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When do We Learn #2 October 20, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Perceptions.

I exchanged a couple of mails with a friend a few weeks back about how the same topic can arise in a couple of blogs at the same time. Well, I had just blogged myself on when we learn and, blow me over with a feather, that Jonathan Lewis goes and post in a similar vein. He must be nicking ideas off my blog 🙂 {and yes, I am being tongue-in-cheek here}. We both post thought about needing spare capacity in your life to be able to spend the time to really understand how something works. Yes you learn a lot in the heat of a crisis, but you rarely reallu understand the details, ie become an expert, without having time to digest and qualify that knowledge.

I did write a long comment on his posting, including some links back to my own meandering thoughts on the topic, then realised that I would come across as a bit “me too” so I trimmed it and took out the links. But that is part of why I do my own blog, I found I was spamming other people’s pages with my diatribes and so decide to spam my own. {And I know I am meandering, I’m a bit sleep-deprived, stream of consciousness at the moment}. So here I can refer back to my own stuff and say “me too”, but you are already here reading this, so you only have yourself to blame :-)… Anyway, I wanted to refer back to a very early blog of mine about how much knowledge is enough. I try and make the point that you do not need to know everything, you can become a small-field or local expert just by being willing to learn a bit more.

Jonathan raises the point that he does not have a full time commitment to one client and so he has the luxury to investigate the details and oddities of what he looks into. He suggest this is a large part of why he is an expert, which I feel is true, and I am very happy to see one of the Oracle Names acknowledging that relative freedom from other pressures is key to having the luxury to chase down the details. Those of us in a full time role doing eg DBA, development or design work, have more than enough on our workday plates to keep us too busy. We cannot be top experts, we have a boss to satisfy and a role to fulfill. {Jonathan does not mention that chosing a career where you have luxury of time is also a pretty brave choice – you stand a good chance of earning a lot, lot less whilst working very hard to establish enough of a reputation to be able to earn enough to feed yourself and the cat}.

But this is not a black and white situatuation. There is room for many of us to become experts in our domain or in our locality. Our breadth of knowledge may never be as wide as others, we may not know more than anyone else in a given area {and let’s face, logically there can only be one person who knows the most about a given topic, and that one person is probably in denial about their superiority, which seems to be a defining quality of an expert – it is not so much humility I think as an acknowledgement of there being more to know and a desire to know it}. However, most of us can become the person in our organisation who knows most about X, or who can tie A, B and C together in a more holistic way than others (and that can be a real trick you know). There are always the top experts that you can call on for the worst problems, but you could become the person people come to first.

My advice would be to not try and learn everything about all aspects of Oracle, because you can’t, but rather learn a lot about one or two areas {and consider areas that are more unusual, not just “tuning SQL” or “the CBO”} and expand just your general knowledge of the wider field. And never forget that there is more to learn. So long as you are taking in more knowledge and understanding, you are improving. The best way to do it? Don’t just read other people’s stuff, try teaching someone else. It never ceases to amaze me how stupid I realise I am when I try and show someone else how something works. But that’s OK, so long as they learn it’s fine. If I learn as well, it’s great, and I nearly always do.

I’m getting on a bit, I think I am finally getting the hang of the idea that the more you know the more you realise you don’t know, I wish I knew that when I knew nothing.


1. oakesgr - October 22, 2009

Hi Martin,

I think most people do make the effort to carve a niche for themselves within their own organisation. Too be honest you’d have to pretty lazy or silly not to.

The problem with this, in my opinion, is one of transferable knowledge. In this day and age people are changing jobs quicker than ever (well maybe before the economy fell off a cliff anyway). When I eventually go to my next job interview, I very much doubt they’ll give too hoots about what I can tell them about the apps in department Z.

They will be much more interested in how would I go about building a standby, tuning a sql statement or some other ‘vanilla’ piece of dba work. So in a huge org, where even things such as creating a tablespace are scripted to enforce standards – do I (we?) run the risk of deskilling? Well the answer is yes.

So a more pertinent question might be – should I concentrate on keeping my ‘vanilla’ oracle skills at the same level (or improving them) as opposed to becoming the expert on apps A, B and C?

mwidlake - October 22, 2009

That’s a tricky issue Graham. Your organisation needs experts in the specific applications it uses and especially in those that have been developed or heavily modified internally. Those skills cannot be got from elsewhere. As an employee in such an organisation, there is an area you can become the expert in and make a niche. Possily worth it if you plan on staying for many years.

But as you say, those very specific skills are of no use in the general market place whereas skills in Oracle backup or MySQL configuration are generic and saleable.
Maybe the need to be recompensed well for tying yourself to your company’s mast is something to raise at annual review time.

As someone who moves from place to place, the choice for me is obvious, I need to concentrate on saleable skills. But maybe not the most common ones?I say this as there is so much competition when you are an expert in a common skill. Like Oracle tuning. Maybe I should be aiming to become an expert in another field…

2. oakesgr - October 22, 2009

apologies for the double misuse of ‘too’. wrote it in a rush!

mwidlake - October 22, 2009

I didn’t notice , one of the few words I can spell with no issue is dyslexia. That really annoys me!

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