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Preaching AWS in Plato’s Cave

December 17th, 2016

Since coming back from AWS re:Invent a couple of weeks ago, I have felt like the freed prisoner returning to Plato’s Cave.

If you took an intro to philosophy class in college, you may recall the Analogy of the Cave, from the Republic.

In this philosophical metaphor, a group of people have lived their entire lives as prisoners shackled up in a cave. For some reason, they are constrained in such a way they cannot turn their heads to the left or right — they can only stare straight ahead. As a result, they have never seen one another directly. They can only see their shadows, cast on the cave wall in front of them by a fire burning in the cave behind. There are a few additional details, such as a number of non-prisoners in the cave who continually hold up cut-outs of people and animals in front of the fire so shadows of these objects are alsocast on the cave wall. This creates an entire shadow world for the prisoners. Because they have somehow been chained up in this cave since they were children, and because shadows are all they have ever seen, the prisoners believe the shadow world to be the real world.

Now, I know this all seems awkward and contrived, but remember — philosophical metaphor. As a bonus for putting up with Plato for a few minutes, you now know where the Warchowskis got the basic premise for The Matrix.

The key development in the Analogy of the Cave occurs when one of the prisoners — the Republic doesn’t give him a name, so we’ll just call him “Neo” — is freed from his shackles, shown the strange setup in the cave, and then forcibly dragged into the world above. At first Neo is stunned and disoriented by the experience of seeing objects directly, in the bright light of the sun, but he gradually becomes used to such an expanded view of the world. He is literally “enlightened”, and would never want to go back to believing shadows are real.

When Neo returns to the cave, however, he finds that his fellow prisoners don’t want to be similarly enlightened. They laugh and jeer at him for his stories of a bright, sunlit world. They would in fact kill him if they weren’t shackled up in a philosophical metaphor.

My experience coming back from AWS is very much like Neo’s return to the cave.

In my attempts to convince my colleagues there is a brighter, freer world just a few steps away, I typically encounter one of two responses. The first is an uncomprehending gaze, as the person to whom I am talking patiently waits for me to finish so he can return to whatever legacy support work he was doing prior to my interruption. The second is a conviction on the part of my conversationalist that he knows exactly what I am talking about, he has heard it all before, and he doesn’t have to pay much attention because AWS is no different from any other Cloud datacenter (and he knows all about datacenters.) Both responses are examples of a belief that the current way of doing things is the “right” way, and therefore comprises the “real” world of IT — or at least the only world that matters.

These responses are frustrating. I find myself wanting to grab people, break them free of their chains, and shout “Don’t you understand? Everything is changing! It’s happening right now. ‘The way we’ve always done it’ isn’t going to cut it anymore!” Then I want to write a Lambda function, create an RDS instance, upload a ton of data to RedShift, and ask them what server they are going to manage to make it all work.

I want to do this, but I don’t — because I have found that just providing more information is not a productive strategy for freeing people from the dark cave of legacy IT.

We work in an industry with a lot of smart people, and with a lot of people who like to be right. No one appreciates someone telling them “you’re doing it wrong” — myself included. If people are going to change the way they do things, they want it to be their idea.

So how do we convey the nature of something like AWS — a new way of doing things which requires a great deal of specialized knowledge to understand and use it properly?

Fortunately, Plato gives us some direction here — still in the Republic, and just a few paragraphs after the Analogy of the Cave.

Education, he says, isn’t “putting true knowledge into a soul that does not possess it, as if…inserting vision into blind eyes.” In other words, you can’t just dump a ton of new facts onto someone, and expect them to “get it.”

Instead, says Plato, we must assume the person whom we are trying to convince already has, on some level, the basic information needed to grasp the argument we are making. Our job isn’t to give others more and more facts, it is to help them use the facts they already possess to perhaps see their situation in a new way.

This is directly applicable to spreading the adoption of AWS. The economic drivers that make it so powerful didn’t come out of nowhere. They develop naturally and directly from challenges IT organizations face every day. IT administrators, managed service providers, business owners, and CEOs are intimately familiar with them.

The broad, straight road to AWS doesn’t run through a detailed comparison of features and benefits, an argument about on-site vs. hosted, or an impressive demonstration of serverless functionality.

It runs instead through evaluation of speed-to-market, recognition of total cost of ownership, and no nonsense cost-benefit analysis. The same criteria, in other words, by which all IT initiatives are assessed. Decision-makers are well-versed in using these tools to chart the course of successful organizations. What they need is someone who can explain the virtues of AWS in terms they already understand.

Going forward, I plan to focus on the compelling business case for AWS, more than on its cool services and features. The cave of legacy IT has sheltered administrators, CIOs and CTOs for a long time. I can’t fault them for wanting to see exactly how a new approach will advance their organization.

There will be plenty of time later to marvel at the splendor of living in the sun.

Brian S. Pauls has over 20 years of experience navigating the rapid pace of change in computers, networks, and the Internet. He has learned it’s more fun outside the cave if you take a few friends along.

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