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How Much Knowledge is Enough? June 13, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Perceptions, performance.
Tags: , ,

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for a good few years now, which is this:

How do you learn enough about something new to be useful when you are working 40, 50, 60 hours a week?

Another bee is how much do you actually need to know to become useful? The bee following that one is if you do not have enough time to investigate something, how do you find the answer? Buzzing up behind is to fully understand how something works, you often need a staggering amount of back knowledge – how do you get it? Oh dear, it’s a hive in my head, not a single bee.

I am of course in this blog mostly thinking about Oracle and in particular Oracle performance. I think that these days it must be really very hard to get going with performance tuning as it has become such a broad topic. I don’t know if you have noticed but nearly all the performance experts are not in their teens. Or twenties. And precious few in their thirties. Forties are pretty much the norm.  We {and please excuse my audacity in putting myself in such an august group}  have been doing Oracle and performance for many years and have stacked up knowledge and understanding to help us.

For me this issue was thrown into sharp relief about 4 or 5 years ago. I had become a manager and, although I was learning lots of other skills and things, when it came to Oracle Technology I think I was forgetting more than I was learning. Oh, I was learning some new Oracle stuff but it was at a more infrastructure level. The real kick of reality was going to presentations on performance and Oracle internals. At the end of the 90’s I would go along and learn one or two new things but knew 90% of what was said. By the mid 2000’s I would go along and know 50% , the other 50% would be new. Then I went to one talk and found I was scribbling away as I knew precious little of what was being presented. More worryingly, I was struggling with “How does this fit in with what I already know?”.  I just didn’t know enough of the modern stuff.

That was a pivotal moment for me. It had the immediate effect of making me start reading blogs and books and manuals again. It’s not easy to find the time but I soon noticed the benefit. Even if I learnt only a little more one evening a week, I would invariably find that knowledge helping me the very next week or month. I was back on the road to being an expert. {Or so I thought}. Oh, it had a long term effect too. I changed job and went back to the technical, but that is for another day.

But hang on, during my decline I had not stopped being useful. I was still the Oracle performance expert where I worked and could still solve most of the performance issues I came across. It made me realise you do not need to know everything to be useful and you could solve a lot of problems without knowing every little detail of how something works. A good general knowledge of the Oracle environment and a logical approach to problem solving goes a long way.

I actually started to get annoyed by the “attitude” of experts who would bang on and on and on about how you should test everything and prove to yourself that your fix to a problem had fixed itas otherwise it was just being hopeful. I thought to myself “That is fine for you, oh exalted expert, as you have time for all this and don’t have 60 hours of day job to do every week. Give us a break and get real. Most of us have to get the problem solved, move on and get by with imperfect knowledge. Doing all that testing and proving, although nice in a perfect world, is not going to happen”.

Yep, I had an attitude problem :-). I was getting angry at what I now think is just a difference in perception. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

I don’t think I am going to go back on my opinion that for most people in a normal job, there simply is not time to do all the testing and proving and you have to move on, Making do with received knowledge. It just is not an ideal world. However, we need the experts to uncover that knowledge and we need experts who are willing to communicate that knowledge and we need experts we can rely on. I am very, very grateful to the experts I have learned from.  

All the time on blogs, forums and conversations the issue of “how do we know what sources we can trust” regularly comes up. Well, unfortunately I think that if you do not have time to do the testing and learning needed to become an expert yourself, you have to simple chose your experts, accept what they say but remain slightly skeptical about what they say. Everyone makes mistakes after all. I would advise you only accept someone as an expert and rely on their advice if they are willing to demonstrate why they believe what they believe. Everything else is just an unsubstantiated opinion. 

But I’ve come to some conclusions about most of the above questions I started with.

  1. If you are judicious in choosing your sources, you can learn more reliably and easily.
  2. Even a little bit of more knowledge helps and it often comes into use very quickly.
  3. The hard part? You have to make that time to learn, sorry.
  4. Although testing and proving is good, life is not perfect. If you did (1) you might get away without it. But don’t blame the expert if you get caught out.

But I’ve not addressed the point about needing all that back knowledge to fully understand how something works. Well, I think there is no short cut on that one. If you want to be an expert you need that background. And you need to be sure about that background. And that is where it all has fallen apart for me. I started a blog!

I already knew you learn a lot by teaching others, I’ve been running training courses on and off for a few years. But in writing a blog that is open to the whole community, I’ve realised I know less than I thought. A lot less. And if I want to be a source of knowledge, an expert, I have to fill a lot of those gaps. So I am going to have to read a lot, test things, makes sure that when I believe I know something I’ve checked into it and, when I fix something, I know why it is fixed {as best I can, that is} . All those things experts tell us we need to do. And that brings me back to my perception issue. 

Those who I think of as the best in this field all pretty much give the advice to test and prove. And they have to do this themselves all the time, to make sure what they say is right. And they are the best as what they say is nearly always right. It seems to be excellent advice.

However, I think it is only good advice, as it is advice you can’t always take, because there is too much else to do. I think sometimes experts forget that many people are just too pressured at work to do their own testing, not because they don’t want to test but because you can only live so long without sleeping. 

