated.

But what about audio and video content? How can it be searched? Sure, you can write down show notes. But show notes are like network and systems documentation. At first, they’re very detailed and useful. But after time passes, they are essentially the bare minimum necessary to be able to move on. That makes it difficult to search for specific content inside of an episode. In fact, the show notes from most podcast episodes would be content for two blogs!

Additionally, the banter and discussion during the episode are hard to capture in text format. If the show notes mention that the guests spend 3-4 minutes talking about some topic, realize that most people speak in conversation at around 125 words per minute (wpm). With two guests debating the topic for 4 minutes, that’s 500 words or more on a topic! How can you capture the essence of the discussion in a single line show note with perhaps one or two links to outside material? Blogs allow all of that to be tracked, indexed, and referenced at a later date without needed to scrub through the audio to find out exactly what was said.

Can I Have Your Attention, Please?

If you’ve been reading along to this point so far, you know that I prefer writing my thoughts out. That is, if you’ve been paying attention. I also prefer reading words instead of podcasts for the most part. Why? Well, that has to do with my full and undivided attention.

When I’m reading something, I’m using my active reading skills. I’m focused the content in front of me. I use my attention to absorb the words and concepts. It does take a lot of concentration to do this. Since part of my job is reading blogs it’s easy for me to set aside time to do this task. But it does take away from other things that I’m doing. I often find myself shutting out other conversation or ignoring things going on around me while I try to digest new topics or evaluate someone’s opinion on a subject.

Conversely, when is the last time you actively listened to a podcast? I mean, you sat down with a pair of headphones and really listened to it? Not just put it on in the background and casually listened to the discussion while you went on with work or something else. I’d bet the answer is that you frequently find yourself splitting your attention. I know I do it. I even split my focus when I’m recording podcasts if they aren’t on video. It’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on without a visual focus point.

Podcasts are active. They project the conversation you. Likewise, the consumers of podcasts are passive. They aren’t seeking knowledge. They are being fed knowledge via an audio (or video) stream. But written words aren’t that aggressive. They require someone to consume them actively. You don’t accidentally click on a link and find yourself full of knowledge ten minutes later without having put in the effort to read what was on the page. You can’t read blog posts without paying attention. If you do, you find yourself missing the point and reading them all over again to find out what you missed in the first place.


Tom’s Take

I love to write. I never did when I was in school or when I was first starting out in technology, but as time has worn on, I find myself growing to love using a keyboard to share what’s in my brain. I’ve recorded podcasts and videos as well, but I keep coming back to the written word. I like the ability to have other people find my content useful years after the fact via a search or a referral. I also enjoy the idea that people are focused on what I’m saying and ingesting it actively instead of having it fed to them via a speaker or headphones. Maybe it’s because I use other media, like TV and music, to provide background noise to focus as I write and do other things. At the end of the day, I blog because it’s the method of communication I most prefer to consume.

Don’t Be My Guest

I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled musing about technology and networking to talk today about something that I’m increasingly seeing come across my communications channels. The growing market for people to “guest post” on blogs. Rather than continually point folks to my policies on this, I thought it might be good to break down why I choose to do what I do.

The Archive Of Tom

First and foremost, let me reiterate for the record: I do not accept guest posts on my site.

Note that this has nothing to do with your skills as a writer, your ability to create “compelling, fresh, and exciting content”, or your particular celebrity status as the CTO/CIO/COMGWTFBBQO of some hot, fresh, exciting new company. I’m sure if Kurt Vonnegut’s ghost or J.K. Rowling wanted to make a guest post on my blog, the answer would still be the same.

Why? Because this site is the archive of my thoughts. Because I want this to be an archive of my viewpoints on technology. I want people to know how I’ve grown and changed and come to love things like SDN over the years. What I don’t want is for people to need to look at a byline to figure out why the writer suddenly loves keynotes or suddenly decides that NAT is the best protocol ever. If the only person that ever writes here is me, all the things here are my voice and my views.

That’s not to say that the idea of guest posts or multiple writers of content is a bad thing. Take a look at Packet Pushers for instance. Greg, Ethan, and Drew do an awesome job of providing a community platform for people that want to write. If you’re not willing to setup your own blog, Packet Pushers is the next best option for you. They area the SaaS version of blogging – just type in the words and let the magic happen behind the screen.

