NANOG 91: Q+A w/ Keynote Corey Quinn

June 6, 2024


NANOG 91: Q+A w/ Keynote Corey Quinn

The DuckBill Group's “Snarky”, Chief Cloud Economist + Writer of “Last Week at AWS,” Discusses Talk + Why Humor is the Key to a Good Keynote

by Elizabeth Drolet


Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn, will join the NANOG 91 stage as a Keynote Speaker on Monday, June 10.

Attendees may be familiar with Corey from his sarcastic, thoughtful, and humorous commentary on helping companies improve their Amazon Web Services (AWS). According to Quinn, he helps by "making them smaller and less horrifying." He also hosts the "Screaming in the Cloud" and "AWS Morning Brief" podcasts and curates "Last Week in AWS," a weekly newsletter summarizing the latest in AWS news, blogs, and tools. 

Q+A with Quinn

Tell me more about your role at The Duckbill Group. 

Oh, dear Lord. That's where it gets very confusing. I am very hard to classify because I don't hold still very well. I have a consultancy called The Duckbill Group, where we fix precisely one problem: the horrifying AWS bill. This is a serious problem for many businesses, and no one talks about it. And it is considered to be a boring distraction from the real work that most people do. We've negotiated over $5 billion in contracts with AWS. We've helped the global Fortune 2000 as our entire customer base. So there's a lot of discussion at a huge enterprise scale about what problems people have and how that works. But no one talks about the issue publicly. So, I need to be at the top of the mental SEO stack. I write the "Last Week in AWS" newsletter, where I gather the news from Amazon's cloud ecosystem and gently and lovingly make fun, as sarcasm is my first language spoken at home. And from there, it turns into people. It sticks out in people's minds. I always ask people, 'How did you hear about us?' They will respond,  'Oh, Corey in the newsletter, Corey's nonsense on Twitter, etc.'


Let’s talk about your upcoming Keynote, “TCP Terminates on the Floor: The Ebbing Tide of Networking Expertise.”

Sure. It's still being written, so this is fun and exciting. It's sort of the other side of my personal expression of ADHD. The good part is that I'm extremely good in a crisis. The bad part is that I'm only good in a crisis. So that leads to a very interesting way of preparing talks.

Why did you choose your topic?

Historically. I've always liked giving talks that align with making people stop and think. I don't give talks, mainly as step-by-step instructional keynotes, and I don't spend enough time in the networking world to give the networking world's luminaries an education in much of anything about their area of expertise. It's the equivalent of me saying, 'Hi, I've been paying attention to your area of expertise for 10 minutes, so now I have some insights I think you will appreciate.' It is a terrific way to get booted off of a stage. I'm not here to step outside my lane in any meaningful sense, but the theme for NANOG 91 is Cloud Infrastructure, an area in which I have significant expertise. 

The way that cloud providers view things in this world is interesting. We no longer have to think about interconnection. We no longer have to think about bandwidth in the same way as we once did in pure cloud environments. Instead, architecture becomes transmuted into money. We have to care about the cost of how things work. When you send data from here to over there, it has become purely an exercise in financials, at least in most expressions—my God. Many people working in the networking world have employers who have the audacity to have been founded purely in the cloud. 


Can you talk more about this?

That's an area where there's a certain condescension and dismissal of networking expertise because you can build a wildly successful company and not have to know about networking in any meaningful way until suddenly you need to. I plan to talk about this as well as my journey with networking during significant events, such as the Great Recession or, sorry, the big financial crisis in 2008, where I experienced a salary freeze at the employer I was at. I don't sit still very well. I went out and got my CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate). Back then, Cisco was considered an entity that was a force to be reckoned with in the networking world and not a sad corporate dinosaur with no friends and creativity left in it. My apologies if you work at Cisco. It doesn't change what I said, but I'll feel bad about it. The problem I had then was that there was a whole lot of stuff I was hand-waving over from the networking space. I don't know what a subnet mask is, but if those numbers aren't right, things get wonky, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't, and I don't understand why. Learning a bit about networks made me a stronger Linux admin, and understanding how something works never wastes time.

Knowledge is power. What would you like our community's biggest takeaway to be from this?

I suspect it's coming from a perspective that they haven't heard much from, because 'Hey you, you're crap at networking. Do you want to give a keynote?’ That is not usually how they go about selecting NANOG speakers. You don't usually see a lot of humor mixed in the networking world. I plan to mix a lot of humor into my presentation.

Humor, as you said, isn't often used in this industry. Can you talk more about why this is your approach? 

My approach, a theory of adult education, has always come down to the idea that you have to get people's attention before you can teach them anything. And my approach has always been humor. That is only for some as far as presentation styles go. Some people can't pull off that delivery, and that's fine. Other people's material fits about as well as other people's shoes. I do give serious talks occasionally, but a sense of personality and vulnerability is baked into it that works very well. The challenges presenters face include not becoming repetitive with a joke that doesn't land well. Why is this hilarious in front of a three-person test audience, but not the 700 people who did not laugh? The answer is always because the energy changes. This is why corporate keynote jokes always sound so corny and don't land well. Conversely, if you tell a joke in rehearsal, that sounds terrible, trust me, it will kill in front of your large audience. 

You are right—energy does shift with the audience! Can you talk more about the importance of recognizing the energy of the audience when delivering your presentation?

