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Geek Speak

113 Posts authored by: Leon Adato Expert

In honor of Stanley Martin Lieber, z''l

Known to most of the world as "Stan Lee"



When we first moved into the Orthodox Jewish world, we were invited to a lot of people's houses for a lot of meals. The community is very tight-knit, and everyone wants to meet new neighbors as soon as they arrive, and so it was something that just happened. Being new – both to the community and to orthodox Judaism in general – I noticed things others might have glossed over. Finally, at the third family’s home, I couldn't contain my curiosity. I asked if everyone we had visited so far were related. No, came the reply, why would I think that? Because, I explained, everyone had the same picture of the same grandfatherly man up on the wall:


Image source: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, from Wikipedia


Our hosts were now equal parts confused and amused. "That's Rabbi Moshe Feinstein," they explained. "He's not our grandfather. He's not the related to anyone in the community, as far as we know."


"Then why on earth," I demanded, "is his picture on the walls of so many people's houses around here?"


The answer was simple, but it didn't make sense to me, at least at the time. People put up pictures of great Rabbis, I was told, because they represent who they aspire to become. By keeping their images visibly present in the home, they hoped to remind themselves of some aspect of their values, their ethics, their lives.







Several years later I was teaching a class of orthodox Jewish twenty-somethings about the world of IT. They were learning about everything from hardware to servers to networking to coding, but I also wanted to ensure they learned about the culture of IT. It started off as well as I'd hoped. When I got to sci-fi in general and comic books specifically, I held up a picture:

Image source: You'll Be Safe Here from Something Terrible, by Dean TrippeImage source: You'll Be Safe Here from Something Terrible, by Dean Trippe


"Can you identify anyone in this picture?" I asked.


Their responses were especially vehement. "Narishkeit" (foolishness) said one guy. "Bittel Torah" (sinful waste of time) pronounced another. And so on.


"Well I can name them all," I continued. “Every single one. And you know why? Because these aren't just characters in a story. These are my friends. And at a certain point in my life, they were my best friends. At the hardest times in my life, they were my only friends."


Now that they could tell I was serious, the dismissiveness was gone. "But not only that," I continued. "Each character in this picture represents a lesson. A value. A set of ethics. That big green dude? He taught me about what happens when we don't acknowledge our anger. That man with the bow tie? I learned how pure the joy of curiosity could be. And the big blue guy with the red cape? He showed me that it was OK to tone down aspects of myself in some situations, and to let them fly free in others."


Then I explained my confusion about the Rabbis on the wall, and how this was very much the same thing, especially for a lot of people working in tech today. And to call it narishkeit was as crude and insulting as it would be to say it was stupid to put up a picture of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein when you're not even related to him.


Then I explained where the picture came from. How author Dean Trippe came to write "Something Terrible" in the first place. At this point, my class might not have understood every nuance of what comic books were all about, but they knew it held a deeper significance than they thought.


Going back to the picture, I asked, "This picture has a name. Do you know what it's called?"


You'll Be Safe Here.


That, I explained, was what comic books meant to me – and to so many of us.


That’s the world that Mr. Lieber – or Stan Lee, as so many knew him – helped create. That’s the lifeline he forged out of ideas and dreams and pulp and ink. That lifeline meant everything to a lot of us.


Ashley McNamara may have put it best: "I repeated 1st grade because I spent that whole year locked in the restroom. The only thing I had were comics. They were an escape from my reality. It was the only thing I had to look forward to and if not for Stan Lee and others I wouldn’t have made it."



The truth is that "Stan Lee" saved more people than all of his costumed creations combined.


And for a lot of people, that's the story. Stan Lee, the man-myth, who helped create a comic empire and was personally responsible for the likes of Spiderman, Captain America, the X-Men, the Black Panther, and so on.


But for me there's just a little bit more. For a Jewish kid in the middle of a Midwest suburban landscape, Mr. Lieber had one more comic-worthy twist of fate. You see he, along with his cohort – Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg), Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bob Kane (Kahn) – they didn't just SAY they were Jewish. They wove their Jewishness into the fabric of what they created. It obviously wasn't overt – none of the comics were called "Amazing Tales of Moses and his Staff of God!" Nor were Jewish themes subversively inserted. It just... was.


Comics told stories which were at once fantastical and familiar to me: a baby put in a basket (I mean rocket ship) and sent to sail across the river (I mean galaxy) to be raised by Pharaoh (I mean Ma and Pa Kent). Or a scrawny, bookish kid from Brooklyn who gets strong and the first thing he does is punch Hitler in the face.


And underlying it all was another Jewish concept: “tikkun olam”. Literally, this phrase means “fixing the world” and if I left it at that, you might understand some of its meaning. But on a deeper level, the concept of tikkun olam means to repair the brokenness of the world by finding and revealing sparks of the Divine which infuse everything. When you help another person – and because of your help they are able to rise above their challenges and become their best selves – you’ve performed tikkun olam. When you take a mundane object and use it for a purpose which creates more good in the world, you have revealed the holy purpose for that object being created in the first place, which is tikkun olam.


When you look at the weird, exotic, fantastical details of comic books – from hammers and shields and lassos and rings to teenagers who discover what comes with great power; and outcast mutants who save the world which rejects them; and aliens who hide behind mild-mannered facades; and Amazonians who turn away from beautiful islands to run toward danger – when you look at all of that, and you don’t see the idea of tikkun olam at play, well, you’re just not paying attention.


Stanley Lieber showed the world (and me) how to create something awesome, incredible, amazing, great, mighty, and fantastic but which could, for all its grandeur, still remain true to the core values that it started with. In fact, in one of his "Stan's Soapbox" responses, he addressed this:


“From time to time we receive letters from readers who wonder why there’s so much moralizing in our mags. They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading, and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all – old time fairy tales and heroic legends – contained moral and philosophical points of view. At every college campus where I may speak there’s as much discussion of war and peace, civil rights, and the so-called youth rebellion as there is of our Marvel mags per se. None of us lives in a vacuum – none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us – events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure our tales can be called escapist – but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains while we read it! Excelsior!”


Excelsior indeed.

To Stanley Martin Lieber, Zichrono Livracha.

(May his memory be for a blessing)

Young girl holding a pen. Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

Recently, my friend Phoummala Schmitt, aka “ExchangeGoddess” and Microsoft Cloud Operations Advocate, wrote about her struggles with imposter syndrome (https://orangematter.solarwinds.com/beating-imposter-syndrome/). It's a good read that I highly recommend. But one element of it stuck with me, like an itch I couldn't quite reach.


I knew this itch wasn't that someone as obviously talented and accomplished as Phoummala would experience imposter syndrome. It's been well-documented that some of the most high-achieving folks struggle with this issue. It wasn't even the advice to "strike a pose" even though—because I work from home—if I did that too often my family might start taking pictures and trolling me on Twitter.


No, the thing that I found challenging was the advice to "fake it."


Now, to be clear, there's nothing particularly wrong with adopting a “fake it till you make it” attitude, if that works for you. The challenge is that for many folks, it reinforces exactly the feelings that imposter syndrome stirs up. The knowledge that I am purposely faking something can work against the ultimate goal of me feeling comfortable in my own skin and my own success.


