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Forging Connections and Collaboration on the Internet

June 3, 2020
elise gerich

Elise Gerich, a 2019 Internet Hall of Fame inductee, was and remains a builder of connections and collaborations.

While perhaps best known for her 2010-2018 role leading the team that registers the unique identifiers that make the Internet run as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) at ICANN, Gerich had roles throughout her career that illustrate just how clearly, right from the start, the themes of connection and collaboration have guided her.

In 1987, she joined Merit, a consortium of Michigan Universities that would build the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet) T-1 backbone. The Merit partners that won the NSF contract for this work included Merit, MCI, IBM and the State of Michigan. In her IHOF induction speech, she admitted that at the start of her career, in the early days of the T-1 backbone project at Merit, she was “clueless” about networking, “but, happily, I had colleagues who were ‘clueful,’ and they helped me become part of their team.” In a further nod to teamwork, she thanked many of them by name.

Later, she served as Principal Investigator for NSFNet’s T-3 Backbone Project. Gerich successfully coordinated and fostered collaboration among these stakeholders, guiding them to ensure the smooth operation from its original T-1 speed backbone to the T-3 backbone, and then to a smooth transition to commercial providers as the T-3 backbone was decommissioned in 1995.

 “Just getting people from different companies and backgrounds to see that they could work together and use all their varied areas of expertise to achieve a result that could help them all,” is how she modestly described her role.

Gerich also founded the “Regional Techs” meetings. NSFNet regional network managers from various areas came to Michigan to learn from one another about best practices and share ideas with one another.

“When people are allowed to talk, and others respectfully listen to them, hearing everything they have to say, they begin to trust one another. They’re not afraid to offer ideas that may not be mainstream. And that’s how Internet networking improves.”

Those extremely popular Regional Techs meetings were so successful that they evolved into the North American Network Operators Group (NANOG). Like the Regional Techs meetings on a larger scale, NANOG is a way for network operators to share successes and challenges in a supportive atmosphere – and to network with one another in the social sense, as well. The formation of NANOG has had a profound worldwide effect, as it has inspired the creation of other “NOGs” that are thriving in literally dozens of nations today.

Arguably, the most difficult job of team-building in Gerich’s 30-year career was her role at ICANN during the politically fraught effort to transition the control of the Internet’s unique names, numbers and parameters from the stewardship of the U.S. government (via a zero dollar contract with the Commerce Department) to an international, multi-stakeholder community comprising industry, civil-society and governmental representatives. It was Gerich’s ability to bring people together in recognition of their common goals during that tumultuous transition that ultimately enabled it to succeed.

Some people were afraid that the Internet would become the possession of the U.S. government; some were afraid that it would be controlled by the United Nations; some thought transitioning away from the Commerce Department would result in private companies owning the Internet, or having control over it. Misunderstanding, anger and fear abounded, on the part of Internet users everywhere; there were page one headlines and Congressional hearings on the issue at the time.

As IANA, Gerich served in “the iconic role once held by the legendary Jon Postel,” as inaugural IHOF inductee Dr. Vint Cerf noted in a letter endorsing Gerich’s own induction. And she did it with “skill, grace and unflappable leadership.” 

In October 2016, the transition was completed, and it was seamless: For the billions of Internet users around the globe, not a thing had changed.

But for Gerich, bringing all those stakeholders together was just an extension of her desire – driven perhaps partly by her outgoing nature and her experience – to get people to work together.

“I always saw my role as fostering collaboration and cooperation with other network operators and Internet colleagues,” Gerich said at the 2019 IHOF induction ceremony. “The most fulfilling part of my career was facilitating those connections.”

In retirement, the always-active Gerich plays tennis, skis and stays in touch with her former colleagues, in addition to working with a local start-up on energy optimization for data centers. She is also making new connections with an undoubtedly appreciative group: She knits caps for newborns and preemies in her local hospital.