The Chinese Typewriter: Past as Prologue

I stumbled across a fantastic book over the holiday break: The Chinese Typewriter – A HistoryIt’s a story of the process of innovation — about imagination bottlenecks and their societal consequences, how use case goals shape (sometimes misdirect) design outcomes, the interplay of national and international politics with information technology, the mathematics and philosophy of organizing language and knowledge, and an array of related topics — via an extended case study of the Chinese typewriter.  It’s also a sort of alternative history of IT–an examination of what might happen when you can’t easily build on prior art. Reading the sample right before bed turned out to be a bad idea; I was awake thinking until 3 am.

Chinese Typewriter

The book begins with the history of the mass-produced typewriter, generally speaking. The “problem” of Chinese typewriting stemmed from the fact that the US-led international typewriter industry, after an initial proliferation of typewriter designs, very quickly standardized on the familiar keyboard and one-phoneme-per-key type that we now know, and thenceforth could not envision any other approach. It fell to Chinese inventors to come up with other alternatives, which in the end involved neither keyboards nor keys, and essentially miniaturized traditional moveable type schemes invented in China 1000 years earlier.

There remained the question of how to encompass the 60,000 or so non-decomposable Chinese characters in any compact mechanical device. Western Christian missionaries actually did a lot of the early work on this question, which tended to skew the results towards vocabulary most pertinent to their interests. The development of three main approaches to Chinese typography takes up the majority of the book, but Mullaney also takes a brief detour through the parallel challenges of encoding Chinese characters for telegraphic transmission. There were a variety of homegrown, mostly regional double-encoding schemes, all of which required the use of “special characters”. Special characters cost twice as much to transmit as “standard” Latin-alphabet characters, thus making telegraphy significantly more expensive for China. One doesn’t have to listen very hard to hear history rhyming with Unicode, as well as the ongoing economic impact to countries with double-byte character systems in view of their need to participate in a global communications infrastructure fundamentally designed around European  languages.

The challenge of coming up with a typewriter design that included a manageable but sufficient number of characters led to a widespread conclusion that the Chinese language was “incompatible with modernity.” This was not limited to foreign observers, by the way. Chinese elites, who were increasingly pursuing secondary educations abroad starting in the late 19th century, were keenly aware of the new centrality of the typewriter and telegraph in government and business affairs overseas and grew increasingly concerned that China was being left behind in the communications revolution.

There were heated debates about the best method for indexing Chinese characters in the absence of a system like a standard alphabet sequence: word-level metadata schemes, in other words, necessary for character retrieval. Rather poignantly, this led to something of an existential culture crisis for elites: Chinese high culture had revolved around the written language for millennia–and yet it turned out there was no real consensus even about the true makeup of a character. As Mullaney puts it, “Had the fundamental essence and order of Chinese script yet to reveal itself”, even after 5000 years of existence and intense scholarly examination?

By the 1930s, Japanese manufacturers had appropriated a couple of the most common approaches and began gaining market share. Their share accelerated as they invaded China in earnest during WWII, and continued in its aftermath, as China’s mostly small-scale manufacturing infrastructure was decimated. China’s experience with modern information technology into the 1950s was thus continually at the mercy of foreign interests–first Western bureaucrats, missionaries, and Western-run standards bodies, whose notions about information design were ill-matched with Chinese needs; and then the Japanese, who devastatingly controlled the means of print production in the lead up and during the war.

It’s not surprising, then, that post-WWII China would be as fixated on developing self-sufficiency in technology as in food and energy production. At the same time, maintaining interoperability with the global communications system is obviously essential. While Chinese technology protectionism is strong, so too is participation in standards bodies and open source projects, the latter being a particularly useful method of ensuring baseline interoperability as well as adaptability to Chinese environments without one-way dependency. Two leading telecom companies I work with have contributor rankings for key open source projects as top-level internal KPIs and other Chinese firms are increasingly taking operational leadership roles in those projects.

China’s early experiences with non-WYSISWG, and ultimately operator-designed input methods in both telegraphy and typewriting would form the core of keyboard-based input methods for Chinese in the computing age. Its alternate paths of IT experimentation also provided experience with predictive natural language approaches, as well as user-driven metadata design. Ongoing keyboard challenges, especially with smartphones, provide keen incentive to apply machine learning to predictive text–in the cloud, with an ever-expanding, real-time training set coming from over a billion internet-connected devices.

Mullaney has a follow-up book planned, which continues the story into the computer age. In the meantime, he’s already provided plenty of pattern-matching between China’s experiences as a technology outsider in the last century and its current initiatives in technology.

