Imposters Among Us

Have you been playing Among Us? If you haven’t, your kids definitely have. I found out about it a few weeks ago because my children suddenly became Batman-level detectives and knew how to ask the kinds of interview questions that would make the FBI proud. In short, the game is all about finding the imposters in your midst based on their behavior and voting them out of the group to win. Sometimes you get it right. Other times you get it wrong and vote out someone who was doing legitimate tasks. It’s all a matter of perception.

Now, let’s look at another situation where we see this kind of behavior in a different light. You probably guessed where this is going already. We’re going to talk about Imposter Syndrome in our non-gaming lives and how it affects us. We may even make reference to pop culture along the way.

Where You Need To Be

I was thinking about this because something I said a few years ago at Security Field Day 1 popped back up in my feed. I was giving a speech at the beginning of the first day to the delegates and I wanted them to know that I understood that they may feel like they didn’t deserve to be there. I wanted to reassure them that they were where they needed to be. So I said something along the lines of the following:

You are here in this position because you earned it and deserve to be here. It would be an insult to those above and around you to think otherwise. If you have doubt in yourself, trust in those around you that they know who is best for your role.

Thanks to Kori Younger for recalling that specific part of the speech. Imposter Syndrome is hard to overcome because we really do feel like everyone else around us knows what they’re doing and we’re the odd ones out. We feel like we don’t know how to proceed or what to do. And that feeling can be crippling at times.

The idea that we don’t know what we’re doing is really called “learning”. It’s something that we do all the time. We apply lessons and intuition to find new solutions to problems, even ones we don’t feel qualified to do. We feel more comfortable doing this in areas where we have more knowledge or feel more confident, but rest assured we apply it all over the place, especially when confronted with situations we don’t completely understand or feel comfortable working on.

Earlier this year I took a Wilderness First Aid course for an upcoming Scout high adventure trip. Now, I must admit that I’m a terrible doctor or medical professional. I don’t like the sight of blood and I tend to focus on things without having a big picture. WFA is all about what happens when you find yourself in the back country far away from a hospital and what to do to handle situations. After a while, the solutions all kind of started sounding the same. You need to assess, stabilize, and almost always evacuate when critical. Now, that whole process sounds fairly simple when boiled down. But considering the crazy amount of things they want us to know about, like Acute Altitude Sickness, Hypoglycemia, and even things like concussions that cause cerebrospinal fluid leakage, you can see how easy it is to quickly be overwhelmed. However, the training up to that point helps you understand what to do: assess, stabilize, and evacuate if needed.

Applying A Process

Training and baselines help us overcome imposter syndrome in real life. We do similar things in IT or in other lines of work. When we encounter something we don’t understand or we feel overwhelmed by, we repeat the same process.

  • Assess – What is going on? Does this look like something I’ve seen before? The more it looks like a previous experience the more knowledge I can apply. Trust what you know. Being wrong because you applied an incorrect lesson is better than being wrong because you did nothing. Your experience will always serve you well. Trust those instincts.
  • Stabilize – This is where we spend a lot of our time. How can I fix this problem? Or stop it from getting worse? How can I get back to point where things work well enough to be able to reassess or make a different decision? Stabilization is the work that goes on in a process. A problem that is 100% stable is fixed. A problem that is 25% stable is better than it was with room for improvement. We need to apply lessons and things from our experience here too. Seen OSPF fall over before? Let’s try some things to get the routing table stabilized. Seen someone slice open their finger with a pocket knife before? We know how to fix this so it won’t reopen.
  • Evacuate – This one is a little more tricky. Sometimes we can’t fix something. Or we don’t know what’s wrong. So what do we do? Sit there wringing our hands? Scream at the sky? No, we get help. In WFA, evacuation is all about getting better help, whether it’s a first responder at base camp or a doctor in a hospital. In a professional setting, evacuation is more about finding the right help to get past an issue. Asking a mentor or senior person about the issue. Calling the support line. Asking someone on Twitter if they’ve ever seen this before. These are all great examples of evacuation from a situation. There’s no harm in asking for help. But there is harm in not asking for help when you need it.

Remember that everyone else around you is doing the same things you’re doing above when you find yourself in a situation you don’t completely understand. Some look more expert because they have better knowledge to relate to the problem. It doesn’t mean they’re smarter than you or better than you. It means they’re more adept at this problem for this time. Some people are more suited for things than others.

