Editorial: Dungeons & Dragons & Networks

brianboyko.jpgBy Brian Boyko
The greatest barrier to creativity is a lack of boundaries. Counter-intuitive – almost zen-like – but we’ve found it to be true.
And this is why people play Dungeons & Dragons (and similar games), and why network engineers often spend time putting out fires when they could be improving the network.
Allow me to explain.
Dungeons & Dragons, if you’re not familiar with it, is a game where people tell a story and when there’s a moment of indecision in the game, the players roll dice to determine what happens.
(And yes, I play these types of games, though my favorite is Hero. No, I haven’t had a date recently. What’s your point?).

As ridiculous as this may seem – and I’ll admit, it’s pretty darn ridiculous – the use of dice and placing artificial limitations on the characters are the way that people help to improve the story. Because it’s much harder for a group of people to get together and just tell the story without some sort of limitation.
Let’s try a little thought experiment.
Tell a story right now. It can be about or on anything. It doesn’t have to be a good story or even a long story. You don’t even have to write it down.
Having difficulty?
Okay. Try telling a story about a talking dog and a troll that live together in a cave.
That’s a little easier, isn’t it?
The more limitations that are given – boundaries or obstacles – the more the brain works to be creative. You look to make the most of your boundaries; you look for ways to surpass the obstacles.
So what does this have to do with network administration and network engineering?
Have you ever noticed that, in your job as a network engineer, you spend quite a lot of it putting out fires, as opposed to starting new initiatives? Those network emergencies are obstacles. You have defined parameters and you must overcome the obstacle. Engineers trained to find the best solutions to problems usually feel most in their element when solving a problem!
One of the things that challenge us at NetQoS is finding ways to help network engineers use our products as something more than diagnostic tools to solve a problem they’re currently having. That’s fine and good, but we believe that it’s important not just to fix the network but to improve it whenever possible. (That’s the whole “performance first” thing we keep talking about).
If people performed preventative maintenance and worked to improve their network, they’d have fewer problems to address in the first place. But because individual problems provide intellectual boundaries and present obstacles to overcome, it is simply a much, much easier task than trying to look at the vast possibilities inherent in the network and try to come up with a vision rather than a solution.
And while any engineer will tell you that they’d like to have more time to initiate projects instead of dealing with emergencies, more often than not, many engineers find that they gravitate to emergencies. Emergencies have boundaries. This is why network managers often go through a rigorous process of defining a problem – assigning it specific boundaries – before giving it to the network engineers to work on.
Knowing this axiom of human nature, network managers can manage their team more efficiently by challenging their network engineers with more specific forward-looking issues and, more importantly, making sure they’re spending an adequate amount of time focused on these initiatives. If a network manager only calls out the engineering team when there’s a problem, all that manager is doing is preserving the status quo, not improving.
Perhaps managers should consider taking business problems to the engineering teams, and asking them how the network infrastructure can be optimized to help solve those business problems. That gives engineers a set problem and set set limitations (i.e. budget, etc.) – something which is much easier to do than work from the tabula rasa.
In the meantime, we’ll try to get some ideas about some projects you can do on your network to improve performance rather than fix problems in the future on this blog.
Also, if anyone’s in the Austin area and up for a game of D&D, e-mail silvermoonthebard@gmail.com
Brian Boyko is a Level 18 Editor of Network Performance Daily.


28 Responses to Editorial: Dungeons & Dragons & Networks

  1. Bill Teeple March 21, 2007 at 11:11 pm #

    Interesting blog.
    I agree with you on a lot of points, although I have grown out of AD&D after many years of playing it. I was very big into GURPS and now find my time charting new courses in Warhammer universe (40K to be exact) and I enjoy a lot of the detail work that goes into developing armies in Warhammer.
    I also appreciate the faster game play in Warhammer as opposed to AD&D. Warhammer games tend to take about 30-60 minutes for an average game and you can still think outside the box and strategize a bit.
    To contrast that with my day to day job, it is easy to correlate the intense man hours that go into developing your army, the painting, the researching, the final touches, knowing their weaknesses and their strengths on the battle field. In much the same way, I tackle projects to determine the resources needed to complete the task at hand – many man hours are spent before hand in preparation for what could amount to a short 30-60 minute implementation of a new technology.
    Thanks again.
    BTW, I have three children and a lovely wife while maintaining my position at a company in Sunnyvale as the Senior UNIX & SAN Engineer.