Anyway, I said something foolish about becoming an expert. I better go and check out some other blogs… start reading some manuals… try out a few ideas on my test database.  I’ll get back to you on how I’m progressing on that one in about, say, a year or two? All those gaps to fill….



1. PdV - June 15, 2009

I recognize that Martin.

Knowledge is like a circle:
If it grows, there is also more on the outside.
Always more to be discovered.
(need a quote on that – who came up with this first ?)

The more you know, the more you dont know.
The more I (think I) know, the bigger my blunders become.
And the greater my shame when I learn of them.
I’ll never be perfect. I dont even get close.

I need a good trainride to digest that, together with the lake-wobegone and the DK effect.

2. Jonathan Lewis - June 16, 2009


Einstein: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”

3. Martin Widlake - June 16, 2009

Thanks Piet, Jonathan. I really like the circle of knowledge idea. Though I might stop trying to learn new stuff, I don’t think I can face much more realisation of what I don’t know… 🙂

I do like Bernard of Chartres “We are dwarves on the shoulders of giants”, but I tend to feel like a dwarf who is still climbing up the thigh of said giant at times.

4. PdV - June 17, 2009

Jonathan, Thanks!
I might steal that qoute sometime.

5. Bob Rhubart - June 18, 2009

Given the abundance of available information it’s inevitable that we become overwhelmed. That holds true for all areas of interest. It’s impossible to absorb all the information relevant to a particular task or topic, so the only recourse is to accept that limitation and move on.

Failure is just as inevitable. No amount of information or testing can provide absolute protection against failure. But that’s a good thing, because failure is an excellent teacher. Those experienced veterans you mention in your post achieved that very admirable status through a process of failure and correction, much more so than through the simple absorption of static information. It’s failure the places all that information in context and gives it life.

Specialization is another aspect of the experience and expertise of veterans in any field. True, there are innumerable and ever-increasing areas in which to develop expertise, but that makes it all the more important to identify and focus sharply on the areas that are specific to your goals and responsibilities.

I _love_ the utter abundance of information we now enjoy, but I recently came to the realization that I simply can’t absorb everything I’d like, and that trying to do so was detracting from my ability to absorb anything. Nicholas Carr addresses this issue in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The sheer abundance of information, along with the issues of credibility you raise in your post, is itself a distraction. MOST of the information you can find on any given topic is of little or no value. That’s why it’s so important to identify the veterans, the experts, the people who have been there and done that, even if where they’ve been and what they’ve done is only tangentially related to your specialty or the problem you’re trying to solve. Those people can provide the absolutely essential editorial filter to separate the
good stuff from the crap.

Even in an age of relentless, disruptive innovation, that old saying still holds true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our tools and toys may be more sophisticated, but have the tasks to which we apply them really changed?

mwidlake - June 19, 2009

Thank you for that thoughtful comment Bob and I’m sorry it did not appear immediately – I have to approve the first comment made by anyone before the blog software puts it up and I’ve been unplugged for the last 20 hours.

You make some very good points, such as that we have to specialise as the field of knowledge expands. This is particularly true in science and medicine. It is not unusual for a non-medic to know more about a particular condition than most GPs do, if they suffer from that condition. One of your other points then can come into play, which is if the non-medic has gathered their knowledge off the web, there is a likelihood that their knoweldge is highly questionable – people tend to promote alternative or contradictory opinions rather than the accepted wisdom (which thankfully is less true in IT where many things can be tested and proved).

Returning back to the sphere of Oracle, with version 7.0 you could read the concepts manual, administrators manual, forms and reports developers manual and the PL/SQL manual and pretty much claim to be an Oracle Expert. It is now almost impossible to be an expert across even a subset of the technology, performance. When I started my Blog I considered chosing a specific field, VLDB, and I may still move that way, just to make the breadth of knowledge easier to consume.

But I take comfort in one of your points and one of my original ones. Yours is, you filter your learning by “identifying the veterans, the experts”. Mine is, if you are logical and have a general understanding of the Oracle environment, you can get a long way before having to knowing the absolute details. Maybe 80% of the way? To get the best out of the system you do need to know the details. To teach others, you need to know the details to have credibility. Every bit of extra knowledge (and every disaster you survive) adds to that pile of knowledge.

There is an old Charlie Brown cartoon where Charlie Brown says something like “if you learn by your mistakes, that makes me the smartest kid in the world”. 🙂

6. Aman.... - July 14, 2009


I started reading your blog today only when I added it to my blogroll , getting the input from Doug’s blog. But I am just glad that I have come here and this post, believe it or not was the topic of a small Twitter discussion that I had with fellow member of oracle community. There is no end of learning. I love that Circle quote, its in my signature since quite a time now. Along with that, I always recall one more quote, if one truly wants to be good, he has to “stay hungry, stay foolish” .

Thanks for a very good blog post and an excellent blog as well.


mwidlake - July 14, 2009

Hello Aman,

Thank you for your comments and I’m glad you like my blog. I hope I can keep it up! I check Doug’s blog every couple of days but I knew he had pinged me when my traffic stats shot up 🙂

“Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Not a bad moto for learning, I like it.

Kind Regards,


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