To quote Einstein, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it’s stupid.” If we only judge people harshly by their ability to adapt to unknown situations with a minimum of information and then spend hours in post-mortem meetings laying out why they didn’t do everything right, we’re going to make them feel like imposters. Instead, let’s cut them some slack and remind ourselves that we probably couldn’t do as well as they did in the same situation. And if we could have done better than they did, this is a time to step up to the plate and mentor them to make them better. Apply your knowledge to theirs and they will succeed next time. Hoard your knowledge and you will forever believe that they are the imposter.


Tom’s Take

Among Us is all about finding imposters in our midst based on their behavior and what tasks they’re doing. Real life is all about proving we aren’t imposters by doing things and showing our worth. As much fun as the game might be trying to figure out who the imposter is, our reality should be spent more on encouraging people to feel better and mentor them through the process of believing in themselves and applying their knowledge to a problem to have a successful outcome. We should be focusing on making everyone better and more confident. There’s nothing suspect about that.

A Place for Things and Things in Their Place

This morning I was going to go for a run and I needed to find a rain jacket to keep from getting completely soaked. I knew I had one in my hiking backpack but couldn’t locate it. I searched for at least ten minutes in every spot I could think of and couldn’t find it. That is, until I looked under the brain of the pack and found it right next to the pack’s rain cover. Then I remembered that my past self had put the jacket there for safe keeping because I knew that if I ever needed to use the pack rain cover I would likely need to have my rain jacket as well. Present me wasn’t as happy to find out past me was so accommodating.

I realized after this little situation that I’ve grown accustomed to keeping my bags organized in a certain way both for ease of use and ease of inspection. Whether it’s a hiking backpack or an IT sling bag full of gadgets I’ve always tried to set things up in simple, sane manner to figure out how to find the tools I need quickly and also discover if any of them are missing.

Pocket Protection

I’ve always favored bags with lots of pocket space to keep my tools organized. Places to put things like battery packs, USB-C hubs, console cables, and even laptop power adaptors are important. And when everything has its own spot its easier to find in a pinch. You don’t often have the chance to see what you’re looking for in a dark server room or in a tight airplane seating row. Therefore, having a specified pocket for things makes it quick to search by feel.

It’s also important to locate items near their intended uses. For me, oft-used items like headphones or Lightning cables go nearest the outside for rapid access. My passport goes in a slash pocket for ease of retrieval on international trips. When I have other items that aren’t as necessary or frequently used, such as a first aid kit or an old VGA adapter for a MacBook, I put them in pockets that aren’t as likely to be used often.

Sometimes you have to make your own pockets. I’ve used a variety of organizers and other pouches over the years to help create order from the chaos of a big open space in a bag. Some, like the Grid-It are nice because they are quick and easy to reconfigure. However, the more complicated the organization structure the more likely you are to just chuck the parts back into the void and hope they come out on the other side. I’ve started to use clear bank bags as my primary method of cable organization in my messenger bag and they seem to work much better. They keep the adapters and other odds and ends from flying around everywhere.

Where’s Waldo?

The other reason I like the idea of a specific place for everything in my bag is being able to figure out quickly that something is missing. If I always keep a screwdriver in a specific pocket and it’s not there I can assume I’ve either lent it to someone or left it somewhere I shouldn’t have. It also allows me to do a quick inventory of my bag to figure out if things are out of place between trips or truck rolls.

One example of this is Cisco rollover console cables. When I worked for a VAR I had to carry one of these things to get console access to routers more often then I would like to admit. However, I didn’t just carry one. I always carried two. I liked the idea of having a backup just in case because that’s the kind of person that I am. But I also used it as a learning experience for the techs that I trained. I would carry a spare and then ask them to borrow their console cable. Usually, the response would be a blank look or fumbling in the pockets of their backpack for a cable they knew they didn’t have. I would then explain the importance of having all the tools you needed every time you made the trip. Then I would give them my spare cable to carry around with them. I often remarked, “Now that I’ve given this to you the next time I need one or you need one we both know you’ll have it.”

It was also easy for me to check my bag and make sure I needed to replace items that had gone missing. Maybe I remembered that my other tech had my screwdriver and I needed to go retrieve it. Or perhaps I needed to put another console cable back in my bag after loaning out my first one. I even would check my secret snack compartment from time to time to make sure I replaced my granola bars and almonds that I would invade during late night cutovers without pizza or other food. After all, a functioning brain in IT is just as important as a functioning router.


Tom’s Take

My organization methods may not work best for everyone. But you need to have a method to your madness. If you don’t you won’t know if you have the right tools for the job. If you don’t know which tools you need you wont know if they’re missing. If you don’t know where they are you won’t have them when you need them. It’s all a matter of experience and methodology. Once you build your method, stick to it. Keep up with things and make sure you spend some time every once in a while going through everything just to make sure you have it when you need it. Then you can thank your past self for thinking ahead instead of cursing yourself for leaving your pack a mess.

