Locked Up By Lock-In

When you start evaluating a solution, you are going to get a laundry list of features and functionality that you are supposed to use as criteria for selection. Some are important, like the ones that give you the feature set you need to get your job done. Others are less important for the majority of use cases. One thing tends to stand out for me though.

Since the dawn of platforms, I believe the first piece of comparison marketing has been “avoids lock-in”. You know you’ve seen it too. For those that may not be completely familiar with the term, “lock-in” describes a platform where all the components need to come from the same manufacturer or group of manufacturers in order to work properly. An example would be if a networking solution required you to purchase routers, switches, access points, and firewalls from a single vendor in order to work properly.

Chain of Fools

Lock in is the greatest asset a platform company has. The more devices they can sell you the more money they can get from you at every turn. That’s what they want. So they’re going to do everything they can to keep you in their ecosystem. That includes things like file formats and architectures that require the use of their technology or of partner technologies to operate correctly.

So, the biggest question here is “What’s wrong with that?” Note that I’m not a proponent of lock-in. Rather, I’m against the false appearance of choices. Sure, offering a platform with the promise of “no lock-in” is a great marketing tool. But how likely are you to actually follow through on that promise?

I touched on this a little bit earlier this year at Aruba Atmosphere 2019 when I talked about the promise of OpenConfig allowing hardware from different vendors to all be programmed in a similar way. The promise is grand that you’ll be able to buy an access point from Extreme and run it on an Aruba Controller while the access layer polices are programmed into Cisco switches. It’s the dream of interoperability!

More realistically, though, you’ll find that most people aren’t that concerned about lock-in. The false choice of being open to new systems generally comes down to one single thing: price. The people that I know that complain the most about vendor lock-in almost always follow it up with a complaint about pricing or licensing costs. For example:

The list could go on for three or four more pages. And the odds are good you’ve looked at one of those solutions already or you’re currently dealing with something along those lines. So, ask yourself how much pain vendor lock-in brings you aside from your checkbook?

The most common complaint, aside from price, is that the vendor solution isn’t “best of breed”. Which has always been code for “this particular piece sucks and I really wish I could use something else”. But there’s every possibility that the solution sucks because it has to integrate tightly with the rest of the platform. It’s easy to innovate when you’re the only game in town and trying to get people to buy things from you. But if you’re a piece of a larger puzzle and you’re trying to have eight other teams tell you what your software needs to do in order to work well with the platform, I think you can see where this is going.

How many times have you actually wished you could pull out a piece and sub in another one? Again, aside from just buying the cheapest thing off the shelf? Have you ever really hoped that you could sub in an Aerohive AP630 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) AP into your Cisco wireless network because they were first to market? Have you ever really wanted to rip out Cisco ISE from your integrated platform and try to put Aruba ClearPass in its place? Early adopters and frustrated users are some of the biggest opponents of vendor lock-in.

Those Three Words

I’m about to tell you why lock-in isn’t the demon you think it is. And I can do it in three words:

It. Just. Works.

Granted, that’s a huge stretch and we all know it. It really should be “well built software that meets all my functionality goals should just work”. But in reality, the reason why we all like to scream at lock-in when we’re writing checks for it is because the alternative to paying big bucks for making it “all just work” is for us to invest our time and effort into integrating two solutions together. And ask your nearest VAR or vendor partner how much fun that can be?

I used to spend a LOT of my time trying to get pieces and parts to integrate because schools don’t like to spend a lot of money on platforms. In Oklahoma they’re even allowed to get out of license agreements every year. Know what that means? A ton of legacy software that’s already paid for sitting around waiting to run on brand new hardware they just bought. And oh, by the way, can you make all that work together in this new solution we were sold by the Vendor of the Month Club?

And because they got the best deal or the best package, I had to spend my time and effort putting things together. So, in a way, the customer was trading money from the hardware and software to me for my wetware — the brain power needed to make it all work together. So, in a way, I was doing something even worse. I was creating my own lock-in. Not because I was building an integrated solution with one vendor’s pieces. But because I was building a solution that was custom and difficult to troubleshoot, even with proper documentation.


