The difference between an entry level computer support technician and a seasoned, trained and efficient Systems Administrator can be summed up with three simple words:
Understanding vs. Memorizing
In 1995 my boss (and technical mentor), Tom Mann, asked me to network the office computers (running Windows 3.11 for Workgroups). He purchased Novell NetWare 3.12 and told me get the network up within two weeks. I had never done such a thing and I asked him, “Um, how do I do that?” His response will be forever etched in my mind.
“Figure it out.”
I went right out to Barnes and Noble and purchased Using Netware 3.12. I started reading at work. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer wants to keep his job at the bowling alley so he decided to come up with a brilliant marketing scheme? You see him reading a book called Advanced Marketing which then fades into him reading another book called “Beginning Marketing” which then fades into him reading the dictionary and looking up the word “Marketing”. Well, that was how I felt. I didn’t understand a lot of the concepts so I had to read and re-read. I ended up buying several books to answer new questions that I had. I built the 3.12 server at least 6 times before going into production with our small office. I began to understand via simple cause and effect. I was eventually able to correctly predict behavior if I changed configuration settings on the server or clients.
By building that little network I began to truly understand the “problems” that would eventually pop up. When Beth complained that the printer wasn’t “working” I was able to quickly deduce if the problem was caused by the server, the network, the local computer configuration or, in this case, the user Beth.
Your “Beth” doesn’t have to understand how a document on her computer gets successfully sent to a printer. She just knows that if she hits the Print button then her document will print. That is fine. But if it is your job to make sure the users can print and access important files on the network then you had damn well better understand what’s going on under the hood.
Remember, Google is your friend. It is inevitable that many Sys Admins have encountered your same computer problems and very likely that some of them have documented what went wrong, why, and what can be done to fix it.
Also, whatever you do, don’t say you won’t “fix” something just because you don’t understand it. I think we often fall into this trap. About 8 years ago I remember data calls would come down from my corporate office. These calls were usually accompanied by some SQL code that we (the local administrators) would run against our respective databases. I started realizing that I was simply memorizing the queries but that I truly didn’t have an understanding how they worked. I didn’t know a Union from Join. Normalization? I could spell it but that was as deep as my understanding went.
Figure it out.
It’s OK to not know the answer. Just figure it out. So, I began studying and using SQL. I frequently picked Adam’s brain. I googled and bought some books. Once I jumped on it I realized how easy it actually was to understand. I was hooked.
The best way to understand how something works is simply to USE it.