Then I caught a quote from Neal Gaiman that went viral. The full post is here (http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/160603396711/hi-i-read-that-youve-dealt-with-with-impostor), but the part that really caught my eye was this sentence:


"Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people [...] doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for."


Maybe there weren't any grown-ups.


This gave me the nugget of an idea. If nobody is actually an adult, then what are we? The obvious answer is that we're still kids wearing grown-up suits. We're all playing pretend.


Yes, I know, "playing pretend" is almost the same as "faking it"—except, not really.


When you play pretend you acknowledge the reality that Mrs. Finklestein is really a bear wearing your wig, the necklace you stole is out of Mom's jewelry box, and that there's no tea in the cup—but you simply opt to not focus on that part. You’re focusing on how Mrs. Finklestein just told you the most interesting bit of neighborhood gossip, and that this tea is just the right temperature and delicious. When you play pretend, a magical transformation occurs.


The movie Hook had a lot of drawbacks, but this scene captures the wonder of imagination pretty well.


Imagination can carry us to an important place. A place where we give ourselves permission to go with our craziest guesses, or invest fully in our weirdest ideas. To explore our wildest ramblings and see where it all leads. And more importantly, imagination allows us to run down rabbit holes to a dead end without regret. With imagination, it truly is the journey that matters.


I remember a teacher talking about one of her best techniques for helping students get "un-stuck." When a student would say "I don't know," she would respond, "Imagine you did know. What would you say if that was true?" Sometimes, imagining ourselves in a position of knowing is all it takes to knock a recalcitrant piece of knowledge loose.


As adults, we may feel that imagination is something we set aside long ago. That may be true, but it wasn't to our benefit.


As Robert Fulghum wrote:


"Ask a kindergarten class, ‘How many of you can draw?’ and all hands shoot up. Yes, of course we can draw—all of us. What can you draw? Anything! How about a dog eating a fire truck in a jungle? Sure! How big you want it?


How many of you can sing? All hands. Of course we sing! What can you sing? Anything! What if you don't know the words? No problem, we make them up. Let's sing! Now? Why not!


How many of you dance? Unanimous again. What kind of music do you like to dance to? Any kind! Let's dance! Now? Sure, why not?


Do you like to act in plays? Yes! Do you play musical instruments? Yes! Do you write poetry? Yes! Can you read and write and count? Yes! We're learning that stuff now.


Their answer is ‘Yes!’ Over and over again, ‘Yes!’ The children are confident in spirit, infinite in resources, and eager to learn. Everything is still possible.


Try those same questions on a college audience. A small percentage of the students will raise their hands when asked if they draw or dance or sing or paint or act or play an instrument. Not infrequently, those who do raise their hands will want to qualify their response with their limitations: ‘I only play piano, I only draw horses, I only dance to rock and roll, I only sing in the shower.’


When asked why the limitations, college students answer they do not have talent, are not majoring in the subject, or have not done any of these things since about third grade, or worse, that they are embarrassed for others to see them sing or dance or act. You can imagine the response to the same questions asked of an older audience. The answer: no, none of the above.


What went wrong between kindergarten and college?


What happened to ‘YES! Of course I can’?"

(excerpted from “Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door” by Robert Fulghum)


So, I want to fuse these ideas together. Ideas that:

  • We sometimes feel like imposters, about to be discovered for the frauds we feel we are
  • "Fake it till you make it" doesn't go far enough to help us avoid those feelings
  • Maybe none of us are actually grown-ups, but instead are still our childlike selves, all acting the part of adults
  • Imagination is one of our most powerful tools to get past our rigid self-image and gives us permission to playact
  • And that the childlike ability to say "YES, of course I can" is infinitely more valuable than we might have once thought


Maybe we need to take to heart what Gaiman said. There aren't any grown-ups. Every adult you know is a little kid wearing a big-person suit, muddling along and hoping nobody notices. But we need to take it to heart, accept it, and own it. Own the fact that we're little kids. Reclaim the brash, the bold, the brazen selves we used to be. When you’re experiencing an attack of self-doubt, I encourage you to imagine you’re 8 years old—your 8-year-old self—doing the same task. How would that kid go about it?


Sure, in the years since then we've all had a few scrapes and bumps.


But that doesn't mean we should stop imagining what it would be like to fly.

Leon Adato


Posted by Leon Adato Expert Oct 30, 2018

My wife called me for the third time, and I could hear that she was working hard to remain calm but was undeniably at the end of her rope. She had missed the freeway exit. For the third time. And was going to be late for our lunch date. Could I PLEASE tell her JUST ONE MORE TIME what the exit name was?


We were in Switzerland. The company I worked for had moved us there just a week earlier, and my wife was meeting me so we could have a quick lunch and then go house hunting. I told her, again, that the exit was "sheb." Since this was our third time on the phone, I was beginning to doubt myself. Did I have the exit name wrong?


And that's when it hit me. My wife's second language is Spanish. I, on the other hand, learned French growing up. For those unfamiliar with linguistic differences, Spanish is a delightfully phonetic language. It is almost impossible to misspell a word in Spanish, presuming you know how to say it out loud. French? Not so much. I had been telling her to get off at the exit named "sheb," because my French-speaking brain never gave it a second thought.


And how do you spell "sheb" in the French-speaking part of Switzerland? (Answer: "chexbres")


I learned something that day about how I process and communicate directions, regardless of the language. Those lessons continued for the duration of our stay. Of course, distances and speeds were measured in kilometres. But it turns out the Swiss don't hold much stock in street signs. Roads operate as a network of roundabouts pointing to various villages. Getting from place to place means knowing you are going from Lausanne to Crissier to Pully to Renens. It's a far cry from "turn north at Elm and Wadsworth."


Directions, it turns out, are an incredible way to find out how someone thinks, and how they might work (both as an individual and within a team). Not just in terms of geography, but in other areas as well.


From time to time during my IT career, I've been on the other side of the desk, evaluating people we wanted to hire.


I discovered a few truths early on.


  • Everyone's background and path to IT is as unique as are their personalities, so you can never expect to understand someone's skills or level of accomplishment just by looking at how they got here.
  • Asking cookie-cutter technical questions rarely tells you anything except whether the individual on the other side of the table is good at answering cookie-cutter technical questions.
  • Questions like "tell me your biggest shortcoming" rarely elicit an honest answer (let alone foster a sense of trust or open-ness).
  • Questions that begin with "Tell me about a time when ...." are really an invitation to see if the candidate could improvise a work of fiction on the spot.
  • Asking deep technical questions usually just proves whether the candidate knows the same weird trivia about a certain technology that I know well, rather than whether they have meaningful skills to bring to the job.


After a bunch of really bad interviews, I was struggling with this issue yet again when I thought back to that day with my wife on the phone in Switzerland, and it all clicked. The next time I had a chance to interview a candidate, I threw out all the other frou-frou and tested my theory:


"Tell me how to get to your favorite restaurant."


