Weekly Inspirational Poem

Some One Can Do It

When some one says, "It can’t be done,"
And squirms ‘neath manhood’s toiling;
Complains about "No battles won"
His speech with whimpers boiling;
Some other man with steady tread
Success attains – how was it?
Pursues his course with aching head;
Plods on and works and does it!

"It can’t be done!" He strikes his pate
And rails against his station,
While off’ring to the god of Fate
His daily weak oblation.
Yet other men whose lot in life
Was "down" from Fate’s worst stacking,
Go on with plucky gain through strife,
And win without a backing!

When someone says, "It ain’t no use
I’ve had no hand that boosted;
My head’s been thrust within the noose;
Ill luck on me has roosted"
Some other man far lower down
On Fortune’s fateful ladder
Mounts on his way and wins the crowd
For ill luck none the sadder!

When someone says, "It can’t be done,"
Believe it not one minute;
For near at hand one’s on the run
To see the prize and win it.
The baffled losers rub their eyes,
And idly cry "How was it?"
But while they yearn to grasp the prize
Their next-door neighbor does it!

-David V. Bush

Overcoming the Four Barriers to Expertise – Part 2

In the first part of this two-part post, I covered the first two barriers to expertise that Walter Dill Scott presented in his 1910 book on Increasing Human Efficiency in Business. In this second part, I will cover the last two barriers, which have to do with a dose of reality and a dollop of initiative.

As a reminder, here are the four barriers rephrased to be directly applicable to modern information workers:

  • The enthusiasm for the topic or skill is based upon a current fad or trend.
  • All easy improvements have been made.
  • A period of incubation is required in which the new skills and ideas have time to develop.
  • Voluntary attention is difficult to sustain for a long period of time.

 

Incubated Potential

The third barrier is really more of a frustration than a problem. The human species tends to need a digestion window before it can benefit from any new input. This is true of food and it is also true of knowledge and skills. Therefore, you might call this third barrier impatience, if you are seeking a one word reminder. Impatience has been the fuel behind many failures on the road to expertise.

The pain caused by this barrier is only exacerbated by the fact that we often need several incubation periods along the journey from novice to expert; however, you can use the following strategies to get through the incubation periods and experience the birth of expertise on the other side:

  • Watch your self-talk. Be careful to focus on the positive outcome of commitment through the dry times. Tell yourself things like, "I’ve been here before and it only lasts a little while. Then, I can move to the next level." or, "Even Tiger Woods goes through periods where his game does not improve at all." The point is simple: focus on the fact that plateaus are normal along the journey to the peak.
  • Enjoy the relaxation of the plateau. Take advantage of the fact that your brain and body need time to absorb and associate the new knowledge and skills. Don’t worry about gaining new levels for a few days or even weeks. Relax and renew.
  • Speed the process. If the incubation period is due to lack of understanding, go to new sources and methods of learning. If you tried to learn the information by reading a book, try attending a class. If you tried to learn by attending a class, read a web page. The key is to mix it up and gain insights from different viewpoints. These activities will help you "light the bulb."

 

Voluntary Attention

I’ve saved this one until last for a very important reason: It is my biggest challenge. Having a personality of an adult ADHD behavioral mode mixed with the varied curiosity of P. T. Barnum, it is very difficult for me to focus on one knowledge domain or area of interest at a time. Research shows that this is becoming more difficult for modern young adults as well. Some suggest that it is the result of the media craze of the 80s and 90s. I don’t know if that is the driving force behind it or not, but it is a very real phenomenon.

In order to achieve expertise in any area of study – particularly authoritative expertise, an individual must have times of voluntary attention or focus. She must focus on learning new concepts, facts, skills and thinking methods. This can be difficult for some, but here are some great ideas for overcoming this barrier (I have dozens in this category since it has been my area of greatest challenge. Feel free to contact me, if you want more ideas.):

  • Accept distraction. By this, I do not mean that you should give up. I simply mean that you may need to accept that distractions lure you more than most. If that is the case, don’t be alarmed. You can still achieve expertise. You will simply need to focus during smaller units of time. I have days where I may research a concept for 30-40 minutes and then I will not come back to it for 3-4 hours – at which time I will give another 30-40 minutes. It is certainly acceptable to learn in this way and, in fact, it could be argued that it is often better.
  • Focus on focus. Study techniques that can be used to help you focus. There are many books that provide suggestions, but you can often discover methods by looking more closely at your own behaviors. For example, I find that I can write for 4-6 hours – without interruption – if I go to a library and use one of the empty study rooms. There are no distractions there!
  • Be more reasonable in your goals. Sometimes we try to bite off more than we can chew. Give yourself a goal you absolutely know that you can meet. If you meet it, you can go beyond it. Next time, stretch that goal a little bit more. Continue this process until you find out just how much you can read, write, practice, study or any other activity in an allotted time.

