I spent this week in Dallas at the Internet Engineering Task Force. It was my first time going.
Participating in the IETF has long been a dream of mine. Maybe something beyond a dream; it was only a few years ago that I realized this history-making council of knights was something that I might actually be able to join myself. It was an odd epiphany, like opening one’s mailbox and finding an invitation to apply for a professional masters degree program at Hogwarts.
For me, the IETF process, where any person can join, but no companies are allowed, and the most official decisions are called a “request for comments”, inspires a feeling somewhere between patriotism and religious fervor. I’m liable to interrupt family dinners to explain the IETF’s hum-based method of gauging consensus, or to repeat by heart Dave Clark’s famous quote
We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.
So, naturally, actually going to IETF would have to be a disillusioning experience, and in some sense it was. The meetings seem to be 40% bickering about minutiae and 60% talking to dead air. Obstinacy, pedantry, and obstructionism are in long supply. There’s essentially no educational component; no energy is expended to help attendees to learn about areas outside of their own bubble. I learned an important lesson there: review the agenda ahead of time, and study up on anything that piques your interest, or you will simply be lost!
The vast majority of people in each meeting are simply silent, and it’s impossible for me to know whether they are bewildered newcomers (like me) or some kind of passive expert observer. I spent the whole week in Dallas just to give two 10-minute presentations. And oh, by the way, proportionally, the men’s swim team at my high school had more women in it than the IETF.
On the other hand, it was also a fascinating, inspiring, and massively informative week. I met personal heroes and long-time collaborators by the dozen. I had lunch and dinner with a different group of grizzled experts every day, with plenty of time to hear old engineering war stories and ask all the unanswered questions from all of the day’s working groups. I might even have managed to drum up support for my very first internet standard proposal.
Most IETF attendees seem to be regulars who go to most of the meetings. Some people have been to practically all of them, since the beginning. I’m not sure I’m likely to become one of them … but I also get the feeling this won’t be my last.