Healthy Cynicism as an IT Survival Tool


Matthew Mengel posted on the Packet Pushers community blog that he has accepted a scholarship to study astronomy full-time, meaning that he’ll be out of networking for at least three years. Longer if things go well for him. Teren Bryson posted “Burnout Redux” as a response and commentary.

While very much of what Teren said resonated with me, I genuinely love networking. I haven’t gotten over my fascination with being able to communicate over long distances. That goes all the way back to my first modem purchase (big decision to splurge on the 14.4K vs. 9600 baud), which I used to dial into Delphi forums to discuss “Politics & The Bully Pulpit” using Rainbow Reader. Eventually I got into Novell Netware as a sysadmin, did lots of Micrsoft work along the way as an MCSE, played a bunch with Linux, and eventually landed on Cisco. I had a couple of small projects handed to me that were a personal challenge as a complete Cisco rookie.

  1. I built a small frame-relay network for a regional energy company.
  2. I built a switched network for a manufacturing and distribution company at their premier facility.

Those were the most engaging IT projects I had done to date, and for the most part, that’s the sort of work I kept on doing. I moved into larger networks with greater complexity serving a variety of vertical markets, and continue to work on networks with evolving levels of complexity today. Nearly all networks I have been working on in recent years feature multi-protocol routing, switching, WAN optimization, load balancing, disaster recovery and/or business continuity strategies, firewalls, VPN concentrators, IDS/IPS appliances, development, UAT, QA & prod environments, one or more data centers, public or private cloud consumption, B2B connections, and multiple Internet feeds, all acting as a backdrop to support complex, multi-tiered applications that enable businesses to run. For me personally, networking as a technology is a wonderful thing. I enjoy it. I care about it. I read about it. I write about it. I love talking to other people about it.

All of that cheerleading comes with one large asterisk. I am weary of how IT works. I’m tired of upgrades that break things. I’m tired of fighting malware. I am tired of vendors’ miserable code. I hate sales cycles and having to fight to get decent pricing. Obtuse licensing schemes mean I have a piece of hardware I might not be able to count on when I’m in a jam, because it might have been hamstrung. If I never get another 2am call that wakes up my wife, she’ll thank the industry – as will I. Vendor technical support seems to be getting worse. I continue to open cases on ill-performing hardware or software only to be treated to a support engineer who can’t find his or her way around the CLI and almost inevitably needs to “talk to someone else on the team.”

I could rant on about the negatives of being in IT, but my point isn’t to rant. I really just want to point out that IT is a difficult career that wears practitioners down. After years and years of stress-inducing problems, 24-hour troubleshooting marathons, backed out changes, and awful vendor technical support, people in IT get exhausted. It’s a mental state you arrive at. Just utter exhaustion. Been there. I was there last year. I’ll be there again this year, most likely. And then sometime in the year following…it’s the way of things in IT.

Teren asks in the conclusion of his piece,

  1. If the money was equal to what you do now, or what your career will ultimately bring you in terms of earning potential, would you do something different?
  2. When were you the happiest in your life?  What were you doing?  Was it what you do now?

If money was removed from the equation, would I do something different? Maybe. I’m honestly not sure. I love music. I love to write. Maybe I’d learn to play that bass hanging up on the wall behind me. Maybe I’d put tangible energy into that sci-fi novel that keeps getting better and better as I write it and re-write it (in my head). But I enjoy the intellectual stimulation that comes with networking well enough that I’m not looking to break away from it as such. Although in reality I am a captive to my career choices, I don’t feel like I’m a slave. I don’t live in a career prison of my own making. I’m at an okay place.

Am I happiest at this point in my life? For the most part, yes – which perhaps is a counter-intuitive answer considering the ranty parts of this blog. But I think I have developed a healthy cynicism that has helped me to manage my expectations, reduce (definitely not eliminate) stress, and soldier through the tough spots without being affected as much as when I was younger. (Some of my current co-workers are wondering just how much of a hard case I must have been as a younger man. Oh, I have stories…I have stories.) By “healthy cynicism,” I mean this. If you expect the best from a vendor and get garbage, the result is disappointment, rage, and frustration. Conversely, if you expect garbage from a vendor and they deliver a steaming pile of it, the result is met expectations. And then the corollary is that if the vendor doesn’t deliver the garbage you expected, the result is exceeded expectations and a sunny day in your cubicle. While managing expectations doesn’t fix the problems, it’s a very useful coping mechanism. Keep your expectations realistic based on past experience, and be pleasantly surprised if they are exceeded.

About the author

Ethan Banks

Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.


  • The line between healthy Cynicism and the negative guy is really thin..
    I think I’m on the right side of things, but sometimes…. :)

    I think healthy Cynicism/skepticism comes with age (“year in the business”).
    And perhaps all the promised revolutionary systems, appliances, hardware etc, that turned out to be the shiniest turd in the datacenter :)

  • As a joke I’ve always said that the pessimist is far more happy than the optimist. The pessimist will expect the worse and in the worst case scenario he’ll just shrug and say “I told you so”, while anything better than that will result in a joyful experience. The opposite would be true for the optimist, which will always set himself up for major disappointment or at least just a feeling that everything went “just ok”. Although I’ve always meant this as a joke, there is a ring of truth to it. I agree, that as one gets older the “survivors” in this business develops a natural cynical approach to all from vendors to new technology, designs and equipment.


Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.

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