What to know before you go: Some general knowledge of Chinese history in the late 19th and 20th century would be helpful in reading the book. A brief perusal of a few Wikipedia articles would probably suffice.

I’m not sure how easy or difficult the book is to follow for someone with no knowledge of the Chinese language. Mullaney describes the various theories of how characters are formed in the course of explaining the different approaches to typewriting, but I suspect a quick primer such as one normally gets in the first couple classes of Chinese 1a would have been a good addition to the Introduction. This article isn’t a bad alternative. And this provides a brief summary about traditional approaches to organizing the language.

And, irony alert! It turns out that the Chinese characters sprinkled throughout the text to illustrate the discussion don’t render on older Kindles. I wound up buying the physical book.

We’re missing more than half the picture

I was at an elementary school science fair last night. There were several volcanoes, a coke & mentos experiment, some plants grown in various conditions, and so on. As behooves a Silicon Valley school, perhaps, one kid looked into what materials block WiFi most effectively. (Note to self: aluminum foil is not the best material for wrapping your laptop or your head in.)

But there was one in particular that really stuck with and saddened me. It looked at boys’ and girls’ perceptions of traditionally “gendered” occupations, specifically whether they thought of a man or a woman when given the name of the occupation. The experiment was conducted by surveying the student’s peers, so mostly 9 and 10 year olds.

The results were fairly predictable, and probably pretty reflective of the actual occupations’ current gender balances. For better or for worse, boys and girls largely agreed on the makeup of those occupations.


Careful examination, though, will show you that in every case–whether the occupation tends to be male- or female-dominated, the girls were slightly more likely to assume that the opposite gender could or would be found doing the job.

There was one profession, though, that showed a very noticeable perception gap between boys and girls: tech worker.

  • Slightly more than half of the girls thought of a woman when they heard the profession. That’s huge. That bodes well for the pipeline problem, right?
  • But almost 80% of the boys — 9 and 10 year old boys, living in Silicon Valley, many with one if not two parents who are tech workers — assumed a tech worker would be male.




When I shared this on Twitter, a couple of people suggested the boys were responding to the reality around them. But no one had an answer for why the girls weren’t responding to the same reality.


All of this suggests to me that parents are doing a fine job of telling their daughters that girls can be anything they want to be (and for now, at least, the girls are buying it). But maybe not such a good job of telling their sons that girls can be anything they want to be. And guess who will likely be the gatekeepers of high-status, highly paid professions as these kids come of age?

Granted, it’s a lot to put on a n=29 survey…but as an indicator, it’s concerning.


Books I Read in 2015

I wrote a post like this at the end of last year (here), which has unexpectedly (to me, at least) turned out to be one of the more popular posts of the past year. This year, several of the books I read weren’t all that great in themselves, but they’ve spurred me to delve into new topics more deeply.

Once again, I’ve managed only one work-related book in the past year: In Search of Certainty, by Mark Burgess (@markburgess_osl), but this is one book I’ll whole-heartedly recommend. Mark is a proponent of promise theory, which describes a non-deterministic way of approaching and directing complex, dynamic systems. In Certainty, Mark draws on very basic physics and mathematics principles in the early chapters to establish an understanding of the myriad factors that destabilize systems and the countervailing forces that generally keep them going in spite of their inherent fragility. From there, although the primary focus of the book is designing for eventual outcomes in information systems, there’s also an interesting exploration of the psychology and philosophy of being such a designer–of how hard it often is to let go of micromanaging each process or transaction–and of designing human teams along similar lines. I’ve had the pleasure of also getting to know Mark personally in the past year; he’s a man of wide-ranging interests, a novelist and a painter as well as a scientist–and they all show up in the course of the book: economics, psychology, neuroscience, and more. The tone is conversational and a broad humanism underpins everything; the overall effect reminded me quite a bit of my childhood favorite, the BBC series Connections. A wonderful, immersive read.

I’ve been dabbling in home cheesemaking in the last couple of years, so one day my husband ordered for me The Science of Cheese, by Michael Tunick. It’s a very technical book, and not one you really read front to back. But for someone who’s been following recipes blindly, it’s enlightening to understand how each of the major variables (fat content, heat applied, culture type, aging process) contributes to directing a blank commodity like milk into the nearly infinite array of different products that exist in the world.

Rubens_Honeysuckle Bower.jpg

How many accessories does your head need??

