A Conversation with Ting Zou


Date: September 7, 2009

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The first woman to chair a working group from a Chinese business enterprise talks to the IETF Journal about handover keying, bridging the culture gap, and combining work and motherhood in the IT sector.

IETF Journal: When did you start working with the IETF?

Tina Tsou:* I have been working with the IETF since 2006. I have participated in the Operations, Security, Internet, and Transport areas. I like the culture of the IETF. It is quite free. From a technical point of view, you can practice whatever you like. That’s my general feeling.

IETF Journal: When did you become cochair of the hokey [handover keying] working group [WG]?

Tina: I have been cochair since before the IETF meeting in Stockholm [IETF 75]. I started on my birthday, by coincidence.

IETF Journal: What are the purpose and mission of hokey?

Tina: A mobile device has to reauthenticate each time it changes its point of attachment to the network. When it goes through the full procedure of authentication, it creates a series of ruptures, during which the medium cannot flow. This results in a poor user experience during handover. However, it is possible to shorten the time it takes to reauthenticate by reusing the key information developed during the initial authentication.

The hokey WG is concerned with developing procedures for key reuse and delivery while respecting good security practice. That is why it is in the security area. The hokey WG has already done work on this subject, but it has not yet developed the complete set of procedures, protocols, and changes needed for different security environment scenarios and situations. The working group has been in existence for a few years, and it has now rechartered.

In being the cochair of the hokey WG, I have the strong feeling that I am guiding the consensus, not imposing my own technical ideas and convictions. That is important.

IETF Journal: Have you ever felt that your cultural background has been a problem for you when working with the IETF? Do you think you need to adapt to be able to play a role in the IETF and its working groups?

Tina: The way people think is different here. I have been on business trips quite frequently since 2003, and I’ve made many friends, many of whom are not Asian. I’m getting used to it. In the WG meetings, nothing is personal; it is all based on technical grounds.

Sometimes you initially go against someone, and then later you get to know the person better. That’s really nice. I am an open person, so it is not so difficult for me. My father is an English teacher. I have been in touch with other cultures since I was a little kid, so it is not a big deal for me.

IETF Journal: What other work are you doing in the IETF?

Tina: At the company where I work, I lead a group of network product developers. Most of the work is related to the work done in the IETF. There are many WGs we are following. I don’t participate in all of them myself. I share that work with my colleagues. We will have more people on my team, and they are all involved in the IETF in some way. We have to learn what is going on in the IETF, and we have to bring it back to our implementations.

IETF Journal: What do you find interesting or different by working in the IETF-particularly as compared to other standards organizations?

Tina: At other meetings I dress very formally and sit on a chair. Here I wear jeans and I sit on the ground. [Laughs.] It is more free here at the IETF. Here we respect individuals. With other standards organizations it is more about companies and governments. There are more politics involved. I mean, politics are everywhere. But I find the IETF to be more free and more democratic.

I am also involved in the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, which has a European culture; the International Telecommunication Union’s Telecommunications Standardization Sector, which has a UN culture; and the IETF, which has an American culture. So when it comes to meetings, I always adjust a bit to the different cultures. But in all of those different work cultures, it’s all about technology. Technology is the key point. Most people who come here are engineers, but some are scientists. When we are talking about technology, no special culture is involved. We need to solve a problem; that is the main thing. Everything else comes second.

IETF Journal:Have you ever had difficulties communicating in this environment?

Tina: I did not see any difficulties. I did not find it difficult to speak up or become active. Here you don’t have to worry about whether you say something wrong. You can state whatever you like. The people here are generally friendly. If they are uncomfortable with what you said, they will say so, but they are not aggressive. I think most people enjoy being here.

IETF Journal: As you know, having an Asian woman leading a working group is a first for the IETF. What do you think about that?

Tina: Yes, this is true. Asian women are often more reserved and shy. They do not like to talk in public. But this has changed in recent years: women now speak up, they have jobs, and they have higher positions. Sometimes now men, too, take care of the children. Pretty much what is happening in the United States and in Europe is now also happening in Asia. There are no limits on women anymore.

IETF Journal: Is it also because women are needed in the workforce?

Tina: Yes, I think that is true, especially in the IT industry. Things are changing. The world became a global village, which means people become more and more alike. You improve yourself by learning from other people in different cultures. And that also applies to technology: different operators have different requirements, and they try to voice that in the WG. You learn from the other people in the WG; sometimes you argue, but you also learn from them.

I recently had a baby, and I was wondering how I would be able to cope with being a mother and having a career at the same time. Another woman at the IETF said she uses only one single calendar for home and work. That works actually pretty well. While the baby sleeps, I read RFCs and respond to e-mails. Sometimes I even read RFCs to my baby. He seems to enjoy it.

How to be an IETF WG chair and a mother at the same time? That would be an interesting working group.

* Ting Zou also goes by the name Tina Tsou.