Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I've written a little bit about this before, but I wanted to expound on it. Since I'm at the new beta site today, I thought I'd run this instead of the normal blog entry.

Whether or not you endorse the tenets of natural selection, you must admit one thing: human beings are constantly evolving, and not just on a species level. I mean you. Me. We are evolving. We’re changing – different today than yesterday, and the day before. We have new knowledge and experiences. Inherently, we are not the same. Hopefully we have become better, more able to face the challenges of today and tomorrow, and by expanding ourselves, we facilitate further alterations to our beings.

How and why does this happen? Part of it is accidental. New experiences build neural connections in our brains, and we grow. We eventually stop hitting the same pothole on the way to work, because we learn to avoid it. This way we can discover exciting new potholes.

Often the process is intentional. Reading books and manuals, attending classes, building test beds, and implementing new technology forces our brains into overdrive, maps new pathways, and increases the speed by which we will learn in the future.
As IT administrators, we deal with a rapidly changing world that demands our constant improvement. Blink your eyes and things increase by an order of magnitude. Technologies that were up-and-coming fade into obscurity and too often we’re responsible for managing every step in that lifecycle. How do we keep up with it?
It’s easy to give up - to not try. It is almost tempting, actually, to stick with what you know rather than to discover, investigate, and implement newer (and possibly better) technologies, but I urge you to reconsider that option. The less flexible you are, the harder it will be when some inevitable change occurs and leaves you standing in the dust.

In this column, we’re going to examine the types of learning resources that people use in order to improve themselves and their minds. These resources are at your disposal as well. Many of them are inside you as you read this, waiting to be unleashed on unsuspecting information throughout the world. I ask only that you ignore the complacency which gnaws at your soul, holding you back while others move ahead.

Traditional Learning
Throughout thousands of years of human history, advancing in knowledge came from scholarship under an already learned master. Modern society has extended this concept into mass production. Where a master once had a few pupils in apprenticeship, teachers today face an onslaught of students vying for time and attention. Nevertheless, class work can be invaluable in acquiring knowledge, depending on the class (and the professor).

If you are young enough that you are still in school full time, my advice is that you choose your classes wisely. Research the class by interviewing past students of the curriculum and the teacher, and make sure that you understand what the ex-pupil’s goals were for the class. Remember that a review could have been made through the vanilla-tinted lenses of “good enough” by someone who merely wanted to complete class, as opposed to someone who was truly seeking knowledge. Interview people who share your goal of self-improvement.

If you are seeking continuing education classes, you may have an overwhelming number of choices, depending on the subject matter. Not being on any specific campus, finding people to interview may be more difficult, but it is by no means impossible. With the explosion of blogs, chances are excellent that someone on the internet has taken the class. Utilize your favorite search engine to find an ex-student and ask them what they thought. If you aren’t able to find past students, email any address you can find at the institution and attempt to get in touch with your would-be professor. There should be no issue discussing curriculum with you.

Specific web sites are available for reviewing online classes, such as There may be a chance that your class has already been reviewed. If your goal is to become certified, you might check the certification homepage on Due diligence can save you money and time.

I speak from experience when I recommend that you research the curriculum of a class. A few years ago, I attended an database course which served as an introduction to Oracle 10g. If I had examined the syllabus further than I did, I would have realized that the innstructor assumed a pre-existing knowledge of Oracle, which put me somewhat at a disadvantage, having none. On the other hand, I had a very positive experience while enrolled in the Cisco University for several semesters. It was very well recommended by several of my associates, and jumpstarted my experience by introducing me to several pieces of equipment I had theretofore not touched. Do your research and don’t waste your (or your company’s) money.
Exceptional Learning
As you probably realize, attending class is not the only way to acquire knowledge, even if it is the most traditional. Training comes in many shapes and sizes, much of it deliverable through the postal service or email. The training that costs you thousands of dollars can be reduced to hundreds (or less) by purchasing only the books which normally accompany the training class. This structured-but-open-ended method has been used by many people to pass certification exams, but I have qualms about it. My opinion is that the main benefit of the class is the experience contained within the instructor, and by robbing yourself of the student / teacher relationship, something intangible is lost.
I do not want to make it sound as if structured class learning is the only way, or even the best way. It is “a” way. Just as people learn differently, there are many different ways to learn. We’ve looked at instructor led and structured self-study, but there are more.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “autodidact”, you’re not alone. An autodidact is an individual who takes the initiative to teach themselves, rather than go through the formal process of education and studying under a professor. Autodidactism, as it is known, has a long history and includes such luminaries as Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Edison. Even Samuel Clemens once famously wrote as Mark Twain, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. Indeed.

To some extent, I think many of us have tendencies such as these. We all learn things by doing and exploring on our own, but through my observations, I have obtained the belief that IT professionals have stronger tendencies than most in this regard. There are always exceptions, but we do generally seek out and explore new things. We tend to be xenophiles by nature, opening ourselves to new experiences and new ideas. When you combine this with the urge to plumb the depths of a subject, you get an autodidact.
If you have ever learned about a new subject, then absorbed that subject top to bottom in order to “own” it, to make it part of you, then you have the makings of an autodidact. If you haven’t, it is not too late to begin now. A great place to start is a subject that you’ve always been curious about but never gotten around to researching. Begin on the internet. Go to the library. Use magazines, books, research papers, and encyclopedias to make that subject your own. Truly grasp that subject, and revel in it.

Absorbing reams of information will absolutely grow new neural pathways, but in order to get neural superhighways, you’ve got to go the extra step. Start learning experientially; which means that instead of merely reading about the subject, you experience it. Find a museum. Go into the field. Reach out and contact people who are on the front lines of discovery. You get vacation days; use them. I’ve studied ancient Egyptology since I was a child, but what I learned when I actually visited and toured privately with an Egyptologist put my reading to shame. Experience is the ultimate teacher.
Share your knowledge
I will finish on a subject that is close to my heart. You have acquired all of this knowledge, this experience, and made these subjects a part of you. Now, pass it on to someone else. We are, each of us, stronger together than we ever could be separately. This fact is not lost on the many, many user groups which exist throughout the world. Individuals have banded together to share their experience and knowledge, to help each other learn, and everyone benefits from this altruism.

Several years ago, I helped establish a Linux Users Group in my home town. Initially, there was a lot of interest; it waned when the people in charge grew preoccupied with bureaucratic aspects rather than information sharing, and the group suffered and eventually went defunct. I have since stuck with attempting to organize people via electronic means such as my blog ( There are still wonderful opportunities for in-person user groups, so don’t let my experience dissuade you from joining or starting your own.

A great alternative if you have trouble locating or starting a group in your area is to join an online community of like-minded people. A good place to start is the The Sysadmin Network, a group of systems administrators who all want to improve their skills and increase their knowledge. Join a formal group, such as LOPSA or SAGE, that encourages you to grow professionally as well as intellectually. Only by pushing the boundaries and aligning yourself with others who strive for the same goals can you reach your maximum potential.