The beauty of this question is that it's immediately obvious there's no wrong answer, and equally obvious that there's no way to "game" the system. You can't fake your way through it to give the answer the interviewer wants. You can't study a list of really good answers or crib off someone else. For the interviewer, this question also cancels out interviewer bias. Directions aren't dogmatic, and even if a candidate gives a different route to a location I know, that's not the point of the question anyway.


It's the way in which the candidate answers which reveals so much.


Do they ask clarifying questions? Things like “From here, or from your house?” or “Are you walking, biking, or driving?” or my favorite, “Are you a north-south person, a left-right person, or a ‘There's a K-mart on the corner’ person?”


Do they validate that I'm understanding their instructions? Anything from "Does that make sense?" to "Do you want a minute to write this down?"


Do they ensure that I'm even interested in going to that location? "Hey, my favorite restaurant is this weird little Thai place. Do you like Thai food?"


Do they skip all the niceties and just give me their set of directions, without preamble?


When I ask for clarification or even change the rules ("Oh, I forgot to tell you, I love public transportation. Can you get a bus to this place?") are they able to adapt?


And still, the point is that there's no right answer. I may be interviewing for a position where I need the employee to get right down to business, to avoid chit chat, to execute instructions as documented. Or I might be looking for a someone who can put themselves in the user's place, and therefore ask a lot of clarifying questions.


In the world of IT, there's an almost continuous focus on understanding where we've been, by collecting and analyzing baseline data; where we are, in terms of real time system statistics and performance metrics; and of where we're going, in terms of predictive analysis and data-based recommendations.


And maybe because of this, we can lose sight of two other data sets that are incredibly important: how we came to be here, and how we want to get to the step of our destination.

Whether you’re a seasoned IT professional or a tech newbie just trying to get into the IT game, you’ve probably noticed that alerts can be a real pain—if not managed correctly.


Don’t let alerts control your life and bring down your monitoring. Join me and SolarWinds engineer Mario Gomez during the session “Alerts, How I Hate Thee,” as we hash out some of the real struggles that poorly crafted alerts can create,and then discuss practical solutions to improving your alerts and resolving these issues. Some alerting topics we’ll dive into include: understanding and leveraging the differences between an alert scope versus a trigger;  the best time to trigger an alert; best practices for testing your alerts; and options for sending notifications that give a break to your poor old email system. And of course, we’ll also look at some options for integrating alerting into external systems like Slack and ServiceNow as well as using automation to take your alerting to a whole new level. After all this discussion and analysis, we’ll all hopefully come out the other side hating alerts a little less and starting to enjoy the benefits proper alerting can have on monitoring.


This session is just one of many that you can look forward to during THWACKcamp 2018. Taking place from October 17 – 18, this two-day, premier online event is entirely free! Enjoy the event from the comfort of your computer—wherever that may be—as you learn from SolarWinds Head Geeks and a wide array of technical experts, all of whom bring their different backgrounds and areas of expertise to the table. Be a part of an important industry discussion that will gear you up for all the IT goals you want to meet in the coming year. If you haven’t already, be sure to register so you don’t miss out on this year’s THWACKcamp!

We all start out somewhere. Our first taste of technology somehow leads to that first server build, switch config, or line of code. Which, in turn, leads to our first “real” tech job and a slew of other firsts—first time leading a project, first outage, and maybe even the first promotion. Somewhere along the way, you had your first chance to work with SolarWinds® tools.


While experienced IT professionals can look back (hopefully with fondness), many of us are just getting our legs under us when it comes to SolarWinds solutions. Right now. Here. Today. And that’s what this session is all about: helping you get up to speed quickly and avoid the feeling of hunt-and-peck that often comes when learning a new software suite.


In this THWACKcamp 2018 session, I’ll be joined by fellow Head Geek Destiny Bertucci  to give a tour of the most important features, screens, tools, and utilities that you’ll need in those critical first days, whether you are completely new to the role of monitoring engineer, or are experienced with monitoring but new to SolarWinds.


Want to make sure you attend this and other sessions during this year’s THWACKcamp? Be sure to register for THWACKcamp and plan out the sessions you’ll attend on October 17 – 18. Not sure if you’ve budgeted enough to attend this premier online event? Don’t sweat it! THWACKcamp is completely free. You don’t even have to worry about travel expenses—just make sure you have access to Wi-Fi. SolarWinds Head Geeks and a wide array of technical experts will be hosting these sessions, as well as answering your questions in a live chat, so you can walk away feeling like you can take on any IT challenge that comes your way. Can’t wait to see you there!

In this day and age, good security can make or break your business, your IT, or even your personal life. Security is something that everyone thinks about—from “Did I lock my door before I left?” to “Do I really have a strong enough login to protect my vital data?” That said, there are some environments where security is of the utmost concern. A prime example of this high-stakes security is the U.S. government, as SolarWinds’ IT management work with our Federal customers has shown us time and time again.


During this THWACKcamp session, “What the US Government Can Teach You About Securing SolarWinds,” I’ll be joined by Paul Parker, SolarWinds Chief Technologist for the Federal & National Government, as we thoroughly review some of the helpful security techniques employed by Federal IT teams and how they can be applied to any business, regardless of size or security needs. We’ll certainly take a look at the SolarWinds products that are commonly used by government agencies for cybersecurity and how they can play a part in helping to optimize your security. Through thoughtful demos, we’ll review Active Directory integration and how it can assist with single sign-on, multi-factor authentication, and CAC, as well as Network Configuration Manager (NCM) compliance policy reports. We’ll also share some real-life examples of port requirements and security gone wrong. These talking points are just the tip of the iceberg of what you’ll get during this THWACKcamp session.


Can’t wait for THWACKcamp 2018? In all your excitement, don’t forget to register for this premier online IT event, where SolarWinds Head Geeks and IT experts will provide you with IT sessions focused on helping you improve your IT knowledge and skills. Taking place between October 17 – 18, this event is entirely free and virtual, meaning there’s really nothing holding you back from taking your IT skills to the next level and gearing up for all of your 2018 goals.

If you attended last year’s THWACKcamp (it was pretty great, if you weren’t able to watch), then I’m sure you’ll remember our session providing tools and insight on how to help network engineers monitor like SysAdmins. So, it’s only fair that during THWACKcamp 2018 we do the reverse—showing SysAdmins how they can monitor like network engineers.


Joining me for this session “Monitoring Like a Network Engineer When You’re a SysAdmin” will be fellow Head Geek Destiny Bertucci and SolarWinds Technical Content Manager Kevin Sparenberg. While both SysAdmins and network engineers are vital to IT, they’re doing and seeing things from completely different vantage points, which can make it challenging—but not impossible—to switch places. SysAdmins are used to changes being just a click away and totally visible. On the other hand, network engineers are pressed to see things from multiple perspectives, in a much less graphical fashion. What can make this seemingly large gap more manageable? The answer is, simply, the right tools. We’ll walk you through several demos, including looking at IP Address Manager (IPAM), NetPath, and Network Configuration Manager (NCM), so you can have a first-hand look at how easily these tools can turn a SysAdmin into a network engineer—well, at least for a day.


