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2009-12-19 | Subject | Living at the Margin

I thrive on the margin. I'd even go so far as to say that everything thrives on the margin. I finally understand. Certainly there is an economic correlation to the idea of a margin. A profit margin is the difference between what you receive for a service or product and the cost of that service or product. In this sense thriving is defined by margin, but that isn't exactly what I mean. I watched Yoram Bauman perform his "standup economist" routine last week, and I imagine this is where I got the idea of thriving on the margin. One of the economic principals that Yorum makes fun of is that rational people think at the margin. This is from Mankiw's 10 principles. "A rational decision-maker takes action if and only if the marginal benefit of the action exceeds the marginal cost."

But I don't really dream, create, participate, live in a world where I analyze my actions in this way. Imagine Don LaFontaine's booming: "In a world where action is taken only if the marginal benefit of the action exceeds the marginal cost," voicing the trailer for a movie where I rest in my nest, content at the existing edge, the as-is edge, and fed marginal tidbits of food, tactically gathered and perfectly, incrementally appropriate: regurgitated with intense embedded instinct to give me what I need to fly. That is not my movie. I have soared. I soar. I will soar. I love the feel of cold cloud droplets on my tongue. I love the feeling of a quick vertical descent along the face of a cliff and blood rush of Gs as I pull up just short of the rocks. I will certainly eat the food that is offered. I'm lucky to be alive. I truly, deeply appreciate my tiny click of life that the food brings. But I will insist that I participate in the discussion of flying and what I have seen during my journeys through the clouds and over mountains, rather than obediently opening my mouth for food and shutting the [email protected]#k up when I'm not eating or reminding my mother I'm hungry. On the other hand, I wouldn't thrive in a movie where I only soared above mountain tops and in the clouds. I need operational engagement as well. I need to straddle the margin. I am in the nest. I am in the sky. I thrive on the margin between.

I remember during the first day in my Economics 201 class when the professor asked if we thought growth was a requirement for a healthy economy. What if the GDP stayed exactly the same? What if a company made exactly the same amount of money that it cost to create an item? What if there was no margin? To tell you the truth, even after seeing the numbers, running the simulations, and acing the class, I don't entirely understand why a healthy economy needs to grow, but in my tangential way, I am beginning to. The difference between thriving at the margin and thriving on the margin is the key to understanding Mankiw's phrasing. The marginal benefit assumes that you are standing in the as-is edge and contemplating the marginal action, vs. straddling the as-is and to-be and finding energy in the difference. I don't thrive at the edge. I don't thrive considering marginal actions. I thrive, I get energy, by straddling the edge of as-is and to-be. The wider that gap, the more energy, excitement, and value I add. Value comes from the margin itself, not the edges, and I thrive on this margin.

I put in new systems and improve existing ones in my role as a systems engineer. In this sense, the margin is the space between how I imagine things can be and how things are. I have had bosses that are tolerant of my vision while others... not so much. I have had bosses that embraced my vision and reaped great rewards from my scrappy efficiency. It is extremely difficult to straddle the as-is reality and the to-be vision. This is a large part of what systems engineers do. They establish: where are we now, where can we be, and, in a much, much more complicated statement than it appears on the surface, where an organization wants to go, and when the dust settles a bit, how we get there. My biggest challenge is in exploring and expressing the to-be vision without completely alienating my boss or getting lost in the clouds. Again, the value I provide is in my ability to translate this vision to the current operational environment. Specifically, if we have a messy swarm of interpersonal madness, unpatched servers, nonexistent recovery procedures, and Frankenstein integrations, I can envision and implement a better way. I can envision and implement a better way. One problem is that the further my vision is from the as-is, the more difficult it is for me to communicate the path to a better situation effectively. I am improving my communication skills as I mature. Management is often worried that my head is in the clouds and I am unable to successfully bridge the gap. I believe that there is another more sinister aspect to this as well. Management understands that the value to an organization is in navigating from the current state to the vision, and sometimes wants to control what the vision is, how that gap is straddled, and who does what in what way to bridge the gap in order to preserve their own value. This can manifest itself as defensive and tyrannical behavior, demanding that technical staff adhere to specific tasks under their direction and sabotaging and openly attacking those that resist. I don't function well at all in that situation. Generally, though, I believe that the friction is simply a necessary pragmatic concern in the interest of the organization. It is the job of management to gauge and guide among conflicting visions and align these often conflicting visions with the underlying needs of the business. This has usually been my experience, with only one glaring exception. If I can overcome the communication problems, and I am not under a boss with a defensive posture, I am in a position to thrive on the margin and act in the interest of the organization I serve.

I am currently unemployed. This has exposed me to the current challenges of organizations that need help with technical issues as I interview for jobs and trace desired skills. One thing that has imprinted itself very deeply on my immediate vision is the change that is happening with technical expression and the translation into infrastructure. One firm I interviewed with was implementing Chef. I investigated and found a great presentation given at the O'Reilly Velocity conference this last June. I wrote about this in Imagine, Express, Observe, Improve, Converge. I was inspired by the vision of frameworks and APIs and what happens when these are applied to the challenge of bootstrapping, configuration, and command and control, the three levels of systems deployment described in the presentation. I saw this as a broader opportunity to solve some of the problems I have faced in my career. If the process and configuration information is in a format that can be consumed at every stage of a project, from imagining to decommissioning, then much of the waste and pain associated with creating new systems can be avoided. This can be seen in the efficiency of Rails efforts, and it is no accident that EngineYard is in the center of this storm between the present and a better way. They bridge WWW, vSphere, Rails, Chef: operations via expression. I am currently learning Ruby, Rails, and Chef so that I understand the technical aspect of this, yet at the same time I am following the advances of EMC/VMware/vSphere. I browsed some of the published API for vSphere/vCloud. I appreciate that the management of vShpere is via an open, RESTful API. This is amazing stuff. This is the future. I am simply giddy with excitement over the promise of Chef, vSphere, EC2, Rails, and similar technologies and agile methods. The promise of cloud computing is so much more than remote utility computing. It is the efficiency and portability of systems expression that is exciting.

I am very familiar and competent in the as-is, messy, inefficient world of IT. I have lived through many wars. I have had many successes. I have had many failures. There is a very large gap between as-is, the IT shops that I'm familiar with, and am interviewing with, and to-be, the vision I have of how IT can be. I thrive on margin, and this is a big one. Let's thrive together.

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