I never liked the 1600s. The fashions in Europe were hideously unflattering, the art overwrought, and they spent way too much of that century killing each other over theology. But in the last year I’ve also come to accept that it was also the century that shaped the national boundaries, institutions and legal frameworks that largely characterize our world today. It saw the advent of capitalism and hand-in-hand with it, truly global imperialism. I bring this up because of the next 2 books…


Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America, by Peter Wood, is a book I picked up on the basis of an interesting Slate article covering slavery in 1600s North America, and how it got relegitimized and codified around race (as opposed to religion) after mostly dying out in Europe during the middle ages. It turned out that the Slate article contained all the most interesting bits, so I’d recommend skipping the book and just reading the article.

Invisible China, by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson is mildly interesting as a travelogue of the ethnic-majority borderlands of China; the authors go slightly beyond the standard backpacker circuit of those areas, though if you’ve traveled in any of those regions, much of it will seem familiar.  Unfortunately it falls far short of its intended exploration of China’s approach to constructing a multi-ethnic society. The authors very lightly touch upon the “melting pot” vs “mosaic” debates that were held when the Republic was founded in 1911, but without much explanation. More recent policies regarding minority groups are discussed, and although the authors don’t make any such allusions, there are clear parallels with U.S. history–notably with regard to Native Americans–and contemporary debates around minority rights and the evolution of our national character. There’s a deeper history, however, which Invisible China never touches on: the way that border regions and their native peoples, especially in the western half of what is now China, became formally incorporated into the Chinese state during…the Qing Dynasty in the 1600-1700s. (Interesting related article here.) I’ve now got a number of books in queue about Qing policy with regard to Tibet and Central Asia in particular…timely given that China seems to be returning to that playbook in its current foreign policy.

1491, by Charles Mann is a book I’ve already recommended to a number of friends. It’s an excellent survey of recent discoveries and debates in the field of Pre-Columbian archaeology. I’d read articles here and there on many of the things touched on in the book, but others were completely new to me. Mann is a science journalist who’s been on the Pre-Columbian beat for a long time, and a compelling writer.

As always, I consumed a number of historical novels, most of which simply passed the time. But I have to recommend The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami. It’s a retelling of one of my favorite adventure tales of all-time, that of Cabeza de Vaca and his 3 comrades, who were shiprecked in Florida in 1527, and over the course of 8 years, made their way across what is now the southern U.S. to Mexico City. Three of the four were Spaniards, and made formal depositions about their experience to the government of New Spain. The fourth was a Moorish slave, who therefore had no official voice. Yet there are enough hints about his real role in the others’ accounts to support this novel, which is beautifully written and very true to the original sources.

Finally, I closed out the last few days of the year reading Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King, while lounging in a cabana on tropical beach. It’s another tale of shipwreck and privation, perhaps even more harrowing than that of de Vaca and co. In this case, a group of New Englanders foundered off the west coast of Africa in 1815 and spent several months enslaved to various Berber families wandering the Sahara, eventually getting ransomed by a British official residing in a trading outpost in Spanish Morocco. The ship’s captain, formerly a strapping 6-footer, weighed 90 pounds at the time of his ransom. Two of his crew were closer to 40 pounds. The book unites accounts published by the captain, one of his crew members, and the British official, into a well-written non-fiction narrative.

What stands out from your reading this year?

Hello, Security, My Old Friend

Back before software-defined networking, I spent time promoting a different “SDN”: “Self-Defending Networks”. That was Cisco’s marketing tagline for their Security portfolio. At the time that I joined, they had just brought together security-related products from different BUs as the Security Technology Group, under Jayshree Ullal.

Now, Self-Defending Networks wasn’t something that held up under even the lightest technical scrutiny. All of the products except for NAC were acquired, so each had its own element manager with its own policy schema, and none of them really talked to each other. And it’s kind of hard to run an effective security team if each member speaks a different language and operates from a different rule book, regardless of how individually skilled they may be. That’s why I find the possibilities of having a common layer of abstraction (a la ODL) so compelling: you can’t have reliable security without holistic, end-to-end management (too many gaps), and if you have good holistic, end-to-end management, you can spend less time and energy on security.

I’m joining Skyport Systems because it resolves a lot of these challenges in a very streamlined way. It also manages to simultaneously address many of the reservations people have about entrusting sensitive data to external cloud providers, while also providing a consumable Security-as-a-Service offering that eliminates a lot of those security tool integration challenges. That’s a pretty good trick, in my opinion.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve worked with several members of the team before. (Fun fact: I accepted the Skyport offer during Back to the Future week. I think I’ve identified the team’s Doc, too.) It’s an intense, high-energy crew, but importantly, one that is generally pretty strong in the Sense of Humor department as well. The leadership team members each have both startup experience and successful track records in large companies, meaning that they’re not afraid of getting their hands dirty, but also have the mindset and rolodexes to scale the company.