Are you ready for THWACKcamp 2018? Taking place October 17 – 18, this entirely free, online IT event is something we’ve been looking forward to since THWACKcamp 2017 wrapped up, and we’re excited for you to join us. Not sure you can make a last-minute trip to the event? Not a problem. THWACKcamp is completely virtual, so you can enjoy sessions and chat live with SolarWinds Head Geeks

and IT experts from the comfort of your laptop. All you have to do is register and carve out some time to learn about all the latest in the world of IT.

As an IT pro, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that monitoring is a not so secret key to your success, whether you are focused on networking, applications, storage, cloud, or some other area of the IT stack. While you may be hyper-focused and dedicated to your monitoring and the data it relays back to you, have you ever stopped to think, “What’s monitoring my monitoring?” This may sound like a never-ending loop of monitors monitoring monitoring systems (say that 10 times fast), but it’s actually something quite necessary and very feasible to do—with the right help and tools, of course.


In this THWACKcamp 2018 session, we’ll explore the different techniques and tools that can help ensure your monitoring itself is running smoothly and being properly watched. With the expertise of my co-host and Orion® Core Program Manager, Kate Asaff, we’ll enjoy an informative discussion, as well as several relevant demos, surrounding the topic of monitoring. Learn how hot-ticket issues like syslog, traps, and orphan records can be remedied thanks to the latest build of Network Performance Monitor 12.3 (NPM). Want to know how you can take care of your monitoring and not break the bank? Luckily, there’s plenty of free tools you can employ to help keep an eye on the health of your monitoring, including Traceroute NG, Storage Response Time Monitor, and the free version of Database Performance Analyzer (DPA). Not to mention, we’ll walk you through some of the great, popular SolarWinds tools employed for tracking your monitoring systems, including NetFlow Traffic Analyzer, Legacy Orion Server, and more.


Want to make sure you attend this and other sessions during this year’s THWACKcamp? Be sure to register for THWACKcamp and plan out the sessions you’ll attend on October 17 – 18. Not sure if you’ve budgeted enough to attend this premier online event? Don’t sweat it! THWACKcamp is completely free. You don’t even have to worry about travel expenses—just make sure you have access to Wi-Fi. SolarWinds Head Geeks and a wide array of technical experts will be hosting these sessions, as well as answering your questions in a live chat, so you can walk away feeling like you can take on any IT challenge that comes your way. Can’t wait to see you there!

For THWACKcamp 2018, I had a chance to return to a task/skill I haven't really done much of in a while: programming. That may be a surprise for some people, so let me explain.


I have done a lot in my career, from desktop support to systems administration to network engineering. And there's been a decent amount of scripting involved. But I'm not "A Programmer." As anyone will tell you, a batch file or shell script can be sophisticated and even elegant, but it's still not the same as "real" programming. What I usually say is that "nobody ever wept with joy at the beauty of my code. In fact, the most complimentary thing anyone's said is 'well, uh, it ran. I guess'."


And I'm okay with that. I never aspired to be a "real" programmer. The thought of spending each and every day coding does not excite me. Again, that's okay, and if coding is your jam, that's okay too. I'm not hating on anyone.


All of that said, though, there's something deeply satisfying when I—an avowed script kiddie—can bang out a few lines in something more sophisticated than BaSH and get something to run. Better yet, something that runs with consistent results. Best of all, something that does something that I don't have to do any more. So I do understand the thrill and attraction of programming. I just don't want to do it all the time.


As we prepared for THWACKcamp 2018, I had a chance to flex those rusty programming muscles for the first time in a while. Kevin Sparenberg offered me a chance to join him and Zack Mutchler for the session "There's an API For That," where we dug into the ways that the Orion® application programming interface (API) could be used to bend SolarWinds solutions to your will, to help you achieve your greatest monitoring automation desires. In terms of raw programming experience, Kevin and Zack are lightyears ahead of me, which made the entire experience both awesome (because I got to learn) and daunting (because I didn't want to look like a complete noob). But it was also a great chance for me to mentally track the experience so I could tell you about it here.


It took me a while to figure out what I wanted my example to DO. Honestly, this is a weird problem to have since my regular everyday problems "volunteer" themselves to be solved all the time. Here I had to go looking for a problem that was understandable to a broad audience, simple enough that I could present a solution in about 10 minutes, and was something that *I* could solve with programming. But after a few days, I finally hit on something that seemed plausible. My only challenge was that, due to travel, writing commitments, and a week-long holiday, “after a few days" put me about 4 days before our record date. So I had to work fast.


I decided to do my example in Perl. As I explained in the session, I did it partly out of sheer stubborn-ness, and partly because I wanted to show that ANY language (even one that is, admittedly, NOT the best choice) will work with the Orion API. But I had one more reason: It's the programming language I know best, and like I said, I didn't have a ton of time.


Coming back to programming felt like returning to a foreign country where I'd spent a summer in my teens. Back then, I was fluent. I wasn't native, but I could get around, make myself understood, and not say embarrassing things in the grocery store. But years later, all I have left are vague recollections and muscle memory. Like a spoken language, in every new line of code I encountered a, "Doesn't it work like that? Wait... let me look it up... Oh that's right! THIS is how I used to do it!" moment. The curve to get back to my old skill level was steep (because I was remembering and re-familiarizing, not re-learning), but even so, it took time.


As I worked, I adopted a habit that I use in my writing, something I learned from a 2014 interview with Joss Whedon. In discussing how he gets things done, Whedon advises writing the fun part first, the part where your heart is. Then when you have to buckle down and do the hard work, the "dog's body" work, as he puts it, you're motivated because you have all this amazing stuff that's just sitting there waiting for you to connect the dots.


So I wrote the fun bits of the script first. I'm not going to tell you which parts for me were fun because sometimes it was just, "Oh, I get to use this command that has a good memory for me," and other times it's, "I love this function because it's so efficient." (I have an almost unwholesome love for the "chomp();" command for that exact reason.)


What I didn't do—what, in hindsight, I SHOULD have done—was write from the center. I should have gotten the core function down first, and worked outward from there. So much about the core determines what happens at the edge. In a way, that's the same thing Joss was teaching. He said "fun part" but he really meant "the meaty, important, essential" part. I went for actual fun. I should have looked for meat (I believe my fellow Head Geek Thomas LaRock, a.k.a. "Bacon Man," would concur).


Because all of a sudden, I got to the most important line—the one that did all the heavy lifting. It was also the piece of code that I had ZERO experience with previously. Unlike the earlier work where I was re-familiarizing myself with what I already knew, THIS was learning. This was the moment I had to go and figure it all out from scratch. And at this point, it was 8 p.m. the night before the recording.


That's right, I'm baring my soul to you now. The guy you see on camera couldn't get that code running just 12 hours earlier. But you know what, that's not dirty laundry. That's business as usual for most of us in IT. It's not running, and we put in the time and the sweat (and maybe a few tears are shed, and maybe a little scotch is imbibed), and we get it working.


