Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/25/cant_know_it_all/

You can't know it all

So ask someone who disagrees with you

By Trevor Pott

Posted in Servers, 25th June 2010 09:02 GMT

Sysadmin Blog I pride myself on my depth of knowledge. I read quickly, and I read profusely. I study everything from medicine to technology, physics to music. For reasons that are likely part genetic, part neurotic hangover from my upbringing, I have an irresistible requirement to learn and understand everything.

So how exactly did I miss the existence of something as useful as role and policy based management for Unix? It’s the equivalent of being a soldier and not knowing that you can buy rifles with magazines. It might be understandable if you don’t work with Unix anything, but I use various flavours of Unix descendants every single day.

Previous articles covered things like lights out management and remote access. Technological topics with a defined “this is how it works” and “if you push these buttons X does Y.” The current articles, “why group policy matters,” are less about a given technology and more a discussion about different approaches to systems management.

It basically boils down to “the field we work in so unbelievably enormous it is not possible to know everything there is to know about IT.”

In the nineties, I would have very easily put my foot down and said that X was the One True Approach to computing. Y was inherently evil, and anyone who ever did, bought, considered or implemented whatever the Y of the day was should most certainly be branded a fool for all time. I’m not talking here about the vast majority of computer users who simply use the things and get on with their lives. I’m talking about fanatics.

Once I was a technology fanatic. Technology attracts people who prefer to spend their time thinking, philosophising and inventing; exactly the sort of people who might have difficulty growing out of that fanaticism.

The first moment we got our hands on an iPad, an Android phone or Windows 7, every one of us had a good long nerdgasm. We took the new technology for a spin; saw what was cool - and what was not. For all but the most jaded among us, there was a brief moment of “ooooo” before preconceptions and prejudice settled in and we returned to doing things exactly how we did them before.

So it was when I got a chance to play with some of the cool group policy technologies for Unix operating systems. I want to say that I have put away childish things like nerdrage wars and technological predjudice, but the 12-year-old technonerd fanatic in me is at the back of my head screaming that point and click administration of Unix is fundamentally wrong. The supposedly grown-up adult version of me looks at this stuff and thinks about how much easier this will make my life: all the new projects I will be able to undertake, the time and money it will save.

As a technonerd, even though I like to think I have moved past my fanaticism stage, I still suffer from a debilitating disease that strikes many of our kind down: arrogance. My compulsive need to learn everything means I know more about a vast array of topics than most people probably should. A talent for solving unusual technological problems, as well as a knack for MacGyvering everything in existence turns that knowledge into arrogance. A good strong dose of humility periodically can be nothing but a good thing.

So please take the following advice in context. If I have learned anything from the first half of my GPO research project, it’s to not assume you know everything. Maybe you once knew everything, but things change. More importantly, with a field as vast (and growing) as IT, there is no possible way to know everything that is out there.

In practical terms this translates into a simple rule: ask other people for their advice. In the age of search engines and instant access to information we have become so indoctrinated to “just Google it” that the concept of seeking out other experienced and knowledgeable individuals is sadly considered archaic. The advice I have for you on any IT project, not just ones which involve group policy, is to find other people who work in your profession and spend some time with them. For real, in person.

If nothing else, having a network of friends and colleagues with whom you maintain contact means you can discuss your work, and gain access to their knowledge in real time. They do what you do, which means they to do research into various things. Even if they don’t have the solutions to your particular problems, the chances are that the research they have done can save you quite a bit of time.

Also: don’t evangelise. People hate being preached at. It means that in the end you only end up hanging around with other people who think exactly like you. Talking to a fellow evangelist about a problem isn’t getting a second opinion: it’s the same opinion twice. We can all do with broadening our horizons, and that means taking the time to listen to people who talk about things that might go against the preconceptions and prejudices we hold.

I am saying this because from a cold blooded business standpoint, if you have two people who agree on absolutely everything, then one of them is redundant. Diversity of thought process leads to new and innovative approaches to solving problems, it leads to different approaches to research and it leads to re-examination of previous “facts” to determine if they are still valid.

Maybe I’ve just made the case for the existence of a few different flavours of IT consultant. The more important the project, the bigger the budget, the more formalised these outside opinions should probably be. I know that in my own mind it is making the case for professional social networking. By this I mean friendships with other IT workers, groups like your local LUG or the Spiceworks community. Even the comments section here on El Reg, Ars and similar sites can be gold mines of differing opinions and varying levels of professional advice.

There is no greater honour than to be asked by another professional in your field “what do you think?” Somewhere along the way many of us get caught up with thinking that we should - or worse yet, that we actually do - know everything about a topic; that asking for help or advice is weakness; and that if we disagree with someone, their opinions lack value.

There is nothing further from the truth. In a rapidly-evolving field like IT, opinions from people you disagree with are critically important. Asking for help and advice isn’t a failure, it’s a sign of professional maturity. No individual can be the ultimate programmer, systems administrator, network jockey, interface guru, web designer, rack monkey, tech bench, hell desk, project manager, MacGyver, logical thinker and all the other hats out there that need to be worn to make IT work. We all do the bits we’re best at and rely on others to get the rest done.

I am saying that none of us is as capable as all of us, but also when you lack proper management, the statement that none of us is as dumb as all of us is equally applicable.

It is difficult to temper personal and professional growth with the maturity and self awareness to look outside ourselves for answers to our problems.

You can’t know it all, and you’ll kill yourself trying.