One other consideration I had, as a marketer: technical realities aside, I liked that Self-Defending Networks was a fundamentally positive, hopeful vision to strive for. Too much of security marketing (in IT and in modern politics) is all about instilling fear–which often skews perceptions of and responses to risk in wasteful and even counterproductive ways. I prefer a more positive message: providing a foundation of trust. I think Skyport has the right bones to support that.

More soon.

Things I’ve (Re)learned on Break

Every so often, I ask people what they would do with themselves (not their money–their time) if they won the lottery or otherwise didn’t have to work again. Most people respond with things they’d buy–for themselves, and for other people. So I ask again about how they’d spend their time. Very often, they’re at a loss. They mention trips they’d like to go on, things they’ve been meaning to get around to for forever, maybe spend more time with their kids and friends, but it’s almost always stuff that would only last them a few months. I always notice this, because I spent a fair amount of time a few years back thinking about what exactly I would do if I won the lottery, and I revisit the question every so often. I never really get much past the first year.

Even so, there have been many days in the last couple of years when I’ve wished I could just…stop… running. Stop running around in circles. Stop always dashing from kid-thing to work-thing to home-thing to kid-thing. Stop always being the mom who’s always in a rush and seems unfriendly because she doesn’t have 15 minutes to stop and chat. Stop spending two or more hours a day behind a steering wheel. Have time to think, without interruption. Read. Think about what I’ve read. Move. Get outside. Have a conversation with a family member that doesn’t start and end with “Hurry up”. You know the feeling, I’m sure.

    *     *     *     *     *

My two weeks off are nearly over. I could use another 2-3 days, really, but I’ve gotten to most of the things on my to-do list:

  • Purge dressers. My kids hadn’t been able to close their drawers easily in months because they had clothes from last winter as well as the summer in them. I didn’t even know if they had winter clothes that still fit, or how many. Bad Mom Karma was hovering over me. It took most of last week, but I’m close to ensuring that my children won’t freeze in the coming frigid winter (ok, we live in coastal California, but still…) I’ve also purged the house of ALL of the too-small clothes–some 15 trashbags worth. THAT felt really good.
  • Exercise and physical health. In my 20s, I used to do a 4-mile loop hike in the nearby hills several times a week after work. My plan was to get back to doing that hike in the mornings after I dropped my daughter off at school. I have to give myself a middling grade on this: I’ve managed to do it 3 times. Morning appointments have come up, and I’ve been sick for a few days. It also takes quite a bit longer than it did when I did it before: I live further away, and I’m slower and flabbier, so it takes up about half the day, all in all. Still, I so rarely get outdoors during my normal life that even that little bit of nature time has been good. I’ve also finally done something about the constant neck and shoulder pain that’s been dogging me for months. It’s not all better, but certainly improved. We’ll see how long that lasts.
  • Book hotels for an upcoming family vacation. Still not done. Hopefully by tomorrow.
  • Clear off my desk and deal with household administrivia. Also not done.

On the other hand, I’ve made a number of good meals. I got together yesterday with one friend I haven’t seen in months, and I have a date tomorrow with another I haven’t seen in over a year. (Yeah, I know.)

But it struck me the other day, as I was running one of the numerous little errands that we normally cram into our hectic weekends, that the last time I was running errands in the middle of the day–during the two years I was a stay-at-home mom (SAHM)–that…that’s all there was. Running errands. Changing diapers. Meals. Dishes. More diapers. More errands. I used to struggle desperately to come up with something that I (or more often, my kid) had accomplished during the day just to have something interesting to say to my husband when he got home. I did have some time to read, but on the whole…let’s just say I was not cut out for SAHMdom.

It was a good reminder. Because while I’m really appreciating the opportunity to slow down a bit for a couple of weeks, I still have a number of things I needed to get done in a finite amount of time. I appreciate the finiteness of that time. And I know I have a big new thing in front of me that I’ll be diving into soon. I’m not looking at the quiet desperation that comes with frittering away endless weeks and months with nothing but domestic minutiae.

Basically, because the time is finite and the goals are specific and concrete, it’s still easy to maintain a sense of drive and purpose, even as I take my foot off the gas pedal for a bit. (Metaphorical gas pedal–if anything, I’m driving around more than usual.) That’s a lot harder when the time seems infinite. The other element that’s still largely missing is the social element. Work–when it’s a healthy environment–provides a shared sense of purpose. I have some specific things I just need to get done right now because they need to get done, but the kids aren’t that excited about their newly manageable drawers.