Fast Friday- Labor Day Eve Edition

It’s a long weekend in the US thanks to Labor Day. Which is basically signaling the end of the summer months. Or maybe the end of March depending on how you look at it. The rest of the year is packed full of more virtual Zoom calls, conferences, Tech Field Day events, and all the fun you can have looking at virtual leaves turning colors.

It’s been an interesting news week for some things. And if you take out all the speculation about who is going to end up watching TikTok you are left with not much else. So I’ve been wondering out loud about a few things that I thought I would share.

  • You need a backup video conferencing platform. If Zoom isn’t crashing on you then someone is deleting WebEx VMs. Or maybe your callers can’t get the hang of the interface. Treat it like a failing demo during a presentation: if it doesn’t work in five minutes, go to plan B. Don’t leave your people waiting for something that may not happen.
  • If you work in the backbone service provider market, you need to do two things next week. First, you need to make sure all your hardware is patched. Some nasty stuff floating around that has the potential to cause memory exhaustion. That’s downtime in a nutshell. The next is that you need to go read up on BGP again and make sure you know how it propagates and what to do when it does something you’re not expecting. You can better believe the people at CenturyLink have bought lots of BGP reference books in the past few days for absolutely no reason at all.
  • Remember how most ISPs told us back at the start of this whole pandemic that they were graciously removing data caps and such to get us through our Netflix binges? Guess what? Those caps are starting to be put back in place now. Guess the start of school means the start of keeping us in check with our data usage. And the fall seasons of popular shows are coming out in a regular cadence now. Check to make sure you’re not going over your limits. And find out what it costs to do that. Don’t be afraid to block Youtube and Twitch if your kids are eating your bandwidth pool alive.
  • Lastly, stand up. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Relax your shoulders. Unclench your teeth. I’m sure you needed that. Now buckle down and get that thing done.

Tom’s Take

Make sure to stay tuned to the rest of March Part 6, otherwise known as September. More cool stuff headed your way before the equinox plunges us into eternal not-spring.

Appreciation Society

Given how crazy everything is right now, it’s important to try and stay sane. And that’s harder than it sounds to be honest. Our mental health is being degraded by the day. Work stress, personal stress, and family stress are all contributing to a huge amount of problems for all of us. I can freely admit that I’m there myself. My mental state has been challenged as of late with a lot of things and I’m hoping that I’m going to pull myself out of this funk soon with the help of my wife @MrsNetwrkngnerd and some other things to make me happier.

One of the things that I wanted to share with you all today was one of the things I’ve been trying to be mindful about over the course of the last few months. It’s about appreciation. We show appreciation all the time for people. It’s nothing new, really. But I want you to think about the last time you said “thank you” to someone. Was it a simple exchange for a service? Was it just a reflex to some action? Kind of like saying “you’re welcome” afterwards? I’d be willing to bet that most of the people reading this blog post say those words more out of habit than anything else.

I decided I was going to change that. Instead of just mouthing an empty “thank you” for something, I decided to turn it into a statement of appreciation. As a father, I often tell my kids that they need to include statements in their apologies. Not just “I’m sorry” but “I’m sorry for hitting my brother”. Intent matters. In this case, the intent and appreciation is the opposite feeling.

So, instead of “thank you” I’ll say “Thank you for bringing me that cup.” Or maybe “Thank you for helping change that tire.” Calling out the explicit action that caused your thanks shows people that you’re being mindful of what they do. It means you’re paying attention and showing real gratitude instead of just being reflexive.

This can apply to technology as well. Instead of just a quick “Thanks” when someone completes a job, try making it specific. “Thanks for getting that routing loop figured out.” Or how about “Thanks for putting in the extra effort to get those phones deployed by the end of the day.” Do you see how each of these more specific statements are mindful of actions?

When you show people you appreciate them as much as what they do for you, you change the conversation. Appreciation is one of the most power gifts we can give other people. Validation and praise aren’t just meaningless platitudes. Show people you care may be the best connection they’ve had all day. Or all week. And all it takes is a little extra effort on your part. Take my word for it and try it yourself. For the next week, go the extra mile and explain why you’re thankful for people. You’d be surprised how far you’ll get.

Video Meetings and Learning Styles

Have you noticed that every meeting needs to be on video now? Of course, that’s a rhetorical question. It’s one of the first and most constant things that is brought up in the pandemic-influenced tech community of today. Meetings that used to be telephone-only or even wordy emails are now video chats that take half an hour or more. People complain that they are spending time and money to spruce up their office to look presentable at 720p to people that likely aren’t paying attention anyway. It’s a common complaint. But have you ever thought about why?