 

Remember, these are just a few of the tips that you can use. The key with all four barriers is to remember that you must blast through them if you hope to become an expert. I’m confident that you can do it. Why? Because I’m just a simple hillbilly from West Virginia and I’ve found a hero in me.

Overcoming the Four Barriers to Expertise – Part 1

Long ago, in a book titled, “Increasing Human Efficiency in Business,” Walter Dill Scott identified the four most important factors that cause skill advancement plateaus. While this book was first published in 1910, the lessons remain valuable and directly relevant to us today. In fact, I believe they are more relevant for IT professionals than many other professionals.

Here are the four factors that have the most important influence on skill advancement:

  • The enthusiasm for the topic or skill is based upon a current fad or trend.
  • All easy improvements have been made.
  • A period of incubation is required in which the new skills and ideas have time to develop.
  • Voluntary attention is difficult to sustain for a long period of time.

 

I’ve rephrased each of the four factors in order to make them more current and more specifically applicable to technology professionals. Let’s look at the first two of these so that we may understand how to overcome the barriers that they represent. We’ll look at the next two in a later post.

Fads and Trends

Right now, virtualization is hot. Virtual servers, virtual desktops, virtual networks and even virtual employees. You can’t read an issue of eWeek or Network World without finding an article on something related to virtualization. You could definitely say that it is a current fad or trend. If you choose to become an expert in virtualization based solely on the fact that it is a hot topic right now, how will you continue to find motivation for it when it is no longer the newest thing?

If I attempt to become an expert in a topic based on the fact that it is currently popular, I am more likely to plateau early on in the process. The key factor here is motivation. My motivation was not based on a true interest in the technology but on an awareness that popularity breeds use and that this popularity may benefit me.

To overcome this barrier, you must find new sources of motivation. Answer the following questions to help you focus your energies in the right areas:

  • What excites me about this technology?
  • What information, when learned, did I most want to share with someone else?
  • How can this technology continue to bring value?
  • What are the changes coming in this technology in the next 12 months, 24 months, 60 months?
  • In what new ways can I apply my existing knowledge of the technology?
  • What benefits will I acquire if I learn even more?

The Next Step is Too Hard

Once all easy improvements have been made, the real challenge begins. Many technical professionals feel like giving up when they get to this level. What does this level look like? Let me give you two examples – each focused on a different technology:

  • You understand how to install and configure a TCP/IP-based network. You can configure subnet masks, but you don’t really understand them. You can enable or disable ports, but you don’t really understand how those ports are utilized by the networked applications. You can configure a router, but you don’t really understand how routing tables are updated and maintained. You may be defined as a professional TCP/IP administrator, but you are short of the expert status.
  • You know how to implement a wireless access point or router so that users can gain access to the network. You can enable WPA-Enterprise by providing the needed RADIUS server properties, but you don’t really understand how the RADIUS server is used and the flow of the authentication process. You can install multiple access points so that users can roam from one to another, but when users complain that they are losing their connections with an FTP server when they roam, you don’t know how to solve the problem. You may be defined as a wireless professional, but the wireless networking expert status eludes you.

 

Do these examples give you a feel for the “all easy improvements have been made” plateau? At this point, with TCP/IP, you have to begin studying sub-netting at a very technical level. You’ll have to understand how the thirty-two bits that make up an IPv4 address are actually used. You’ll need to understand the three-way handshake used to establish a TCP connection. These are just a few nuggets you’ll need to master in order to become a TCP/IP expert. As you can see, they can seem quite daunting and many will give up.

Here are three tips to help you overcome this barrier:

  • Chunk the task. Break the topic into smaller chunks. For example, with wireless roaming, you may choose to simply discover the names of different roaming techniques on the first day. A few days later you can learn about one of these techniques and then another on a different day. As you read about the techniques, take notes about knowledge subsets you wish to explore further. Learn about those smaller knowledge domains on yet another day. Chunking can break the task down so that it doesn’t seem so daunting.
  • Define hard. Seriously. You can make a task easier by defining what you really mean. Sometimes we think that a task or knowledge domain is hard because it is big. Sometimes we think that a task or knowledge domain is hard because there are complex interdependencies. And there are other reasons too. Define what you really mean and then tackle that issue. For example, if you really mean that the task is big, you can use chunking.
  • Explain what you already know to someone who doesn’t know it. You will notice that their eyes gloss over. They stop you a short way in and tell you that they don’t understand. What good does this exercise do you? It shows that what you already know is “hard” for someone else. You learned what you do know – you can learn what you don’t know.

 

I’ll post some suggestions for overcoming the remaining two barriers later today.

