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Really understanding the concepts

Level 13

Fresh out of high school, I got a job working in a large bank.  My favorite task was inputting sales figures into a DOS based system and watching it crash when I tried to print reports. I extended my high school computing knowledge by working over the phone with second level support. I confessed that I could understand what they were doing, but I wouldn’t know where to start.

They saw some raw potential in me and invited me onto an IT project to roll out new computers to the bank branches nationwide. I was to learn everything on the job: DOS commands, device drivers, Windows NT architecture, TCP/IP addressing, token ring networks, SMTP communications and LDAP architecture. My first IT task was cloning computers off an image on a portable backpack, when the registry didn’t exist & Windows was just a file copy away.

Very little was done with a GUI. The only wizard was Windows Installer. When you learn about IT from the ground up and you understand the concepts, you can then troubleshoot. When things didn’t work (and you couldn’t just google the error) I could apply my knowledge of how it should be working, know where to start with some resolution steps and ‘trial and error’ my way out of it. Now, that knowledge means I can cut through the noise of thousands of search results and apply ‘related but not quite the same’ scenarios until I find a resolution.

More than one person has commented to me that this generation of teenagers doesn't have the same tech-savvy skills as the previous one, because they are used to consumer IT devices that generally just work. So, in a world where technology is more prevalent than ever, do we get back to basics enough? Do we teach the mechanics of it all to those new to the industry or to someone looking for a solution? Or do we just point them to the fix?

68 Comments
mr.e
Level 14

Thanks for your post, scuff‌.  It takes me back to my early years, when I got a chance to switch from financial services to IT -- about 25 years ago -- yes, that was a lot of hairs ago. 

Anyway, the IT guy had just quit w/o notice and they needed someone to jump in.  There was a catch that they did not tell me at the time about.  My manager had no intention to pay for my training, books or to have anyone mentor me.  So, used the books that the IT guy left in the office and also bought my own books -- since there was no internet back then.  On top of that, my manager decided not to buy computers but to buy the parts and have me build the PC's right in the office.  Before then, I had never heard of jumper settings, IRQ settings, network cards or video cards.  Instead of freaking out, I took up the challenge and built the firm's PCs and (two years later) wired up and setup their network and built my own Novell NetWare server.

Although it was not fun to do all of that work, I got a very good understanding of computers, networking and operating systems.  A few years later, when I attended IT training (at my expense), the trainer jokingly asked "why are you here?  You already know all this stuff.  Just take up the CNA and MCSE test already!"

Ah, the good old days...

scuff
Level 13

As “old school” as it was, it was still a great way to learn. Hands on. In the deep end. Don’t get me wrong – I love that I can watch a Microsoft Virtual Academy course in my own time, but learning by doing is what really cements your knowledge. And from the conversation we had two weeks ago, most people struggle to find the time.

When you are forced to learn because it’s the next thing you have to implement/produce, I hope we’re still getting a deep enough understanding of things, but people new to the industry might be skipping the basics. They can watch a video on how to create a Windows Server in Azure with a few clicks, but do they know enough about TCP/IP? Or maybe they really don’t have to, and I’m just being old & cynical?

mr.e
Level 14

No, I do not think you're being old or cynical.  As a matter of fact, I was just reminded of a former teammate.  We also had an MCSE certification, although I still don't know how. No one in our team would dare let him do any Windows server administration. We would tease him every now and then and ask if he got his certification at his local barbershop. 

As for me, I am sort of back to school myself. Trying to re-learn some stuff I've sort of forgotten. One of my goals is to become a SolarWinds Certified Professional -- or SCP for short.  I also plan to spend a lot of time re-learning PowerShell, so I can start to automate some of my admin tasks.  Hopefully, I will be able to do all that, as my plate is quite full and I do not have a backup person.  My wife says that I am glued to my PC. 

superfly99
Level 17

Wow this takes me back. After school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. After a year or so in 1989 I got a job as a computer sales person. I had no idea about computers whatsoever nor were they of interest to me! They still aren't I learned everything on the job starting with DOS 3.2 and 20mb hard drives. It became evident that I was a crap sales person so I concentrated more on the technical side. So I was building and repairing computers. I got my Certified Novell Engineer certification in 1993 and used to roll out networks in school. All coax, what fun that was. I remember logging onto some bulletin boards in those days to get updated drivers.

