5 Ways Network Engineers Can Learn From Leonardo

I’ve just had a week away from the hustle and bustle of work, spending seven days with the family in the peace and tranquility of Meia Praia near Lagos in Portugal.  (Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend visiting the area if you’ve never been) While we were away, I resolved to plough through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, having thoroughly enjoyed the insights from his book about Steve Jobs. After starting it on the flight out, I turned the last page on the homeward bound Ryanair 737-800 about an hour out of Faro and felt compelled to write down my takeaways from it.

First things first, I’d strongly recommend reading the book. Isaacson doesn’t take a strictly linear path through Leonardo’s life but instead covers a series of main themes that gradually build to give a picture of a complex intellect. He can be a little repetitive at times as the threads cross over but they do all come together towards the end of his life to show how all the elements of his personality and experiences formed a true genius. There will be more scholarly works looking at the individual areas of Leonardo’s extraordinary capabilities but I feel Isaacson brings them together neatly to set Leonardo in context with more contemporary figures.

Which is great.  But why did I feel compelled to put thumbs to screen to write this? Well, aside from the book being an interesting read, it struck me that there are certain key features of Isaacson's breakdown of Leonardo’s approach to his craft that we could all learn from, even us network engineers!  In no specific order:

  • Leonardo did not have much of a formal education. In fact it’s fair to say he was always keen to point out that he was a man of experience - his starting point was always experimenting, building his knowledge out from first principles. He would actively look to understand the scientific details of everything he was working on before he would commit to being considered expert in it. For example, he famously carried out dozens of dissections of human bodies in order to develop a full understanding of anatomy which educated his paintings;
  • Even then, he retained a level of humility such that he appreciated that he could never know everything. He certainly tried to learn something of everything and typically he would research and experiment in incredible detail, but if he found that a new proven theory contradicted his world view, or that his experiments led him in a new direction, he was happy to accept that he had been wrong. He was always looking for clarification and new knowledge;
  • He was a true all-rounder.  He brought knowledge and understanding of many different branches of science to bear to influence his art, and used his art as a starting point for all manner of scientific investigations.  Everything is connected and intertwined and his obsessive curiosity drove him to demonstrate the connectedness in all its glory;
  • He appreciated that there are no absolutes in nature or life.  He developed an artistic style - sfumato - which avoided the use of outlines, but developed layers of shadow and lighting to illustrate depth in his artwork.  This meant that objects seem to rise up out of their background in a very realistic way.  His understanding of light, reflection and shadow came from an appreciation of optics and the workings of the eye;
  • Leonardo worked in analogies - his view of the world and of man as a microcosm of the world, meant that he was able to draw conclusions and educate others by comparison.  For example, his view of the human arterial system was often compared to rivers running to the sea, or branches of a tree.  This allowed him to develop insights in ways not previously explored;
  • While individual genius is vital for making quantum leaps of understanding, collaboration is equally important to make those jumps widely available and understood.  Discussion with his peers in different fields allowed Leonardo to really crystallise some of his ideas into theories; working with his team in his studio allowed him to communicate those ideas and the outputs to the wider population.

Though he was clearly a genius, Isaacson shows he was also just a little flawed, explaining that he could have had so much more recognition for his work (and potentially brought forward thinking in some fields by centuries) if he had taken the time and effort to edit and publish the notes that he filled so many notebooks with over his life.  You are left with a sense of "what if" when you realise that his work on human anatomy, optics, perspective, movement of water, etc, etc, were all way ahead of their time and remained unpublished during his lifetime.  Many of his potentially greatest art works were also unfinished - his life was so full of scientific curiosity that he had little time to complete the works that would demonstrate his true potential.

I could go on for hours - but I urge you if you're interested to pick up a book and go find out more for yourself.  But why is this interesting for us as network engineers?  What can we learn from Leonardo?

  1. Learn your craft from first principles.  Develop a thorough understanding of fundamental networking knowledge, and make sure you take the time to appreciate how users, applications, servers and their services need to use the network to communicate.  Then you are in a position to provide the best network design for the customer (whoever that customer is);
  2. Be obsessed!  Practise, research, read every day.  Always be looking to fine tune your abilities and your knowledge, and this will inevitably lead to higher quality output.  (Look up the concept of "Shokunin" for some guidance - the Japanese principles for mastery of your art - this blog post is a good place to start)  And it doesn't necessarily have to be directly related to your field, just relatable!
  3. Think in analogies.  Regardless of marketing, there is nothing new under the sun and most problems have been tackled before in some form or another.  And so, think about your problem and present your solution in terms of something well known with a similar form - it may give you an alternative angle of attack and it may make it easier for others to understand the solution. Just leaving this here: RFC1925, rule 11;
  4. Work with others.  Collaborating on a problem doesn't mean you have to give up the "lead" - you can still be the genius, but bouncing ideas off peers will help you get additional perspective, and thus to a more rounded solution.  Become part of a community of peers or build your own!  Working with a team means you are more likely to get your product (whatever that may be) out there.  And by becoming a mentor or tutor, you will be able to pass on your knowledge and experience to others so that they can further enhance and develop your ideas and approach;
  5. Publish your work, in whichever way you feel able. Write blog posts, record podcasts, present to an audience.  Share your knowledge and insight and you will help further the collective understanding.  Every viewpoint is valid, and what better way to learn more than to get into a dialogue with others who have seen, read or heard your view and either agree or disagree with it?

We had a great family holiday, and thoroughly enjoyed our family time in Portugal.  And I learned something along the way too - win, win!  Hopefully I've been able to share something of that with you in this post, and you too can learn to be more Leonardo!


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