Tom’s Take

Lock-in isn’t the devil. You’re essentially trading flexibility for ease-of-use. You’re trading the ability to switch out pieces of a solution for the ability to integrate the pieces together without expending much effort. And yes, I realize that some lock-in solutions are harder to integrate than others. I’m looking at you, Cisco ISE. But, that just speaks to how hard it is to create the kind of environment that you get when you are trying to create all kinds of integrations. You’ll find that the idea of freedom of choice is much more appealing than actually having the ability to swap things out at will.

Procrastination Party

“I’ll get to that later.”

“I’m not feeling it right now.”

“I have to find an angle.”

“It will be there tomorrow.”

Any of those sound familiar? I know they do for me. That’s because procrastination is the beast that lives inside all of us. Slumbering until a time when it awakes and persuades us to just put things off until later. Can’t hurt, right?

Brain Games

The human brain is an amazing thing. It is the single largest consumer of nutrients and oxygen in the human body. It’s the reason why human babies are born practically helpless due to the size in relation to the rest of an infant. It’s the reason why we can make tools, ponder the existence of life in the universe, and write kick-ass rock and roll music.

But the human brain is lazy. It doesn’t like thinking. It prefers simple patterns and easy work. Given a choice, the human brain would rather do some kind of mindless repetitive task ad naseum instead of creating. When you think about it that makes a lot of sense from a biological perspective. Tasks that are easy don’t engage many resources. Which means the brain doesn’t have to operate as much and can conserve energy.

But we don’t want our brains to be lazy. We want to create and learn and do amazing things with our thoughts. Which means we have to overcome the inertia of procrastination. We have to force ourselves to move past the proclivity to be lazy in our thoughts. It is said that the hardest part of running isn’t the mileage but is instead getting up in the morning and putting on your shoes. Likewise, the hardest part of being creative isn’t the actual thinking but is instead starting the process of it in the first place.

Strategies for Anti-Procrastination

I have some methods I use to fight my tendency to procrastinate. I can’t promise they’ll work for you but the idea is that you base your strategies around the ideas and go from there.

  • Make Yourself Uncomfortable – I’m not talking about laying on a bed or nails or working in the freezing cold. What I mean is take yourself out of you comfort zone. Instead of sitting in my office when I need to write a few things, I intentionally go somewhere in public, like a coffee shop. Why? Because putting myself in a place with noice and uncomfortable chairs makes me focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. My brain can’t get lazy when it’s being stimulated from all sides. I have to apply some effort to drown out the conversation and that extra effort pushes me into action.
  • Set a Small Goal to Relax – This one works wonders for your brain. If it thinks there’s even a remote possibility in the near future that it can relax it’s going to race to that finish line as fast as possible. If you’re familiar with the Pomodoro Technique that’s basically what’s going on. Your brain sees the opportunity to be lazy five minutes out of every 30 so it pushes to get there. Except you’re tricking it by forcing it to do work to get there. You become more productive because you’re thinking you get to relax in ten or fifteen minutes when in fact you’re much more productive because you’ve secretly been focused the whole time.
  • Create a Zone For Yourself – This is kind of the opposite of the first point above but it works just as well. Your brain likes to do mindless repetitive tasks because they require very little energy. So why not use that against your lazy brain and trick it into thinking whatever you’re doing is actually “easy”? There’s a ton of ways to do this. My two favorites involve aural stimulation. There are a lot of folks that have a Coding Playlist or a Writing Setlist that they use to zone out and accomplish tasks that require some focus but are mindless in nature. Likewise, I often use noise generators to do the same thing. My current favorite is A Soft Murmur because it allows me to customize the noise that I want to help me shut off the distractions and focus on what I’m doing. I’ll often pair it with a sprint from the second point above to help me really dial in what I’m trying to work on.

