Novelty seeking and networking

“Better safe than sorry” versus “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”

You’re seated in a restaurant you’ve never visited before, and the waiter hands you the menu. As you scan the items, do you look for something familiar you know you’ll like? Or do you want something you’ve never tried before?

People respond differently to new situations and opportunities, sometimes with opposite reactions. “Better safe than sorry,” caution some, while others urge, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Such reactions, engrained deep in our temperament, are described by psychologist and neuroscientists as our degree of “novelty seeking.” The trait is associated with positive aspects like curiosity and negative aspects like impulsivity. It follows a normal distribution in the population, and scientific research even suggests a genetic basis, which makes sense considering our species has sought novelty strongly enough to inhabit almost every part of the planet and beyond.

Novelty seeking plays a strong role in the world of technology. We enjoy a steady flow of technical innovations, driven by the astonishing engine of Moore’s law, the creative expression of new software, and the growth of thriving open source communities. But sometimes the relentless changes can seem overwhelming and disorienting.

Many innovations in computing involve new abstractions and metaphors. Sometimes these look backwards, referencing familiar items like files and folders, email and YouTube—though not many watch videos on cathode-ray tubes anymore. Sometimes these look forwards, creating terms with entirely new meanings. Who’d have anticipated presidential candidates debating tweets?

Working at a start-up company like PLUMgrid provides a great vantage point to observe novelty-seeking behavior among prospects and customers. Not surprisingly, energetic novelty seekers are among the earliest adopters. Often they’re drawn not just by new technology, but also by new ways of thinking. Public and private clouds shift thought models as much as architecture. After all, physically it’s still software running on servers with storage and networking, but the emerging mental model is illuminated by certain phrases and ideas.

“Infrastructure as code” describes how devops can adopt automation tools that simultaneously increase agility, decrease cost, and reduce risk. “Cattle versus pets” (attributed to Bill Baker, then of Microsoft) illustrates the difference between scale-out and scale-up approaches. And the Chaos Monkey born at Netflix reminds application designers to ensure their microservices are robust in the face of unplanned disruptions. Perhaps all these metaphorical animals prompted the naming of the popular ZooKeeper tool.

Similarly, virtual networking is undergoing serious changes in thought as well as technology. This software-defined layer of abstraction is not just about creating overlays, it’s also about providing people new ways to think about networking.

Many users start interacting with our system via a topology view, which shows virtual machines and containers connected together via traditional networking elements like switches and routers. These are comfortable constructs for those arriving from the world of physical networking.

But such constructs can become obstacles to unleashing greater power. After all, that “switch” or “router” isn’t a hardware box anymore. Instead it’s just a description of a set of communications behaviors. New behaviors with no physical analog can now be created, such as policy-based service insertion of virtual taps for monitoring “wires.” It’s comparable to a musical synthesizer, which not only mimics familiar instruments like a piano or strings, but also creates new timbres unheard before.

Novelty sometimes faces resistance, and for technology, that resistance often comes from central IT organizations within an enterprise. Such resistance seems surprising and counterintuitive. After all, wouldn’t such a dynamic industry naturally draw novelty seekers? Wouldn’t they welcome change? Where’s their sense of adventure?

On an individual level, of course, many people working in IT are curious and forward-looking. The challenge comes from incentives. Often the prime directives for IT require dependable stability, predictable budgets, and reliable security. Even as new cloud technologies promise improvements in all these areas, as well as agility, the journey may involve disruptions and unknowns.

Still, exploring new technologies and ideas has never been more important. Strong IT leaders recognize the need to create opportunities for the novelty seekers in their organizations to investigate, learn, and adapt. In this rapidly evolving market, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to meet more of them every day, and their imagination and energy inspire us.

Just over 25 years ago, an unknown engineering student in Helsinki decided to share for free software he’d created, something that at the time was indeed a novelty. This fateful step gave rise to Linux and the open source movement that made the data center programmable and gave birth to the cloud. Even after 25 years, we’ve just begun the journey.

So next time you’re in a new restaurant, put aside the menu and invite your waiter to bring something unusual and delicious. Unleash your inner novelty seeker, and enjoy something new. You never know where it may take you.

This story, "Novelty seeking and networking" was originally published by Network World.

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