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Different Experiences, a Common Goal: ISOC Fellows at IETF 84

By: Erin McGann

Date: October 6, 2012

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It was a surprise when I learned that the man who was sitting beside me was a very well-known researcher in my field. I’d read lots of his papers—to suddenly find this man sitting beside me was very exciting! — Shabbir Ahmed, IETF 84 Internet Society Fellow

On 30 July 2012, 11 network engineers and entrepreneurs from 9 emerging nations met at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver, Canada, as part of the Internet Society Fellowship to the IETF Programme. While most were only familiar with the IETF online, participation as a Fellow to the IETF was their opportunity to meet working group chairs and other IETF members face-to-face and to share their experiences in person.

Offered to technology professionals, advanced IT students, and other qualified individuals from emerging economies, the IETF Fellowship programme increases the diversity of inputs to, and global awareness of, the IETF’s work. Every year since it’s inception in 2006 the programme has connected increasingly more new Fellows with mentors and other members with similar interests within the IETF community. Although Fellows represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, they share a commitment to the betterment of their region and a passion for the collaborative process that defines the IETF.

Nomsa Muswai, a network engineer at Zimbabwe Online, learned about the IETF Fellowship programme last year and was determined to participate. “I met Steve Conte at a United States Telecommunications Training Institute workshop, and he told me about it,” she says. “I told my company I was going to come and although they didn’t send me here, they supported me. I believe that unless you take giant steps by yourself, you don’t get chances.”

Muswai views her position as a network engineer as a way to give back. “It gives me a platform from which to impact society,” she said.

Paul Muchene, builds websites and mobile web programs in Kenya. “In Kenya, [the web] is a very emerging industry—more and more people are beginning to see the benefits of going online,” he says. “We are where America was, perhaps, during the dot-com bubble. There’s a bubble of people wanting web sites and domain names—so that’s what I’m doing.”

In addition to running his company, Muchene is also the network lead at iHub_, an open space in Nairobi for innovators, developers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and graduate students to meet and work. Muchene keeps the network up and running, including recently deploying IPv6.

“We have a huge information gap in Bangladesh,” says Shabbir Ahmed, an associate professor in computing science at the University of Dhaka. “We usually teach according to what textbooks are available, so in most cases we’re not conversant with cutting-edge technology. Attending a meeting like IETF 84 definitely enriches my knowledge—which I can then pass on to my students.”

Dorcas Muthoni, founder of Nairobi-based open source consulting firm OpenWorld, marks her third visit as an IETF Fellow this year. “OpenWorld builds web and mobile applications targeted towards enterprise and government. I work from Nairobi, in the East African region. That’s what brings food to the table,” she says. “But I also do other things. In 2004, I started AfChix, a mentorship programme for tech women, because there are so few of us in the region. My goal is to make sure that more young women can get training, feel technically up-to-date, and ultimately present themselves for leadership roles.”

ISOC Fellows to the IETF are paired with mentors who share their interests. Mentors helps Fellows navigate the meeting process, introduce them to other members, and answer questions.

Muswai immediately connected with her mentor. “Fred Baker is awesome,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have him as my mentor. Through him I’m getting to know a lot of people whose names I knew previously only through their work.”

She admits that the intensity of the meetings is definitely something to contend with. “Here [in person], I get so much information, sometimes I need to go back into a quiet space to go over it again.”

“To benefit from the meetings you must be able to follow them,” says Muthoni. “I find it best not to attendevery session on every topic that interests me. I pick one and master the art of how the meeting runs, and then read the archives after that.”

Many of the Fellows agree that meeting other IETF members in person makes following the mailing lists easier once they return home.

“Initially the mailing lists can be overwhelming,” says Muchene. “I get quite a bit of mail and the discussions and drafts can be a lot. But once I attended a meeting physically, it ceased to be overwhelming—I became more excited and started appreciating the work that was done in the mailing list. I’m much more focussed now—I know exactly which drafts to read and which ones to comment on.”

As a professor of computing science, Ahmed will benefit from the contacts he made at his first IETF meeting. “My institution doesn’t have access to the hardware needed to run simulations,” he says. Now he’s connected with IETF members who can help guide his research despite his institution’s limited equipment.

Muswai found the depth of specialized technical knowledge at the IETF to be different from what she was used to in Zimbabwe. “In my country, as in most of the southern part of Africa, there is a lot of development but everything is still a bit vague,” she says. “There’s a lot of generalization. [In other parts of the world] people concentrate on the finer details of a network. It’s quite frustrating because sometimes we have to outsource the implementation, although we do most of the maintenance. We don’t get much chance at home to learn deeper things. [At the IETF], they really know what they’re talking about. It’s not like learning stuff from school and then trying to implement it. When I hear IETF members talk—it’s clear that they’re actually involved in the making of things.”

Fellows’ interests span from DNS to apps to mpls, but all share a conviction to ensure open standards.

“If it weren’t for [the IETF], which pushed for open standards, it would have been impossible for me to start my business,” says Muthoni. “It helps us access things that otherwise would have been [out of our reach]. It also promotes more cooperation. If you look at this forum you’ll find people from different companies, from different backgrounds, all thinking: how can we get things working in a standardized way, so people can publish whatever they want to publish? That’s a really a big thing—working together. Otherwise we create only small ecosystems, like boundaries of countries that everyone needs visas to cross.”

Muswai sees how open access directly affects people in Zimbabwe. “Because it’s for everyone, the Internet makes it possible for a lot of things to occur—economically, politically, and socially. When people who have had no access to the Internet start using it, you see a lot of progression in those things that they couldn’t do before—even things as simple as communication.”

In emerging economies, Internet and IT industries can bring much-needed jobs. “More reliance needs to be made [on industries] besides tea, coffee, and tourism—these are very shaky,” says Muchene. “It’s very important to have an open Internet, a place for people can express ideas, to innovate on top of the IP network, and to perform transactions.”

“Participating in the IETF’s work to make the Internet work better through an open process feels great,” says Muswai. “It’s how I can make a difference. It’s going to change a few things in my life and I’m totally happy about it.”

For more information on the IETF Fellowship, visit http://www.internetsociety.org/fellows-ietf

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