I was thinking this morning about my parents’ friends, who are all now retirement age. A lot of the men are kind of at loose ends, trying to find ways to fill their days. The women, on average, are doing better: they mostly have already in place social networks that were unrelated to work, and/or have created new ones through volunteer activities. The two who really seem to be doing well are ones who really haven’t retired at all–they’re just doing work on their own time and terms, and not worrying about the money. One started a non-profit focused on science education, especially targeting underprivileged schools. She also volunteers in the science classes of those same schools, and helped her son get his startup off the ground. The other first did a tech startup with a friend–he had this huge grin as he told me about figuring out how to work a label-printing machine and packing up widgets in boxes for shipment–and then started a mineral water label with his ex-marketer wife, so now he’s learning all about retail considerations and the food business.

So: however crazy it makes other things–I, personally, need to have interesting work to do with interesting, curious, creative people. I’m not good at not having any concrete goals. I should probably figure out how to balance things a bit better so I don’t wind up like the retired gentlemen at loose ends, but as the kids get older and more independent, that seems like it will be increasingly more possible. I’ll probably “retire” someday, even without the benefit of the lottery, so I should probably have some notion of what to do with myself. Beyond the first year.

Well, this is a surprise…

So there I was, happily tooling along, planning eventual world conquest by open SDN and the Brocade SDN Controller.

And then an old work friend called about a startup. And then another one. At first I said, Sure, let’s have coffee and catch up, I’d love to hear about what you’re working on. Because it’s always a good call to spend time batting ideas around with smart, interesting people, right? But one thing led to another, and well, they hooked me.

I’ve been doing internal “startups” in established companies for close to a decade now. I like blank sheets of paper. A lot. Yet despite having spent most of my life in the Valley, I’ve never been at an actual startup. There are pros and cons about doing bleeding-edge things within established companies; I know them all intimately at this point. I also know there are lots and lots of things I don’t know, because I’ve never had to before. There’s a certain adrenaline rush to getting something off the ground. Once it approaches cruising altitude though, I usually start to get antsy. The Brocade controller isn’t quite there yet, but it’s getting close, and I knew I’d be getting antsy by the end of 2016.

And so, with a great opportunity in front of me to learn all kinds of new things alongside a bunch of old friends and some pretty interesting new ones, I decided I could probably hand off controller/SDN marketing to someone else, in good conscience, sooner rather than later. Believe me, this has come as a bit of a surprise to me, as much as it likely has to anyone else, given how invested I’ve become in it all over the past several years. But there are different kinds of things I’d like to learn about now.

So this is my last week at Brocade. It’s a bit bittersweet, because there are so many awesome people at Brocade (no emo post on Medium for me…). But it’s a very small world, and I’m confident they won’t get too far away.

Where am I going? Stay tuned–all will be revealed in a few weeks.

Meet the New Software-Defined Network. Almost the Same as the Old Network.

Occasionally when I wake up, I have some utterly obscure question percolating in my brain. Once, it was about the color of the original, undomesticated carrots (white and purple, it turns out–like their cousins the turnip and the parsnip). I have to go look it up so I can go on about my day without further mental interference, which is why I can tell you, for example, that there is an online Carrot Museum that will tell you everything you want to know about carrots. Also, in Afghanistan they make a fermented beverage from wild carrots. (Thanks, brain!)

Today, I simply had to know what “palimpsest” means. Here’s what it means:

A palimpsest (/ˈpælɪmpsɛst/) is a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been either scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused, for another document.[1] …In colloquial usage, the term palimpsest is also used in architecture, archaeology, and geomorphology, to denote an object made or worked upon for one purpose and later reused for another, for example a monumental brass the reverse blank side of which has been re-engraved. [Wikipedia]

SDN is an excellent example of a palimpsest. Let’s take the SDN origin story as gospel: why, indeed, shouldn’t you be able to program a switch the way you can a non-purpose-built computing platform? The short answer is because the networking industry, and the devices it continues to produce and sell, evolved in a certain way, and the world is filled with such devices and vast numbers of people trained to interact with them via communication protocols vs higher-level constructs.

So now we’re elaborating an assortment of higher-level constructs under the common banner of SDN. This does not, however, eliminate existing network concepts, protocols–or the actual networks themselves. We are using all of these things as the foundations upon which software-defined networks will be operated, much as the “Troy” excavated (with dynamite!) by Heinrich Schliemann was, in fact, as many as nine different cities, each of which built upon the decaying foundations of the previous one. And why not? It all works moderately well, and we have lots of people who know how to make it work.