Tom’s Take

Your mileage may very greatly on the items above. Your brain doesn’t work like mine. You know how you think and what it takes to motivate you. Maybe it’s massive amounts of coffee or a TV playing in the background. But knowing that your mind wants to shut off active processing and do repetitive things over and over again does wonders to help figure out how best to engage it and work smarter. You can’t always stop procrastination. But, with a little planning, you can put it off until tomorrow.

IT Hero Culture

I’ve written before about rock stars and IT super heroes. We all know or have worked with someone like this in the past. Perhaps we still do have someone in the organization that fits the description. But have you ever stopped to consider how it could be our culture that breeds the very people we don’t want around?

Keeping The Lights On

When’s the last time you got recognition for the network operating smoothly? Unless it was in response to a huge traffic spike or an attack that tried to knock you offline, the answer is probably never or rarely. Despite the fact that networks are hard to build and even harder to operate, we rarely get recognized for keeping the lights on day after day.

It’s not all that uncommon. The accounting department doesn’t get recognized when the books are balanced. The janitorial staff doesn’t get an exceptional call out when the floors are mopped. And the electric company doesn’t get a gold star because they really did keep the lights on. All of these things are examples of expected operation. When we plug something into a power socket, we expect it to work. When we plug a router in, we expect it to work as well. It may take more configuration to get the router working than the electrical outlet, but that’s just because the hard work of the wiring has already been done.

The only time we start to notice things is when they’re outside our expectation. When the accounting department’s books are wrong. When the floors are dirty. When the lights aren’t on. We’re very quick to notice failure. And, often, we have to work very hard to minimize the culture that lays blame for failure. I’ve already talked a lot about things like blameless post-mortems and other ways to attack problems instead of people. Companies are embracing the idea that we need to fix issues with our systems and not shame our people into submission for things they might not have had complete control over.

Put On The Cape

Have you ever thought about what happens in the other direction, though? I can speak from experience because I spent a lot of time in that role. As a senior engineer from a VAR, I was often called upon to ride in and save the day. Maybe it was after some other company had tried to install something and failed. Or perhaps it was after one of my own technicians had created an issue that needed to be resolved. I was ready on my white horse to ride in and save the day.

And it felt nice to be recognized for doing it! Everyone feels a bit of pride when you are the person to fix an issue or get a site back up and running after an outage. Adulation is a much better feeling than shame without a doubt. But it also beat apathy too. People don’t get those warm fuzzy feelings from just keeping the lights on, after all.

The culture we create that worships those that resolve issues with superhuman skill reinforces the idea that those traits are desirable in engineers. Think about which person you’d rather have working on your network:

  • Engineer A takes two months to plan the cutover and wants to make sure everything goes smoothly before making it happen.
  • Engineer B cuts over with very little planning and then spends three hours of the maintenance window getting all the systems back online after a bug causes an outage. Everything is back up and running before the end of the window.

Almost everyone will say they want Engineer A working for them, right? Planning and methodical reasoning beats a YOLO attitude any day of the week. But who do we recognize as the rockstar with special skills? Probably Engineer B. Whether or not they created their own issue they are the one that went above and beyond to fix it.

We don’t reward people for producing great Disaster Recovery documentation. We laud them for pulling a 36-hour shift to rebuild everything because there wasn’t a document in the first place. We don’t recognize people that spend an extra day during a wireless site survey to make sure they didn’t miss anything in a warehouse. But we really love the people that come in after-the-fact and spend countless hours fixing it.

Acknowledging Averages

Should we stop thanking people for all their hard work in solving problems? No. Because failure to appreciate true skills in a technical resource will sour them on the job quickly. But, if we truly want to stop the hero worshipping behavior that grows from IT, we have to start acknowledging the people that put in hard work day after day to stay invisible.

We need to give a pat on the back to an engineer that built a good script to upgrade switches. Or to someone that spent a little extra time making sure the site survey report covered everything in detail. We need to help people understand that it’s okay to get your job done and not make a scene. And we have to make sure that we average out the good and the bad when trying to ascertain root cause in outages.

