What I Have Learned - Part 9 The Power of Ignorance

What I Have Learned - Part 9 The Power of Ignorance

I have no idea what I'm doing. Truly. I never really have, and it turns out that even though this causes some stress, this is my superpower. It can be hard at times to sell this as a capability but I believe it is one of the most powerful.

When I was around 18 I walked into a new ISP that had opened down the street from my mom's business. There was one person inside and I said:

"Hi, I'm Anthony, I would like to work here"

A bit surprised, they asked me about my skills and experience which at that time were installing and operating Windows 3.11 / 95, soldering, and creating wicked autoexec.bat files to cause havoc on Radioshack display computers.

For some unknown reason they hired me.

On my first day the boss pointed me to a server room full of gear in boxes. There was a Dell server IIRC, a CSU/DSU, a T1 Channel Bank, a rack of modems, and an assortment of other gear. (I had no idea what any of it was at the time).

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Better Than The Server Room I Started In

The boss said:

"I'm going to Hawaii for 2 weeks, get all that up and running by the time I get back".

And left. I was terrified. I didn't have the first clue what to do. But I also didn't have any pre-conceived ideas on how to approach it. So I applied a formula that would serve me well for the rest of my life:

Stress + Ignorance x Necessity = Creativity

I got it all up and running 2 days before the boss came back (Although I am horrified by how insecure it probably was) and I sat there playing with the webserver and trying to come up with a website for the ISP. He was surprised, I kept my job, and learned a lot about the internet over the next couple of years.

Flash forward a few years and many similar situations later and I found myself inexplicably working at a National Laboratory. I was asked if I could provide a cryptographic solution for some special scientific computers in a high profile project. At that time the main Full Disk Encryption solutions were a hardware PCMCIA card that pretty much only worked on Windows. There was a very tight timeline on this project as well.

I didn't know anything about crypto really, other than I had read some books and enjoyed playing with pencil and paper ciphers. Again, I was terrified.

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NSA's Robert Morris & Pyr0 - If You Took This Photo Let Me Know For Credit

I fumbled around for a bit trying to come up with an approach. I thought I had a potential path forward and I thankfully managed to contact Matt Blaze from Georgetown who had no idea who I was (and likely still doesn't) and asked him some questions. He was kind and helpful, even though he had no reason to be, and I ended up adapting some open-source code to make a rudimentary loopback device, sort of a poor man's Truecrypt, and completed the project on time.

A few years later I had essentially spun this into a career where customers would bring me something I knew nothing about and a problem, and I would fumble around until it was solved.

Recently I decided to learn how to Mig weld. Again I have no idea what I'm doing as can be seen in this embarrassing picture of my first attempt:

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I Learned How to Set My Workbench on Fire

I read some websites, watched some youtube videos and tried again:

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Workbench Replaced With Metal Welding Table

Then I learned about distance of the tip from the material and temperature and my most recent attempt is better. Not good or pretty, but the box is holding together.

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Most Recent Attempt

Why is this a super power? Not having any training or preconceived ideas on how to approach a problem, and being able to push through the fear of failing, allows you to do unexpected and creative things that might not make sense but could work. You aren't constrained by conventions and once you accept that you don't know, you are free to fail as many times as necessary until you come up with something novel that works. (Obviously there are times when real expertise is required such as open heart surgery for example)

The Takeaway

  • Don't let ignorance or lack of experience scare you away from trying.
  • If you are scared of failing or looking stupid, do the thing afraid.
  • Its ok to approach things from wildly incorrect directions because often that's where innovation comes from.

Thanks for listening,