ISOC Fellows to IETF Programme Benefits Both Fellows and Mentors

By: Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Date: March 1, 2012

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For six years, the Internet Society (ISOC) has been sponsoring network engineers from emerging and developing economies to attend IETF meetings through its Fellowship to the IETF programme. While the programme provides obvious assistance to the chosen ISOC fellows, the long-time IETF participants who serve as mentors to newcomers experience benefits as well.

Former IETF chair Fred Baker has been mentoring the programme’s fellows at least once a year since the programme began. Baker, who is currently co-chair of the IPv6 Operations Working Group (v6ops), says mentoring new members of the IETF community is an important role for leaders like him.

“You come to the point in your career where, frankly, the best thing you can do for other engineers, for your company, for the IETF, is to help other people come along because you’re not going to be there forever,” Baker says. “Reaching out to new people—not necessarily young people, but new people—and helping them become successful in the endeavor and on their own is actually an important role for any senior person in any profession or any organization.”

ISOC fellows are engineers from emerging and developing economies who could not attend an IETF meeting without support. They receive a round-trip airline ticket to attend an IETF meeting, along with hotel accommodations, meeting registration fees, and a stipend to cover meals, transportation and other incidental expenses. ISOC typically supports a dozen fellows at each IETF meeting, with half being first-time attendees and the other half being returning participants.

Each first-time fellow is paired with a mentor, who is an experienced IETF participant with expertise in the technical area that interests the newcomer. The mentor has a telephone or e-mail exchange with the fellow prior to the meeting and suggests materials such as working group documents and discussion threads that should be read prior to the meeting.

The mentor and the fellow meet on the Sunday afternoon of the meeting at the IETF’s Newcomers’ Meet and Greet. Throughout the weeklong meeting, the mentor serves as a general point-of-contact for the fellow to answer questions or make introductions.

Steve Conte, a senior manager with ISOC, said mentors play an important role in the programme.

“The IETF culture can be quite overwhelming, especially when English is not your first language. You can feel shut out of the process,” Conte said. “Having a mentor help guide and prepare the fellows helps them get the most out of the meeting.”

Baker says the time commitment for being a mentor is minimal, but the rewards are significant.

“Every ISOC fellow who I’ve mentored hasn’t needed a whole lot of support on the ground,” Baker says. “What I’ve done is talk to them in advance in e-mail, find out what they’re interested in, and introduced them to the working group chairs over email. I’ve also talked to them a little bit about process and what we do.”

Baker meets with his fellows on Sunday afternoons before the IETF meeting begins, and he is available throughout the week to answer their questions via email or in person. He finds that ISOC fellows need little assistance from him later in the week.

“As a mentor, what I’m really trying to do is get that person quickly plugged in so they can be productive and find attending the IETF meeting to be a good use of their time,” Baker explained. “It’s really just a couple hours worth of work.”

But Baker finds the hours he spends as mentor to an IETF newcomer to be rewarding.

“What do I get out of it? Personal satisfaction,” Baker says. “I enjoy meeting a new person who might give me an insight into a problem in some area of the world. There can be concrete learnings from looking at things through a different set of eyeglasses.”

Once, Baker mentored a woman from Tuvalu who worked on Internet resource allocation. “She was focused on how to efficiently deliver Internet services to the outlying islands,” Baker said. “Now we’re Facebook friends, and I talk to her from time to time about random things. It was interesting to hear about this little tiny island country and what the issues were through her.”

Another time, Baker mentored a network engineer from Uganda who detailed the operational difficulties that his employer, a mobile carrier, was having due to the deployment of layer-upon-layer of network address translation (NAT). “It validated some of the things I thought about living with layers and layers of NATs,” Baker said.

Sometimes being a mentor turns into a professional opportunity. At the recent IETF meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, Baker spoke to a group of fellows about the history and philosophy of the Internet. Subsequently, he was invited to give a similar talk at the May 2012 meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Address Registry (LACNIC).

Being a mentor “is an interesting experience. You get to meet somebody from a different part of the world and talk about different approaches to things. Why not avail yourself of that opportunity?” Baker asks.

Baasansuren Burmaa, director of the MN Domain Registry in Mongolia, attended the IETF 73 meeting in Minneapolis as an ISOC fellow with Baker as her mentor. She found Baker’s advice helpful in navigating the meeting and understanding WG documents.

“It was easier to join the IETF community actively with Fred’s introduction,” Burmaa said. “We had the same area of interest, and I had experience on the RFCs, especially related to IPv6, because of Fred’s help with IETF meeting preparation.”

Burmaa said she has had sporadic email conversations with Baker since then as well as visiting with him in person at the IETF 74 meeting in San Francisco. “Being a mentor to the ISOC fellowship programme is vital for building bridges between the IETF community and newcomers,” she added.

While Burmaa continues to participate in IETF WGs electronically, she says there’s no substitute for attending the meetings in person—an opportunity that was only available to her because of the Internet Society’s Fellowship to the IETF programme.

“Attending the physical meetings and having direct communications are helpful for non-English speakers to have a clear picture of what has worked and what has not worked in terms of Internet drafts development,” she said. “It was a precious chance for me to exchange information, share best practices, network among the IETF participants and find ways for the .MN Registry to improve on the security levels for .MN domain registrants and other emerging issues faced by the Mongolian technical community.”

The Internet Society is seeking additional mentors for the July 2012 IETF meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, as well as the November 2012 meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. If you’re interested in being a mentor this year, please contact Steve Conte at [email protected].