In Need of Focus

Too-Busy.jpg

Image courtesy Ryan Ritchie via flickr

I like spending time with my family and being involved at church. I like certification exams. I like studying and learning new things. I like HAM radio, blogging, and photography. I like keeping up with the Marvel movies and TV shows. That’s just a few of the things I like. Specific technologies I like include Wi-Fi, Routing & Switching (R&S), Data Center, Virtualization and other topics directly and tangentially connected to networking topics. You know what? I like too many things.

Reality Check

I’ve recently come to realize that I’m trying to do too much and I have finite time. I’m trying to keep up with way too many technologies. It’s just not possible to keep current on everything. I have decided that I need to cut a few things out, or at least minimize them. Obviously church and family can’t be cut, so I have to start cutting out other things. Like watching TV. Deciding that Data Center stuff really isn’t that important to me and that it’s okay that I only know what I need to do my job. Realizing that R&S really isn’t my focus, even though I like it. That I don’t need to be a VMware expert. I like all these topics and will continue to learn about them through the course of my work, but I’m never going to be the expert that I want to be if I can’t narrow my focus.

Let It Go

To narrow my focus, it’s time to let some of my interests go. Time to allow them to be things I am aware of, but not actively pursuing. Virtualization, Data Center, and SDN can no longer be topics of study. I’ll learn what I need to know as projects demand it, but I will not seek out knowledge in these spaces. I work more with R&S and will keep a bit more current with that, but it still won’t be my focus. Practically, this means actively reducing inputs. I need to unsubscribe from some blogs and podcasts. I need to use my VCP5 exam voucher and regardless of pass or fail, just walk away. If I unfollow you on twitter, I apologize; you’ve been moved out of my main timeline and into a list.

Wi-Fi or Bust

I’m putting the bulk of my time that can be devoted to studying, learning, and generally keeping current, into the realm of Wi-Fi. There is also sort of a vague tie in to HAM radio, which is a bonus. Wi-Fi is taking up more and more of my time at the office. The problems are interesting and RF is a topic I’m passionate about (see also, HAM radio). Wi-Fi, as an industry, has a lot going on and it is the future of the access layer. I like Wi-Fi and have more interest in it than with anything else, so it’s Wi-Fi or bust.

Niggling things to get in my way include my CCNP R&S, which is due for recertification. I need to pass a CCNP level exam, but I haven’t decided for sure what I’m going to do. I’m torn between an exam towards CCNP Wireless, the ARCH exam (which would grant the CCDP), or just taking TSHOOT to get the recert out of the way. What I really want to be studying right now is the CWNA, so I’m leaning towards TSHOOT just to remove that pressure…

Thick or Thin

I say all this publicly for two reasons. First, it is easier to follow through with a commitment when you state it for everyone to see. It makes the commitment real and peer pressure (even if it’s just imagined) is a powerful force. Secondly, I say this in the hopes that you might start thinking about how you spend your own study time. Are you spreading it thinly over a wide swath of topics or thickly on something you are really passionate about? I can tell you that spreading it thin is unsatisfying. Focusing has more reward, even though you have to leave some things behind. Find what you are passionate about and chase it. I promise it’ll be worth it.

FIN

Making the most of Cisco Live – Sessions

Cisco Live!

Giant Cisco Live! logo from Cisco Live 2010

This series is intended to be a collection of advice on how to get the most out of attending the Cisco Live conference (aka Networkers). Some of it is applicable to any training event, but most of it is more specific.

If you have corrections or additional suggestions, please comment so I can keep this information up to date and accurate. I’d like this to be a resource for everyone.

Session Signup

I have never been to a conference before Networkers where you need to sign up for your sessions before you go. I’m used to conferences where you can wander in & out of sessions if you hit one that turns out to be uninteresting or you have a sudden change of heart about the one you want to attend. Networkers is different. It’s not just a helpful schedule. You need to sign up beforehand because it’s your reserved seat for the session. It won’t matter for many, if not most, of the sessions but it’ll make the difference for the most popular sessions.

Cisco Live Badge Pickup

At the doors for every session will be attendants with a computer and a scanner. They’ll scan you as you attempt to enter and you’ll get a green light or a red light. If you are registered for the session, you’ll get the green light and you’re good to go. If you aren’t registered or are on the waiting list, you have to wait. If it’s not full, you’ll get the opportunity to enter. I’m not sure how long they wait before letting you in.