The thing about “adopting” SDN is that it’s a little bit of new technology, but a lot of mindset and process shifts. This, I think, is why SDN is starting to enter a winter of discontent (or if you’re more of a Gartnerian than a Shakespearean–a trough of disillusionment). Networking salespeople and users alike are trained to buy/sell boxes that you plug in and that largely ends the transaction until the support contract comes up for renewal or there’s an opportunity to add in more boxes. SDN controllers today, by contrast, are all at the some-assembly-required stage of evolution. And if your SDN use case is BetterFasterCheaper manageability, it’s very reasonable to question why you should go through a whole bunch of new gymnastics moves to do more or less what you’re already doing in a different way.

It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that the current state of affairs is the de-facto nature of SDN. As controllers mature, they will of course become more plug-and-play. Now that the industry has begun to consolidate around a few leading platforms, we will start to see more packaged SDN applications to run on said controllers. Meanwhile, the bleeding-edge organizations moving towards active deployments now are investing heavily in training NetDevs to build their own applications for proprietary use cases. At Open Networking Summit this spring, and in subsequent media interviews, AT&T indicated that they’re putting tens of thousands of network engineers through specialized coding classes. Some portion of those engineers will eventually go on to jobs at other companies, spreading their new expertise into new soil.

And as I wrote in 2013,

…Today’s discrete controllers will wind up going one of two ways:

  • Down, coupled ever more tightly into existing network operating systems, until eventually they will simply be part of OSes with better northbound APIs than before. This will be especially true of “house” controllers from existing networking vendors.
  • Up, as platforms for emerging ecosystems of network applications. There’s nothing to prevent house controllers from moving in this direction, and for major vendors to develop their own developer ecosystems (well, nothing but mindset and institutional support for such)…

There are those, in fact, who expect that controllers will eventually be packaged with applications such that the (micro)controllers are transparent to the user, as opposed to an independent piece of software to be set up and then integrated with a parade of disparate applications. This scenario will necessitate a truly de facto industry controller platform (we’re far from that yet…) as well as a standardized architecture for peer-to-peer controller communications, and mechanisms for defining order of precedence for operations stemming from different applications.

None of this, however, will change what lies beneath in the foreseeable future. We’ll still have some mix of physical and virtual forwarding devices, managed via some set of protocols–some older, some derivations or extensions of existing ones, some genuinely new ones–because SDN doesn’t necessarily change anything about forwarding architecture, and because of refresh cycles and human operator inertia. It will still be valuable for quite some time to understand how those protocols operate on the devices, even as the preferred method for doing so shifts with controller advances and the general state of administrator skillsets. It’s entirely conceivable that 15-20 years down the road, the idea of monkeying around with networking protocols themselves will seem as arcane to most as being fluent in the inner workings of the systems bus in your PC. But we’ve got a long way to go as an industry before that state of affairs appears on the horizon, and most of that shift will come well after we have some semblance of controller maturity and an SDN application ecosystem in place.

Meanwhile, I’ll apparently be mulling over things like the origins of carrots. Stupid brain.

Stop Hiding. Just Ask.

I came across an exchange on Twitter the other day that made me sad. In part:

Opensource newbie

It made me sad because I spent longer than I should have in a similar place: curious, interested, wanting to know more and also to have input, but being surrounded by people who’d been doing “this stuff’ for 20+ years. I was at a loss as to how I’d ever “catch up”, never mind be in a position to provide value.

Here’s the thing: I wound up in that place because I’d invested a good 20-25 years of my life by that point in making sure I was really competent. Competence and knowing what you’re talking about are things that are valued very highly in my family. Moreover, I grew up surrounded by engineers, who tend to enjoy arguing and sometimes pounce with delight on logical lapses or other types of weak arguments. So from an early age, I shied away from spending a lot of time on things that didn’t come naturally. Early in my career, I did the same: I carefully stayed in roles that didn’t require me to have any specialized knowledge. By my mid-30s, I was in a rather small box–one entirely of my own making.

Now, had anyone else told me I just didn’t have what it takes to do any particular kind of job, I most likely would have furiously plunged into proving them wrong. Instead, I took great care to avoid fulfilling the stereotype of the clueless (female) marketeer: I asked no questions that could be “dumb” questions. I’d quietly go read up on things on my own, but a lot of the time I didn’t have enough context to make total sense of what I read. Still, I avoided asking questions.

What finally did it was screaming boredom. I just didn’t want to keep doing what I’d been doing any more. I decided I’d rather be dumb than bored.

It was terrifying.