Getting in Your 10,000 Hours

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers – The Story of Success, he reports on the research findings that show just how much time must be invested to reach true expertise. The magic number? Ten thousand hours. The question for beginning and even experienced IT professionals is this: How do I get 10,000 hours of experience in order to become an expert?

The answer to this question is multifaceted and too complex to completely answer in a blog, but I will suggest a couple of ideas that can get you started. First, many of the skills analyzed by researchers in order to come upon this 10,000 hour rule are kinesthetic skills. For example, playing the violin or participating in a sport. Since an IT professional must both understand concepts and practical applications of those concepts, we have an advantage. We can learn the concepts very rapidly and then gain the experience in practical application.

I suggest that a number closer to 7,500-8,000 hours may be more applicable to the technical professional; however, even if we insist that the full 10,000 hours be accumulated, they do not all have to be accumulated at work. Here are some tips to help you gain the 10,000 hours demanded for expertise in a shorter window of time:

  • If you are working in the area of your desired expertise, assume that you will accumulate about 1800 hours per year from your job alone. You may accumulate more, but you should be careful not to claim every hour that you’re at work (those meetings aren’t always helping you achieve your expertise).
  • If you read one book per month related to your expertise, give yourself another 100 hours per year for that.
  • Now, devote just 2 hours each week to hands-on work in your area of desired expertise. This gives you another 100 hours each year.

 

If you follow these guidelines, with some minor tweaks for every individual, you will gain the needed 10,000 hours in just five years. This is half the time that is usually required to become an expert. These five years of effort can provide you with many decades of success.

The Truth about Expertise

A friend recently told me that he was going to a training class on Cisco routers. A statement that he made caused me to pause. He echoed a common misconception when he said, "I’m going to go to this class to gain expertise in router configuration." Why is this a misconception? I’ll answer this question in today’s post.

An expert, according to the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, is defined as a person having a high level of knowledge or skill in a particular subject. Maybe this is why so many people are confused about what it takes to become an expert. Apparently there are two definitions. Here is what the Oxford American College Dictionary has to say:

A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.

Now that’s a different definition. Here’s where I think the problem lies:

When we want to become an expert, we define it as being very knowledgeable and skillful. When we want to consult with an expert, we add the authority qualification.

What’s the difference? Let’s analyze it. If you are in need of advice, consultation, or any other form of help where the stakes are high, you want an expert. Is the person you want simply someone who knows a lot about the topic? Probably not. You are seeking an authority in the area of need. Now, when we want to call ourselves experts, we seem to change the definition to be more like the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition. We accept knowledge alone as expertise.

I’ve said all that to say this: if you want to become a true authoritative expert, it takes time and effort. It doesn’t happen automatically after attending a class. You must practice, contemplate and study your area of expertise to become the authority. I would even suggest that you may need to either make discoveries or develop your own perspective on the topic.

What does the journey to authoritative expertise look like? The important thing to remember is what it doesn’t look like. It will not be a trend line on an ever upward curve. In fact, your knowledge and skills related to a specific domain will likely leap drastically during the first thirty days of study. After that, it will likely take a year or more to double again. In addition, there may be times of stagnation or even retrogression. In these times of retrogression, you often discover that you learned something wrong because – believe it or not – you trusted the experts (ironic isn’t it?).

Persistence is the most important thing. Never give up on your dream of establishing your expertise. And remember, you don’t always have to be the authoritative expert – sometimes it’s enough to just be the expert.

Information Technology – A Commodity?

A common topic among professorial types is the commodification of IT. And no, I don’t mean that these highly intelligent people think that IT should be flushed down the toilet. Instead, the discussions are an attempt to answer this question: Is IT a product or service that cannot be differentiated and is it therefore a commodity?

To understand commodities, think about corn. Corn is corn. Granted, you may prefer corn harvested earlier or later, but it is still corn. Is IT like corn? Is it like any other commodity? I would argue that, while Information Systems may be moving closer to commodification, Information Technology (the work of IT professionals) is not. Information Technology is about the implementation of technical solutions (Information Systems) in a strategic manner that benefits a specific organization in sometimes unique and sometimes generic ways.

Now, if IT is a commodity, there should be little difference between the implemented technical solutions from one company to another. Consider the analogy of corn again. If you have corn at one restaurant and then at another, is the corn exactly the same in both restaurants? The answer is a clear no. Here is the key: corn is a commodity, but the preparation of the corn is a skill and that is no commodity. The same is true for IT. IT professionals implement technologies that are often implemented in other organizations, but do all organizations implement the technology the same? Again, the answer is a clear no.

For these reasons, I would argue that Information Systems – the technologies we implement – may be moving toward commodification, but Information Technology – the way in which we implement the systems – is not. There are only so many ways to implement a railroad; there are billions of ways to implement a Windows Server or a Linux machine. Therein lies the difference.

