Think about something you know a fair amount about. It can be anything in the realm of networking. Now imagine yourself explaining it to someone. Not just anyone. Someone who has a decent grasp on it, but maybe not all of the particulars. Can you explain it to them on the fly without stammering and stuttering your way through it?
I am a Twitter addict. I use it primarily for IT related stuff. There are plenty of valuable links and comments that show up on a given day. Amazing things. Things I never thought about. Comments that come from people who’s books I have read. Comments that come from 4 and 5 time CCIE’s. Comments that come from people who’s podcasts I listen to every week driving to and from work. In short, it is almost as if you know them on some weird Internet non-stalker type level.
Today I saw and even somewhat participated in a discussion about EIGRP. That got me thinking. I like EIGRP. I think it’s neat as far as routing protocols go. It doesn’t have the whole “standards” thing going for it like OSPF or IS-IS. It doesn’t run the Internet like BGP. There aren’t very many books written about it. The CLI options are a lot smaller when compared to OSPF and BGP. The list goes on and on. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t have the complete understanding of it that I wish I did.
Replace EIGRP with about 20 or 30 other networking technologies/protocols and I can make the same argument. I may know all the little acronyms or terms that go along with that technology or protocol, but can I break it down and explain it to someone who sort of understands it and just needs the finer points? Isn’t that what separates the really good engineers from the average ones?
Back to EIGRP though. I understand metric calculation. I understand K values. I understand several other things about EIGRP that go beyond the CCNP level and possibly approaching, maybe even exceeding, CCIE level. I am not bragging. I’ve just put in the hours from an “academic” standpoint, which translates to reading a lot of books, design guides, whitepapers, etc about EIGRP. However, I find myself struggling to come up with all of the arguments for why EIGRP is a hybrid routing protocol compared to a distance vector protocol and vice versa. There are people out there who swear it is one or the other. That should be a relatively simple thing to discern. It makes me think I really don’t understand EIGRP as well as I think I do. Granted, you can NEVER know it all about anything in the IT field, but we still have to try. We read questions on forums from people just starting out with something like EIGRP and think: “How could you not know that? Everyone knows that K1 is bandwidth and K3 is delay.” Maybe we pass by a CCNA book at the bookstore and chuckle at how trivial the description is of EIGRP. “What? You don’t even mention stub routers or how to avoid SIA conditions?” Admit it. You do it. If you don’t, then you are truly the example of a good engineer.
What to do about this? Well, I should study more. I should study and lab so much that when a CCIE walks up to me and says: “How does EIGRP do this?”, I can answer them in a fair amount of detail and even break out the whiteboard and draw it out. Or, crank out a config in a few minutes. Imagine if you knew the protocol or technology so well that you could just spew forth tons of factual information about it? Imagine if you could sit down with a blank piece of paper and fill it up on both sides with information about something like DWDM, 802.11n, PPP, or HSRP. What would that be like? Not just know from an academic standpoint, but be able to apply it to real world scenarios. There is tremendous value in that.
Just something to think about. Imagine having to teach cooking to Emeril. Or martial arts to Chuck Norris. Or basketball to Michael Jordan. Would you want to know your stuff? You betcha. Think about the things you deal with in the networking world and apply the same philosophy to it.
When I begin to understand something well enough to teach it to people that understand it as well and not have them laugh me out of the room, I will be at the level I want to be at. Impossible to do with all things network related, but definitely achievable to do with a dozen or so things. Perhaps the hardest part of it is dedicating the time to achieve that level of proficiency.
I’m going to revisit EIGRP over the next couple of weeks and try to increase my level of understanding even more. Then, I will read someone’s blog post or Twitter comment and realize how little I actually know and go back and do it all over again. Frustrating? Sure, but I will take that any day over a job where you can learn it all in a couple of months. Happy learning!