Knowing vs Understanding

In IT, we search the Web constantly. Everything we need is literally at our fingertips, just an Internet query away.

This is interesting because IT professionals tend to make a big deal of knowing things by heart. Can you calculate subnets off the top of your head? Do you know these OS commands (and all of their sub-commands)? Can you set up this or that without referring to the manual?

Back in high school, one of my best friends was on the path to what would become a very fulfilling career as a microbiologist. I vividly recall sitting in the hallway before school quizzing her on the periodic table of elements for her chemistry exams.

I reconnected with her several years after graduation. One of my first calls to her started off with me demanding to know the atomic weight of germanium. She knew immediately what I was asking, but responded with, “I couldn’t care less.”

I was surprised, and asked if it was an example of things you learn in school that turn out not to be important later on.

“Nope. I use that kind of thing every day,” she said.

“Then how come you don’t know it?”

“Because,” she replied. “I don’t have to know it. I simply have to know where to find it. What is actually important to know,” she explained, “is what to do with the information once I have it.”

I think that’s what differentiates experienced IT professionals from newbies. The newcomers focus on (and stress out about) specific factoids, the atomic elements that make up a particular technology. The veterans know that it’s not the specific commands or verbs that are important. What’s important are the larger patterns and use-cases. Those things can actually make or break you, professionally speaking.

Let’s take this a bit further and discuss the difference between knowing and understanding. Information Technology is one of the few places I can think of where people who call themselves professionals can be successful even while they don’t understand huge swaths of the technology they use.

I have met entire teams of server administrators who can’t explain the first thing about IP addresses, or networking in general. Similarly, I have met network engineers who don’t know and don’t care how operating systems communicate.

This is partially by design, and partially by convenience. DBAs don’t need to understand how packets are built up and broken down as they traverse switches and routers. In a handful of situations, they may be able to more effectively troubleshoot an issue if they did know, but most of the time it’s not important. The network is a big black box where their data goes (and, if you ask them, the network is the reason their data is delivered so slowly. But they’re wrong. IT’S NEVER THE NETWORK!)

However, there is a difference between not understanding and not caring to understand. One is due to a lack of opportunity but not curiosity. The other is a willing abdication of responsibility to know.

I think the second is extremely unhealthy.

IT pros need to be committed to lifelong (or at least career-long) learning and growth. No area of IT is too esoteric to want to know about. We may not have time right now, or we may not be able to utilize the knowledge immediately, but rest assured that understanding how and why something works the way it does is always better than the alternative.

  • Wanted a good read this afternoon and went searching for.... wait for it.... old post by Leon, because Leon's posts are always so on point and thought provoking.  And I wasn't disappointed.

    Great points adatole​.  IT is one of those professions that requires constant learning and reinventing yourself.  Seems like every  3 or 4 years almost everything that used to be true (or the details at any rate) have changed fairly significantly.  In that sense knowing where to find the right information is more important than memorizing it (which too much of certification seems to emphasize).  But understanding it and when (and when not to) use it properly is much more important.  Provided you're always stretching yourself this is one of those professions where you can be relevant even with 25 or more years in the field.  If you do it right, you'll never get bored.

  • I know exactly what your microbiologist friends was talking about adatole​. In my undergraduate B.E. curriculum it was a theme from our instructors - good engineers don't know all the trivial facts, we are here to teach you how to solve problems. To give you an understanding of what kinds of solutions are possible in a given problem set. You have reference books to go look up what the differential equations you would use to solve fluid dynamics problems or power generation/distribution problems. When I went on for my M.S.E.E. I had lots of conversation with professors about wanting to understand not just parrot back the data.

    In all my classes, technical and managerial, since then I ask a LOT of questions because I want to understand the data is that the instructor is sharing. If I don't I can not transform that data into information and then knowledge which I can apply.

  • I'm guilty of not caring to understand... for sure.

  • rschroeder​ makes a very good point.  It is nice to have someone that has the right education but if they already know the "job" then they will get bored after a while and move on.  Which did not really help your situation to begin with.  Since we all spend 8-10-12 hours at work everyday anyways, it is easier to work with nice people then not. 

    adatole​ Good article!

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