Consensus at Scale
The RFC Series is the fifty-year-old document series where the IETF, IAB, IRTF, and the Independent Submissions stream publish standards and other informational documents that define how many aspects of the Internet function. Over time, several aspects of the RFC Series became, figuratively speaking, etched in stone. In particular, the final format of the document, which assumed that either the document would be printed on paper for reading purposes, or that it would be read on the most simple and limited platforms possible, was very restricted, limiting how an author could express their ideas.
I was the RFC Series Editor for eight years, from January 2012 through December 2019, and my biggest project over the course of my tenure was to change the format of future RFCs to meet the needs of modern readers and networks. Given the weight of history and the very independent and “build it here” culture of the IETF (the largest producer of RFCs), making this change was not a simple case of researching more modern publication tools and modifying the editorial workflow.
Changing the format of documents published by the RFC Editor took the entire eight years of my tenure, and required a complete and complicated set of skills:
- Consensus building
- Public speaking
- Technical writing
- Narrative writing
- Team building
- Project management
- Stakeholder engagement
- Research and learning
Any changes that impact the IETF and related communities require significant consensus building. Every single participant must have an opportunity to have their say, and no one voice can dictate the rest. My role was to build consensus in this community, which I did through birds-of-a-feather sessions, hallway conversations, plenary reports, and mailing list discussions. I was the direct author of several drafts, which themselves ultimately became RFCs, to define the requirements for making changes to the document format. I led a small design team of experts to focus on technical direction and worked with the leadership committees to keep them informed and engaged throughout the project.
When I first started, I had very little knowledge of the issues around internationalization and its implications on what characters are allowed in a document. I also knew very little about the tools the IETF used to generate their files. Over the course of the project, my own research to understand these issues so that I could not just explain the concepts to others, but also to generate the final requirements for the document format, was a significant component of the final successful set of changes.
In October 2019, the first documents were published in the new format. Instead of the fixed-length, ASCII-only, ASCII-art documents, we started generating HTML that was responsive to different screen sizes. We allowed characters that allowed authors to write their names correctly, and documents that focused on internationalization issues to write their examples clearly. We supported SVG as a format to allow line art in place of ASCII-art. We created other formats as well, including PDF/A-3 to support the long-term archival requirements for the documents, and plain-text files for those who were reading on older devices.
None of this could have been accomplished without a strong team, a strong vision, and a clear understanding of the community. I am proud of what we all accomplished in making this change happen for the RFC Series.