Listening and Looking to Learn

There are three major styles of learning that get brought up in academic courses.

  • Physical, or kinesthetic, learners learn best from touching things. They want to manipulate and feel things as they learn. They like to gesture when they talk. They also get bored quickly when things are taking too long or they have to sit still too much.
  • Visual learners learn best from seeing things. They like to look around and tend to think in pictures. They would rather see something instead of hearing someone speak.
  • Auditory learners like to hear things being spoken. They want to talk through everything and hear the words being spoken out loud. These are the kinds of people that tend to do things like repeat lists back to themselves over and over again to memorize them.

Now, if you found yourself agreeing with some of each of those things you aren’t crazy. There are some aspects of each of these that we all learn with. As much as I like getting the big picture, I often enjoy dialogue and telling stories as well as touching something to learn more about it. But at the end of the day I would consider myself a visual learner. I learn best when I can see things. I tend to get distracted when I have to listen to things a lot. You can probably figure out which learning style suits you best quickly.

Adjusting to Virtual Learning

That was the pre-pandemic world. With the advent of sheltering in place, we’re going to have to look at the way we do things now. Physical learning is out. We can’t just meet with people and invade their bubble to talk and touch and interact. So a third of learning styles are going to be severely impacted. What does that leave us with?

Well, auditory learners are going to be okay with phone calls. They learn best when they can recite information. But remember how it’s not so much about them learning best from hearing as it is from them engaging in dialogue? That’s where the auditory learning style seems to break down for people. It’s not that auditory learners get the best absorption of material from hearing it. They need to talk. They need to hear their voice and interact with the voices of others to process things. It’s not enough to just hear it spoken. Even if all they do is rephrase something you’ve told them they still have to speak.

Makes sense, right? But why video? Shouldn’t video meetings be the space of visual learners? In short, no. Because video isn’t about visual learning as a medium. Visual learning is about reading text and emails and seeing diagrams and drawing your own pictures to absorb ideas. Visual learning is about drawing out your network routing plan, not describing it to your peers. Visual learners gain little from video.

On the other hand, auditory learners gain a ton from video chats. Why? Because they can see their dialog partner and gain interaction. Video calls like Webex and Zoom aren’t for people that want to see the other side. They are for people to see and interact with their conversation. They want to be seen as much as anything else. Visual learners would get more out of the meeting notes along with some creative skills like Sketchnotes.

Learning Up The Ladder

Make sense so far? Good. Now, as yourself another critical question: who has more video meetings? Is it your team and peers? Or is it managers and executives? Here’s another thing to ponder: Who makes a better manager or executive? Someone who prefers to read or someone that prefers to talk?

I think you’ll find as you explore this idea that most people who are considered “management material” are known as people-oriented. They like to talk. They like to meet and discuss. They feel at their best when there is dialog and discussion. And who do you think feels the most left out in a world where everyone is isolated at home and can’t interact? Also, who has the power and desire to change the way meetings are held?

Managers and executives want to hear from their teams. They want to interact with them. Maybe they’re even fully auditory learners that want to dialog with people and hear them talk about status updates. That all makes sense. But because they’re not getting the interactivity part of the equation from being isolated they need to have the visual component of video chat to figure out what’s going on. I’d wager that the increase in video meetings isn’t among your team or for happy hour. Instead, I’m pretty sure it’s your manager and the executives above them that are in need of that face-to-video screen time with you.


Tom’s Take

I’m on the fence about video meetings. I don’t mind them. I don’t even really mind having a few of them. But I’m really curious as to why existing meetings that weren’t video had to be on video all of the sudden. I get that people are more in tune with interaction and auditory learning styles. I’m still more visual than anything else and the call summaries after meetings are more impactful for me than the video aspect of things. I don’t see the trend changing any time soon though. Which means I’m just going to have to spend more time in my unicorn mask!

Fast Friday Random Thoughts

It’s Friday and we’re technically halfway into the year now. Which means things should be going smoother soon, right? Here’s hoping, at least.

  • I posted a new episode of Tomversations yesterday. This one is about end-to-end encryption. Here’s hoping the Department of Justice doesn’t find a way to screw this up. And here’s hoping the Senate stops helping.
  • I saw a post that posits VMware may be looking to buy BitGlass. I know VMware’s NSX team pretty well. I also talked to the BitGlass team at RSA this year. I think this is something that VMware needs to pick up to be honest. They need to round out their SASE portfolio with a CASB. BitGlass is the best one out there to make that happen. I think we’re going to see a move here before we know it.
  • There are a lot of other acquisitions going on in the market. VMware bought Datrium. Uber bought Postmates. It’s typical to see these kinds of acquisitions during downturns because it becomes way cheaper to snap up your competition. I expect Q3 is going to be full of consolidation in the networking space. Cisco won’t start doing anything until August at the earliest, but once their numbers are finalized I’m sure we’re going to see them snap up a hot startup or two.