Then in 1995 I changed jobs (am still in this job) and soon after I upgraded my CNE to version 4. By 1997 or so, we started phasing Novell out and Windows NT3.51 was in. This was also when I started using the Internet on a 14.4 dial up modem. Then I did a MCSE in 3.51 (with TCP/IP and ISA as electives) and then in 2000 I upgraded it to NT4.

I have to say that these days with the internet things are so much easier. Any issue and usually a quick google search will reveal the answer. It is so much easier to get knowledge these days without the hands on trial and error. It's really easy to see what others are doing out there.

But funnily enough it was only a few years ago that I bought my first computer. A second hand one from work for $50 just to use at home at times. I've always been supplied with a machine but now they just supply a laptop. I rarely use the computer at home though unless I have to. Mainly just to update the songs on my iPod.

Thanks for the memories!

muwale
Level 12

nice story............

Jfrazier
Level 18

Just think...we are the generation that made those tough in the weeds black magic looking procedures and knowledge look easy.  But then we also paved the way for the modern plug and play world where things are easy(ier).  The current generation hasn't had to worry about IRQ's, separate controller cards for hard drives, types of drives the controller card supports, and a long list of other items.  On the other hand, some things have become more complicated....

The biggest drawback I see is the current generation of those who feel entitled and don't have to learn the details.  For example, in the fire department, we have chainsaw appreciation day where we use other tools instead of chainsaws...why ?  Because if we are on scene and the chainsaw is not working we have other practiced methods to get the job done.  These days, they don't teach the basics, but rather the dependence on technology to get the job done. So when the cash register is down, most people can't figure out sales tax or how much change to give...

Thanks for sharing in Geek Speak !

scuff
Level 13

Ah, it's great to meet another person with that old school background knowledge. TCP/IP is still IP! Well, until we're all running v6!

scuff
Level 13

Thanks!

scuff
Level 13

Oh gosh how long is it since I've dealt with an IRQ conflict!!

My mother was a bank teller and she would totally agree with you re how we train people to do a job using technology, but we don't teach them the mechanics of what they are actually doing. She was one of the old school who could revert to operating as a 'paper teller' if the computers went down.

I'm also an emergency services volunteer. Part of our role is temporary repairs to storm damaged houses. We teach the basics of what a ladder is and how to climb it safely, even though people assume that's the easiest thing to do. I mean, who needs to be shown how to climb up a ladder? But assumptions lead to mistakes which lead to accidents.

Would love to hear from someone newer to the industry, perhaps to prove my theory wrong! Even Powershell makes more sense when you understand the basics of what you're doing with it.

Jfrazier
Level 18

Ah...ladder class.  It's an 8 hour day on types of ladders, uses, deployment, moving, inspecting, etc. 

vjerez4129
Level 13

Totally wished I learned more industry based things while I was in college (Just graduated about a month ago with my Bachelors in Computer Info. Systems). I just started my job a couple of days ago and they kinda just threw me into becoming a solarwinds admin, so I've had to look around and learn things on the fly here, but honestly I still feel super inadequately prepared to be efficient at it off the bat. If I knew in high school that I wanted to get into the computer field, It would have been a lot nicer and more beneficial to have taken classes related to computers back then

Jfrazier
Level 18

That's the challenge.  In school they teach concepts and ideas in a sterile and controlled environment.  In the real world it is more like the Wild Wild West.  The concepts and ideas are good, but you need to learn how to adapt them or portions of them to an actual shops policies and procedures as well as adhere to standards.  Of course being able to think outside the box is a huge help.  

rharland2012
Level 15

I bounced around after high school doing physical labor jobs and having as much fun as possible. Seven years after graduation, I had no skills and wasn't sure what was next, but a friend got me an entry-level gig at a university library cataloging books. This was 1994 or so. I started installing software on the rare Windows PCs in the department (we were still on dumb terminals at this time). It seemed pretty easy for me - after all, I had a PC at home I used to play Wolfenstein and Doom on! Anyway, moved to an insurance company working on move-add-changes for a couple hundred PBXs distributed around the country and started to learn the fundamentals of PRIs, T1s, and other cabling stuff a bit. Moved into a NOC gig there for a short time, but my real education came in the late 90s when I went to work for a state university - this is where the world changed for me. I learned how to build V.35 cables, program CSU/DSUs, and finally started to understand all this stuff - for real. And to your comment about hands-on - so true. I never really got ATM/Ethernet/T1/anything on a cable until I built, ripped apart, and terminated all these different things.

