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Network AF, Episode 9: Learning from great mentors and by breaking things with Hank Kilmer

Hank Kilmer

In a new episode of the Network AF podcast, your host Avi Freedman interviews Hank Kilmer, VP of IP engineering at Cogent.

Hank has been running major internet backbones since the early 90s. He joined Cogent in 2011, and prior to that, held leadership positions with UUNET (now Verizon), Sprint, Digex, Abovenet and Terrapin Communications.

In this episode, Avi and Hank discuss:

  • Networking in the 80s
  • Mentorship and giving feedback
  • Learning by breaking things
  • Cogent and its amazing customer service
  • Advice to Hank’s younger self

Networking in the 80s

In the late 80s, Hank was studying at Rutgers University and needed a way to pay for college. That’s when he started making money writing device drivers. And eventually, that led him to switch from studying electrical engineering to a degree in computer science.

With the switch, Hank says he soon noticed that university staff were struggling to interlink computers and printers while setting up networking infrastructure. So he asked if he could help. The Rutgers team said if he could fix what they were working on before the end of the day, then he had a job. Hank sat down, opened the manual, and by the end of the day, he’d fixed the problem and got himself hired.

Hank says the role itself was a mixture of running the university’s networking, getting into connectivity with other universities and the ARPANET, repairing hardware, and other miscellaneous tasks. “General IT,” Avi jokes.

Hank says he worked with Decknet, VAX, Apollos, and other protocols. This prepared him for his next role as a CIS admin for a software development house, followed by an opportunity to join UUNET.

Mentorship and giving feedback

In a conversation about mentorship, Hank talks about the people who gave him a chance at Rutgers, including Alex Latzko, Rick Crispin, Mel Pleasant, and others. He says he wouldn’t have been successful without them.

Hank talks a bit about how we’re taught in school — with lessons and assignments. He says not enough attention is paid to teaching soft skills, like how to talk to another person. Specifically, with feedback, Hank mentions that depending on how feedback is delivered, a person can take it several different ways. He believes we need to have a better understanding of how to communicate, with each person’s feedback preferences in mind, to more successfully give and receive feedback.

“The point is: how you interact with people matters. More important than what you know,” he says.

Learning by breaking things

Hank shares a story from his UUNET days, locking everyone out of a router, owning up to the mistake, and then putting in the hard weekend work to fix a problem he created.

Avi asks if it was easier to break things in the past and learn from the experience, versus now, with today’s internet that is much more critical. Hank says there are definitely things we’re not able to do now, but that companies these days are also better at testing – figuring out how to miniaturize and reproduce entire networks in lab environments.

Cogent and its amazing customer service

In a conversation about Cogent’s business and what its infrastructure teams look like, Hank talks about Cogent’s grow, but says that at its heart, the company still runs an old-school ISP. A successful one at that: Cogent says that 20% of all internet traffic is on their networks!

Hank mentions that a large part of Cogent’s success is driven by the company’s continued focused on delivering amazing service to its customers. This leads to Avi and Hank talking about some of the past companies they’ve watched or been a part of — companies that no longer exist because they tried to solve too many problems and spent more money than they could afford.

Advice to Hank’s younger self

Hank says if he could tell his younger self something it would be to pay closer attention to the people around him earlier in his life. He talks about how, eventually, he learned this. But he says knowing that earlier would have helped him tap into more people’s experiences, personalities and knowledge.

Connect with Hank on LinkedIn, and listen to his full episode.

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