Mistaken Assumptions

After reading Michael Brooks excellent book, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, recently, I found myself contemplating chapter 5 for some time. This chapter is simply titled, "Life." The closing remarks were quite striking and made me contemplate their implications for IT professionals. Here’s the most interesting quote for me:

So maybe life seems so strangely hard to make because we have no idea how it started; maybe Earth’s conditions did not generate life but merely provided a good home.

Indeed, scientists have no fact-based idea of how life began. In fact, many have admitted that it is impossible to determine how it began. Some even suggest that it should not be considered and that time would be better spent by investigating ways to improve the life that is rather than guessing at how that life came to be. Regardless of where we stand on that issue, it does raise some interesting questions about IT operations and I’d like to focus on just one:

What can we do to solve a user problem regardless of who created it?

Maybe you’ve noticed it too. People seem to have a strong need to assign blame. For example, an IT professional may say, "Well, it was the user who deleted the table. So it’s not our fault." That statement may be true, but does it solve the problem. I don’t think so. Why not implement a solution that prevents the user from deleting the table in the first place? Maybe we didn’t think of this need during the genesis of the database implementation, but the current events should reveal the need. When we play the blame game, we tend to fix something quickly without implementing a permanent solution.

This cited example of the database table deletion is most revealing. If you are using Microsoft SQL Server, for example, it will take about one minute to create a DDL trigger that will prevent any user with permissions from deleting a table. One extra minute now could save hours later (how long will it take to rebuild a table and restore the data?). The point is that, while user training is great, sometimes it doesn’t matter how the problem (is life a problem? I’m not sure…) started as much as it is important to permanently solve it.

Increase Efficiency by Reducing Actions

That’s right. It’s a shocker, but action does not equal desired results. Focused action equals desired results and that is the key. It is a great danger to assume that you are accomplishing something just because you are doing something.

Have you ever seen that person walking down the hall quickly? We often assume he is on a mission. He is focused and energetic. He must be so productive. That depends.

Many times, people who are in a hurry are only hurrying because they are late or are uncertain. If they are continually in a non-intentional hurry, there must be a problem with their time management or their decision making skills.

Why would a fast walk indicate that someone may be uncertain? Individuals will often choose to “try” something to see if it is the right decision and, because they are so uncertain, they will move quickly in order to get that option out of the way – just in case it fails. Uncertainty often breeds hurriedness. This fact shocks many people because the age-old assumption is that uncertainty causes inaction; however, it can also cause rapid action without proper forethought. The individual’s personality is often the deciding factor.

Additionally, poor time management leads to a hurried pace. Delaying important tasks until the last minute before a meeting usually results in a late arrival at the meeting. It is importnat to implement what I call the VIP system of time management. You can call it anything you want, but you need to determine your values and define you intentions. At the intersection of your values and intentions, you will find your priorities.

Values + Intentions = Priorities

Now, if you’re walking briskly for the health benefits, by all means, walk on; however, if you find you’re in a hurry due to uncertain choices or poor time management, maybe it’s time to make some changes. Sometimes doing less or doing the same thing slower will make you a more efficient worker. It will also lower stress, which helps you focus and reduces errors – once again, resulting in efficiency.

Slow down. It’s only life.

Who Needs Safari?

I can’t help but be curious about this Windows version of the Safari web browser. First, a disclaimer: I am not an Apple user; I use only Windows and Linux systems. With that said, I have many friends and business acquaintances who use Apple computers exclusively. I’ve heard the same thing from nearly all of them: Safari is a horrible browser on the Apple. Now, if the Apple users don’t like it, why would Windows users want to use it?

NOTE: Someone will undoubtedly cite the Zeldman post about text rendering in Safari versus FireFox; however, if one reads the large number of blog posts that reference Jefferey Zeldman’s post, he will quickly find that far more people like some other browser because Safari doesn’t work as well with many modern web technologies.

To me, FireFox is a great browser for the Windows and Apple platforms. Though I have not had any of the problems with Internet Explorer that many people have complained about. I actually use FireFox, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer. Using these three I can quickly test my web pages to make sure they work in all of the common browsers. I’m just not sure what Safari adds to the mix.

Safari gives you the ability to track and display your most visited sites in a nice tab, but this is already in Chrome in an almost identical implementation and it is in FireFox through a simple menu. Safari lets you click and drag to rearrange them, but that’s not worth changing browsers. Don’t get me wrong. I think the MAC OS is a great OS – particularly now that it runs on Unix, but why would a Windows user want an inferior Apple browser? We’ve had enough problems watching Internet Explorer grow up of the past 15 or so years. I’m just curious.