Tom’s Take

Here’s hoping the next six months are a little less crazy. I doubt that will be the case, but we’ll see!

Attention Resource Deficit

How much did your last laptop cost? You probably know down to the penny. How much time did it take for you to put together your last Powerpoint deck or fix an issue for a customer? You can probably track that time in the hours you recorded on your timesheet. What about the last big meeting you had of the department? Can you figure out how many hours combined of time that it took to get the business discussed? Pretty easy to calculate when you know how many people and how long it took.

All of these examples are ways that we track resources in the workplace. We want to know how many dollars were invested in a particular tool. We want to figure out how many hours someone has worked on a project or a proposal. We want to know how much of the company’s resources are being invested so we can track it and understand productivity and such. But when’s the last time you tracked your personal resources? I’m not talking about work you do or money you spend. I’m talking about something more personal than that. Because one of the things that I’ve seen recently that is starting to cause issues is the lack of attention we pay to our attention resource.

Running in Overdrive

Our brains run a lot of processes in our body. And a lot of those processes work without attention. Bodily functions like breathing, digestion, and our endocrine system work without us paying attention. That’s because these systems need to work for us every time without stopping. That’s the power of automation.

But the rest of our processes need our attention. Our cognitive processes and higher-order functioning need us to pay attention. Yes, even those tasks that you say you can do without thinking. They require you to pay some sort of conscious attention to what’s going on. And that comes out of your attention budget.

Ever wonder why people are good at multitasking? It’s because they are capable to splitting their attention budget up and paying attention to a couple of different things at the same time. Just like a multitasking computer, human multitasking is just devoting a portion of your attention to a different task for a little bit while you work on something else. But have you ever seen what happens when a CPU gets overloaded with tasks? Sluggish, slow, and unusable.

The same thing happens to people when their attention is drawn in too many different directions. When we exhaust our attention budget we let tasks drop and we stop being able to do things effectively. We have a pool of resources we can use and when those run out we have to take resources from other places. That’s when tasks start getting dropped and such.

People don’t tend to see attention as a finite resource. They see it as a bottomless well that always has a little more available when it’s necessary. We create tools and ideas and systems to help us manage it better. But all those tools are really designed to add a bit more of our fracture attention back to the resource pool. In reality, we’re still shuffling resources back and forth and not really adding to the overall pool. It’s not unlike dealing with a CPU with a finite amount of resources. You can’t get more than this no matter what tricks you use. So you need to learn how to deal with things as they are.

Retreating From the Redline

Internal combustion engines work best when they’re running in their power band, which is the area where they are most effective. The effectiveness of the engine drops off as it approaches the redline, which is the maximum amount of performance you can get without causing damage to the engine. It’s the hard limit, if you will. To apply this to our current discussion, you need to run your brain’s attention span in the power band of focusing on the right tasks as you need to and avoid pushing past the redline of inattention and letting things drop. But how can you do that knowing you have to work from a finite pool of resources? Your brain isn’t a CPU or an RPM gauge on a car. There isn’t a magic meter that will tell you when you’ve exceeded your resource pool.

Step One is the reduce the number of distractions you have. That is way harder than it sounds. There are some easy things you can do that have been documented over the years:

  • Set your email to only update in time segments. Every 15 minutes or even every hour for non-critical stuff. The less time you spend attaching yourself to a constantly-updating mailbox the more productive you can be.
  • Sign out of unnecessary Slack channels. The more you have open, the more attention you’re going to pay to them. And the less attention you have for other things too.
  • Limit social media engagement. Ever find yourself sucked into Facebook or TikTok? That’s by design. The operators want you to stick there and not do anything else. If you have to monitor social media for your job, create rules and lists to keep you focused on task. And save the causal stuff for another day.
  • Use the Pomodoro Technique. I’ve written about it before, but this is a great way to force your brain into focusing for short bursts. Once you can train yourself to block out distractions you can get a lot accomplished.

The second way that I find that I can help refuel my attention pool is to use checklists or some other method of dumping my brain contents in a way that lets me focus. I can put down things that need to be done and check them off as they are completed. But I don’t just put major projects like “Boil the Ocean” or “Put a spaceship on Mars”. Instead, I break everything down into simple, achievable tasks. Why? Because crossing those off the list gives you back some of the attention you dedicated to them. It’s like the programming equivalent of garbage collection. By returning your attention resources back to the pool you have more available to tackle bigger and badder things on your list. And when you ever feel like you aren’t getting enough done you can go back and see all the things you’ve crossed off!


