Techies, don't be too proud to learn new things

Karen Roby and Jack Wallen discuss that it is often difficult for tech experts to start at the beginning when it comes to new concepts.

Techies, don't be too proud to learn new things Karen Roby and Jack Wallen discuss that it is often difficult for tech experts to start at the beginning when it comes to new concepts.

Karen Roby and Jack Wallen discuss how it is often difficult for technically proficient people to start at square one when it comes to new concepts. Jack offers some thoughts on why it's important for everyone to take a step back and methodically move through new processes versus jumping right in. The following is an edited transcript of their interview.

Karen: Jack, you did a piece on something that you have some strong feelings on. Is that the right way to say it?

Jack: I pretty much have strong feelings on everything!

Karen: Well, that's okay! That's good, share your feelings. When it comes to techies, those who really understand and work in tech, there's something bothering you, tell me about it.

Jack: So I wrote a piece, I won't say what piece it was, and I won't even say what client, or what website it's for, but I wrote a piece that was a very, very basic introductory piece about Docker. Even in the title, it said, "Docker Basics." So when you read that, you should have an understanding that this is an article about the fundamentals of this particular piece of technology. So what I wrote about it, it works. It functions, it serves a purpose. 

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The purpose that it served was to help educate people on how a certain functionality of Docker worked, and immediately the article got pushback, and the pushback was this. It was someone saying, "this piece could not serve as best practices for the enterprise of our businesses." I don't reply to comments because that's just inviting all sorts of danger and stress.

But what I wanted to say was, "this was intentionally an introductory piece for educational purposes only." Personally, I think anytime I see something that says, "Basics," I assume that it's educational. And what that made me realize, and this isn't... I don't knock techies because  I'm a techie myself. I have the utmost respect for techies, but what it made me realize is that in a lot of instances, and I've seen this happen on every conceivable level, that techies will have this strange propensity to jump into something, and along the spectrum of things to jump into, there's the beginning. There's not really an end, it's kind of a circle.

So this is the beginning, and this is the end-ish. They jump into here, into the middle, and they do this because it's understandable. They know enough about technology that they think that they can just go, "Okay, this is something I've never done before, but I can jump into here because I know enough about technology that all of this beginning stuff, I probably already know that, so I'll jump right in the middle, and I'll start using it." You start moving along, and in moving along, the progression gets harder and harder, and more confusing, and more confusing because you didn't start at the beginning.

That's like you've worked on Dodge cars all of your life, and all of a sudden, somebody says, "Hey, can you work on my Mini Cooper?"  And you say, "Okay, I'll just jump in. I'm sure I can fix this."But you don't go, "Hey, what's a Mini Cooper engine like? I don't know, I better read about it first.

Karen: You've got to start from the beginning!

Jack: You are doing yourself, and the technology, and the business you work for a disservice by jumping straight into the middle, and I get it. I get it. You have all this knowledge in your head. It's like I have all this knowledge about Linux. I can jump onto a Linux machine and do pretty much everything I need to do. I can't make that assumption if I sit in front of a Windows machine. Just because I know how to use Linux, I can't just automatically jump in and do the same things on Windows that I can do on Linux. I need to go, "Wait a minute. How does it work on Windows? How does this thing that I do on Linux work on Windows?" I have to understand that before I try to do it because if I just jump in and try to do it, I'm going to mess something up.

When you're working with a technology like Docker which is what the article is about, when you're working with something that's as complicated as Docker, it is important to step back and realize that it's okay that I don't understand this technology. That I need to go all the way back to the very beginning and go, "Okay, how do I do this?" Docker pull. I just pulled an image down from Docker Hub. "Hooray!" I did something correctly. Okay, now let's move on to the next step. Docker run. "Oh, I just deployed my first container." If you just go, "I know how to do commands. I know the command line really well. I'm just going to run in and just try to deploy a Docker swarm, without first knowing how to do this, and this, and this. You're going to mess up.

And I know the ideology behind some people. They think that here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to build a test environment. I'm going to build all that, but they're going to be sandboxed from our regular network, so I've got this big test environment. I can just jump in and mess things up. It doesn't matter." 

That's great. It's great that you can do that, but you're going to learn more about the technology, you're going to be more proficient with the technology if you start from the very beginning and take it one step at a time. 

