Deliberate Practice and System Administration (Part 2)

Remember from the last post, deliberate practice can loosely be defined using the following:  Spending more time practicing and working on the most difficult tasks to gain the most improvement in the shortest amount of time for a given skill.  Okay, so the goal here is to come up with some seriously difficult but reproducible content to practice.  So how do we do that?  Well there’s a few things we can focus on doing to make this possible.

Set up a lab environment.  This is the main staple for working on your skills, and I believe without some sort of a lab environment one will not be able to completely and correctly apply the concepts that deliberate practice offers.  Hands on practice is where most of your time should be spent when learning, as well as time spent working on active recall. It is very important to build up some sort of environment for practicing different ideas, skills, content, etc. and it is an essential prerequisite for improvement.  The lab environment is not the only piece of the puzzle though.

I haven’t covered this much, but Active recall is an important concept to familiarize yourself with. It is a component of efficient learning and is a staple that is used to help develop long term memory.   Another main piece includes learning materials, whether it be audio, video or written format.  We need some type of reference material as well as a set of concepts and ideas to use as a guide for learning new subject matter.  A good example of this is Cisco and their CCIE certification.  They publish a list of topics and objectives covered by the exam, as well as a number of texts to use as study material.  So something like this would be useful for a network engineer that was looking to improve some aspects of their skill set.  They could use this topic list as a guide for what to study and the listed texts as reference material.

Once the objective has been defined, and the material has been clearly established for learning a particular skill or concept, the next step is to go out and attack it!  Remember, repetition (and especially spaced repetition) is an important element of practice, so when you are building these skills you will often find yourself going over things that you may have already covered.  Just remember that by repeating previously learned skills you are strengthening and improving your overall understanding, even if it can seem pointless and boring, it will help you.

Here are some techniques for quickly learning a new topic that I have found to be most useful for my own understanding and ability to grok ideas and concepts of a particular I am trying to learn more thoroughly.  This technique can be applied to practically anything, but I have found it especially efficient for my own purposes as a system administrator when I need to learn new subject material.

  • Read a chapter about the new topic or idea, taking notes as you go.
  • Watch related videos to further strengthen the concepts you are interested in learning about.
  • Set up and work through labs specific to the topic.  You may need to ask for help in getting some  ideas here but there are many great communities out there.   Remember that hands on practice is where most of your time should be spent!
  • Revisit the book/topic and notes, update anything that needs to be clarified, etc.
  • Revisit  the previous steps, focusing on weaker areas until you are comfortable with idea or topic.
  • Do it all over again with another topic.

Find yourself a mentor or a teacher in your journey to help with this process. I need to speak about this briefly, because I don’t think it can be understated.  If you get stuck or need ideas for labs, having somebody there to help and bounce ideas off of is incredibly important.  While you can learn all of this stuff on your own, having a mentor or teacher will increase the learning process by an order of magnitude.  So go out there and find some help, as I’ve mentioned before there are some great communities.  /r/sysadmin is one of my favorites, the people there are really smart and friendly and they love helping out others.

The final peace to this puzzle, in my opinion, is motivation.  It takes a certain level of grit to take the steps to become better at something through deliberate practice.  It all looks easy enough until you actually start putting these ideas into practice, and begin realizing what it means, and how much hard work and effort it takes to become an expert by grasping the amount of time and effort it takes to achieve.  The commitment to improvement means a full focus to improving your skills all of the time, not just every now and then and it becomes very difficult, unless of course you have a supreme level of motivation.

In the next part I will examine the work ethic and some specific examples of individuals in other disciplines that perform at an expert level so you can get a more complete understanding of just how much work it takes, and what it really means to become an expert at something, so stay tuned!

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.