Tom’s Take

I have a double whammy of being unfocused on my best days and being too forgetful to write things down. So I understand the issues of attention resource problems. As much as anyone I really wish I could just wave a magic wand and be able to pay closer attention to what I’m doing. The tricks above are ways that I cope with what I have to deal with. In fact, the number of times I got distracted even just writing this post would probably shock most people reading this. But we work with what we have and we do what we can. The key is to recognize that your attention is a resource that is just as valuable as money or work time. Treat is as such and plan for use and you may find yourself feeling better and being happier and more productive in a number of ways.

Anthology Product Marketing

I’m a storyteller. I realize this based on the fact that I tell them a lot. I’ve been told by a lot of people that I tell stories all the time. I’m okay with this. And a lot of the time I’m totally good at it. But one of the side effects of being someone that enjoys telling stories is that you recognize them in others and you start critiquing.

One of the more recent trends I’ve seen in product marketing revolves around stories. We’ve seen people telling all kinds of narratives about how disparate pieces of the puzzle fit together. It’s important because it frames the discussion for everyone. But I’ve also noticed some companies focus less on the framing story and more on the pieces. And it made me realize that’s a different kind of story.

Pieces and Parts

Merriam-Webster defines an anthology as a collection of selected literary pieces or passages or works of art or music. When I think of an anthology movie or video series, I think of a collection of disconnected stories around a framing device. Sometimes that device is as tenuous as a shared narrator, such as the Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. That these series have been made into movies shows how well the format can be adapted to longer media.

Whereas a typical drama has a beginning, middle, and end that follows the same characters throughout the whole runtime, anthologies tend to have segments that focus on a specific piece that’s not necessarily connected to the rest. It doesn’t have to be connected because it’s a self-contained piece. The only connection to the rest of the story is the framing device.

If you’re brain is already working on how to extend this to technology, you’ve probably already equated the framing device to the usual “positioning statement” that’s given at the beginning of a presentation. Here’s the strategy or the vision for how we want to change the world. The individual pieces that the company makes are the parts of the anthology. They are the singular stories that tell the bigger narrative. Or at least they’re supposed to.

In the case of the Twilight Zone, there is no connection aside from Rod Serling telling us about the story. It’s like he’s reading them out of different books. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Pulp Fiction. This is probably the most beloved Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s a tightly-integrated anthology. All three stories are interwoven with each other. Even though they are three separate narratives they share the same characters and setting. Characters from the first story appear in the second and third. It feels like a real connected narrative.

The difference between Pulp Fiction and the Twilight Zone is pretty apparent. So too does the difference between companies that have tightly integrated the story for their individual pieces versus a company that has just put someone in front of the parts to tell you how it should all work together.

Discussion in the Details

When you’re deciding how to tell your product marketing story, ask yourself every once in a while “How does this tie into the big picture?” If it takes you more than ten seconds to answer that question yourself you’re on the road to an anthology series and not a cohesive story. Always refer back to the original statement. Frame your discussion along the lines of the basic premise of your story.

Think of it like writing paragraphs in middle school. Have a main idea and a couple of supporting details that refer back to the main idea. Always make sure you’re referring back to the main idea. If you don’t you need to evaluate what you’re trying to say. If you want a cohesive discussion you have to see the thread that ties everything together.

That’s not to say that every product marketing story needs to be tightly integrated and cohesive across everything. In fact, trying to tie some random piece of technology into the bigger story with a random framing device can feel stilted and out of place. It has to make sense in the narrative. Claiming you have a cohesive strategy for cloud storage is great when you add in telemetry and SD-WAN support. But if you try to pivot to talking about 5G and how it supports your cloud storage you’re not going to be able to tie that into anything without it feeling out of place.

Go back to the basics. Ask yourself what the story is. Don’t try to focus on the pieces. Focus instead on what you want to tell. Some of the best anthologies work because they have different storytellers contributing to the overall piece. If you have a story from a single storytelling you get some exciting integration. But if you have different ideas and visions working together you can come up with some really interesting discussions. Don’t sell your people’s ideas short. Just give them the direction they need to make it work.


Tom’s Take

Before anyone starts filling in the blanks about who the company in question might be, the answer is “all of them”. At some point or another, almost every company I’ve ever seen has failed at telling a good story about their technology. I don’t fault them for it. Marketing is hard. Making deep tech work for normal people is hard to do. I’m not trying to single any one company out. Instead, what I’m saying is that everyone needs to do a better job of telling the story. Focus on what you want to say. Figure out how to make your vision sound more like Infinity War and less like Twilight Zone. The more integrated your message, the less likely people are to focus on the parts they like the best to the detriment of the rest of the story.