I worked the problem until I literally couldn't see straight. And then I let it go. That's a skill that has taken me years to accept. That sometimes you have to put it down to solve it. I got a few hours’ sleep and came into work the next day, and found the best programmer I could find. Luckily, the best person I could find was also the person who more or less invented the Orion API—Tim Danner. I found him at his desk, coffee already installed, and with a spare five minutes.


Let me take a momentary aside and share some important lessons I've picked up in my career.

  1. Being able to ask for help may be one of the most important skills a programmer can learn.
  2. Knowing WHEN to ask—meaning not so fast that you clearly haven't even tried to solve the problem yourself, but not so long that you are completely underwater—is a close second.
  3. Following right on the heels of one and two is knowing WHO to ask.


I explained my issue, I showed Tim both where I was stuck and what resources (documentation, etc.) I had gone to. Tim immediately saw that I was stuck from a combination of lack of experience doing REST calls in Perl (which should surprise nobody because Perl is not exactly the go-to language for this kind of thing) and documentation. He was able to fix both of those, and my code, before the coffee on his desk had cooled off.


I headed down to the studio with a spring in my step, with a working script on my laptop, and with my feelings about programming both confirmed and renewed. It's a fun place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.


For those who are curious, you can find my post detailing the ACTUAL script here.


The SolarWinds trademarks, service marks, and logos are the exclusive property of SolarWinds Worldwide, LLC or its affiliates. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

Recently a coworker was giving a talk and he just froze up. When I asked him about it later, he said, "What happened yesterday has never happened before. It was like my throat clenched up and I couldn’t get words out. It psyched me out."


For just a moment, I'd like you to think about a time you failed. Like, REALLY failed. I don't mean a small "I took the wrong exit on the highway" goofs. Or the "I forgot my Mom's birthday" mess ups. I'm also not talking about a time you were part of an organizational or team failure where you look back and think, "Why didn't I speak up? Why didn't I step up?"


I'm also not talking about failures which were embarrassing, but in retrospect sweet and kind of normal. Like the time a certain freshman asked out the homecoming queen to prom. (Yes, I did. No, she didn't accept, but she was nice about it. Everyone else in the hall by the quad where I decided to ask her? Not so much.). Nope. I want you to think about a moment when you really really blew it. Dropped the ball. Failed to deliver.


Now, as you sit there, possibly wallowing in uncomfortable feelings (and maybe even feeling resentful that I brought it up), I'd like to suggest that you understand something really important:


It happens to everyone.


As evidence, I'd like to present a few case studies, including the one with my coworker.


Case #1: Yours truly.

In my senior year of college, I heard about an off-Broadway production of "Sweeney Todd" that was being produced by some folks I'd worked with previously.


That sentence deserves to be un-wound for those who aren't familiar with the New York theater scene.

1) Off-Broadway means getting paid, but it also means getting your Actor's Equity card. This is a Big Deal.

2) "Being produced by some folks I'd worked with previously" means I had a potential leg-up in the audition process. Getting cast wasn't a sure thing, but an in is an in.

3) "Sweeney Todd" was (and still is) my all-time favorite production.


Given my age and vocal range, I would be auditioning for Toby, my all-time favorite part who sings my all-time favorite song ("Not While I'm Around") in my all-time favorite play. I planned, I prepared, I rehearsed. As a senior in a large theater program, I had all the tools I needed—coaches, head shots, the works. I showed up for the audition. I knew two out of the four people in the room. We made some small talk. They asked if I was ready. The piano started.


I missed my entrance.


No biggie, everyone said. It happens. The pianist started over.


I missed it again. And again. The pianist tried to mouth the words to help me. No dice.


Confidence plummeting, panic rising, it was like I was underwater. I couldn't hear the notes any more. Couldn't find my voice.


I muttered an apology and got out of there as fast as I could. As I walked down the street I tried to wrap my head around what happened. There was no sugarcoating it, no handy excuses. I had bombed what should have been a sure thing. Instead of a home run, I had struck out on a slow-mo’, underhand toss, softball pitch.


Wallowing in my sense of defeat and embarrassment, the only thing I had to fall back on was a story my Dad had told me.


Case #2: My Dad.

This is a story about my Dad, Joseph Adato. THE Joseph Adato. Which sounds funny until you realize he's kind of a big deal in classical music circles (for examples, start with this book. And this one.)


He started playing drums at 10. At 18, he was playing in New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony of the Air on an as-needed basis. So then one day he gets called up to the big leagues. There was a full-time opening in the New York Philharmonic percussion section. Slam dunk, right? He shows up, music under his arm. Everything is set. His long-time teacher and a few other orchestra members are sitting there. All faces he knows. 


He bombed it.


When he told me the story, he said, "It might as well have been bugs on the page. I had NO IDEA what I was looking at."


He knew the music. He probably could have played it from memory if he thought about it. But he honestly could not tell what he was looking at. He apologized, walked off, and went home.


Case #3: Lily Tomlin

Back in the 80s, I had the pleasure of seeing Lily Tomlin perform her one-woman show "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." The show itself was amazing, but at the very start, something incredible happened that changed the way I looked at "failure" from that point forward.


Ms. Tomlin came out on stage and began her monologue. And then, mid-sentence, she stopped. Took a deep breath. Said (mostly to herself), "umm...."


It was clear she was off, that something wasn't clicking for her. And what she did next stuck with me. She looked out at the audience. Not the way people look when they are performing—kind of a hazy "stare at the back wall" kind of way. She looked around at the people sitting in the audience. She acknowledged them.


At that moment, even as a theater student, I had no idea what would happen next. But I knew it wouldn't be any of the cliched responses you see or hear about—people freezing, running into the wings in tears, covering their face in their hands, etc.


Ms. Tomlin just stood there, smiling, taking us all in. Then she said, "I know this is going to sound funny, but this is a little overwhelming for me today. Do you mind if I just grab a glass of water for a second?"  Someone from the wings came on and handed her a bottle of water and she walked to the front of the stage, sat on the edge, and made small talk. With us. She asked about the weather outside, how traffic was getting to the theater, that kind of thing. Then about three minutes later, she said, "Okay, I think I'm good. Thank you," and she got up. She said, "Let's get this thing started," and she launched into her opening monologue.


Lessons Learned:

With my two failure stories (mine and my Dad's) under my belt, I thought long and hard about what I'd just witnessed. Here's what I learned.


First, if you are overwhelmed, or scared, or confused, own it. Don't try to shove it under an emotional rug because the result is that ALL of your emotions become inaccessible. Even if you are giving a quarterly report, you need to be fully present as a human being or bad things start to happen.


Second, remember that everyone wants you to succeed. Think about going to the circus. Do you WANT to see the tightrope walker fall to their... well, not death, but their embarrassment? No. You want to see the struggle, you want to know it's not all fake, but you want to see them succeed. You are literally CHEERING for them to succeed.


We're all like that. We watch someone up there giving a talk and we want them to be brilliant, to teach us, to make us laugh. And when they misstep, we don't immediately write them off. We think, "Come ON! You can DO it!"


So when YOU go up there, remember that is what is in everyone's mind. Every single person in that audience is silently hoping that you will be incredible. They are cheering you on. The applause has started before you say your first word.


