Just to tell our souls we’re still the young lions…

I am listening to Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee album, which provides a flood of memories from 1987.  I had the morning drive slot as a local DJ at tiny college radio station when the album debuted and I was heavily into U2 at the time.  One morning the station director surprised me a little after 6am one day to ask why I was not playing more John Cougar?  This was a time when we were still using cart players for ad insertion.  Check it Out and Cherry Bomb are two fantastic songs from that album.  I had two Twitter exchanges collide (one on OpenFlow and the other on thought leadership) this past week which provided the framework around this post, but I could not channel the energy to write until I put on an old playlist and much to surprise, I found myself listen to Mellencamp after a decade long hiatus.  That is how SDN and thought leadership met Mellencamp one day and became a blog post.

I like to use the term thought leadership and I think there is difference between marketing and thought leadership.  People have the ability to create thought leadership and it is important to the BT-2rK3IMAAwzUc.jpg-largeadoption of beliefs, information, narratives and assumptions.  Anyone at anytime can be a thought leader, but I am using the term in a specific manner.  I have written about change and how change occurs here and here.  For context, I am using a classical definition of thought leadership from the research work around revolutions and change put for by Brinton and Edwards.

…the mantle of change has to be raised and championed.  This task is undertaken by the intellectuals who provide thought leadership.  The intellectuals are the analysts, consultants, pundits, politicians, leaders, and established thinkers with a reputation and respect within their industry or nation-state.  These people motivate change.  They do this by influencing and creating a state of mind.  This event is called the “transfer of the allegiance of the intellectuals.”  The phrase “transfer of the allegiance of the intellectuals” comes from Lyford P. Edwards in his book, Natural History of Revolution [see Brinton page >41].

In the all the noise we receive every day, there are people attempting to be thought leaders and some are more successful than others.  I am not referring to marketing, although there is an interesting exercise for someone to do exploring the result of fusing the work of Brinton with Moore and Galdwell.  In the prior paragraph, I referred to beliefs, information, narratives and assumptions.  These are the levers of influence that thought leaders attempt to affect to create leadership in the target market.  Beliefs are the core thought pillars that we all have that might be based on some level of accurate information, but they are typically built around a narrative that we believe because we have assumptions.

Understanding the power around the narrative is fundamental to understanding the objective of thought leadership.  Thought leaders communicate through the power of the narrative.  The narrative is the story based on a mix of facts, fiction and assumptions.  I wrote about this two years ago on this blog; below is the relevant part of that post:

  • Need for Thought Anchors: The process of making decisions is most comfortable when we can associate the decision to that which is familiar.  We tend to justify a decision by saying, “this is just like when we made the decision to do X last year.”  We begin with what is familiar and try to associate future with the past.  John G. Stoessinger described this action as image transfer because “…policy makers often transfer an image automatically from one place to another or from one time to another without careful empirical comparison,” [see Nations in Darkness, John G. Stoessinger, 1971, page 279].  Dr. David D. Burns described this behavior as “all-or-nothing thinking” or “labeling” behavior [see The Feeling Good Book, David D. Burns, 1989, page 8-11].  It is much easier for humans to use thought anchors to build their decision making process around – rather than pursue unfamiliar thought positions. [ Note, narratives are in part thought anchors and they are amplified by the power of story and legends.]
  • Power of Story and Legends: Decision making based on story and legend often motivates more than facts and research.  We are emotionally driven people.  That is why revolutions are emotionally draining events.  The power of story and legends is the act of basing decisions on simple reasons and not investigating and understanding the complexities of the decision criteria.
  • Overconfidence and Ignorance: There is a tendency for humans to be overly confident on subject matters on which they are enormously ignorant.
  • Herding Behavior: The power of the crowd.  The power of revolution.  In the absence of facts, or when facing a daunting amount of work to justify a decision, it is easier to follow the crowd.

We should never underestimate the power of the narrative.  The digital media age and the internet have made it easier to store and communicate the narrative.  In the past we had to use the library, books and word of mouth to tell the narrative to provide thought leadership:

News of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached New York City within four days.  Philadelphia received the news a day later and most of the southern colonies were informed within twenty days of the hostilities.  By comparison, the news of the shot heard around the world did not reach London until May 27, forty days after the event.  The American revolutionaries had planned well to exploit any aggressive move by British forces.  American intellectuals knew the power of public opinion and had dispatched a fast ship called the Quero [see Paul Revere’s Ride, Fischer, page 275] to bring the news and the American point of view to England, before ships loyal to the King would arrive.  The revolutionaries had seen to their task well and were able to promote their version of events before the arrival of any official British military communication.

I am attempting to illustrate the ebb and flow of thought leadership in the context of SDN, which if you are still reading might be entertaining for the IT crowd.  Recently, I have been writing in this blog about plain old networking (PON) here and here.  These are my attempts to label the past thirty years of networking in order to provide thought leadership around an application centric narrative for networking.  There is going to be a significant sea change event in the networking field and I am talking about Insieme launching on November 6.  Before we talk about the emerging narrative of application centric networks, think back on the recent history of narrative themes in the networking field post 2009.

