Turtles All The Way Down

I brought this phrase up on one of Gabriel Chapman’s #SNLDD videocasts, and there were a few people who didn’t know where it came from.  Here’s the backstory:

In John R. Ross’s 1967 linguistics dissertation Constraints on Variables in Syntax, the scientist is identified as the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James. Of the story’s provenance, Ross writes:[2]

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” Persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down.”

—J. R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax 1967

From <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down>

In addition to being a good example of circular recursion, it’s a funny way for people of science to poke a little fun at the commoners who can’t grasp the big picture.

Interestingly, though, I’ve started seeing this kind of thing invading the everyday discussions that vendors, regardless of which technology they are selling, are having with customers.  It goes something like this:

After talking to a vendor about [storage/virtualization/networking], a customer was accosted by a pre-sales engineer.

“Mr. Customer, your concern about workloads and operational models sounds good, but the real answer is [webscale/scale-out/all-flash/converged/SDN].”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little pre-sales engineer by bringing to bear the masses of actual business evidence he had at his command, the customer decided to gently dissuade his vendor by making him/her see some of the inadequacies of his/her position.

“But, good pre-sales engineer, why should we use those things?”

“A great question!  Because [Google and Facebook/service providers/transformational enterprises] do it, and so should you.”

“If your theory is correct, why doesn’t everyone act like [Google and Facebook/service providers/transformational enterprises]?”

“Because they don’t have our [face-melting/amazeballs/game-changing] technology of course,” replied the vendor.”

“But what about my existing investments?  What about my internal processes?  What about change control and accounting and compliance?” Persisted the customer patiently.

The vendor crowed “It’s no use Mr. Customer!  It’s [webscale/scale-out/all-flash/converged/SDN] all the way down!

I’m sure most of you have heard some version of this conversation, either in person or on social media.  Everyone wants to push their “secret sauce”, but we can’t lose sight of the turtlesfact that taking care of the customer, and all the joy and pain that can go into that, is really the only thing that matters.  Sometimes, the best answer for your customer isn’t the thing that you have in your bag to sell, and the true test of the integrity lies in what happens next.  Do you help the customer find the best answer, even if it’s not your solution?  Do you build that relationship and credibility knowing that it’s time you won’t be getting paid for yet?

Make no mistake: the infrastructure is still boring.  How the infrastructure provides availability and performance for the applications, and how it provides a safety net to support the growth and changes that happen in the organization are the only key metrics that matter in the end.  If your solution supports those goals, awesome.  If it doesn’t, on behalf of customers everywhere I beg of you…

Don’t try to tell us it’s turtles all the way down.