  2. Joe Salisbury March 22, 2007 at 2:03 am #

    Or is that a 18th Level Editor for Network Performance Daily?

  3. Brian Silberbauer March 22, 2007 at 2:09 am #

    Just a point of comment on your initial story: the creativity is not in writing the story, but coming up with the ‘talking dog and a troll that live together in a cave’ in the first place.
    Personally, nothing bores me more than putting out fires – I’d much rather come up with ways of preventing fires.

  4. Neil Broderick March 22, 2007 at 4:04 am #

    The basic premise is quite old. Stanisław Ulam in his autobiography suggests that poetry is so creative because of the need to find words that rhyme or scan. Hence poets make unexpected connections between ideas.

  5. frup March 22, 2007 at 4:13 am #

    I don’t agree with that…
    Go speak with an Artist or Architect (as in houses) about that. Creativity is drummed out of Engineers and everyone in general in the school system. Generally Engineers are less creative people anyway.

  6. HMYKSteve March 22, 2007 at 5:28 am #

    I agree with you 100%!
    BTW, have you tried HackMaster?
    Also, if anyone is looking for a programmer who can turn the character generation process of a complicated game into a C++ program I am looking for a job!

  7. John Crissman March 22, 2007 at 7:34 am #

    I read your entire article twice, and I have to say that I have not heard a theory anywhere near as pointlessly strange and rambling since an extremely drunk guest of a house party I had 15 years ago was wandering aimlessly and randomly re-arranging rocks outside my house at 3 am discussing his theory of how humans prefer living on “border distinctions”. He backed up this theory by pointing out that people flock to mountains and beaches to vacation.
    Here’s to hoping you were having as good of a time when you wrote this as Greg was having at my house 15 years ago.

  8. Jeff March 22, 2007 at 7:42 am #

    Dude, if you’re willing to come down to San Antonio, I can hook you up!
    (With a game. Not a girl.)

  9. Scott Holland March 22, 2007 at 7:53 am #

    Great insight.
    I’m a network engineer and the manager of an engineering team. I see this behavior in me and my team.

  10. Nicius March 22, 2007 at 8:24 am #

    This is a good article and I understand that this is a networking publication and therefor the intended audience is network engineers, but I would expand the target audience to all of IT and include Application Developers as well.
    [Editor's Note: Good point, Nicius! Certainly, this behavior tends to occur among problem solving professions of all types - from the network engineer to the rocket scientist to the Mathmatics professor to Vin Diesel.
    Okay, maybe Vin Diesel is the exception that proves the rule...]

  11. Lenny March 22, 2007 at 8:25 am #

    Not bad. Decent insight from an angle I haven’t considered. Unfortunate you have silvermoonbard at gmail as an address and that you are described as a level 18 editor.

  12. Cocoson March 22, 2007 at 8:29 am #

    I am totally in agreement with you. The human mind is trained to solve problems and overcome them, that is one of the reason of our evolutionary success.
    Regards from Chile

  13. Eric Martindale March 22, 2007 at 8:45 am #

    What a very clever analysis! Roleplay and IT do seem to go hand in hand, and it makes much more sense now that you’ve pointed out exactly why. Great read!

  14. Andrew James Riemer March 22, 2007 at 9:25 am #

    Perhaps that’s also why non-techie managers don’t understand my desire to be a 40th-level Information Security Wizard with a +4 Keystroke of Deletion.

  15. Phil GS March 22, 2007 at 10:23 am #

    Spot-on assessment. I got out of IT because I was tired of putting out fires. I much preferred designing and improving the network. I think the key, as you mention in the post, is how one frames the question. A blue-sky query (“How can we improve the network?”) is much more daunting than a concrete one (“What are the weakness in our network?” or “What parts of the network keep giving us trouble?”). The questions aren’t really that different, but the latter give boundaries and structure, which are very important, as you point out.