Flash forward to now, and sometimes I can't believe that my dull old brain figured out all that stuff and the stuff I've learned in the last 15 years....I'm so grateful for knowing the fundamentals. It's been invaluable for a non-schooled person like myself to flourish pre-internet.

Now, do I scoff at the EASE with which we can suss stuff out today thanks to the Internet? No way - I love the simplicity and ubiquity of information out there. We're still solving interesting and challenging problems - we're just using the tools of today to solve them a little differently than before. I want to avoid pigeonholing the 'youth of today', because I was that youth two decades ago and I would have bristled at the definition.

Forgive the wall o' text!

vjerez4129
Level 13

Yea, thats how I always felt after I took one of my classes. For example, in my networking classes I learned some of the basic terminology and was exposed to different networking terms and ideas like leaky bucket theory, but after we never really did anything with it so I never really grasped why it could be important. Now as I stare at my NPM screen i'm almost overwhelemed at what i'm seeing and how to honestly process all of it and identify issues >.> Luckly for me there is Thwack to dig around in and learn from everyone that has many many years on me yet

Jfrazier
Level 18

And that is where networking (human interaction) shines.  Thwack is like the collective...many minds working on similar issues from different perspectives.  This provides a whole lot of brain power to help solve issues.  Former co-workers and user groups are also great resources.

rharland2012
Level 15

The SCP is easy to accomplish - spend some time with the product and you'll do well!

jkump
Level 15

Gosh! let the nostalgia reign in.  It appears that I am on the really older side of things.  I spent my high school days -- early 80's installing and servicing Novell 2.1 baseband networks for the local school districts.  And I have been in IT for 31 years now.  I am part of a team that has a lot of young staff members that just recently received their Associates in Technology and have their A+ certs.  I have spent time mentoring these members reminding them of how things used to be.  It is a shame that even though the technology has to advance that the foundations of how we got here are lost.  I can recall buying the kit of parts and spending hours and hours soldering bugs together to make a working computer.  I had a good friend in high school whose dad was building a computer system from scratch and spending hours with him learning how to design video memory, configuring sync rates, and how program firmware.  Back in the day when you loaded systems via audio tape.

Of course, then there was the learning curve to get to 8" floppy disks and IRQ/Ports and the basic hardware configurations.  How many of you remember having to reprogram the BIOS chips -- download the EPROM and then edit and burn new EEPROMS -- in order to get a particular model of hard drive to work with a system.  After all, the BIOS did not have the "Auto" option.  You actually had to know what the heads, cylinders, and sectors meant on a hard drive.

Over the years, I have had many mentors that taught me wire-wrapping, phone wiring, network wiring, system building, system integration.  I have the alphabet soup of letters after my name, some are old and obsolete, many are still relevant but I also need to add more.

So, I have gained a lot, probably forgot more than most know, but I feel for the future as the next generation doesn't have the experience of knowing how we got here.  I work with my team to at least help them have an understanding to "Why" to make them better problem solvers.

Great post!

solaradmin
Level 13

I agree with your ending.

Don't get upset or think less of those who have to rely on the new technology to help with their issues. Think less of those who don't!

I do enjoy learning why something broke, its the best way to learn how something works! But, unless it is really interesting to me, I wont spend hours on it when I know the answer lives on the internet. Sometimes on page 4.

I do agree with scuff‌, a understanding of  the basics would help me memorize more  PowerShell commands. So now that I have established a career in IT, I will go back and learn some of those basics

jsimo
Level 7

I love your comment about how young people are used to just having things work.  Today's young users have no patience.  I love hearing things like: "It works at home" and

"My brother installed my router in ten minutes, what's the big deal."  IT systems are complicated.  IT professionals run them.  That is why they work.

solaradmin
Level 13

that's when you show them your network map, ask if their brother can come set this up. (Do all that in your head, don't actually show emotion to a user)

jsimo
Level 7

There is only one way to learn "IT."  Do "IT!"  Certifications and degrees only get you in the door.  Then you have to do it to learn it.

They don't care what degree you have when they are firing you.

jsimo
Level 7

I am still running NOVELL.  I started with 5.0.  It was better then.

jprice2
Level 9

Ah! This sounds like the way I learned! Started my career as a reporter and editor at a few daily newspapers, then because I got tired of waiting for the tech people to fix my problems, I started getting them to show me how to fix/do things. I became the newsroom tech-guru then finally moved over to the "dark side" full time about 20 years ago.