Eventually I found a colleague who was working in a similar area, but was coming into marketing after a long time as a engineer. We’ll call him Fred. Every so often I’d walk over to Fred’s cube and announce (pre-emptively, in my mind), “Hi, I have another stupid question,” to which he would helpfully reply, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid people.” And then proceed to explain both the theory and the depressing reality of whatever I was asking about. I have since learned to spot Freds fairly quickly, and over the last few years I’ve built up a wonderful network of Freds. Thanks to social media, most of them are not in a nearby cube, but several states or even a continent away–but that means I get a much broader perspective on whatever I’m curious about than if I just asked the person in the next cube whose vantage point on the world likely only differs from mine by a few degrees.

This brings me to a wonderful talk I unexpectedly attended a few months back. My daughter had been taking a Scratch class through Coder Dojo, and the last night of the session, the parents were all asked to gather in a different room for a pitch from one of the Coder Dojo cofounders, Bill Liao (@liaonet).

Liao opened by stating that coding is poetry, which won me over right there. To be good at poetry, he said, you have to be deeply fluent in a language, in a way you can be only if you speak it from a very young age. It goes without saying, perhaps, that when you learn to speak a language in a fluent, natural way, you do it by interacting with other people. Or as Liao put it,  “I learned to code in my bedroom, and I think working alone in your bedroom is a terrible way to learn to code. I think working with others on a project is a great way to learn to code.”  You can watch an abbreviated version of his talk below.

And this, in turn, brings me to a lesson taught to me by my friend Brent Salisbury (@networkstatic), who became active in OpenDaylight in its very early days. He was trying to convince me to get involved. “But Brent,” I protested, “I haven’t coded in 20 years, and I never got good at it even then.” He told me it didn’t matter. ODL desperately needed documentation. QA. “Play around with Python,” he said. “Hell, I’m dyslexic–if I can code anyone can.” The point being that any project in which people are doing things mostly on their own time–which is most open source projects–desperately needs help of all kinds, and will usually gladly welcome a range of skills, not just narrow technical ones. “I’m just learning how to code, but this is really interesting to me–how can I help?” is as good a door-opener as any.

And of course the way to make book-learning–or any learning–really stick is to try to use it. At Brocade, we have a couple of SEs who have spent most of their careers as network engineers, but are really excited about SDN. They’ve been delving into the documentation–both on the ODL site as well as the materials for my company’s distribution–and making notes about how it works in ways that make more sense to someone accustomed to running a network. I myself had learned about SDN and ODL from a more classical software perspective, so reading what they’ve written was really helpful to me, as they naturally point out very practical nits and concerns that hadn’t occurred to me. Now we’re in the process of converting their work into papers the bigger world can access, which should be helpful to a lot of other network engineers trying to get their heads around this stuff. Note: none of us is writing Java code. All of us are contributing to the growth of an open source effort. It takes a village.

Becoming an expert also takes a village. It’s why throughout history, you find innovation happens in clusters, where talented people gather, get to know each other, and exchange ideas. The lone genius is a myth. Mozart was mentored by Haydn, among others.

Ask for help, and ask how you can help.

Why Open SDN – In 6 Words

In Maslowian terms:

Open SDN by Maslow

Maslow’s SDN – by Lisa Caywood

Interoperability of different device types from different vendors.

Optimization of device selection–for price and performance independently of services features.

Continuous visibility of flows from source to destination.

Informed, centralized manageability for all devices.

Programmability to shape network and network tools according to users’ needs.

Automation of and by policy.

So, What Are WE Going to Do About It?

Well, I hardly imagined there was anything out of the ordinary with my last post; just another conference write-up. But apparently I hit a nerve with regard to my complaint about how most conferences are structured. It seems LOTS of people are fed up—vendors and users alike.

I’ve since had various conversations about this across multiple platforms, so I thought I’d consolidate my views here, in one place, along with my thoughts about what we can do better.

I mean WE in the broadest sense. There’s plenty of unhappiness with the current state of affairs, but for an industry that prides itself on “innovation”, we—sponsors, attendees and event organizers—are mostly just going with the flow laid down for industry conferences ages ago, rather than thinking about how to make them better instead of just bigger.

First, I have no quarrel with vendor sponsorship as such: it costs money to host a large event, and for some organizations, it’s an actual revenue stream. For some (Upperside Conferences, Layer123), it’s their raison d’être. For others, it’s a codified part of the revenue mix (Gartner, for example, reported that 11% of their revenues came from conference sales in 2014). If a tech vendor hosts its own event (eg VMworld, SAPworld, etc), it’s primarily viewed as a marketing activity: less of a revenue stream than an awareness and customer/partner contact event—but still not a small budget item.

As any arts organization can tell you, ticket sales only cover a portion of the cost of an event. The rest has to be made up by deep-pocketed benefactors. And so event organizers, by and large, are just giving their biggest customers what those customers have been trained to want.