Yes, there are different phases. Generally speaking, different levels max out around 750 people. Beyond that, there's no meaningful difference between 1,000 to 5,000 people. Some of the most complex challenges people faced during COVID-19 in the entertainment world were late-night comedians. Because when you're telling jokes strictly to a camera with no audience and no crowd reaction, it's tough to get a joke off the ground. It's similar to when riding on the bus with your headphones, and there's a terrific joke; you feel self-conscious sitting by yourself laughing because that's something insane people do. When there's a shared experience of everyone clearly listening to the same thing, it's much more natural. The psychology of humor is very interesting.


That is fascinating. How did you learn about the psychology of humor?

Giving a crap load of talks. The secret to giving a good conference talk is to give a whole bunch of crappy ones first. And after the first couple hundred, I had it on lock. I was a traveling trainer many years ago for Puppet, where I would go to various cities and talk to many grumpy Unix admins because those are my people. I am one. And you become old and grumpy the day you learn Unix. I was 26 years old. Yeah, I suddenly became old. I had my entire life flashing in front of me. They viewed the system as something that was coming to take their jobs away. In some ways, your job was a repetitive run of the same script. They paid a couple thousand dollars a piece to be there, and the demo didn't work because it was Puppet and its software, and it never works. You've got to be entertaining, gauge challenging questions, and keep folks interested, or you don't get invited back to do it. It was a trial by fire that doesn't work for everyone. Worked well for me.

What is the big takeaway you want the community to leave with?

It's delicate to phrase, but I've been reading the NANOG Mailing List and paying attention to it for decades. There's always been a certain undercurrent of condescension toward people who are not as well-versed in the technologies as the people on the list. And I understand that you need a watering hole with a certain 'you must be at least this tall or this smart to enter and participate.' But that's not good for the Internet and I don't think it's good for the next generation. And if anything, I want to push back gently against some of that preconception. I was delightfully surprised that there was a Code of Conduct in my speaker contract with NANOG. I will not speak at events that do not have a Code of Conduct. And I was concerned that this would be a bunch of old gray beards screaming at people about things. Not only does NANOG have one, but it's excellently written. So, it's terrific. 


Why is a Code of Conduct so important to you?

This probably comes as no surprise to you, but I was bullied a lot as a kid, and for reasons that should be blindingly apparent before I learned to deal with people. That leaves a memory, and it was a punching-down approach there. People think that's weird because most of my brand is basically making fun of Amazon. But yeah, when you have a fourth comma in your market cap, you can take a few shots on the chin. It's very clear punching up past a certain point of scale when I have to punch down until there's a reason that I will make fun of Amazon all day long. But I have a couple of fake companies like, “Twitter for Pets” that I will make fun of because if you make fun of a startup, you're just being a jerk. I have a mythical colleague, Steven, who periodically appears in a bunch of my talks of, "Never Be Stevens." Steven is malignant. One talk I gave recently featured him being dragged out of the office by the police and arrested as his colleagues cheered. It's fun. We now have enough internal lore about that at my company that if we ever hired someone named “Steven," they would have grounds for a hostile work environment by the first day, just looking through the Slack history.

As you have said, you are different from the traditional pros in this industry. Why should the NANOG community attend your talk?

Because they have an awful lot to teach the other side of the world, I spend an awful lot of time frustrated by the type of ignorance that I encounter there. I was doing laps with a support team at a company trying to get something set off via an AWS private link. Over three days, I was asked questions about my security groups. And that's great and all. I understand that you're following a script here, but I also understand that I'm able to establish a TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) connection. We are well beyond security groups that are not working. This is now the application layer. Could we please move up the stack? And it was like sandblasting a soup cracker. The person did not know what I was talking about or the escalation point. And I don't like being the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. I would rather have a much more intuitive understanding of these things. My view and framework of how the network interacts and makes the computers work is foundational to my skill set. I am trying to understand how people can get past a certain point of expertise in their career and not just by even osmosis, pick up a fair bit of networking along the way because it's so fundamental to things.


Outside looking in, what are your first thoughts about NANOG? How do you think the community has evolved?

I've been on the mailing list for a long time and watching the conversations play out there. It has gotten a lot warmer and friendlier. Unfortunately, some familiar faces are no longer there because people get old and die, and that's sad. Still, there's an undercurrent of it being one of the better-known back channels when something peculiar starts happening. In an interconnected world, people are always surprised to discover this on some level. Still, you look at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft as the big three hyperscalers, and they appear to be, for all intents and purposes, at each other's throats constantly. But there are back channels, such as NANOG, among others. Many are abuse-oriented for network stuff, where people are extraordinarily collaborative and helpful.

This will be your first presentation at NANOG. What are you most excited about?

I get to meet some of the people that, until now, have only been names on a screen that I've been deeply impressed by for most of my career. It is meeting some of the formative influences that shaped a lot of the direction my career would go in, rightly or wrongly, and being able to say, thank you. That is the reason I'm excited about this. These folks are legends from my formative years.

Quinn will present TCP Terminates on the Floor: The Ebbing Tide of Networking Expertise at 10:15 - 11:00 (CDT) in the City Beautiful D/E Room at Loews Hotel in Kansas City, MO. Find out more + register here.



Elizabeth Drolet

Elizabeth Drolet is NANOG's Multimedia Story Producer

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