I agree it's a great way to learn, but because I've been basically self-taught and have only dealt with issues unique to our installations, I don't feel like I'm as well rounded as some of my younger colleagues who went to school for this stuff. For example, I'm still very intimated/puzzled by some basic stuff like setting up domain-level Group Policies (rather than just doing it on a local PC) because coming up from the DOS/Windows 3.1 days, that stuff didn't exist until relatively recently, and I never had to deal with it until now. Yet  to my younger colleagues, this stuff is relatively simple, because they went over it in school. This is not to say I can't do what they can. It just takes longer because I've got  to research it first.

But what I find has really helped my troubleshooting skills the most, especially dealing with our newsroom systems (yup, I still work for a media company!), is that I understand:

  1. How the system is supposed to work from the user's end.
  2. How the users are actually using the system. (And most of the time, this the problem occurs, as the users are trying to either get the system to do something it's not supposed to do, or they come up with "shortcuts" because following the recommended procedures take too long.)
                                  and finally
  3. How the system works on the back end.

That's where I find, my background really gives me the edge over those classroom trained kids. Sure, they can can pretty easily diagnose a hardware related issue, but their lack experience of being a end-user and understanding how an end-user users a system and its programs in a production environment really stumps them. They just know what the manual says the program should do/how it works, and as we all know by now, how a program really works and the way a the manufacturer says it should work are two completely different things!


The other thing I find my younger colleagues lack is patience for "non-digital natives." Having grown up in a world where computers, cell phones, etc are ubiquitous, they don't seem to understand why some people can't grasp concepts like the difference between pdf files and jpgs or how to download stuff from the web that have been second nature to them since they were 2!


</MyTwoCents>

scuff
Level 13

Ours is only 4 hours, but we only use ladders half the time.

scuff
Level 13

I've been in the industry nearly 20 years and there are still days when I feel inadequate and like I know nothing! Don't underestimate the foundation you have, even though it might seem far away from what you need in the real world. Learning on the job is amazing and it will start to click when you hear something later and relate it to something you've personally dealt with at work. That's called experience.

I've found that online communities work best when you say "hey, this might be a silly question but I'm stuck and don't know where to start" Most contributors are really happy to help point you in the right direction. What people don't like is when you act like you know everything and are saying things that are clearly incorrect. Know what you don't know and more importantly, be happy to admit to what you don't know. That's how you learn.

scuff
Level 13

Oh absolutely! And thanks for sharing your story rharland2012

In a previous post we were talking about all of the great internet resources for learning and how we find time with information overload. I certainly appreciate webinars, forum posts and blogs as tools these days. I just hope that people new to the industry are happy to get down into the detail to learn the mechanics under the hood, instead of just being happy with wizards and GUIs.

scuff
Level 13

The industry is in great hands with mentors like you who are willing to pass on their knowledge. Thanks for sharing your story.

scuff
Level 13

Oh yes, so much this! I remember going to a half day training on how to use a new portable parallel-attached CD burner. And boy we killed a lot of CDs in those days.

You are right - consumer IT & corporate IT are two different worlds. BYOD is also blurring those lines for end users. But true IT professionals can make things work when they don't. Really complicated things. Most teenagers don't even know what TCP/IP is.

jkump
Level 15

Oh I agree.  Having been a Master CNE through Novell 3.x, 4.x, 5.x.  NDS has better feature set than AD but Novell just couldn't market the product.  Thanks for the memory.

superfly99
Level 17

Wow! I thought no one would be using it. We stopped with 3.12. I did do my CNE for version 4 but we never actually installed it. NDS looked remarkably like AD some years later.....

scuff
Level 13

That's exactly why I was accepted onto the bank's IT team with no experience or qualifications - I showed potential and knew how the staff used the systems and what the stress was like having a queue of customers out the door at lunch time. I wonder if employers still look at potential staff with those eyes, or if they are expecting degrees and certifications as mandatory? I still haven't set foot inside a university.

Interesting to see your point on their lack of patience. They don't know what they know because it's all second nature to them (unconsciously competent). They'd never make good trainers. This also distinguishes a great IT Pro from a good one. Good ones can do their job really really well. Great ones inspire & help upskill others, whether they are IT pros or end users.

