Monthly Archive: February 2014

embracing ignorance

I have been working on this post forever – well over a month.  My apologies.

Back in November, I was returning from a conference and was on the shuttle ride with two women from the UK.  They were here on business and had only 1.5 days to see San Francisco.  I gave some tips about what major sites to visit or, if they preferred the less crowded spots, some ways to finding the more hole-in-the-wall restaurants, etc.  Overall a good conversation.

At one point, though, I demonstrated a remarkable level of american-centric ignorance.  I mentioned how, at the conference, I was at the snack area between sessions and ran into someone from the UK who was confused about why there was honey available by the tea selection.  Showing some poor judgment, I presumed that while sugar and milk were staples of tea in the UK, honey must not be used at all.  I commented to my two shuttle-mates that this was a great example of differences in culture, even down to how we drink our tea.  I thought I was being pretty intelligent and insightful.

Of course, I was immediately informed that many, many British tea drinkers use honey, and that I just happened to be speaking with someone from a family that did not.  I felt rather foolish.  Why would everyone in the UK drink tea exactly the same way?  Why would I make such a presumption?  How could I let my ignorance rear its head so dramatically and embarrassingly?

As I slowly let myself off the hook for this, I realized that this was an important lesson and reminder about dealing with one’s ignorance.  In a social setting, one probably wants to avoid looking so poorly.  Best to know your stuff before opening your mouth.  But in a professional setting, where one is managing a disparate array of services, you have to embrace the fact that you will be relatively ignorant of at least some of those areas.  You have to push past that and still ask the questions that need to be asked, even if you look like an idiot.

As I’ve embarked on a few new projects lately, it’s become clear that I am really short on detailed knowledge ins some areas.  I’m not a systems person in general, have never managed anything beyond Windows Server 2000 in my life, and am a completely blank slate when it comes to networking.  It would be easy for me to either shy away from these topics or, at a bare minimum effort, just delegate it out to others and be hands-off.

The first scenario isn’t an option.  These are important topics (especially since networking goes out into security) and they cannot be ignored.  The second option – just letting others take care of things with a form of blind faith – is a truly bad idea because it involves completely detaching myself from potentially core operations (which, in turn, affect long-term strategy).

I have no desire to manage our network, but I’m going to ask questions.  I don’t want to know which Cisco switch is the right one, but I want to know why we want this feature vs. another.  And perhaps why we shouldn’t consider a different brand altogether.  I’m going to propose alternatives, even if those ideas are completely ludicrous and excellent examples of my lack of knowledge in the area.

I have to embrace my ignorance on these topics.  I have to embrace ignorance on a lot of topics.  At some point, if one continues to move up in an organization, he or she will be overseeing some area that is not within one’s expertise.  Ideally, you rely on your team to be the experts.  But our team is very small, and we honestly have no true networking staff available.  Even if we did have more staff, it would be unwise to completely disconnect merely because I don’t know the language.  Trust your team, but stay engaged.  Continue to ask others to explain concepts “as if you were a 4 year old.”  Read that article in the tech magazine and ask whether the big flash advertisement for some new product means anything.

We’re all basically ignorant about some topics.  At a dinner party, I’m not going to talk about firewalls and 802.11AC wireless (for more reasons than just my lack of networking knowledge…).  But at work, I’ll be the first to ask.  And the second, and the third, until someone has taken the time to explain to me to the level that I need to know.  I don’t need to know everything, but I can’t remain ignorant, either.