However, Packet Pushers is a collection of many different viewpoints and can be confusing sometimes. The editorial staff does a great job of keeping their hands off the content outside of the general rules about posts. But that does mean that you could have two totally different viewpoints on a topic from two different writers that are posted at the same time. If you’re not normally known as a community content hub, the whiplash between these articles could be difficult to take.

The Dark Side Of Blogging

If the entire point of guest posting was to increase community engagement, I would very likely be looking at my policy and trying to find a way to do some kind of guest posting policy. The issue isn’t the writers, it’s what the people doing the “selling” are really looking for. Every time I get a pitch for a guest post, I immediately become suspicious of the motives behind it. I’ve done some of my own investigation and I firmly believe that there is more to this than meets the eye.


Pitch: Our CEO (Name Dropper) can offer your blog an increase in traffic with his thoughts on the following articles: (List of Crazy Titles)

Response: Okay, so why does he need to post on this blog? What advantage could he have for posting here and not on the corporate blog? Are you really trying to give me more traffic out of the goodness of your own heart? Or are you trying to game the system by using my blog as a lever to increase his name recognition with Google? He gains a lot more from me than I ever will from him, especially given that your suggested blog post titles are nowhere close to the content I write about.


Pitch: We want to provide an article for you to post under your own name to generate more visibility. All we ask is for a link back to our site in your article.

Reponse: More gaming the system. Google keeps track of the links back to your site and where they come from, so the more you get your name out there the higher your results. But as Google shuts down the more nefarious avenues, companies have to find places that Google actually likes to put up the links. Also, why does this link come wrapped in some kind of link shortener? Could it be because there are tons of tracking links and referral jumps in it? I would love to push back and tell them that I’m going to include my own link with no switches or extra parts of the URL and see how quickly the proposal is withdrawn when your tracking systems fail to work the way you intend. That’s not to say that all referral links are bad, but you can better believe that if there’s a referral link, I put it there.


Pitch: We want to pay you to put our content on your site

Response: I know what people pay to put content on major news sites. You’re hoping to game the system again by getting your content up somewhere for little to nothing compared to what a major content hub would cost. Why pay for major exposure when you can get 60% of that number of hits for a third of the cost? Besides, there’s no such thing as only taking money once for a post. Pretty soon everyone will be paying and the only content that will go up will be the kind of content that I don’t want on my blog.


Tom’s Take

If you really want to make a guest post on a site, I have some great suggestions. Packet Pushers or the site I help run for work GestaltIT.com are great community content areas. But this blog is not the place for that. I’m glad that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. But for now and for the foreseeable future, this is going to by my own little corner of the world.


Editor Note:

The original version of this article made reference to Network Computing in an unfair light. The error in my reference to their publishing model was completely incorrect and totally mine due to failure to do proper research. I have removed the incorrect information from this article after a conversation with Sue Fogarty.

Network Computing has a strict editorial policy about accepting content, including sponsored content. Throughout my relationship with them, I have found them to be completely fair and balanced. The error contained in this blog post was unforgivable and I apologize for it.

Blogging By The Refrigerator’s Light

Blogging isn’t starting off to a good 2017 so far. Ev Williams announced that Medium is cutting back and trying to find new ways to engage readers. The platform of blogging is scaling back as clickbait headlines and other new forms of media capture the collective attention for the next six seconds. How does that all relate to the humble tech blogger?

Mindshare, Not Eyeshare

One of the reasons why things have gotten so crazy is the drive for page views. Clickbait headlines serve the singular purpose of getting someone to click on an article to register a page view. Ever clicked on some Top Ten article only to find that it’s actually a series of 10 pages in a slideshow format? Page views. I’ve even gone so far as to see an article of top 7 somethings broken down into 33(!) pages, each with 19 ads and about 14 words.

Writers competing for eyeballs are always going to lose in the end. Because the attention span of the average human doesn’t dally long enough to make a difference. Think of yourself in a crowded room. Your eyes dart back and forth and all around trying to find something in the crowd. You may not even know what you’re looking for. But you’ll know it when you see it. Your attention wanders as you scan through the crowd.

Blogging, on the other hand, is like finding a good conversation in the crowd. It engages the mind. It causes deeper thinking and engagement that leads to lasting results. The best blog posts don’t have thousands of views in the first week followed by little to nothing for the rest of eternity. They have active commenters. They have response pieces. They have page views and search results that get traffic years after publication.

