Hard Truths Not Taught in Schools

J Metz published a great article describing six hard truths not taught in school. As all good things should come in 7-tuples, here’s another one I was told ages ago when I was a young hotshot full of myself:

Professions were created for a reason – they enable people to do the work they’re qualified to do.

Needless to say, it took me decades to fully understand its implications.

Do what you’re qualified to do. Don’t think you’re good at everything just because you can Google-and-paste. Figure out where your limitations are.

Seek help when you’re dealing with something beyond your comfort zone. The amount of ignorant improvisation we see in IT is stupefying. Have you ever wondered why lawyers and doctors ask for second opinion?

Yes, I know your manager expects you to know everything just because you have administrator or engineer in your job title, which just proves he never thought about the next two paragraphs.

Don’t think you understand other people’s job. I’m always amazed to watch people completely unqualified to have an opinion on a problem loudly offering it just because they’re experts in totally unrelated field. PhDs in chemistry telling IT engineers how to do their jobs would be one of my first-hand experiences.

Don’t think you could do their jobs better than they do… until you tried and proved you can succeed while facing the same constraints they have. My favorite one: an airline pilot confident he could write a program to do airline’s crew scheduling (which is probably an NP-hard problem) on Commodore-64.

Having said all that, do your job well if you want to earn and retain the trust of your peers. If you’re obviously clueless or randomly throwing fixes at the problem trying to figure out which one might stick don’t be surprised when everyone else starts acting in ways I described above.

Accept help (courtesy of Chris Young).  When a grey-beard gives you a piece of advice - LISTEN. Doesn’t mean you have to accept it as truth or obey their commands, but watching people new to the profession make the same mistakes we all made 20 years ago because they didn’t heed the warning is frustrating…

And “I told you so” doesn’t fix the network or the harm that major network outages cause to our reputation as a profession. 

The small print

I got into the habit of sending my rants to a few friends before publishing them. As always, they made it better.

David Gee pointed that I never specified what I mean by “qualified” - it’s one of those things that you recognize when you see it… or not if you happen to be on the left-hand side of Dunning-Kruger diagram or suffer from the Impostor Syndrome.

Also, as we all know, academic or professional qualifications don’t always mean that you’re the right person for the job. You could have all the theoretical knowledge in the world, excellent exam scores, but be totally incapable of getting a real-life job done for whatever reason.

More from David:

Also need to consider the “too many chief helpers” problem. Some of the worst outages I’ve witnessed have been to the wrong advice being heeded. People being fired listening to someone else when they originally knew better (imposter syndrome) is a reality. Accepting that old grey types have been there and done that is the starting point. It’s like the Men in Black thing: “Listen slick...”. We all get annoyed when it happens, but it makes you re-consider which is always good. 

Finally, Nick Buraglio added a few thoughts on mentoring:

It’s useful to add that mentoring is key. Not only do you need to learn from the grey-beards, you are obligated to teach what you know as well. All too often IT folks are cave dwellers that don’t want to interact and have poor soft skills, they get grouchy when they have to, and that only perpetuates the problem. My undergraduate university’s motto is actually “gladly would he learn and gladly teach”, I try to live up to that and if more folks in IT did then we’d have a very different landscape.

Have we forgot anything? Please write a comment!


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  2. One of my first true tech roles I was lucky enough to land in a team at a telco where there was a diversity of ages, from one guy who had 6 months to retire and one that was 3 years my junior and everything in between. That job was the best in my career. I received valuable advice from the older guys and motivation from the younger. The boss too was fair, he constantly asked us to think about this question before doing anything on the production systems, "Am I qualified to do this work?" and if the answer was no, then to seek help.
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