The Devil Is In The Licensing

If you don’t already know that I’m a co-host of a great podcast we do at Gestalt IT, here’s a great way to jump in. This episode was a fun one to record and talk about licensing:

Sometimes I have to play the role of the genial host and I don’t get to express my true opinion on things. After all, a good podcast host is really just there to keep the peace and ensure the guests get to say their words, right?

Double Feature

I once said that every random feature in a certain network operating system somehow came from a million-dollar PO that needed to be closed. It reflects my personal opinion that sometimes the things we see in code don’t always reflect reality. But how do you decide what to build if you’re not listening to customers?

It’s a tough gamble to take. You can guess at what people are going to want to include and hope that you get it right. Other times you’re going to goof and put something your code that no one uses. It’s a delicate balance. One of the biggest traps that a company can fall into is waiting for their customers to tell them what they want to see in the next release. Steve Jobs is famous for having said the following:

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Granted, it’s a bit different when you’re building a cutting edge consumer device. And if you look at the track record of Apple it’s not spotless. But when you’re trying to figure out what features need to be built into an operating system you should probably know what your customers want.

But no choice about including code or features comes without a cost. Even if you have engineers on staff writing code day and night you’re going to incur a work cost. Development is measure in hours and hours equate to dollars1. If you have a team of hundreds working on a single feature you’re going to rack up some pretty significant costs. And including that feature in the base operating system only makes sense if you’re trying to capture market share or address a huge issue your customers have.

But how can you track adoption? Number of downloads of the OS or the program? Not a great measure if it’s something everyone needs to install. If you were trying to track the number of Apple Mail users based on the number of people running iOS on a device you’d be pretty far off the mark. Just because it’s installed doesn’t mean it’s used. So how can we track that feature and recoup some of the development costs at the same time? That’s right! Licensing!

The Double-Edged Sword

Licensing, in and of itself, it’s evil. You have to agree to a license every time you use software. Even if you’re using something with a license that says you can do whatever you want with it. The inherent evil part of the license is when it’s applied in an unfair way.

A friend once told me that a networking vendor had a great idea on how to recoup the costs of developing their software-defined strategy. Instead of charging more to turn the feature on for the whole switch they wanted to charge per flow that used the feature. The rest of the room was speechless. How in the world can you charge for a feature in a switch by the flow? Even with bundling of the licenses you’d incur a significant amount of costs just to operate whatever that was. Amazingly enough the person that suggested it had come from a consumer productivity software background, which per-use licensing was the norm.

The idea is sound. Charge people for what they use. But the application failed. Could you imagine someone charging you per phone call? It’s happened before. Remember when calling cards were a thing? You could pay a few cents a minute to talk. Today? The idea of mobile phones and unlimited voice plans makes the idea of per-use phones antiquated at best.

Another great example of licensing backfiring is when Cisco decided they wanted to start charging a license fee for each different phone type they sold. After all, it should cost more to connect a video phone than it should to connect a regular desk phone, right? After spending years fighting against Device License Units (DLUs) and watching them get tossed to side in favor of modified user licensing because of the rise of software over voice, I realized that this is a game that really never ends. I was the proud owner of an old unlimited data plan from back in the day when the iPhone first came out and my provider wanted to charge you more for the voice minutes instead of the data. Today the data usage is much more valuable to them. Trends change. Devices change. And that means you have to keep your licensing fair and even.

Would you license a firewall per hundred flows? Per VPN connection? Maybe per concurrent MAC address? These are all things that have been done before. I have installed firewalls that could be “upgraded” to more capable units by removing an artificial limit on the number of concurrent users. It was wrong to me but the company made money. It was an easy “fix” to get a few hundred dollars more plus some recurring support revenue. But did it accurately reflect the way that the users operated the device? Not really. It was more about getting extra funding for some other feature or for keeping your business unit in business.

The dark side of licensing comes from greed. Ensuring proper feature adoption or tracking development costs is fine and dandy. But when you charge more just because you can it becomes wrong. Worse yet, when you charge a fortune to keep all but a select few from using your feature set it’s even worse. You can’t expect to feel good about yourself charging a million dollars to license a feature that you really expect only a couple of customers to use. But that’s happened before too. And we’re not even going to get into the argument from the podcast about licensing being tied to the myth of “shareholder value”. I’d need another 2,500 words for that one.


