Making a Mark at the IETF

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) met late last month for its first plenary session with a new chair: Alissa Cooper, a Cisco Fellow with a long history of working with standards inside and outside of the organization. That Cooper is the first female chair in the IETF's 31-year history isn't the headline to the story, as she sees it. Rather, it's just one step forward toward the diversity the long-standing standards organization has been championing in recent years.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Cooper about her new role at the IETF, and walked away from that interview having gained a new appreciation for the value of standards in today's tech-driven world. As was evident at our recent Enterprise Connect Orlando conference, a great deal of change marks enterprise communications and collaboration. If we are to move forward through the whirlwind of change, we're going to need a little help keeping everyone on the same page.

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Alissa Cooper (Photo credit: Jana Ašenbrennerová/Panos Pictures/Internet Society)

From Cisco to the IETF

Cooper has been with Cisco for about three and a half years, working under Jonathan Rosenberg, VP and CTO for the company's Collaboration business group, in advising engineers on issues related to data privacy in the cloud and guiding them in bringing Cisco Spark to market. In fact, the Spark development, with its focus on bringing data into the cloud, fell right into her sweet spot and was a big reason why she came to Cisco, Cooper said.

But her appointment as IETF chair means her work at Cisco will need to take a backseat for now... with the company's blessing. Since leadership roles at the IETF are entirely volunteer based, individuals serving in those positions often need to gain sponsorship through their employers, Cooper explained. In other words, IETF leaders need their primary employers to support their commitment to the organization or else they must participate on their own time -- difficult to finesse since IETF chair is a full-time position, she noted.

Her nomination didn't surprise anyone since it's a natural next step given her history with the IETF, she said. And, following a few conversations with Cisco leadership on the tradeoffs involved in her taking a full-time position at the IETF, Cooper had Cisco's full support to proceed. "From Cisco's perspective, as a company we care very much about supporting the idea of open standards generally, and they're still very integral to our success as a business," she said. "So I think people perceived the potential benefits to the company as well."

While Cisco transitions her responsibilities to other team members, Cooper said she will be staying close with her colleagues, following business developments, and consulting with the technical leadership. That said, she is looking forward toward the future of the Internet and focusing her time on the IETF.

As Rosenberg wrote in a recent Cisco Blogs post about Cooper's appointment, Cooper will be taking the reins at the IETF at an interesting time, given the rising significance of technologies like IoT, SDN, and NFV and the attention these require from the standards body in order to make a meaningful impact. "With the IETF in her hands, we can all rest assured that the Internet will continue to grow and expand for the benefit of all," he wrote.

The IETF chair serves a two-year term, and because of the way that positions have been filled historically, every year about half the leadership positions open up for the nomination committee to fill. Cooper's name was thrown into the mix of nominees early on, and for good reason. She previously served three years as an IETF Applications and Real-Time area director, and three years on the Internet Architecture Board, where she focused on the building blocks of the modern day Internet. Before that she served as chair of IANA Stewardship Coordination Group.

"Since I started participating in the IETF, I've always really enjoyed it," Cooper told me. "I found it to be really important work -- I mean if you think about what goes on at the IETF and how pivotal of a role it has had as a body in terms of shaping the way that the Internet has developed and its ability to have such broad reach and make such a wide impact on so many people's lives ... I viewed this as an opportunity, and the result is I get to spend 100% of my time working to make the organization more efficient and to just be a home for innovation and the future of the Internet."

Goal-Setting at the IETF

There are two sides to what Cooper would like to accomplish while leading the IETF, she said. One side is around the IETF's technical work. On this front, Cooper is paying particular attention to a few well-known industry trends, including the Internet of Things, especially in regard to interoperability and security. Other industry trends that she will be tackling at the IETF include software-defined networking, virtualization, data monitoring and networking, and the automation of network management, she told me.

"Security, especially in the last four to five years, has really taken on a rather prominent role in the IETF as it has become a more pressing issue for the Internet at large," Cooper said. "I think we will continue to have an important role to play in improving the security of the Internet overall."

On the operational side, Cooper is focused on trying to engage new participants in the IETF. "We're trying to have better integration with open source tool [developers], we're doing more with hackathons, we're expanding our support for remote participation -- all of these are important to keep the juices flowing and make sure we're drawing some of cutting-edge engineering into the IETF," she said.

"And then we're also, at this particular juncture, looking at a bit of an administrative reorganization of the IETF just to make it more efficient and agile, and adaptive to changing needs in the market and the changes in our participant base. That's really going to be occupying my time as well, and I hope that we will have made a lot of progress by this time next year on that."

On Diversity

When I asked Cooper how she weighed the significance of being the first female chair of the IETF, she paused for a moment to reflect and then answered, "The way that I look at this is that no matter who you are, it's always an honor to be selected to serve. Within the IETF we have been focusing in the last several years on diversity of a few different kinds, gender diversity is just one of those."

The IETF has made some strides in the leadership specifically around gender diversity, so Cooper said she sees her nomination as building on those recent improvements. On the other hand, the IETF still has a long way to go, she added. "Any single appointment doesn't really capture the whole picture."

And because IETF leadership is made up of volunteers, the participant base is largely reflective of the industries from which they come, which means "that it will always be challenging for us to be more diverse than the tech industry or the networking industry is at large," she said.

"I feel personally that we shouldn't really be satisfied until the population of people who are developing the technologies is actually as diverse as the population of people who are using it, and we're obviously a long way away from that," Cooper said. "So this is an important milestone, it makes me happy, but this is really more the beginning of the story than it is the end."

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