If you keep that in mind, A LOT of the jitters go away. It becomes clear, and even urgent, that you work through any challenges, whether they last a moment, an hour, or a week.


All of this—my experience and my Dad’s and Lily Tomlin’s—was a large part of the conversation I had with my coworker as we talked through it. Let's be clear, his freezing up wasn't the end of his life or his career. It wasn't even the worst part of his week. (Hey, we all have weeks like that, right?) I told him, "So yesterday happened, but ‘yesterday’ has happened to everyone. Dad. Adele, Elvis. Pavarotti. All of them. You're in good company."


He said, "I hate to rejoice in your story of epic failure, but it's comforting to know I'm not alone."


I replied, "You aren't. You're rejoicing in the normalcy of it, in the reassuring consistency of the human condition and experience."


But the next time he got up to speak, it was clear he was approaching things differently. No, he didn't stop in the middle and say, "This is really overwhelming." He didn't need to. He was on top of it. But sometimes that's the point. If he did need it, the trick was there for him to use.


Sometimes, just knowing we have a tool in our back pocket makes the difference between success and failure.


The SolarWinds trademarks, service marks, and logos are the exclusive property of SolarWinds Worldwide, LLC or its affiliates.  All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.


Leon Adato

Happy IT Pro Day!

Posted by Leon Adato Expert Sep 18, 2018

As we all know, lists and their thinly-veiled derivatives, listicles, drive social media. Post the "Top 5 Kinds of Bellybutton Lint" and you'll probably get at least a few clicks from people with 5 minutes and nothing better to read. One of the popular lists going around right now are "The Smartest People I Know Do xxx"-type lists. Attributed to everyone from Bill Gates to Abraham Lincoln, they supposedly offer a window into the habits of the rich, famous, powerful, and successful.


Of course, many of these kinds of lists have as their honored ancestor the book which arguably started the self-help book trend, Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."


Early in my career, I was dutifully reading through it when my boss, Maria, asked me, "What makes anyone think that Covey, or the people he used as sources for that book, were actually effective?" I was caught up short. I mean, the book had already sold over 25 million copies. But my boss knew her stuff, and she was, like all the best tech professionals, asking to see the data before she wasted a single processing cycle on executing those instructions.


I thought about what she taught me, as we were ramping up for IT Professional Day 2018. It's not that Covey's book or those listicles are necessarily wrong, it's just that they're just not demonstrably true, either. There's no data. Which is why I'm so proud of the Tech Pro Day survey (https://www.solarwinds.com/resources/survey/tech-pro-survey-north-america). Rather than ask thought leaders or folks in tech management what they THINK would be effective, we asked boots-on-the-ground IT pros what they do and how they relate to the tech that makes up so much of their world. The survey applies data to understand what effective and engaged IT practitioners are doing, both to be effective and to keep themselves feeling engaged.


What we learned painted a picture of the habits highly effective tech pros.

  1. We help others. Even when it's not strictly our job, we answer help tickets and take "drive by" questions.
  2. The user is never far from our mind. Their experience, their needs, the tasks they are trying to complete are paramount.
  3. When new tech comes on the scene, our first thought is how to use it make things better close to home—the business, our day-to-day tasks, and so on.
  4. But our second thought is how to use it to make the world better—education, housing, healthcare, the environment, and more.
  5. We honestly love the tech we've built a career around, so much that we use our free time to build our skills; we incorporate tech into our home projects; and we even leverage tech to make our vacations more, well, techie.


More than anything, what showed through the data was how engaged we are with the industry. Not content to wait for the latest innovation to roll into our shop (or over us like a techno-tidal wave), we actively seek it out, play with early betas, share ideas on forums, and to generally be the best at what they do.


You could say that the number one habit of highly effective IT professionals is to be Tech PROactive.


So, however YOU plan to celebrate, acknowledge, or observe IT Pro Day this year, everyone here at SolarWinds want you to know that it's no baseless rumor, no urban legend, but hard data-sourced fact: Your skills are essential to the business and your work is appreciated. You are awesome.





It was LinkedIn that reminded me how long it's been. A sudden flood of "Congratulations on your work anniversary" messages (thank you, by the way, to everyone all the well-wishers) hit my inbox, little popup messages lining the bottom of the dedicated tab in Google Chrome. My first thought was, "has it been that long?" which was followed almost immediately by, "OF COURSE it's been that long."


It's similar to the thought parents think about their kids: "Where has the time gone?" followed by a rush of memories, each one distinct and unique, carrying their own particular imprint on our emotions. Every one of the more than 1,460 days is there, if I think hard enough about it. Not all of them have been perfect days. In many moments, I was not at my best. No matter how much fun I have at it, work is still work.


But what amazing work it's been.


Over the last four years, I have had the joy and privilege to meet so many amazing people, many of whom you've gotten to know along with me: experts in the field who have the ear of thousands; brilliant minds within SolarWinds who are setting the course of our products and inventing, sometimes out of whole cloth, new methods of doing things we had only imagined a few years ago; and people who have transitioned from one to the other (and sometimes back again). But along with those who shine brightly and capture our attention—be it in blogs, videos, webinars, or eBooks—there are incredible people I work with every day who are quietly brilliant, consistently awesome, dependably insightful. These are folks who avoid the spotlight (and a few who actively run from the room if a camera is turned on), but who are passionate and driven and engaged and skilled. And this job has allowed me to work with all of them. To learn from them. And occasionally teach them something, even if it's on the history of Dungeons & Dragons, or how to correctly pronounce "challah."


Second only to the people is the work itself. When I told my wife about the job after my first interview—how I'd be writing for publications, blogging, creating video content, and speaking at industry events—she said, "I hope you didn't tell them you'd have done all that for free!" I would have, but I wouldn't have had the chance to do it quite so much. In four years, I've had the chance to create 12 eBooks, write 254 essays or blog posts, and appear in 176 videos. Yes, yes, #humblebrag. I'm celebrating my Head Geekiversary. I think I've earned a little bit of workplace pride.


I've had four glorious years to venture out to conventions and user groups and meet people who use SolarWinds products to solve their very real, very important challenges. To help celebrate (and as often as I can, publicly share) their successes and to hopefully be part of resolving any of the challenges they've faced. To marvel at the arc of their careers, whether they were just getting started, somewhere in the middle, or reflecting back after many years.


And you know what? After all this time, it's still my dream job. It's still every bit as thrilling to me today when I get to tell people "I'm a Head Geek for SolarWinds" as it was back on that very first day (My name is Leon Adato, and I'm a SolarWinds Head Geek ).


So thank you again to everyone who messaged me with "congratulations," both for the kind words and for the chance to stop and take a moment to appreciate just how wonderful it's been.


The SolarWinds trademarks, service marks, and logos are the exclusive property of SolarWinds Worldwide, LLC or its affiliates. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

("The Echo Chamber" is a semi-regular series where I reflect back on a talk, video, or essay I've published. More than just a re-hashing of the same topic, I'll add insights as to what has changed, or what I would say differently if I were doing it today.)