The networking world has been tither with themes around OpenFlow, SDN, White-box to Bare Metal Switches, Linux, Network Virtualization, Overlays, NFV, Open, Lock in, etc.  All of these networking themes are interesting, but they are incremental variations on the same network design philosophy that we have been using for decades: provide reachability, randomize flows and distribute state.  I can always tell which narrative is rising and falling when I am visiting customers.  It can be heard in their questions as the last vendor they met with is still fresh in their minds.  In 2011 it was all about OpenFlow.  2012 was about overlays and as we came into 2013, the OpenFlow people tried to hold on, but they have now been overrun by the bare metal switching Linux narrative.

  • Andy Bechtolsheim has said he is not aware of any production level OpenFlow networks.  See this NFD#3 video.  I have heard him say this at various conferences as well.
  • Big Switch Networks “…the running joke internally at Big Switch was that SDN is for the one percenters, since there were so few people that were actually able to put together a properly functioning SDN deployment.”

When the Openflow narrative began to fall apart last year, vendors and intellectuals began going to conferences with presentations defining what SDN is and what SDN is not.  Just watch the videos from ONS 2013, most vendors went out of their way to reinforce their definition of SDN, which are attempts at thought leadership to enforce a narrative in their favor.  Of late the networking industry has been dialoging about bare metal switching and network virtualization.  The thought leaders have emerged to clarify SDN at the crossroads.  I recommend this video of Scott Shenker presenting at Stanford.  The presentation is quite interesting because he looks back on assumptions around the SDN movement and then provides a forwarding looking view around abstractions, edge policy and network virtualization.  Note the power of association and identification of the intellectual leaders in the beginning of the presentation.  The forward looking view towards the end of the presentation is precisely my definition of thought leadership with the implementation or realization date somewhere in the future.

When something gets labeled, a narrative can be created.  In a recent Barron’s blog post, John Chambers said “There has always been somebody who is going to be our toughest competitor  – Cabletron, Synoptics, Wellfleet were really tough originally 15 to 20 years ago. Arista will be in one area of the market, the data center. They use merchant silicon. I know every account they’re in, I know exactly what they’re doing. Watch what happens when we announce Insieme…”  I think the grouping of Arista with three dead companies was done on purpose to place a label on Arista.  When the Insieme narrative is revealed, an army of Cisco employees, CCIEs, VARs and thought leaders will go forth to deliver the message – yes, they have gone to the mattresses.  The above article in Barron’s is no mistake and it was not an impromptu remark.

If you are still reading at this point, I thank you.  I assembled several orthogonal points with the assumption that the reader had a working knowledge of change theory and networking, which are typically not associated with each other.  A colleague recently pointed me to this article on deconstruction, written by Chip Morningstar in June 1993.  The article is worth reading in totality, but I want to liberally quote form the article because I think it illustrates the power of the narrative and how people can be easily influenced by thought leadership in the guise of wisdom.  “We engineers are frequently accused of speaking an alien language, of wrapping what we do in jargon and obscurity in order to preserve the technological priesthood. There is, I think, a grain of truth in this accusation. Defenders frequently counter with arguments about how what we do really is technical and really does require precise language in order to talk about it clearly. There is, I think, a substantial bit of truth in this as well, though it is hard to use these grounds to defend the use of the term “grep” to describe digging through a backpack to find a lost item, as a friend of mine sometimes does. However, I think it’s human nature for members of any group to use the ideas they have in common as metaphors for everything else in life, so I’m willing to forgive him. The really telling factor that neither side of the debate seems to cotton to, however, is this: technical people like me work in a commercial environment. Every day I have to explain what I do to people who are different from me — marketing people, technical writers, my boss, my investors, my customers — none of whom belong to my profession or share my technical background or knowledge. As a consequence, I’m constantly forced to describe what I know in terms that other people can at least begin to understand. My success in my job depends to a large degree on my success in so communicating. At the very least, in order to remain employed I have to convince somebody else that what I’m doing is worth having them pay for it.”

Putting together a weave of thoughts I have provided in the post, I suggest reading the “How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” article I quoted above and then watch the Shenkar video, or vice-versa.  At 4:15 of the Shenkar video he uses the same Don Norman quote that Chip Morningstar uses to open his thoughts on deconstruction.  In closing, I leave you with a beautiful narrative in the form a song by John Mellencamp and George M. Green:

On a Greyhound thirty miles beyond Jamestown
He saw the sun set on the Tennessee line
He looked at the young man who was riding beside him
He said I’m old kind of worn out inside
I worked my whole life in the steel mills of Gary
And my father before me I helped build this land
Now I’m seventy-seven and with God as my witness
I earned every dollar that passed through my hands
My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known
Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home

Days turn to minutes
And minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned
You are young and you are the future
So suck it up and tough it out
And be the best you can

The rain hit the old dog in the twilight’s last gleaming
He said Son it sounds like rattling old bones
This highway is long but I know some that are longer
By sunup tomorrow I guess I’ll be home
Through the hills of Kentucky ‘cross the Ohio river
The old man kept talking ’bout his life and his times
He fell asleep with his head against the window
He said an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind
This world offers riches and riches will grow wings
I don’t take stock in those uncertain things

The old man had a vision but it was hard for me to follow
I do things my way and I pay a high price
When I think back on the old man and the bus ride
Now that I’m older I can see he was right

Another hot one out on highway eleven
This is my life It’s what I’ve chosen to do
There are no free rides No one said it’d be easy
The old man told me this my son i’m telling it to you

/wrk

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