Instead of lauding rock stars for spending 18 hours fixing a routing issue, let’s examine why the issue occurred in the first place. This kind of analysis often happens when it’s a consultant that has to fix the issue since a cost is associated with the fix, but it rarely happens in IT departments in-house. We have to start thinking of the cost of this rock star or white knight behavior as being something akin to money or capital in the environment.


Tom’s Take

Rock star culture and hero worship in IT isn’t going to stop tomorrow. It’s because we want to recognize the people that do the work. We want to hold those that go above and beyond up to those that we want to emulate them. But we should also be asking hard questions about why it was necessary for there to need to be a hero in the first place. And we have to be willing to share some of the adulation with those that keep the lights on between disasters that need heroes.

Positioning Policy Properly

Who owns the network policy for your organization? How about the security policy?Identity policy? Sound like easy questions, don’t they? The first two are pretty standard. The last generally comes down to one or two different teams depending upon how much Active Directory you have deployed. But have you ever really thought about why?

During Future:NET this week, those poll questions were asked to an audience of advanced networking community members. The answers pretty much fell in line with what I was expecting to see. But then I started to wonder about the reasons behind those decisions. And I realized that in a world full of cloud and DevOps/SecOps/OpsOps people, we need to get away from teams owning policy and have policy owned by a separate team.

Specters of the Past

Where does the networking policy live? Most people will jump right in with a list of networking gear. Port profiles live on switches. Routing tables live on routers. Networking policy is executed in hardware. Even if the policy is programmed somewhere else.

What about security policy? Firewalls are probably the first thing that come to mind. More advanced organizations have a ton of software that scans for security issues. Those policy decisions are dictated by teams that understand the way their tools work. You don’t want someone that doesn’t know how traffic flows through a firewall to be trying to manage that device, right?

Let’s consider the identity question. For a multitude of years the identity policy has been owned by the Active Directory (AD) admins. Because identity was always closely tied to the server directory system. Novell (now NetIQ) eDirectory and Microsoft AD were the kings of the hill when it came to identity. Today’s world has so much distributed identity that it’s been handed to the security teams to help manage. AD doesn’t control the VPN concentrator the cloud-enabled email services all the time. There are identity products specifically designed to aggregate all this information and manage it.

But let’s take a step back and ask that important question: why? Why is it that the ownership of a policy must be by a hardware team? Why must the implementors of policy be the owners? The answer is generally that they are the best arbiters of how to implement those policies. The network teams know how to translate applications in to ports. Security teams know how to create firewall rules to implement connection needs. But are they really the best people to do this?

Look at modern policy tools designed to “simplify” networking. I’ll use Cisco ACI as an example but VMware NSX certainly qualifies as well. At a very high level, these tools take into account the needs of applications to create connectivity between software and hardware. You create a policy that allows a database to talk to a front-end server, for example. That policy knows what connections need to happen to get through the firewall and also how to handle redundancy to other members of the cluster. The policy is then implemented automatically in the network by ACI or NSX and magically no one needs to touch anything. The hardware just works because policy automatically does the heavy lifting.

So let’s step back for moment and discuss this. Why does the networking team need to operate ACI or NSX? Sure, it’s because those devices still touch hardware at some point like switches or routers. But we’ve abstracted the need for anyone to actually connect to a single box or a series of boxes and type in lines of configuration that implement the policy. Why does it need to be owned by that team? You might say something about troubleshooting. That’s a common argument that whoever needs to fix it when it breaks is who needs to be the gatekeeper implementing it. But why? Is a network engineer really going to SSH into every switch and correct a bad application tag? Or is that same engineer just going to log into a web console and fix the tag once and propagate that info across the domain?

Ownership of policy isn’t about troubleshooting. It’s about territory. The tug-of-war to classify a device when it needs to be configured is all about collecting and consolidating power in an organization. If I’m the gatekeeper of implementing workloads then you need to pay tribute to me in order to make things happen.

If you don’t believe that, ask yourself this: If there was a Routing team and and Switching team in an organization, who would own the routed SVI interface on a layer 3 switch? The switching team has rights because it’s on their box. The routing team should own it because it’s a layer 3 construct. Both are going to claim it. And both are going to fight over it. And those are teams that do essentially the same job. When you start pulling in the security team or the storage team or the virtualization team you can see how this spirals out of control.