Back in March 2018, I gave an online talk about monitoring, mapping, and data visualizations in general titled, "If an Application Fails in the Datacenter and No Users Are On It, Will it Cut a Ticket?" If you'd like to listen to the original, you can find it online here: http://video.solarwinds.com/watch/GUHjEnraRAJCKYMDHkDK8D.


The talk focused on the power that visualization has in our lives as humans navigating the world, but more importantly as IT practitioners practicing our craft. It looked at how the correct visualization can transform raw data not just into "information" (meaningful data that has a context and a story) but further into action.


Looking back now, I realize that I missed a few opportunities to share some ideas—and I plan to correct that in this essay.


What Is a Map, Anyway?

In the webinar, I focused on several methods of visualization and how they help us. But I never quite defined the essential features that make a map more than just a pretty picture. For that, I'm going to turn to the preeminent voice speaking about maps as they relate to technology and business: Simon Wardley (@SWardley on Twitter). In short, he states that a picture must portray two things to be a map: position and movement.


The best example of a map that doesn't look like a map but IS one, according to Mr. Wardley's definition, is a chess board. If you showed a picture of a chess game at any point in play, it would convey (for those who can read it) both the current position of pieces and where each piece could potentially move in the future. Moreover, to someone VERY familiar with the game, a snapshot of the current board can also provide insight into where the pieces were. All with a single picture. THAT is a map: position and movement.


With that definition out of the way, the next missed opportunity is for me to dig into the specific different types of network maps. In my mind, this breaks down into three basic categories: physical, logical, and functional.


Mapping the Physical

Mapping the actual runs of cable, their terminations, etc., may be tantalizing in its concrete-ness. It is, in fact, the closest visual representation of your "true" network environment. But there is a question of depth. Do you need every NIC, whether it has something plugged in or not? How about pin-outs? How about cable types? Cable manufacturers? Backup power lines? And of course, it's nearly impossible to generate this type of map automatically.


Mapping the Logical

Most network maps fall into this category. It is less interested in the physical layer than the way data connections behave in the environment, and therefore more accurately represents the movement of data even if you can't always tell how the cabling work.


Mapping the Functional

This type of map is the one your users and systems administrators want to see: one that represents the way application traffic logically (but not physically) flows through an environment. That said, as a network map, it's sub-optimal because application servers aren't always physical. The depth of the map is in question, and it's purposely obfuscating the network infrastructure in favor of showing data flows, so it's usefulness to network engineers is minimal.


For IT practitioners, the question that sits at the core of ALL of this—when to use maps, what kinds of maps to use, what tools to use to make those maps—is a single question:

"What will create those maps automatically, and keep them updated with ZERO effort on my part?"

Because, in my humble opinion (not to mention experience), if a map has to be manually built or maintained, it is more likely NOT to get built and it is almost certainly NOT going to be maintained, which means it is out of date almost as soon as it's published.


And take it from me, having a map that is wrong is worse than having no map at all.


As a side note, I recently revisited these themes in a larger way as part of a new SolarWinds eBook - Mapping Network Environments, which you can find here.


Hey everyone, I've had a chance to decompress and gather my thoughts from Cisco Live US 2018 (#CLUS18, as the cool kids say). So, pour yourself a liquid refreshment, sit back, and let me tell you how it went.


Location, Location, Location

After two years in the climatological hellscape that is Las Vegas (June clocks in at about 110 degrees!), Orlando made a refreshing change. And I'm told that our week at Cisco Live was pretty typical: It hovered around 90 degrees, was humid enough that you could use a jet ski to get from the hotel to the venue, and there was a torrential downpour each night around 5 p.m. Not that I'm complaining. OK, maybe a little.


However, folks down near the house of the mouse have mastered the art of A/C—you never went into hypothermic shock from walking into a store, bus, or convention center. You just walked in and it was... good. Nice. And the afternoon rains tended to cool everything down, but they didn't stick around long enough to completely trash whatever nighttime plans you made.


The View from the Booth

I'm going to write more about this elsewhere, but the thing that struck me most was that software defined networking (SDN) seems to have finally arrived (at least for some) in the enterprise. This was the first time a customer—a real live, breathing, non-carrier customer—came to the booth and told me they were running SDN in their production environment. And they were REALLY running it: 2 production and 2 dev environments. That shows me SDN (via Cisco’s ACI and yes, it’s different, but close enough for this conversation) is finally finding a place in the typical enterprise, not just ISPs.


Meanwhile, folks who visited the booth had an insanely positive response to the SolarWinds story. Make no mistake, scalability is an evergreen topic that comes up at EVERY show. But with the improvements introduced in NPM 12.3 (and NTA 4.4, and NCM 7.8), it was such a fun conversation. It was the first time that people told me “Oh, THAT much? Oh, we don't need THAT much.” Automated mapping put a smile on people’s faces. And the interface code snippets were the sleeper “take my money” hit of the convention.


This year we had a prime spot and got to view a lot of the typical #CLUS antics up close. Of course, people came to us to help satisfy their #SocksOfCLUS cravings. #KiltedMonday was extremely well-attended (and included our own Kevin Sparenberg). And this year saw the first ever #ColumnsOfCLUS trend, where people took selfies next to the columns with SolarWinds information on it for fun, fame, and even prizes.


Heard it Through the Grapevine

This year I heard some amazingly compelling stories from attendees that helped me understand the boots-on-the-ground reality for network specialists.


One person I spoke to has been in networking for over 3 decades. This was his first Cisco Live since San Diego in 2015. He attended the full week including the Sat/Sun sessions and came away both impressed and slightly depressed. His comment was that “DNA looks amazing. We have to have it. But Cisco needs to understand that for guys like me, there’s an 8-year lead time. Going to DNA isn't like replacing our 3650s with 4900 series devices one at a time as budget permits. To make this new technology work, all our infrastructure has to change. I work in the medical sector. We’ve got money. But it’s hard to justify new gear when the current gear is still passing packets. I’ll keep an eye on it, but it ain’t happening right now.”


Another IT pro had a more hopeful story for me regarding his growth. He was working as a substitute teacher back in 2009, when on a lark he interviewed for a level 1, third shift NOC position. He used that third shift time to learn everything he could, made a couple of smart job hops, kept pushing for more challenging projects, and is now a lead network engineer at his company. But because of his NOC experience, he remained the go-to person for monitoring at each job. That's what allowed him to have access to the new equipment, and to be part of setting up and maintaining that gear.


There were some interesting stories (i.e., gossip) to be overheard both on social media and as I passed people in the halls between sessions. For example, there was this comment on Twitter:


"I just heard @ChuckRobbins say that the transition to ACI and orchestration is incredibly complicated. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been shouted down by @Cisco engineers for saying the exact same thing. Refreshing to hear from the top."


Cisco’s developer network, aka DevNet, announced that it had reached 500,000 members since the program was created in 2014. That is also noteworthy. Life as code indeed!


The #SWUG Life

Cisco Live's total domination of Orlando meant that space was at a premium, which left Danielle Higgins—our stalwart THWACK guru and SWUG coordinator—with a challenge. We knew we had to get our SolarWinds users together, but WHERE? In the end Danielle picked what I believe to be the perfect location, @ThePub (http://experiencethepub.com/orlando/), where we could get a drink AND our geek on. After a long day of sessions, demos, and conversations, The Pub was a welcome setting.


