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.

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  • adatole​  "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." ---- I think we can all agree that we encounter these "specialists" who only care about what they know... They view anything that they do or know as the most important thing there is, any other IT discipline is like a foreign language or "beneath" them to know or even consider. Specialization is a two edged sword and has created this "not my job" mentality but lost in the shuffle is the concept of teamwork and just being a professional... I don't need to know everything about systems, databases , applications or networks; but having a slightly more than "cursory" knowledge is my idea of being at a minimum a good IT person. After that, it can only help you if you know more.

    On the vendor side cnorborg​ is correct. Make it simple for us to use your environments, tools or whatever. If I should need a three ring binder of commands or a secret decoder ring just to get started then I am going to be turned off at the start.... Maybe this fact that it takes so much effort to get started is the genesis of the "not caring to understand" .

    In short the easier it is to dive in... the more likely I am to take the plunge.... (IMHO).... though most times I am willing to make a reasonable attempt to slog through....

    adatole​ as always an excellent and thought provoking thread!!! Well done.

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  • adatole​  "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." ---- I think we can all agree that we encounter these "specialists" who only care about what they know... They view anything that they do or know as the most important thing there is, any other IT discipline is like a foreign language or "beneath" them to know or even consider. Specialization is a two edged sword and has created this "not my job" mentality but lost in the shuffle is the concept of teamwork and just being a professional... I don't need to know everything about systems, databases , applications or networks; but having a slightly more than "cursory" knowledge is my idea of being at a minimum a good IT person. After that, it can only help you if you know more.

    On the vendor side cnorborg​ is correct. Make it simple for us to use your environments, tools or whatever. If I should need a three ring binder of commands or a secret decoder ring just to get started then I am going to be turned off at the start.... Maybe this fact that it takes so much effort to get started is the genesis of the "not caring to understand" .

    In short the easier it is to dive in... the more likely I am to take the plunge.... (IMHO).... though most times I am willing to make a reasonable attempt to slog through....

    adatole​ as always an excellent and thought provoking thread!!! Well done.

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