Deliberate Practice and System Administration (Part 1)

I’m going to take a step back from the usual topics and go down a slightly different path than I usually do today and take some time to discuss something that has recently fascinated me.  I often wonder what it takes to excel and become great (ie expert) in particular areas, activities, et.  For example, how do athletes get to be so good at what they do?  I want to be able to generalize this concept and apply this type of thinking to my own profession to help answer the question of “what characterizes a great sysadmin?  What makes a great one stand out from an average, or even a good sysadmin?”  This is the sort of thing I have been researching and I’d like to share what I’ve come up with so far.

I stumbled across some interesting works recently on the 10,000 hour rule as well as a method known as Deliberate Practice.  Essentially deliberate practice can be broadly defined as spending more time practicing and working on the most difficult tasks to gain the most improvement in the shortest amount of time.  Look up Anders Ericcson for some more in depth examples, there is lots out there and they are great reads. These ideas have helped to shape my understanding and relationship of what is known as expert level knowledge.  I am still struggling to put all the pieces together for what this all means for my own career (namely, system administration) and how these ideas and practices can be applied generally to system administration but I’d like to carve out some general ideas and ways that deliberate practice can be utilized and put to use in system administration.

The problem most of you are surely familiar with is that system administration is such a broad field and applying such specific techniques of deliberate practice can be very difficult to generalize.  What I’m proposing are a number of generalized techniques for improving your performance as a system administrator by applying the techniques I have read about in a controlled and focused way to improve overall performance and skill as a system administrator.  My hope is that this type of generalization can be used in other areas as well.

To begin with, there are a number of maxims that can useful as a guideline or general rule of thumb for how to think about using deliberate practice in your own life and apply it to the way you practice and think about how to get better.

  • Deliberate practice should never extend to more than 4-5 hours per day.  It requires a high level of focus and anything beyond this point (studies have shown) begins to hurt performance.
  • There are two disticint times of day where indivduals have been show to be more productive and are the most focused.  Late morning and mid afternoon, these are optimal times to use for deliberate practice.
  • Also of note, are managing energy levels.  Practicing at a high level with such concentration can lead to burnout if not manager properly.  A good way to manage this is to take short breaks between semi long periods of deliberate practice.  90 minutes practice, 15 minutes break, and repeat.
  • Devote the most time practicing the most difficult tasks.  These activities are designed for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance, therefore are the most beneficial but the most difficult.
  • Meticulous focus on the improvement of weak areas.  Spend large amounts of time analyzing and studying ones self, constantly looking for things to improve.

In my next post I will come back and revisit this idea and share some more specific examples of how to apply deliberate practice to specific topics and areas of interest in system administration.  In this post I will explore various ideas and techniques for ways to specifically apply deliberate practice to tasks in system administration.  As always, I’d love to hear any feedback you may have, especially on this and upcoming posts about becoming a better sysdamin.

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.