The Home Fires Were Definitely Burning

While I was rolling around Cisco Live, my kids were trolling me from home. What started at Cisco Live US 2017 and continued through Cisco Live Europe 2018 hit perhaps (I hope) its pinnacle at #CLUS18. They posted sad faces. They played Quidditch from my rooftop. They slow-mo sledgehammered my network gear. The Cisco Live social media team awarded them "Best remote attendee," but I now need to figure out how I'm ever going to feel safe leaving home again.



Final Thoughts

The theme of the opening keynote was "chaos and wonder" (you can view that keynote here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T6tnH4Whtw) and I'm OK with that. Anyone who has worked in IT gets the “chaos” part. Anyone who has been watching the industry these last 4 years also understands that pretty well.


But the “wonder” part… that makes me happy. As IT practitioners and networking specialists, what we are able to do—what we GET to do—on a regular basis is still insanely cool. Sometimes it’s legitimately the stuff of science fiction. And while many of us treat it as “ho-hum, that’s my day job,” to folks who are NOT in IT, it’s nothing short of miraculous.


And it is. Sometimes we need to recapture and revel in the sheer wonder of what we do.

A recent conversation on Twitter struck a nerve with me. The person posited that,


"If you're a sysadmin, you're in customer service. You may not realise it, but you are there TO SERVE THE CUSTOMER. Sure that customer might be internal to your organisation/company, but it's still a customer!"


A few replies down the chain, another person posited that,


"Everyone you interact with is a customer."


I would like to respectfully (and pedantically) disagree.


First, let's clear something up: The idea of providing a "service," which could be everything from a solution to an ongoing action to consultative insight, and providing it with appropriate speed, professionalism, and reliability, is what we in IT should always strive to do. That doesn't mean (as other discussions on the Twitter thread pointed out) that the requester is always right; that we should drop everything to serve the requester's needs; that we must kowtow to the requester's demands. It simply means that we were hired to provide a certain set of tasks, to leverage our expertise and insight to help enable the business to achieve its goals.


And when people say, "you are in customer service" that is usually what they mean. But I wish we'd all stop using the word "customer." Here is why:


Saying someone is a customer sets up a collection of expectations in the mind of both the speaker and the listener that don’t reflect the reality of corporate life.


As an external service provider—a company hired to do something—I have customers who pay me directly to provide services. But I can prioritize which customers get my attention and which don’t. I can “fire” abusive customers by refusing to serve them; or I can prohibitively price my services for “needy” customers so that either they find someone else or I am compensated for the aggravation they bring me. I can choose to specialize in certain areas of technology, and then change that specialization down the road when it’s either not lucrative or no longer interesting to me. I can follow the market, or stay in my niche. These are all the things I can do as an external provider who has ACTUAL customers.


Inside a company, I can do almost none of those things. I might be able to prioritize my work somewhat, but at the end of the day I MUST service each and every person who requests my help. I cannot EVER simply choose to not help or provide service to a coworker. I can put them off, but eventually I have to get to their request. Since I’m not charging them anything, I can’t price my services in a way that encourages abusive requestors to go elsewhere. Even in organizations that have a chargeback system for IT services, that charge rate must be equal across the board. I can’t charge more to accounting and less to legal. Or more to Bob and less to Sarah. The services I provide internally are pre-determined by the organization itself. No matter how convinced I am that “the future is cloud,” I’m stuck building, racking, and stacking bare-metal servers in our data center until the company decides to change direction.


Meanwhile, for the person receiving those services, as a customer, there’s quite a range of options. Foremost among these is that I can fire a provider. I can put out an RFP and pick the provider who offers me the best services for my needs. I can haggle on price. I can set an SLA with monetary penalties for non-compliance. I can select a new technical direction, and if my current provider is not experienced, I can bring in a different one.


But as an internal staff requesting service from the IT department, I have almost none of those options. I can’t “fire” my IT department. Sure, I might go around the system and bring in a contractor to build a parallel, “shadow IT” structure. But at the end of the day, I’m going to need to have an official IT person get me into Active Directory, route my data, set up my database, and so on. There’s only so much a shadow IT operation can do before it gets noticed (and shut down). I can’t go down the street and ask the other IT department to give me a second bid for the same services. I can’t charge a penalty when my IT department doesn’t deliver the service they said they would. And if I (the business “decider”) choose to go a new technical route, I must wait for the IT department to catch up or bring in consultants NOT to replace my IT department, but to cover the gap until they get up to speed.


Whether we mean to or not, whether we like it or not, and whether you agree with me or not, I have found that using the word "customer" conjures at least some of those expectations.


But there’s one other giant issue when you use the word “customer,” and that’s the fact that people often confuse “customer” with “consumer.” That’s not an IT issue, that’s a life issue. The thing to keep in mind is that the customer is the person who pays for the service. The consumer is the person who receives (enjoys) the service. And the two are not always the same. I’m not just talking about taking my kids out to ice cream.


A great example is the NFL. According to Wikipedia, the NFL television blackout policies were, until they were largely over-ridden in 2014, the strictest among North American sports leagues. In brief, the blackout rules state that “…a home game cannot be televised in the team's local market if all tickets are not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time.” Prior to 1973, this blackout rule applied to all TV stations within a 75-mile radius of the game.


How is this possible? Are we, the fans, not the customers of football? Even if I’m not going to THIS game, I certainly would want to watch each game so that the ones I DO attend are part of a series of experiences, right?


The answer is that I’m not the customer. I’m the consumer. The customer is “the stadium” (the owners, the vendors, the advertisers). They are the ones putting up the money for the event, and they want to make their money back by ensuring sold-out crowds. The people who watch the game—whether in the stands or over the airwaves—are merely consumers.


In IT terms, the end-user is NOT the customer. They are the consumer. Management is the customer—the one footing the bill. If management says the entire company is moving to virtual desktops, it doesn’t matter whether the consumer wants, needs, or likes that decision.


So again, calling the folks who receive IT services a “customer” sets up a completely false set of expectations in the minds of everyone involved about how this relationship is going to play out.


However, there is another word that exists, within easy reach, that is far more accurate in describing the relationship, and also has the ability to create the behaviors we want when we (ill-advisedly) try to shoehorn “customer” into that spot. And that word is: “colleague.”


A colleague is someone I collaborate with. Maybe not on a day-to-day basis or in terms of my actual activities, but we work together to achieve the same goal (in the largest sense, whatever the goals of the business are). A colleague is someone I can’t “fire” or replace or solicit a bid from another provider about.


“Colleague” also creates the (very real) understanding that this relationship is long-term. Jane in the mailroom may become Jane in accounting, and later Jane the CFO. Through it all she remains my colleague. The relationship I build with her endures and my behavior toward her matters.


So, I’m going to remain stubbornly against using the word “customer” to refer to my colleagues. It de-values them and it de-values the relationship I want to have with them, and the one I hope they have with me.

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