The Dangers of Fanboyism

July 31, 2013 in Systems4 minutes

In the short amount of time since I tripped and fell into this industry, one thing is clear - fanboyism (Is that a word? It is now.) is EVERYWHERE. Those that love Cisco, really love Cisco. Those that love Juniper, really hate Cisco. It’s hard to start working in this industry, especially in a relatively single-vendor environment, and not acquire a strong affinity to one side of the other. Not to mention the fact that big companies like Cisco have huge, widely used and respected certification programs, so it’s easy for an engineer to take Cisco’s word as the word of god. (Don’t worry, this is just as true with Juniper if that’s your first step.)

It’s no secret that I do a lot of Cisco UCS. I do this primarily because my employer does it and has a lot of money and time invested in doing it well for our customers, but that doesn’t mean that I believe Cisco is the end-all be-all for every use case ever. Despite the fact that - given the options - I think Cisco UCS is pretty awesome, I think Cisco pulls some bone head moves sometimes. And I make no effort to hide my displeasure with some of the decisions and products that they’ve gone with. I’m constructive about it, but it’s important to point out what a vendor is doing right as well as wrong. This attitude allows me some objectivity in dealing with customers’ technology needs, and it also allows me to provide Cisco with a little insight - whatever it’s worth - into my little world, letting them know where I see their product is working and where it’s not.

Maintaining independence is actually kind of difficult. We as engineers like certain things and don’t like others, so we naturally gravitate to a vendor that solves our problems the way we like to see it. It takes extra work to push on a vendor and say “Hey I would use/brag about your product a lot more if you fixed ____”. The fact that Juniper beat Cisco to the punch with Junosphere was  a big problem when talking about networking education. It was difficult to maintain faith in Cisco when the argument against Cisco was so strong in this space. The introduction of VIRL may be about a decade late, but I’m sure that it’s still the result of constant prodding from students and industry leaders saying “Come on Cisco, get your crap together”.

Another rarity is the ability to work in a multi-vendor IT shop. Most of the IT shops that I’ve seen prefer one vendor or another, and populate their entire datacenter with their gear. It doesn’t just apply to enterprise or small business;  I work for a VAR, and VARs partner with the vendors that they believe will help drive business, so I’m more or less bound by what my company has partnered with. It’s not like I am ever explicitly told “don’t you dare breathe a word of Brocade around here!” but when it comes to my day-to-day work the focus can get somewhat narrow. It’s only natural - no VAR or enterprise can do a ton of every single vendor (at least not well). So, it takes a significant amount of extra work for me to push myself outside this comfort zone and learn about how things are on the other side of the fence.

The “danger of fanboyism” as I call it, really is that you put yourself in a situation where you don’t know what you don’t know. This situation is one of my worst fears as a technical engineer and blogger. By barricading yourself within the four walls of Cisco, you may not experience any tangible problems at all. You may work in an all-Cisco shop for years and years and your boss will keep you forever because you know the all-Cisco environment really well. And honestly, that in and of itself is okay. After all, most in the IT industry just want to do their job well and go home to be with their families. However, I encourage those in this situation to “look over the fence” and see what’s going on elsewhere.  There are a lot of great vendors, Cisco included, that are doing some amazing things because of the IT community asking the tough questions, and being a part of the revolution today will serve to influence your career in ways that likely none of us can understand yet.

This challenge is a key tenet in my theory about the Unified Engineer. Do I think you should go out there and get the top certification in every vendor? No - even if it were possible for one person, I would doubt such a person’s practical experience with any of the platforms. (This is what defines “jack of all trades”, which the Unified Skillset does NOT describe.) Rather, take a “big picture” approach and understand where the industry is going, even if your day-to-day includes only a handful of vendors. Your perspective and quality of work will do nothing but improve.