The 3am Ah Ha Moments

Good blogs shouldn’t just be about “going viral”. Good blogs should have something called Fridge Brilliance. Simply put, the best blogs hit you out of the blue a day after you read it standing in front of your fridge door. BANG. Now you get it! You run off to see how it applies to what you’re doing or even to give your perspective on things.

The mark of a truly successful blog is creating something that lasts and is memorable in the minds of readers. Even if all you’re really known for is “that one post” or a series of great articles, you’ve made an impression. And, as I’ve said before, you can never tell which post is going to hit it big. So the key is to keep writing what you write and making sure you’re engaging your audience at a deeper level than their corneas.

That’s not to say that you can’t have fun with blog posts now and then or post silly things here and there. But if you really want to be known as an authoritative source of content, you have to stay consistent. One of the things that Dave Henry (@DaveMHenry) saw in his 2016 wrap-up was that his most viewed posts were all about product announcements. Those tend to get lots of headlines, but for an independent blog it’s just as much about the perspective the writer lends as it is for the news itself. That’s how you can continue to engage people beyond the eyeball and into the brain.


Tom’s Take

I’ve noticed that people still like to write. They want to share thoughts. But they pick the wrong platforms. They want eyeballs instead of minds. They don’t want deep thoughts. They just want an audience. That’s the wrong way to look at it. You want engagement. You want disagreement and argument and 4,000 word response posts about why you’re completely wrong. Because that’s how you know you’ve hooked the reader. You’re a splinter in their mind that won’t go away. That’s the real draw. Keep your page views. I’d rather have memories and fridge brilliance instead.

Is It Really Always The Network?

Keep Calm and Blame the Network

Image from Thomas LaRock

I had a great time over the last month writing a series of posts with my friend John Herbert (@MrTugs) over on the SolarWinds Geek Speak Blog. You can find the first post here. John and I explored the idea that people are always blaming the network for a variety of issues that are often completely unrelated to the actual operation of the network. It was fun writing some narrative prose for once, and the feedback we got was actually pretty awesome. But I wanted to take some time to explain the rationale behind my madness. Why is it that we are always blaming the network?!?

Visibility Is Vital

Think about all the times you’ve been working on an application and things start slowing down. What’s the first thing you think of? If it’s a standalone app, it’s probably some kind of processing lag or memory issues. But if that app connects to any other thing, whether it be a local network or a remote network via the Internet, the first culprit is the connection between systems.

It’s not a large logical leap to make. We have to start by assuming the the people that made the application knew what they were doing. If hundreds of other people aren’t having this problem, it must not be with the application, right? We’ve already started eliminating the application as the source of the issues even before we start figuring out what went wrong.

People will blame the most visible part of the system for issues. If that’s a standalone system sealed off from the rest of the world, it obviously must be the application. However, we don’t usually build these kinds of walled-off systems any longer. Almost every application in existence today requires a network connection of some kind. Whether it’s to get updates or to interact with other data or people, the application needs to talk to someone or maybe even everyone.

I’ve talked before about the need to make the network more of a “utility”. Part of the reason for this is that it lowers the visibility of the network to the rest of the IT organization. Lower visibility means fewer issues being incorrectly blamed on the network. It also means that the network is going to be doing more to move packets and less to fix broken application issues.

Blame What You Know

If your network isn’t stable to begin with, it will soon become the source of all issues in IT even if the network has nothing to do with the app. That’s because people tend to identify problem sources based on their own experience. If you are unsure of that, work on a consumer system helpdesk sometime and try and keep track of the number of calls that you get that were caused by “viruses” even if there’s no indication that this is a virus related issue. It’s staggering.

The same thing happens in networking and other enterprise IT. People only start troubleshooting problems from areas of known expertise. This usually breaks down by people shouting out solutions like, “I saw this once so it must be that! I mean, the symptoms aren’t similar and the output is totally different, but it must be that because I know how to fix it!”

People get uncomfortable when they are faced with troubleshooting something unknown to them. That’s why they fall back on familiar things. And if they constantly hear how the network is the source of all issues, guess what the first thing to get blamed is going to be?

Network admins and engineers have to fight a constant battle to disprove the network as the source of issues. And for every win they get it can come crashing down when the network is actually the problem. Validating the fears of the users is the fastest way to be seen as the issue every time.