NetVets are conference attendees that have been to 3 of the last 5 Networkers. NetVets get first dibs on session sign-ups. This is done because many sessions repeat from year to year, and you may not have been able to get into a popular session in the past. This gives the repeat attenders an opportunity to sign-up for sessions they haven’t been able to get into.

After the NetVets have had a few days to get their spots, everyone else will be allowed in. Get in as soon as possible to get the sessions you care about the most. You can go back later and change things, too. Last year I signed up for all kinds of interesting sessions, but after a while I realized that despite there being 4 days of sessions, you can only squeeze so much into your schedule and had to prioritize the topics that were most important.

I’d like to make a list of sessions and speakers that are recommended as particularly good, so if you have recommendations to make please comment on this post or let me know on twitter. I’m @scottm32768 on twitter.

FIN

Making the most of Cisco Live – Travel

Cisco Live!

Giant Cisco Live! logo from Cisco Live 2010

This series is intended to be a collection of advice on how to get the most out of attending the Cisco Live conference (aka Networkers). Some of it is applicable to any training event, but most of it is more specific.

If you have corrections or additional suggestions, please comment so I can keep this information up to date and accurate. I’d like this to be a resource for everyone.

Travel

Plan to get to the city no later than mid-afternoon the day before the conference starts. Even if you have a delayed flight, hopefully you’ll get there before too late in the evening.  Even if you can’t check in until 3PM you can always drop your luggage off at the hotel and wander around. There’s no shortage of das blinkenlights screaming for your attention. The point is to make sure you get there early enough to get a decent night’s sleep. Just don’t lose track of time. Inside the hotels there’s no real sense of it.

An Alaska Airlines 737 destined for Las Vegas

If you’re thinking of bringing your family, I recommend against it. A spouse may be fine, but Vegas is not designed for kids (remember, it’s “Sin City”.) I think Vegas (at least the part of it where we will be) is kid un-friendly. The strip is all about sensory overload. Many people like this, but I don’t care for it at all. That said, the Mandalay Bay does have a very nifty shark reef exhibit, pool, and the Lion King.

There are a few other interesting things to see, but I’ll talk about those later.

FIN

Making the most of Cisco Live – Your Hotel

Cisco Live!

Giant Cisco Live! logo from Cisco Live 2010

This series is intended to be a collection of advice on how to get the most out of attending the Cisco Live conference (aka Networkers). Some of it is applicable to any training event, but most of it is more specific.

If you have corrections or additional suggestions, please comment so I can keep this information up to date and accurate. I’d like this to be a resource for everyone.

Hotel Choice

The Mandalay Bay is more expensive than the other hotels, but your time is valuable. From a Mandalay Bay room it should take under 10 minutes to get to the Mandalay Bay Conference Center. I was at the Luxor in 2010 and it took me about 25 minutes at a brisk walk to get to and from the conference center. It’s tiring, it’s a drag at the end of the day when you are already tired, and it wastes a lot of time. I was amazed at how much time would pass going back and forth. Yes, most of these hotels are connected, but the hotels in Vegas are bigger (or at least wider) than the hotels in most cities, they are connected by small shopping centers, and they are designed to force you to pass through as much casino as possible.

Luxor Pyramid

The Luxor and the Mandalay Bay hotels

In my experience, the tram to and from the Luxor and Excalibur doesn’t save as much time as it seems like it should. You have to walk quite a ways out of the way just to get to or from it. It’s also worth noting that the tram doesn’t go directly from the Luxor to the Mandalay Bay, though it does on the way back. It goes south from the Excalibur to the Mandalay Bay and north from Mandalay Bay, to the Luxor, and then Excalibur. If for some reason you have to go to your hotel room in the middle of the day and you have to hike, you’ll miss an hour or more of the conference. There is a shuttle for the MGM Grand, but I have no experience with it. I expect that it’s at least 25 minutes between the conference center and a room there.

If at all possible, I recommend staying in the conference hotel. It will save a lot of time and energy.

FIN

Don’t Let Your Skills Rust

67 by außerirdische sind gesund, on Flickr

67 by außerirdische sind gesund, on Flickr

My last Cisco course was Campus ATM Solutions. This was a mistake. In my defense, I was spending most of my time with servers. I thought I knew what I was doing. I had taken a few Cisco classes and all our equipment was working. No point in wasting my time on training for things that already worked. I went on this way for 10 years on the networking side. I knew about VLANs and used them in the data center. R&S isn’t that hard, what’s the big deal? I was keeping up my skills on the server side, but on the networking side I just kept running things the way they were. I didn’t go to Networkers, I didn’t take any classes. I didn’t read any books. I learned little bits as needed for a given project. My network was very flat and switches had all ports on VLAN 1. When we swapped out the SynOptics LattisHubs that were there when I started with Cisco 3500XL switches, nothing really changed except the equipment. I had a bad case of not knowing enough to know that I didn’t know.