Vision of the Future

Let’s change the argument. Instead of assigning policy to the proper hardware team, let’s create a team of people focused on policy. Let’s make sure we have proper representation from every hardware stack: Networking, Security, Storage, and Virtualization. Everyone brings their expertise to the team for the purpose of making policy interactions better.

Now, when someone needs to roll out a new application, the policy team owns that decision tree. The Policy Team can have a meeting about which hardware is affected. Maybe we need to touch the firewall, two routers, a switch, and perhaps a SAN somewhere along the way. The team can coordinate the policy changes and propose an implementation plan. If there is a construct like ACI or NSX to automate that deployment then that’s the end of it. The policy is implemented and everything is good. Perhaps some older hardware exists that needs manual configuration of the policy. The Policy Team then contacts the hardware owner to implement the policy needs on those devices. But the Policy Team still owns that policy decision. The hardware team is just working to fulfill a request.

Extend the metaphor past hardware now. Who owns the AWS network when your workloads move to the cloud? Is it still the networking team? They’re the best team to own the network, right? Except there are no switches or routers. They’re all software as far as the instance is concerned. Does that mean your cloud team is now your networking team as well? Moving to the cloud muddies the waters immensely.

Let’s step back into the discussion about the Policy Team. Because they own the policy decisions, they also own that policy when it changes hardware or location. If those workloads for email or productivity suite move from on-prem to the cloud then the policy team moves right along with them. Maybe they add an public cloud person to the team to help them interface with AWS but they still own everything. That way, there is no argument about who owns what.

The other beautiful thing about this Policy Team concept is that it also allows the rest of the hardware to behave as a utility in your environment. Because the teams that operate networking or security or storage are just fulfilling requests from the policy team they don’t need to worry about anything other than making their hardware work. They don’t need to get bogged down in policy arguments and territorial disputes. They work on their stuff and everyone stays happy!


Tom’s Take

I know it’s a bit of stretch to think about pulling all of the policy decisions out of the hardware teams and into a separate team. But as we start automating and streamlining the processes we use to implement application policy the need for it to be owned by a particular hardware team is hard to justify. Cutting down on cross-faction warfare over who gets to be the one to manage the new application policy means enhanced productivity and reduced tension in the workplace. And that can only lead to happy users in the long run. And that’s a policy worth implementing.

Fast Friday – Mobility Field Day 4

This week’s post is running behind because I’m out in San Jose enjoying great discussions from Mobility Field Day 4. This event is bringing a lot of great discussion to the community to get everyone excited for current and future wireless technologies. Some quick thoughts here with more ideas to come soon.

  • Analytics is becoming a huge driver for deployments. The more data you can gather, the better everything can be. When you start to include IoT as a part of the field you can see why all those analytics matter. You need to invest in a lot of CPU horsepower to make it all work the way you want. Which is also driving lots of people to build in the cloud to have access to what they need on-demand from an infrastructure side of things.
  • Spectrum is a huge problem and source of potential for wireless. You have to have access to spectrum to make everything work. 2.4 GHz is pretty crowded and getting worse with IoT. 5 GHz is getting crowded as well, especially with LAA being used. And the opening of the 6 GHz spectrum could be held up in political concerns. Are there new investigations that need to happen to find bands that can be used without causing friction?
  • The driver for technology has to be something other than desire. We have to build solutions and put things out there to make them happen. Because if we don’t we’re going to stuck with what we have for a long time. No one wants to move and reinvest without clear value. But clear value often doesn’t develop until people have already moved. Something has to break the logjam of hesitance. That’s the reason why we still need bold startups with new technology jumping out to make things work.

Tom’s Take

I know I’ll have more thoughts when I get back from this event, but wireless has become the new edge and that’s a very interesting shift. The more innovation we can drive there means the more capable we can make our clients and empower users.

