Becoming a better sysadmin

I typically don’t focus on philosophical topics or the more abstract subjects, but recently I have been reading  up on the topic of self improvement and wanted to take some time today to lay out and develop some of the key concepts and ideas that I have found to be helpful so far.  Hopefully some of these ideas can be used to help you improve as well in the world of system administration and other future career endeavors.

So this post is going to be more of a work in progress than anything else, since I really just wanted to get some of this stuff written down in order to clear it out of my head.  There are literally books that have been written on self improvement and learning strategies so my goal with this isn’t to get every single detail, I just want to hit the high points and how their application to system administration.  Here’s what I have so far, feel free to let me know what I’m missing or throw in anything else that might be particularly useful on this subject.

Explicit vs Tacit knowledge

Explicit knowledge can be defined as that gained from books or listening to a lecture.  Basically some form of reading or auditory resource.

Tacit knowledge can be defined as that gained from experience, action and practice.

I’d like to start off by making a distinction between different types of knowledge.  I believe that the practice of system administration relies heavily on both types and just one type of experience is not enough to be great in this field.  They work hand in hand.  So for example, reading a ton of books, while useful in its own right will not be nearly as effective as reading books and then applying the knowledge gained from hands on experience.  Likewise, if somebody never bothers to pickup a book and relies entirely on hands experiences they will not be as knowledgeable as someone who incorporates both types of knowledge.  Although I do feel that much more can be learned from hands on experience in the field of system administration than by books alone.

Types of learning

There has been a good deal of research done on this subject but for the purposes of this post I would like to boil this all down to what are considered the three primary or main styles of learning.  The reason I want to focus on these is that they seem to work hand in hand with explicit and tacit knowledge and can be described a bit more easily.  Each one of these different styles represents a different sort of idiom to the learning experience.  So here they are:

  • Visual – Learning by watching or reading.
  • Auditory – Learning by listening.
  • Kinesthetic – Learning from experience, hands on.

I would argue that employing a good variety of learning and study methods would be the most appropriate way to develop your skills as a sysadmin.  But even in my own experiences with learning styles I have realized that I tend to favor a kinesthetic learning approach, and I’m sure others have their own preferences as well.  Instead of saying that one is better than another, I would suggest employing all of these types.  Take a look at yourself and figure out how you learn best and then decide which method(s) are the most and least helpful and then decide how to make these styles work to your advantage.  For example, I feel that I am a weak reader.  While I know that reading is important I tend to spend the least amount of time doing just reading if at all possible.  Having a piece of reading material as a reference or as an introduction is great.  If I don’t quite understand things from reading the next step I like to take is internalizing things by listening to or watching.  Finally, once I get a good enough idea about a topic I like to quickly put things into my own experiences.  There is some quote about how experience sticks but I am too lazy to look it up.  Suffice it say, I tend to remember things much more concretely when I am able to experience them for myself.

Again, this is just in my own experience and everybody is different.  I just wanted to give a specific example of one way to utilize different styles of learning.  There are many other possibilities and this just happens to be the way I prefer to learn things.

Learning strategies

Now that we have that out of the way, I want to highlight some of the major tactics that I use when attempting to learn a new subject.  I definitely use some of these more than others but the point is that you should attempt to utilize as much as you can for your own benefit.  Here are some different strategies I came up with that help me greatly when I encounter new and difficult to understand information.  Many of these work together or in tandem so they may described more than once.

The Feynman technique – This is as close to the end all be all that there is when it comes to learning.  Everybody is probably familiar with this one, but I am guessing they are not familiar with the name.  This technique is used to explain or go through a topic as if you were teaching it to somebody else that was just learning about it for the first time.  This basically forces you to know what you’re talking about.  If you get stuck when trying to explain a particular concept or idea, make a note of what you are struggling with and research and relearn the material until you can confidently explain it.  You should be able to explain the subject simply, if your explanations are wordy or convoluted you probably don’t understand it as well as you think.

Reading – I usually like to get an introduction to a topic by reading up on (and bookmarking) what information I feel to be the most informed, whether it be official documentation, RFC’s, books, magazines, respected blogs and authors, etc.  As I mentioned before, I would consider myself a weak reader (something that I definitely need to improve on!) so I also like to take very brief notes when something I read seems like it would useful so I can try it out for myself.

Watching/Listening to others – After getting a good idea from reading about a subject I always like to reinforce this by either watching demonstrations, videos, listening to podcasts, lectures or anything else that will show me how to get a better idea of how to do something.  When I’m on a long drive for example is a great time to put on a podcast.  It kills time as well as improves knowledge at the cost of nothing.  Very efficient!  The same with videos and demonstrations, the only thing holding you back is the motivation.

Try things for yourself – Sometimes this can be the most difficult approach but definitely can also be the most rewarding, there is nothing better than learning things the hard way.  Try things out for yourself in a lab or anywhere that you can practice the concepts that you are attempting to learn and understand.

Take notes – This is important for your own understanding of how things work in a way that you can internalize.  I will take notes on simple things like commands I won’t remember, related topics and concepts or even just jotting down keywords quickly that to Google for later on.  This goes hand in hand with the reading technique described above, just jotting down very simple, brief notes can be really useful.

Communicate with others – There are plenty of resources out there for getting help and for communicating and discussing what you learn with others.  I would suggest looking a /r/sysadmin as a starting point.  IRC channels are another great place to ask questions and get help, there are channels for pretty much any subject you can think of out there.  There are good sysadmin related channels at, if you don’t already utilize IRC I highly suggest you take a look.

Come back later – Give your brain some time to start digesting some of the information and to take a step back and put the pieces together to begin creating a bigger picture.  I can’t count how many times I have been working on learning a new concept or subject and felt overwhelmed and stuck until I took a break, did something completely different or thought about something else entirely and came back to the subject later on with a fresh perspective.   Sometimes these difficult subjects just take time to fully understand so taking breaks and clearing your head can be very useful.

Sleep on it – Have you ever heard of the term before?  This may sound crazy but sometimes if there is a particular problem that I can’t solve I will often times think about it before I go to sleep.  I find that by blocking out all outside interference and noise I can much more easily think about it, come up with fresh perspectives and ideas and often times will wake up with an answer the next morning.  I think meditation is comparable to this but I know nothing about meditation (I hope to at some point!) so I have to use this method for the time being.

Break stuff – One of the best ways to incorporate a number of these techniques is to intentionally break stuff in your own setups.  Triple check to be sure that you aren’t breaking anything important first and then go ahead and give it a try.  By forcing yourself to fix things that are broken you develop a much deeper and more intimate relationship with the way things work, why they work the way that they do and how things get broken to begin with.  The great thing about using this method is that it is almost always useful for something in the future, whether it be the troubleshooting skills, the Googling skills or the specific knowledge in the particular area that needed to be fixed.

Practice, practice, practice – The more I read about becoming better at something the more I am convinced that you have to practice like an absolute maniac.  I think for system administration this can partially come from practical job experience but it also comes from dedicated study and lab time.  The hands on component is where most of your practice will come from and becoming better doesn’t just happen, it takes cultivation and time, just like with any other skill.  Stick with it and never stop learning and improving on your skills through practice and experience.

Josh Reichardt

Josh is the creator of this blog, a system administrator and a contributor to other technology communities such as /r/sysadmin and Ops School. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.