A time-honored tradition among technical people is to use percussive maintenance: When a piece of equipment isn't working properly, give it a good whack.
As I headed into a week of intensive technical training, I felt as if I were the faulty piece of equipment and thought the instructor would have to hit me over the head if any information was going to sink in. I worried that I wouldn't be able to switch gears from my politically impossible management role to learning about command line interface, the final leg of my journey toward the Cisco Certified Security Professional certification. Much as I was looking forward to achieving my goal, I was scared as well. The material was supposed to be highly technical. In fact, the training had been rescheduled three times because students kept dropping out, leaving the enrollment below the required minimum. As it was, because of a no-show, there were only three students.
A rocky start
I fell behind immediately, because the other students finished their lab work well ahead of me. I was the old lady between two fresh and extremely bright young men.
It wasn't a great start, so after the first day of classes, I took stock of things and thought about how to set a better course for the rest of the week. The first thing to deal with was the fact that I was the only woman in the class. Well, that's nothing new. By this time in my career, I should be used to standing out in a field that's dominated by young males. Nonetheless, I am often surprised at how my presence affects others. They are just not sure how to behave toward me. I know that I have to be the one to set the tone and reach out first.
My second task was to squelch my self-doubts, which can be legion in certain circumstances. Most of the time, I have total confidence in my abilities. But from time to time, I forget all my accomplishments and start to feel overwhelmed. I had to gather my thoughts and convince myself that there was nothing in the course that couldn't be mastered by someone as dogged as me. I would just have to focus and block out everything else.
The next morning, I woke up ready to rock 'n' roll. I arrived early to class and began working on the lab assignments ahead of the lecture. I finished my work early that day and felt as if I was in the groove. My feelings of inadequacy had been banished, and I attempted to connect with the other two students and the instructor. It was amazing how easily they relaxed when I did. They figured out pretty quickly that I was just like them in many ways and had the same goal: technical network security expertise.
Fun and games
But what really made things start to click for the four of us was humor. I got things rolling by poking playful fun at the instructor. The man was a true geek, a veteran network engineer with great credentials and years of experience. He seemed to have a fondness for overly complicated phrases and big words, and after a while, I began to get the giggles. At first, he would stop his lecture and stare at me, but by the third day, it had become a game for me to write down every overblown phrase he used and to ask him to decode them for us. We students started to come to class in jovial moods, and that fostered camaraderie. We all talked about the stuff we didn't understand and helped one another with our labs. Even the instructor loosened up and started telling very old jokes, most of which we had heard before. We laughed anyway.
On the last day of class, we had fun reading the April Fools' Day RFCs (you can find them on Wikipedia) to one another during the short lunch break. Our favorite was "IP Over Avian Carrier." We sailed through our labs and finished early. Two of us used the extra time to diagram our actual networks on the whiteboards so that the others could point out security weaknesses and propose solutions, such as modifications to router, firewall and VPN configurations. I was thrilled that our instructor gave his blessing to network changes I was implementing at work.
On the flight home, I thought about the group dynamics I had witnessed in the course of the week. Humor is such a simple thing, but it's amazing how it can brighten the days and grease the gears of our brains. It allowed our little group to change the tenor of the class in a positive way, so that we all left with a better understanding of the material that had been so intimidating on the first day. Then I realized that back at my job, I had forgotten how important humor is. Things had been so stressful over the past year that laughter had disappeared. Now, I'm determined to bring it back and see if it can't make my politically impossible management role a little easier to bear. After all, a good laugh beats percussive maintenance any day.