Cisco created new classes and I never noticed. I thought there was no real training out there that would allow me to advance. For a short period right after I had taken those Cisco courses in the late 90s, that may have been true. My job changed about 2 years ago and my focus shifted to networks. I started reading. I started spending a lot of time on cisco.com. Safari Books Online’s library of Cisco Press books became my favorite web site. Fortunately, incredible amounts of information are available online now. I began to realize just how far behind I’d fallen. As I mentioned in my Thoughts on Certification post, I registered for Networkers and because of the free cert test I decided to study for the CCNA. I learned far more studying for that than I thought I should have. It really brought the rust to my attention. Now I’m driving my wife crazy spending much of my spare time reading networking books or studying for CCNP tests.

I’m playing catch up right now because I was arrogant. Of course, now I’m going to get up to speed with networks and I’m going to get rusty on the server side. Since I’m not doing much of it every day, some rust is inevitable. I have a strong base, but as time goes on I won’t be up to date on the specifics. However, I’m wiser now and I won’t totally ignore servers as things change.

You can go to classes or you can read books. You can follow technical blogs or you can get involved in any number of online communities. For whatever it is you want to improve your skills or at least keep from getting dull, do something. Do anything. Just don’t be arrogant and do nothing. You’ll suddenly realize that you no longer know anything relevant.

FIN

Don’t Panic!

Don't panic! by quinn.anya, on Flickr

Don't panic! by quinn.anya, on Flickr

When something goes wrong, don’t panic. That’s the wrong reaction. We had a new and unusual failure mode in our datacenter UPS. It lost 40% of its capacity and was bouncing back and forth between bypass and battery. For the first few minutes of the situation, I panicked. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything happen that had the potential to take out the entire datacenter. I’ve had situations that had the potential to take the whole network or a critical system down, but that’s different. That’s terribly inconvenient. At the time, I envisioned everything getting fried or maybe just turning off and corrupting all the disks/arrays. Silly worst case scenario thinking. If I had taken a deep breath and calmly assessed the situation, I would have realized that the system should just go to bypass and we’d have to hope there were no major blips from the grid while the problem was assessed.

After recovering my wits, I put the system into bypass and worked with our systems guys to start shutting down anything we could spare. I did some debugging with support, shut down the offending part that was causing the problems, and brought the system back online in a degraded but stable state.

I was very displeased with myself for allowing panic to set in. All it does is slow down your reaction to the situation at hand and prevents you from thinking clearly. It’s also somewhat embarrassing and less than professional. So keep calm, take a deep breath, and think through the problem.

FIN

What Is Your Mindset?

Image by Jacob Bøtter via Flickr

Image by Jacob Bøtter via Flickr

An exchange I had on twitter this morning with Gerald Combs (author of Wireshark) has me thinking about mindset. The exchange went like this:

@geraldcombs: FACT: If you don’t telnet to your web server and talk to it directly once in a while it will get lonely and wither.

@scottm32768: @geraldcombs s/telnet/ssh/

@geraldcombs: @scottm32768 s/ssh/telnet <webserver> 80/

@scottm32768: @geraldcombs Of course. Too much sysadmin, not enough protocol analyst in my thinking this morning.

According to thefreedictionary.com, mindset is “a habitual or characteristic mental attitude that determines how you will interpret and respond to situations.” I was approaching his comment from the wrong mindset, though given the context of who he is I should have realized what he meant. Is a web server a 1RU packet generator running a server OS, or is it the software service that handles requests to ports 80 and 443? Do you ever have this problem when dealing with your customers? In my case, my customers are usually other IT staff in my organization, but occasionally it’s non-IT staff. You need to change your mindset enough to understand where your customer is coming from. I have had highly unproductive conversations with people because our mindsets were so different, we couldn’t even successfully communicate. It would be nice if we could educate our customers to think like a network engineer, but that’s highly unrealistic. It’s our job to change the way we think enough that we can understand the customer’s goal well enough to play our part in helping achieve it.

The next time you’re talking to one of your customers (could be a family member, a coworker, or even someone who wants to pay you) and your conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, you might ask yourself if you need to change your mindset.

FIN