Mean Time To Innocence

As John and I wrote the pieces for SolarWinds, what we wanted to show is that a variety of issues can look like network things up front but have vastly different causes behind the scenes. What I felt was very important for the piece was the distinguish the the main character, Amanda, go beyond the infamous Mean Time To Innocence (MTTI) metric. In networking, we all too often find ourselves going so far as to prove that it’s not the network and then leave it there. As soon as we’re innocent, it’s done.

Cross-function teams and other DevOps organizations don’t believe in that kind of boundary. Lines between silos blur or are totally absent. That means that instead of giving up once you prove it’s not your problem, you need to work toward fixing what’s at issue. Fix the problem, not the blame. If you concentrate on fixing the problems, it will soon become noticeable that networking team may not always be the problem. Even if the network is at fault, the network team will work to fix it and any other issues that you see.


Tom’s Take

I love the feedback that John and I have gotten so far on the series we wrote. Some said it feels like a situation they’ve been in before. Others have said that they applaud the way things were handled. I know that the narrative allows us to bypass some of the unsavory things that often happen, like argument and political posturing inside an organization to make other department heads look bad when a problem strikes. But what we really wanted to show is that the network is usually the first to get blamed and the last to keep its innocence in a situation like this.

We wanted to show that it’s not always the network. And the best way for you to prove that in your own organization is to make sure the network isn’t just innocent, but helpful in solving as many problems as possible.

Thoughts on Theft

ShareArrows

It’s been a busy week for me. In fact, it’s been a busy few weeks. I’ve had lots of time to enjoy NetApp Insight, Cloud Field Day, and Storage Field Day. I’ve also been doing my best to post interesting thoughts and ideas. Whether it’s taking on the CCIE program or keynote speakers, I feel like I owe a debt to the community and my readers to talk about topics that are important to them, or at least should be. Which is why I’m irritated right now about those ideas being stolen.

Beg, Borrow, and Steal

A large part of my current job is finding people that are writing great things and shining a spotlight on them. I like reading interesting ideas. And I like sharing those ideas with people. But when I share those ideas with people, I make absolutely sure that everyone knows where those ideas came from originally. And if I use those ideas for writing my own content, I make special care to point out where they came from and try to provide the context for the original statement in the first place.

What annoys me to no end is when people take ideas as their own and try to use them for their own ends. It’s not all that difficult. You can use weasel words like “sources” or “I heard once” or even “I read this article”. Those are usually good signs that content is going to be appropriated for some purpose. It’s also a sign that research isn’t being done or attributed properly. It’s lazy journalism at best.

What really grinds my gears is when my ideas are specifically taken and used elsewhere without attribution. Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with it much so far. I have a fairly liberal policy about sharing my work. I just want people to recognize the original author. But when my words end up in someone else’s mouth, that’s when the problems start.

Credit Where It Is Due

Taking ideas given freely without offering a clue as to where they come from is theft. Plain and simple. It takes the hard work that someone has put in to thinking through an issue and wraps it up in a cloudy mess. Now, who is to say (beyond dates) who was the originator of the idea? It’s just as easy to say that someone else came up with it. That’s what makes the tracing the origin of things so difficult. Proper attribution for ideas is important in a society where knowledge carries so much weight.

I don’t expect to make millions of dollars from my ideas. I have opinions. I have thoughts. Sometimes people agree with them. Just as often, people disagree. The point is not to be right or wrong or rich. The true point is to make sure that the thoughts and ideas of a person are placed where they belong when the threads are all unwound.

Honestly, I don’t even really want a ton of credit. It does me little good to have someone shouting from the rooftops that I was the first person to talk about something. Or that I was right when everyone else was wrong. But when the butcher’s bill comes due, I’d at least like to have my name attached to my thoughts.


Tom’s Take

I’ve luckily been able to have most of my appropriated content taken down. Some have used it as fuel for a link bait scheme to get paid. Others have used it as a way to build a blog for readership for some strange purpose. Thankfully, I’ve never run into anyone that was vocally taking credit for my writing and passing it off as their own. If you are a smart person and willing to writing things down, do the best you can with what you have. You don’t need to take something else that someone has written and attempt to make it you own. That just tarnishes what you’re trying to do and makes all your writing suspect. Be the best you can be and no one will ever question who you are.