And that’s the problem. Not because it’s inherently evil or corrupt—it’s just standard business practice to make your biggest customers happy. The problem is that the deliverables sponsors have been trained to expect, and therefore want, don’t necessarily deliver the kind of value that sponsors actually want or could get. Instead, there are probably better ways to provide value to the largest customers and do more for smaller ones (attendees) at the same time. In other words, I’d like to see more creative sponsorship packages.

For example:

  • Sponsors spend lots of money to obtain booth space, and then lots more money on big fancy booths. Some of us then book juggling or unicycle or magic acts to draw people to our booth, and offer up giveaways as an incentive for badge scans. The sponsor scans some number of badges of people interested in their giveaway. Actual qualified leads that can be used by Sales are typically under 1%. Where there’s genuine interest, ie the attendee has had a meaningful conversation with a qualified booth staffer, the staffer usually gets the attendee’s business card and promptly gets in touch with the relevant salesperson and/or product people at corporate, thereby circumventing the whole lead-gen flow.

Now, events are absolutely a good place for users to meet with a lot of current or potential suppliers in rapid succession. Sometimes good sales reps are proactive about arranging meetings at events. But maybe event organizers could help facilitate the process: all attendees fitting a certain profile automatically get offered meeting matching services with up to 3 vendors of their choice, plus a “wild card” in an area in which they have a general interest (“DevOps tools”, say) which could provide luck-of-the-draw opportunities for small, potentially interesting startups without a lot of name recognition. Or heck, maybe a vendor-user speed dating event.

  • Speaking slots are probably the most valuable portion of any standard sponsorship package, but there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. More often than not,unfortunately, it’s pure advertising. I’ve even known of individual speakers who tried to do something more interesting than straightforwardly “push the message”, only to be “corrected” by their corporate people. Some events try to encourage or even mandate a user speaker in their sponsor sessions, but even when that’s possible (and it can be remarkably difficult even for a large vendor), the user speaker knows they’re there to help the vendor, and the end result is the same.

On the other hand, event organizers who are in touch with users themselves are in a good position to find good speakers with interesting stories. For example, the 2011 Gartner Data Center conference featured several “How we got to private cloud” sessions, which were all packed. Because the speakers weren’t naming any of their vendors, they were less constrained by internal rules against discussing their deployments. And the knowledge-sharing was widely appreciated. The speakers were typically surrounded 5-deep after their talks.

  • What’s wrong with working sessions?? This is absolutely possible, even at a big event. I expressed by boredom and frustration at the last OpenStack Summit to a friend, who told me he’d been spending the week in an ancillary session that was apparently open to all attendees but completely unadvertised. “It’s awesome! I don’t know why every product person isn’t there. I mean, it’s actual users sitting there telling devs, ‘I want it to do something like this,’ and the dev quickly scripts out a rudimentary idea and they go from there.” People actually talking to each other in a collaborative context to figure out real solutions—wouldn’t that be useful to everyone involved?

What about a little competition? A panel of users poses a problem they’ve been grappling with, gives relevant vendor teams 30-60 mins to draft an idea for a solution, and 3-5 minutes apiece to pitch them. Judging criteria should include points for complete solutions which demonstrate an understanding of the entirety of the customer deployment experience—not just how to build a better mousetrap.

As I said in my last post, I’d even be good with gripe sessions. Customer Advisory Boards tend to be all very polite and not terribly useful because no one wants to be rude to their hosts. But at an independent event? Put together a panel on a given topic (“Identity Management”), invite vendors, and have them sit in the audience where they have to listen and not talk while the panel members talk about what they love, hate and need from their IAM solutions. A slightly less intimate version of the OpenStack hackathon, but also perhaps a bit more scalable. And certainly a refreshing change from the current state of affairs, in which vendors mostly lecture at users.

In general, I’m not fond of things being structured to further the distance between users and vendors. It’s no secret that many user orgs deeply dislike working with a number of their suppliers, but often those same suppliers don’t fully grasp the intensity of dislike, much less the reasons behind it. Wouldn’t it be better if they did, so they could do something about it? Instead, event organizers enable and perpetuate bad marketing habits which are all about unidirectional shouting, instead of a mix of talking and listening. Which make users dislike vendors all the more and further deepens the adversarial, predator/prey dynamic you find in many interactions—especially on the conference show floor.

This isn’t healthy. Nobody really likes working this way. But sponsor expectations will need to be reset. Event organizers will need to show that alternative approaches really can deliver value, and be prepared to articulate the kind of value that is—beyond lead generation. Attendees can be far more vocal to organizers about what they do and don’t want to experience more of.

So—what would work for you? And what can you do about it?