  16. Peggy Pringle March 22, 2007 at 10:26 am #

    Hi Brian,
    Let me start by saying I loved your article. To understand the beast better, is to defeat it one day. Although I share your thoughts and see this in the work place, I think there is a higher place that this cycle starts.
    Getting Infrastructure teams out of the Fire-Fighting mode and into the Fire-Prevention mode has been a challenge for years, even though many engineers have now been provided the training required to become pro-active.
    I see the challenge most companies face is that Infrastructure is still considered the “last” stop for solutions by the very business they are trying to support. Business departments meet, see areas of “wish list” improvements and even go so far as to review and select “solutions” for those items. This all transpiring without ever so much as a conversation about it with the Engineering Manager to obtain his/her thoughts. That leaves the solution to get put into place, and it’s usually not a “perfect” fit while Infrastructure sits idly fighting fires until they are asked to “make this work”. Then they fight the fires that are created by this “newest” solution.
    Until the time comes that business involves Infrastructure from the start of every “idea”, the best we can do is try to “jump” ahead of the business and guess what their next desire may be and get as knowledgeable as possible about it, or even try to implement it before they think of it, but this has yet another outcome…
    That is our version of creativity – not a great one, but in both the very large and very small companies I’ve had the privilege to work for, this has always been the case.
    Tools like NetQoS provide us the ability to be much better Fire-Fighters, and give us those small triumphs that give us pride in our jobs, as well as give us the thought of some day being… “Buck Rogers of the 21st Century”.
    Also, although I’m close to Austin (CC), I haven’t found a group to play any D&D in years and was not thrilled with the On-Line version. If you are ever in Vanguard though, please look me up.
    Peggy Pringle
    Manager – SQL Database Administrator

  17. Jeff Allen March 22, 2007 at 10:41 am #

    When you put this whole thing in D&D perspective, it makes sense. I played D&D in the 80s, but now do networking and you are right “putting out fires” can be more fun.

  18. Jamie Crosby March 22, 2007 at 12:49 pm #

    It’s odd that you should post an article on this subject. I tend to agree with the points you’ve made – and I’m in the process of trying to finish up my last quarter before I gain an associates degree in CIS Network Administration….I also happen to run an online RPG (text based environment – if you remember mush, mud, mux, moo, etc. it uses one of the available codebases) that is based on DND 3rd edition. I’ve run this game for the last 6 years and find that the problems and situations in the game are more relaxing to me than an unlimited scope of free time to myself without boundaries. It’s odd that we are best when we are limited. Anyways, if you find yourself wanting some relaxation away from putting out fires, then fire up your favourite mush client (I favour Tinyfugue 5) and point it towards winter.mushpark.com port: 3000…you’re always welcome to gen up a character and play!
    Jamie Crosby
    Swift@Winter’s Edge

  19. john March 22, 2007 at 1:24 pm #

    Same thought, different spin:
    A lot of people greatly prefer what you might call closed problems — finite puzzles where it is clear sufficient solution elements are at hand. Such people often excel academically but are not very useful against real world problems that don’t come in a box, don’t have rules and require real creativity, not just cleverness. That’s why computer nerds (who would have been clerks in the basement of some bank 100 years ago) like D&D.

  20. Rich March 22, 2007 at 2:01 pm #

    Talking Dog: Hi, buddy. Hows it going?
    Troll: Grrrraaahhhr!!!
    Talking Dog: Wha? What are you doing? Get away from me!
    Troll: Graaahahahahaaahr!
    Talking Dog: Ahhh! Help! Help, I think he’s going to eat me!
    Troll: <munch>
    Talking Dog: Ow! Yes, yes, he’s eating me! Help! Oh, why won’t anyone help me!?
    Troll: <crunch, munch>
    Talking Dog: This is horrible, he’s eating my feet first! Oh, the pain! Why doesn’t he just kill me? The agony! He’s eaten my legs and is now munching on my tail! Why, God, why!? So much blood! Everything’s going dark. Goodbye, cruel world! Goodbye, crueller troll!
    Troll: <chomp, swallow>
    Talking Dog: <dies>
    Troll: <gulp> Sorry, folks, I just got so sick of the constant yapping. And I missed breakfast.

  21. Pete Johnson March 22, 2007 at 4:00 pm #

    Excellent post. I too was recently blogging on how limitations can actually help you:
    Brian’s AD&D is my Haunted Mansion.

