Joining the IETF Fold

By: Ali Hammad Akbar

Date: October 7, 2008

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An IETF 72 fellow reflects on working group politics, the culture of leadership, and the IETF dress code.

I’d like to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to the Internet Society and its sponsors for their sponsorship of the ISOC Fellowship to the IETF program and to the organizers at the IETF, who made it possible for me to participate in the 72nd meeting of the IETF. All of the travel, lodging, and hospitality arrangements extended during the stay were splendid and were handled very professionally. My indebtedness is to Leni Nazare, Martin Kupres, and Mirjam Kühne for their efforts.

Though I was by and large familiar with the workings of IETF, I was indeed a newbie to its proceedings. In the past, I would wonder how working group (WG) ideas popped up: was it the WG chair who would spell out the seemingly Utopian ideas? Or was it the companies that would steer the chartering of the agenda items? It was only through firsthand experience at an IETF meeting that I became able to fully comprehend the working style: a clearly chalked-out agenda is thoroughly deliberated and firmed up through consensus on the mailing lists. Afterward, it gets floated for consideration at the IETF meeting. Objective synoptic presentations and question-and-answer sessions after each Internet-Draft expose the participants to a therapeutic forum wherein they reflect upon and make appropriate amends to their proposals. The ideas evolve through debate and candid comments, though at times these might seem like forays into an Internet war zone! Undoubtedly, the two consequent features of IETF meetings-synergy and proactivity-arise from honest debate that sometimes relegates courtesy to a lower priority. These are the people for whom the maxim holds true: “If violence is a sin, silence is a felony.”

My doubts were further cleared up when I met my mentor, Prof. Carsten Bormann, a pleasant, modest, and knowledgeable person who maintained a characteristic silence unless provoked and who chaired the 6LoWPAN working group. While attending the meeting as a first timer, I found myself awkwardly overdressed-not at all in the getaway style of the majority of participants. Professor Bormann promptly commented in a lighthearted manner that of all of the participants, only two gentlemen were clad very formally-a dig on me, I realized!

The meeting also afforded me interaction with other fellows from all over the globe. While exchanging notes with Hugo Salgado from South America and SM from Mauritius, I realized that such people from diverse backgrounds and of a multitude of ethnicities, who have will and potential, very often remain untapped contributors. Though their passions might find expression through an open call for participation on the IETF mailing lists, it is only through bursaries and fellowships that they can get recognition for their efforts. It was indeed very rewarding for us all to be part of such an activity.

At times, my admiration for academic stalwarts has bordered on infatuation. And there could be no better place than the IETF meeting to get them all together. To my immense pleasure, I could meet Prof. David Culler and Samita Chakrabarty and attend talks by Pascal Thubert and Jean-Philippe Vasseur-people who work in subjects closely related to my interests and who are highly regarded. Likewise, it was quite motivating to see young scholars like Jonathan Hui and Phil Kevin at 6LoWPAN and ROLL working groups to present their works. Their success stories bespeak of their professional approach and relentless pursuits.

With limited leisure time at my disposal, a city tour seemed like a good extracurricular activity, so I set out to hitchhike. While I went to the city centre in a more hop-on, hop-off mood, my touring spree turned out to be more academic. My visit to the highly acclaimed Trinity College and the National University of Ireland enabled me to meet some very good researchers in Dublin. Prof. Murphy from University College Dublin visiting faculty from Washington State University, and Prof. Sumit Roy were among the professors I met who work on IP-based wireless networks. I plan to take those initial interactions on to subsequent levels of rapport.

As a whole, the experience of spending just about a week in the IETF folds proved remarkably eventful. It could, however, result in more than that. For instance, pursuit of an Internet-Draft together with my mentor-in order to explore ways and means of opening a new ISOC chapter in Lahore (my hometown) and offering talented minds for ISOC-all are merely the initial contemplations we wish to pursue.