And I think your contribution is worth way more than $0.02.

jkump
Level 15

I've posted this before but I think it makes sense here.  "If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it".  I think it is very important that people have an understanding of the whole process rather than just a piece.  I consulted with a manufacturing company that had 900 stages in the production.  When someone hired in they were trained in only the specific task (1 out of  900) but were never trained in how that one task related to the whole product.  It was sad and the LEAN team could not figure out what was wrong. Fortunately, I was only an observer while consulting and that was outside of the IT scope but it was obvious.  Sometimes though, when you are in the heat of the battle you don't always see the big picture.  I want the people around me to feel comfortable asking for help and to have a deeper understanding of the big picture. 

scuff
Level 13

Betamax vs VHS?

superfly99
Level 17

I haven't thought about IRQ's for many moons. And having to use jumpers (not the ones you wear )

The good thing from having started with building pc's from scratch and fixing them, is that I can still install my own ram

jkump
Level 15

That takes me back!  Wow, hadn't thought about those in years.  Funny what the happens when the market is allowed to choose.  Betamax was technically superior but they couldn't market and VHS took to the market first.  Good times!

superfly99
Level 17

scuff wrote:

That's exactly why I was accepted onto the bank's IT team with no experience or qualifications - I showed potential and knew how the staff used the systems and what the stress was like having a queue of customers out the door at lunch time. I wonder if employers still look at potential staff with those eyes, or if they are expecting degrees and certifications as mandatory? I still haven't set foot inside a university.

Me too. I got my job with zero experience or knowledge. Nor have I ever been to uni. I agree, I'm also not so sure though if that would still happen these days.

superfly99
Level 17

WordPerfect or Ms Word?

jkump
Level 15

While we are on the topic, how many of us remember working with expanded and extended memory management in DOS to get past the 640K barrier?  Today there are 64-bit O/S that handle large amounts of RAM.  But who remembers the TSR creativity and products like DesqView?

superfly99
Level 17

I remember it well. I remember when the first AT (286) came out with 1Mb of ram. But yet programs were still running out of memory even once it was upgraded to 4Mb. Some craftiness in config.sys, allowed to make use of the extra memory.

Now stuff just works

scuff
Level 13

Ooh! Highmem and EMM386 for the win!

scuff
Level 13

.. except when it doesn't work I must confess, my PC crashed yesterday .. told me it was running low on memory .. turns out I had less than 500Mb free disk space on a 120GB drive. Oops. But hey, at least I knew how to fix it. And what not to delete.

jprice2
Level 9

DEVICE=C:\Windows\HIMEM.SYS

DOS=HIGH,UMB

DEVICE=C:\Windows\EMM386.EXE NOEMS

Gads! Can't remember how many times I had to that into Config.sys files!

jkump
Level 15


Ahh the good ole days.  thanks for the syntax jprice@calkins.com

jprice2
Level 9

Anytime! But I have to admit, I had to look it up to make sure I had the syntax correct! (for got the NOEMS switch!) But do you remember how to configure those old Soundblaster cards in autoexec.bat files? That always took me a couple times to get it working right!

mr.e
Level 14

Anyway, here's another good one, which takes me back quite a bit. 

ghst_11_initial2.jpg

By the way, what I find more puzzling is this... I can remember all of these things from decades ago.., but I can't recall what I had for breakfast on Monday. 

rharland2012
Level 15

Eggs.

jkump
Level 15

Wow a ghost cd-rom enabled boot disk.  That brings back the Windows 3.1 days.  Got to love the need for mouse.com to bring out the Mickey in all of us.

scuff
Level 13

Yup, you know you’ve been in IT too long when you know the difference between internal & external DOS commands.

scuff
Level 13

Lol there’s actually a scientific explanation for your memory loss. Apart from all of us getting older.

Memories are chemical neuro pathways. The more you use one (like a habit) the stronger it gets, like wearing a dirt path into a grassy field. It’s also easier to create new pathways when you are younger (literally, your brain elasticity means the chemical pathways form easier), which is also why most of our learning is done quickly at a younger age (think speech & hand/eye co-ordination).

This is why older people find it hard to remember recent things. That memory or habit wasn’t formed as easily as the ones when they were younger, especially if it was something they used to do regularly.

And you know how they say it takes 21 days to break (or form) a habit? It literally takes 21 days for a chemical pathway to solidify or break down.

It’s not you, it’s your chemicals ☺

scuff
Level 13

Before ghost there was xcopy ☺ But then, we had no registry. Win.ini anyone?