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The IETF’s *Other* Diversity Challenge

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is the standards body for the Internet. It is the organization that publishes and maintains the standards describing the Internet Protocol (IP – versions 4 and 6), and all directly related and supporting protocols, such as TCP, UDP, DNS (and DNSSEC), BGP, DHCP, NDP, the list goes on, and on. In their own words:

The mission of the IETF is to make the Internet work better by producing high quality, relevant technical documents that influence the way people design, use, and manage the Internet.

But how do they do that? How does the IETF produce documents, and ensure that they are high quality, relevant, and influential?

Without going into too much boring detail here, the IETF uses a system of grassroots collaboration that is really quite revolutionary in many ways. The IETF is split into broad focus “Areas” and then again into specific “Working Groups” that each target a single problem or technical topic. While there is leadership at each level, the real power of the IETF is that all the real innovation and decision making happens out on the edges, from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. Combine this grassroots collaboration within each working group with the bottom-up decision making power vested in them and then add in the openness for anyone to join any working group any time, and you start to see the magic of the IETF. All work is contributed by individuals, all decisions are based on rough consensus and running code, and the whole thing “just works.”

But does it work as well as it could?

Nothing is perfect, of course, so shouldn’t we always strive for improvement? One area that can almost always be improved in any global organization is diversity. The great benefit of an open organization, like the IETF, is that anyone can have his or her voice heard. The great tragedy is that only those who speak up can ever be heard. This makes who is participating very important indeed. We want as many voices from as many backgrounds as possible to ensure the best achievable outcome. Without having all the right people involved, we run the risk of missing something key, for lack of their perspective.

The IETF is already aware of the importance of diversity and steps are being taken to help ensure representation in the IETF from all areas of the world, and more equal representation from both genders. The Internet Society Fellows program helps bring folks from around the globe who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate to IETF meetings and there is a diversity design team with an open mailing list for community (that’s you) feedback to help them in “identifying diversity related issues that the IETF faces and making practical recommendations that can help in this regard.”

I applaud these efforts! Each of us should contribute to them, and to the overall diversity dialogue, in every way we can.

But I see another diversity issue at play in the IETF as well, and I’ve come to learn that I’m not alone. This “other diversity challenge” may be a bit more subtle and harder for those not familiar with the Internet industry to see. The physical differences between Operators, Vendors, and Academics are markedly less than those between men and women. The differences in perspective, however, may actually be far greater in both scope and scale. The differences in the way that someone actively running a network views a problem, and the way that same problem is seen by someone writing code for routers are significant. The same goes for either of those two and someone conducting network research. We need all three of these broad views, and all the myriad of views that each contain, informing our innovation and our decision making at the IETF.

Currently, it seems, that is not entirely the case. Many believe that the level of operational input into the IETF is too low. That’s not to say there are no operators at the IETF, nor to infer that the operators who do participate already are somehow inadequate. Quite the opposite. Just as the first women, or Latin Americans, or Africans, or Asians to participate in the IETF paved the way for more diversity, those operators who participate today, who have participated in the past—and especially those who have participated all along—have kept the door open for additional operator input. One shining example of this is the IEPG, or Internet Engineering and Planning Group, who meet the Sunday before every IETF meeting to discuss operational issues.

How do we expand on that? How do we ensure that network operators, those folks responsible for keeping the packets flowing across their (service provider, enterprise, data-center, campus, cloud, etc.) networks, are always included in those who are working to influence the way we design, use, and manage the Internet?

To answer that, my team at the Internet Society decided first to research the issue. We want to know if there are, in fact, barriers to operator involvement in the IETF, and if so, what they are. This is where *you* come in. We have an informal survey posted specifically to gather information from network operators about the IETF. We particularly want to hear from folks who are network operators but do not currently participate in the IETF; we want to know why! So if you operate a network, please take our survey, and whether you do or not, please share it as well. We want to hear from people you know, in your part of the world, as well as everywhere else!

The survey will close after the last day of June. On the first of July we’ll begin synthesizing everything we’ve heard. Then we’ll present it back to the global network engineering community, to network operators the world round. We’ll also present it to the IETF, to share our findings and amplify the voice of the operators. Once we know we’ve heard everything, and recorded it correctly, we’ll start working on solutions to any identified problems.

I believe we’ll be able to classify the solutions we find based on who is needed to implement them. There will likely be a set of things that operators themselves, or more likely operator groups, can do to help. There will probably be another set of improvements or changes that the IETF itself can make to improve operator engagement and operational input. Finally, I think we may also find some things that the Internet Society can do to help facilitate these interactions. But before we can even think about solutions, we must first define the problems.

Please help us in this effort, take and share this survey before 31 June 2014 (shortlink: http://bit.ly/opsietfsurvey). Thank you!

By Chris Grundemann, Creative|Technologist

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