My wife said something. We've recently moved and to keep herself from getting completely overwhelmed, she kept saying to herself, "The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time." And she had to keep saying that to herself.

Karen: We forget that sometimes.

Jack: We do. And I know, I know how hard it is when you're at this level of IT admin. You don't want to come back down to the beginning and go, "Okay, I really need to start from the beginning on this and learn this piece of technology from the beginning even though it means I've got to start taking baby steps again." 

Because you're up here, you think, "I can just jump in." You've got to crawl before you can run.

And the problem... Not the problem, the thing about technology is it evolves so fast. What I write about today is nothing like what I wrote about 10 years ago. When there's something new to me, a new technology for me, In order for me to write about it, I have to go, "Let's start from the beginning." So a lot of times when there's something new to me, I start from the beginning, and I write tutorials based on that. Like this is the beginning; this is the introductory step. This is the first step you have to take to get to the next step, to get to the next step, to get to the next step.

And sometimes in the writing of that, and I know that this is fairly common with most tech writers like myself, is that we'll write something in such a way that it's probably not best practices for enterprise, but it's best practices for you to understand something because you have to understand it before you can apply it.

And sometimes the process of understanding it is not the same process that you're going to use to apply it, especially in a business environment because when you're learning something, you're learning something in a confined little test lab. 

When you're deploying something in an enterprise level, it's got to function properly, and it's got to function properly on a number of levels, and it's got to adhere to that company's best practices, and that's the other thing is Company A's best practices are not Company B's best practices because they do things differently. So the best thing that you can do, as an admin, when you're learning something new is to just forget that you're a pro and go, "I'm new to this."

Karen: Sometimes we gotta take a step back.

Jack: Yes, I need to learn the ABCs of this before I can actually start writing words before I can start writing sentences and paragraphs. I got to know the letters first. There's nothing wrong with that. If there's a level of pride that gets in the way of you doing that, you need to step back, and say, "Look, if I don't understand this fundamentally, I'm not going to be able to present it to the higher-ups, and say, 'This is what we need to be doing, and this is why.'"

Karen: As humans, I guess, when we feel like we've mastered something so to speak, you want to just jump in. You think, "I don't need this, this, and this." But that can be, as you said, a disservice to not only the technology but the company that's cutting you your check every week.

Jack: Imagine if you're a doctor, or you're a patient, and you go into surgery with a doctor that has never done the thing that's going to be done to you, but he's done all sorts of other things. It's like, "Well, I've removed an appendix before, certainly, I can resect or dissect a bowel and sew it back together." "Based on the fact that I've removed an appendix."

I want to know that you've taken your baby steps first before you remove anything from my body. So the same thing applies to IT. You want to understand the fundamentals of something before you get into the complexities. More complex. We're always learning, right? We have to remember with tech, it's always evolving.

Karen: Changing fast, and we're always learning. There's never an end to that.

Jack: And the second you think that you know everything, it's time for you to leave.

Because you don't know everything. It's just like with Linux, and I know I talk about that a lot, but the second I think that I know everything there is to know about Linux, which I don't, it changes. Sometimes it changes profoundly, and then I have to go, "Oh."
Here's a great example. So Ubuntu Linux, or Debian, mostly Ubuntu, when you want to configure a network address, you had to do... There was a specific file that you had to edit to change it, especially on the server which doesn't have a GUI, and I'd been doing that for years, and then all of a sudden, Ubuntu, I think it was 18.10 was released and all of a sudden it was completely different. It's like, "Wait. I changed the IP address where I normally change it, but it's not working. What's going on?" 

SEE: 20 quick tips to make Linux networking easier (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

And then I find out, "Oh, they use Netplan now, so I've got to learn how to... It was vastly different."

So I had to step back, and go, "Okay, how does Netplan work?" And I had to teach myself, or I had to learn how to use this, and it was baby steps, and immediately I just dove right in and go, "Okay, this is how you do." No.

And so it happens all the time on every level of technology, and you can't allow your pride to prevent you from taking those baby steps.

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By Karen Roby

Karen Roby is a reporter for TechRepublic. Prior to joining CBS Interactive, Karen worked as an anchor and reporter for several CBS affiliate stations owned by Hearst Communications and Gray Television.