IT Burnout – The Task List

Sadly, this picture above is me. I used to think I had one of the best memories in the world. It turns out my memory is well-suited for bar trivia and routing protocol esoterics. My memory doesn’t appear so adept at remembering other little things that are of more important, such as remembering to buy a gift for a birthday or following up on an email that I sent last week.

Human brains are great at processing information. But some of the ones that are best at processing it are horrible at recalling it. I think of it not unlike a three-tiered storage array. The fast access tasks are in the fastest storage tier where they are needed. The longer term but less important info goes into the near-line tier where it can be recalled when needed. And in my case, the bandwidth to that tier is slow and unreliable.

Exciting Things!

One of my solutions to this problem is getting better with task management. As bad as my memory is, it’s also not well suited to writing things down to remember them. The irony is almost too delicious to ignore. I need to write things down so I don’t forget them, but I forget to write them down. I’ve been studying more and more processes like Getting Things Done or Zen To Done to help me change the way I store and process information.

I’ve really been trying to use Things as my go-to task manager. Everyone has their favorites and the best task manager is the one you use on a regular basis. I’m trying to get better about using it to collect my thoughts so I can focus on things like writing posts and answering emails without dedicating time and mental bandwidth to actually remembering to do those things.

It’s handy to have a task manager on every device I use. I can drop tasks where I need them and when I need them. The ability to transfer notes and other writings to my devices and have it all sync automatically is wonderful. But it’s also a curse in disguise.

Too Many Things!

The curse of trying to capture all the information you want to remember is that you have to then process the things you remember for yourself. And trying to do that has made me realized I have a lot of things I want to try and keep going all at once. And even just seeing all the daily things I want to try and keep track of is reminding me that I have lots of juggling that I do frequently.

This idea of seeing all the things I have to do on a regular basis could easily lead to IT burnout in your job. I’ve felt it before in my engineering role when I looked at all the jobs on the board that needed to be done and realized I didn’t have enough hours in the day to finish them all on the schedule that they needed to be done.

It does feel good to see all the tasks that I’ve checked off the list as I get things accomplished, but I also know that I feel a sense of dread when I set a future date for an email or a contact to follow up on. The idea of putting it “out of sight, out of mind” lets me feel better about what I currently see. However, knowing there are things just waiting out there that need to be done another time or that things are getting carried over from day-to-day is enough to give pause.

More and more, I’m finding that the key that I need to adhere to is to work the tasks as they come up and find ways to get things accomplished instead of putting them off. Task management is great because it allows you to prioritize. But it also means it’s easy to delay and reschedule too. You have to find a way to make the things you do important enough so that getting them accomplished lets you clear your plate.

If you keep rescheduling and reassigning tasks, you’re going to get buried. If you can’t keep your plate clear it’s going to fill up before you know it. You have to find the big rocks and deal with them so you’re free to deal with the little ones.


Tom’s Take

No system is perfect. Everything can be refined given time. But you also have to figure out how best to work within your own limitations. For me, that’s realizing that I can’t start forgetting to write things down. It’s also realizing that I need to focus on the important stuff on my list and keep checking things off so I don’t get overwhelmed. Time is the ally of burnout. Given enough time anyone can end up burned out from overwork or from too much to accomplish. They key is to keep working through your list and don’t let things pile up on you.

I Was A 10x Engineer. And I’m Sorry.

You probably saw the big discussion this past weekend on Twitter about 10x Engineers. It all started with a tweet about how to recognize a 10x Engineer, followed by tons of responses about how useless they were and how people that had encountered them were happy to be rid of them. All that discussion made me think back to my old days as a Senior Network Rock Star. As I reminisced I realized that I was, in fact, a 10x Engineer. And I was miserable.

Pour Some Work On Me

I wasn’t always the epitome of engineering hatred. I used to be a wide-eyed technician with a hunger to learn things. I worked on a variety of systems all over the place. In fact, I was rising through the ranks of my company as a Novell Engineer in an environment with plenty of coverage. I was just learning the ropes and getting ready to take my place in a group of interchangeable people.