  22. TKorho - March 22, 2007 at 4:13 pm #

    So true, although very simplified view to it.
    But seems to match lots of other things in the world as well. Explains things like military (discipline), and lots of other groups social items.
    I’m still playing D&D. Although it starts to get boring. At work I hate tabula-rasa situations where I should first FIND a proplem to solve it. As a computer system specialist. Whereus once we have a program, problems, and debugging, it’s all work and joy.

  23. Koos van den Hout March 23, 2007 at 3:47 am #

    I’d like to add one bit: the major difference between fire-fighting mode and fire-prevention mode in a network is that in fire-fighting mode the network is already broken when you’re trying to fix it to get it going again. At that moment changes aren’t bad, because it is already broken and you can’t make it worse, only better. In fire-prevention mode, you as a network engineer know you can break it. And: users will complain about planned maintenance, even when it is outside of all normal working hours, and the result would be a better performing network.

  24. Atlana March 24, 2007 at 11:51 am #

    i agree with TKorho,
    but there is more to it – facing boundaries, make you learn more indepth mechanisms – best example. One of my four PC’s at home isnt the fastest, due to todays games requirements, i learned how to run a winXPproSP2 box off just only FOUR services, and still be fully functional w. internet, LAN, PnP and everything ;)
    What i mean by that is, w. those limitations, you learn how to tweak, jury-rig and boost. Make the best out of what you already got. Which profits the company, as they do not have to invest bigger sums are originally slated.
    and yes, i’ve a very wonderful life-partner, that is understanding too and 5 kids and am an independent IT/INFOSEC Consultant.

  25. Sven Bindlechner March 25, 2007 at 1:30 am #

    Insightful and yet I fear also a bit misguided…
    Whilst I agree that boundaries may help focus efforts on a small area of a larger task. This is what project managers are for – step by step progress. The notion of a lack of imagination for the bigger picture is rarely the case. The more area you are allowed to influence the better solutions become available to you as an architect and the more inspiration you will have as opportunities open up to you. Boundaries often are the cause of failure in change rather than their driving force as they introduce contraints on the solution and require compromises to be made in order to drive a less costly, simplified or localised answer. In each case the lack of funds to provide better hardware and management tools, or the lack of highly trained staff, or the customised solutions because of disparate hardware on various IOS levels become the causes why the bush fires are fought in the first place thus bringing the issue full circle.

  26. Pasi Raatikainen March 28, 2007 at 12:58 am #

    Very interesting…
    Right now I am working on creating a role playing game for network engineer training! I have taken AD&D rules, which I am modifying to suit my purpose.
    Aim is to train some engineer on how a certain service process and concept works.
    They use wisdom to fix problems, have (thief) abilities to climb when working in a mast etc.
    Exp points they gather by solving problems allows them to fux greater problmes in the network.
    Customer is one of the big telecom players in the world.

  27. FTL64 March 30, 2007 at 8:50 am #

    if I could only figure out how to get all those old DOS games to work again…

  28. Charlie August 12, 2009 at 11:02 am #

    At one level, I agree with the author: limiting the focus of a story (or role-playing game) is essential to allowing the reader (or players) to delve deeply into particular experiences.
    But at another level, I find that I disagree with the author. In many stories I’ve read (and in a number of table-top and computer role-playing games I’ve played/tried), I find that the most interesting aspects of the story (or game) are those that are “off the map.” I’m more interested in the organizations, corporations, and subcultures hinted at/briefly touched upon in William Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy” (that began with Neuromancer) than I am in the events and characters in his stories.
    The material that is “off the map” in a story (or RPG) is material that I can take at least partial ownership of, and use to create something of my own. Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft crafted the Serpent People of Valusia in the King Kull/Conan/Cthulhu Mythos; but *I* created their S’ass’pina’ar language and several idioms (e.g., “striking with empty fangs”) when I played my serpent-person character in a role-playing game. I was forced to develop material outside of what was written about his race to explain his actions and thinking. While the author makes salient points about scope and focus making for enjoyable stories (and games), in my experience, taking what is only hinted at in these stories (and games) and running with it on my own it is a souce of equal, if not greater pleasure.