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Why I Network: Dan Pitt

Jun 20, 2016

ONF Executive Director Dan Pitt shares the personal experiences that led him to a career in networking.

Dan PittSo how did I end up in the networking business? It all started with babysitting.

I found myself as a young babysitter alone with an AM radio after the kids went to bed, and even in Madison, Wisconsin, the nighttime reception brought in faraway stations from the southern midwest all the way to the east. (Later, in ultra-flat central Illinois I picked up stations from as far away as New York, New Orleans, and the Netherlands Antilles.) I used my babysitting money to buy myself a short-wave radio and that piqued my interest in the lives of people in other places.

In college my roommate and I did various nefarious things with the campus radio station and telephone system, always motivated by a fascination for sharing perspectives with people living in a different reality. In graduate school, we built a radio station with a broadcast range of maybe 100 meters and played weird music. I worked at two radio stations (one student, one commercial) and loved it when listeners called in with reactions.

I also got deeper into weird (and probably not at all legal) telephone-related shenanigans. But I got such a charge out of talking with people far away. Even when I got my first job, I installed telephone jacks all over the house and got a lot of telephones and long cords. I was the first person I knew who would bring a telephone up to the roof just to call someone and tell them where I was calling from. Those of you brought up on cellphones have no idea how lucky you are.

In looking for my first job out of grad school, I faced a choice between a telecom job (Northern Telecom) and a datacom job (IBM). I loved the idea of working in telephony (big switching systems) but frankly the IBM offer was a lot better, so I took it.

I soon found myself in the network architecture group, specializing in local area networks, and I loved the technical structure of the work. But I missed the human (telephony) aspect of it and was often drawn to (admittedly far-fetched) early approaches to carrying voice on datacom LANs. When ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) came along I thought the gap had finally been bridged. I was wrong. The ascendancy of Ethernet and IP for data, voice, and video took me by surprise, but I had long understood that what constituted Ethernet was simply an addressing scheme, frame format, and (MAC) service interface, not an access method. My work in LAN standards also taught me the sometimes disappointing reality that better is the enemy of good enough.

My interest in human-human communication continues in a number of manifestations, including in the precise, creative, and sometimes even disobedient use of language. I wish I spoke fluently the language of every country I visit. I enjoy the common aspects of formal languages, philosophy, and communication protocols. I love the purity of network architecture but know not to be a slave to it. I am both amused and annoyed that “networking” can mean all the technical notions we work with every day as well as the social process of meeting other people (often with a drink in hand, and usually not a very good one). I actively network in both senses. I always will.

– Dan Pitt, Executive Director