Then I started getting into networking. I spent more time learning about routers and switches and even firewalls. That meant that my skill set was changing from servers to appliances. It also meant that I was spending more and more time working on devices that no one else could work on. I had special knowledge that made me much more valuable to the organization. Soon, I found myself spending less and less time working on the Novell command line and more time working on the Cisco CLI.

That was the first extra “x” on my resume. Because I had special skills it meant that I was being relied upon more to do work that no one else could do. Suddenly I wasn’t just a replaceable cog in the machine. Instead, I was a critical part of the infrastructure that needed to be on-site for certain jobs and deployments. I knew that I needed to have someone else to help me out or I was going to quickly find myself overwhelmed with work. But networking wasn’t the thing that ended up pushing me all the way to 10x territory.

A Voice In The Wilderness

In order to truly become an insufferable 10x Engineering talent, I had to pivot into voice deployments. That’s because my skill set went from “important but we’re training others” to “so complicated no one else can understand this”. Thanks to my knowledge of networking, I was asked to pick up the voice banner and run with it. And I ran really, really far.

I was the only person in the office working on Cisco voice deployments. I had my own method of doing things. My own flow for deployments. My notes were contained in a OneNote file that only I had access to. You can probably see all the issues already. But I couldn’t. To me, this was my jam! I had all the tools and talent to make this happen. I could type MAC addresses faster than filling them into a BAT spreadsheet. I could configure crazy hacks to get around limitations thanks to all the extra research I was doing. I was invincible!

I was also gumming up the works. Voice deployments had to be constantly rescheduled if I was out of town. Vacations were a distant memory at best. I wasn’t just the most important cog in the machine – I was the machine. Nothing went forward unless I was doing it. And that’s not scalable at all. Even when my boss realized that I couldn’t scale any more he also knew that getting someone up to speed on my deployment methods and knowledge was a very daunting task at best.

This is the classic setup for a 10x Engineer. All the talent in the world and all of the hubris. Large portions of the line-of-business relying on their knowledge and process. No documentation. No way to get things done other than to go through me. If you’ve ever read The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim you realize that I was Brent through and through. In fact, when I finally did get around to reading it I self-identified with him before I’d even made it 100 pages in.

Pride Goeth Before

Ultimately, it wasn’t failure that caused my 10x Engineering career to come to an end. Instead, it was success. I left my old job six years ago to come to Tech Field Day. I knew I wouldn’t be fixing routers or voicemail systems any longer. I’d be in for an entirely new and different kind of work.

But I couldn’t see how my old job would be able to work without me. I secretly confided to some friends that I thought their business would fall apart without me. How could it survive? I was responsible for so much! I was the only one that knew all of these things! Even a lengthy two-week info dump wouldn’t be enough.

The pride and hubris I displayed is still shocking to me all these years later. To think that a company that had been in business for almost 20 years before I got there would go out of business months after I left because they couldn’t do what I was doing. They did stay in business. They changed, for sure. They moved away from my specialized knowledge and found new ways to utilize their talent. They were able to keep my systems up and running with my notes and when the time came to replace them they used new systems that didn’t need my help to manage and install. They survived because they realized that what I represented was special and couldn’t be replicated.

Me? I’m happy they did. I didn’t want my 10x Engineering efforts to be an anchor around either of our necks. I couldn’t go back to fixing my old systems with my new workload. And my old company couldn’t count on me being available to fix things when I was gone. They made the right choices to put themselves into a position to keep going. And just like most positive 10x Engineer stories they found a happy ending.


Tom’s Take

I’m not proud of my engineering roots when it comes to how bad I was at times. It wasn’t always intentional. It was a product of where I was and the work I was doing. But I totally couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I realize now that I should have taken more people under my wing and helped them understand what I was doing. I should have documented my work and used repeatable methods to build processes that could be done by anyone. My institutional knowledge should have been a resource, not a crutch. And I should have had the humility to understand that companies can live and grow past a single engineer. Knowing all that today makes me realize that I may have looked like a 10x Engineer but everyone is much better off now that I’m just a simple ex-engineer.