Tom’s Take

Licensing is a necessary evil. We have to have rules and guidelines to use things properly. We also have to have a way to tie development to use. Most modern software is going to charge you for some feature, whether it’s a model of paying once for every major update or a freemium model that lets you pay a regular fee for regular updates. I can’t predict that market any more than I can predict the end of unlimited data plans and DLUs. But I can say that if licensing stops being about keeping software use sane and keeps running down the path of keeping shareholders deliriously rich, you’re going to find out that licensing was the real villain all along.


  1. Or the currency of your region ↩︎

Failure Is Fine, Learning Is Mandatory

“Failure is a harsh teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson afterward.” — Vernon Law

I’m seeing a thread going around on Twitter today that is encouraging people to share their stories of failure in their career. Maybe it was a time they created a security hole in a huge application. Perhaps it was creating a routing loop in a global corporation. Or maybe it was something as simple as getting confused about two mailboxes and deleting the wrong one and realizing your mail platform doesn’t have undelete functionality.

We fail all the time. We try our hardest and whatever happens isn’t what we want. Some of those that fail just give up and assume that juggling isn’t for them or that they can never do a handstand. Others keep persevering through the pain and challenge and eventually succeed because they learn what they need to know in order to complete their tasks. Failure is common.

What is different is how we process the learning. Some people repeat the same mistakes over and over again because they never learn from them. In a professional setting, toggling the wrong switch when you create someone’s new account has a very low learning potential because it doesn’t affect you down the road. If you accidentally check a box that requires them to change their password every week you’re not going to care because it’s not on your account. However, if the person you do that to has some kind of power to make you switch it back or if the option puts your job in jeopardy you’re going to learn very quickly to change your behavior.

Object Failure

Here’s a quick one that illustrates how the motivation to learn from failure sometimes needs to be more than just “oops, I screwed up”. I’ll make it a bullet point list to save time:

  • Installed new phone system for school district
  • Used MGCP as the control protocol
  • Need to solve a PRI caller ID issue at the middle school
  • Gateway is at the high school
  • Need to see all the call in the system
  • Type debug mgcp packet detail in a telnet session
  • A. Telnet. Session.
  • Router locks up tight and crashes
  • Hear receptionist from the other room say, “Did you just hang up on me?”
  • Panic
  • Panic some more
  • Jump in my car and break a couple of laws getting across town to restart router that I’m locked out of
  • Panic a lot in the five minutes it takes to reboot and reassociate with CallManager
  • Swear I will never do that again

Yes, I did the noob CCIE thing of debugging packets on a processing device in production because I underestimated the power of phone calls as well as my own stupidity. I got better!

But I promise that if I’d have done this and it would have shut down one phone call or caused an issue for one small remote site I wouldn’t have leaned a lesson. I might even still be doing that today to look at issues. The key here is that I shut down call processing for the entire school district for 20 minutes at the end of the school day. You have no idea how many elementary school parents call the front office at the end of the day. I know now.

Lessons have more impact with stress. It’s something we see in a lot of situations where we train people about how to behavior in high pressure situations. I once witnessed a car accident right in front of me on a busy highway and it took my brain almost ten seconds to process that I needed to call emergency services (911 in the US) even though I had spent the last four years programming that dial peer into phone systems and dialing it for Calling Line ID verification. I’d practiced calling 911 for years and when I had to do it for real I almost forgot what to do. We have to know how people are going to react under stress. Or at least anticipate how people are going to behave. Which is why I always configured 9.911 as a dial peer.

Lessons Learned

The other important thing about failure is that you have to take stock of what you learn in the post-mortem. Even if it’s just an exercise you do for yourself. As soon as you realize you made a mistake you need to figure out how to learn from it and prevent that problem again. And don’t just say to yourself, “I’m never doing that again!” You need to think about what caused the issue and how you can ingrain the learning process into your brain.

Maybe it’s something simple like creating a command alias to prevent you from making the wrong typo again and deleting a file system. Maybe it’s forcing yourself to read popup dialog boxes as you click through the system to make sure you’re deleting the right file or formatting the right disk. Someone I used to work with would write down the name of the thing he was deleting and hold it up to the screen before he committed the command to be sure they matched. I never asked what brought that about but I’m sure it was a ton of stress.


Tom’s Take

I screw up. More often than even I realize. I try to learn as much as I can when I’m sifting through the ashes. Maybe it’s figuring out how I went wrong. Perhaps it’s learning why the thing I wanted to do didn’t work the way I wanted it to. It could even be as simple as writing down the steps I took to know where I went wrong and sharing that info with a bunch of strangers on the Internet to keep me from making the same mistake again. As long as you learn something you haven’t failed completely. And if you manage to avoid making the exact same mistake again then you haven’t failed at all.