In-Depth

The Biggest Mistake Senior IT Administrators Make

How to avoid the "know-it-all" syndrome and keep finding new ways to develop your IT skills.

I've been in IT for over 20 years now. It's hard to imagine it's been that long. I feel like I've seen it all -- emergency downed servers, worm/virus breakouts, budgets so tight they squeak and organizations with way too few people for the workload.

I'm a seasoned veteran, so I know how to handle a lot of situations. But I don't know everything. I and others in my position sometimes think we're done learning. We reflect back on our days as teenagers when we thought we knew it all, but now, we really do know it all.

Right.

The Know-It-All Syndrome
It's easy to catch a case of the know-it-all syndrome when you're surrounded by people who have less experience than you. Maybe you've been in a single organization your entire career, have risen through the ranks and, by now, have no one more senior than yourself. You've made it! You've summitted the mountain, and there's nowhere else to go!

Not really. We live in a big world, and you're merely a big fish in a small pond. As soon as you make a beeline for the ocean, you'll learn really quickly there are thousands of hungry sharks out to eat you.

There are lots of ways we can overcome the know-it-all syndrome.

  1. Accept that oceans exist.
  2. Be humble.
  3. Be open to negative feedback.
  4. Understand that someone else will always know more.

Once we can accept each of these points, we can cure ourselves of this syndrome. I'm not saying it's easy or it's not going to hurt your ego, but you will grow in the process. No one likes being told they're wrong or there's a better way to do something, especially when it comes from a junior engineer -- but junior isn't stupid, and you can't possibly know everything. Human beings are only capable of holding and recalling so much knowledge in their brains at one time. If you're like me, you can't remember what you had for breakfast this morning, let alone how you did that server migration 10 years ago.

Listen to the junior guy who just moved that service to the cloud a couple of years ago. I guarantee you that young whippersnapper could run circles around you -- not because he "knows" more, but becuase his knowledge is more current. Just because I implemented Microsft Exchange 2007 back in 2008, doesn't make me capable of making educated calls on how my organization's Office 365 messaging service should go.

How do we overcome this false reality that we're knowledge gods? We treat learning as a project that has no end date. We enjoy the journey of learning new skills rather than treating it as something we achieve and we're done. Learning is like security or DevOps: It's a process that never ends, and the best at it get better every day. How dumb would it sound if a CIO said, "We've finished security at our organization" or "We've already got DevOps done"? It'd sound ridiculous!

Especially in IT, we have to keep up or begin dying slowly. Remember when the cloud wasn't a thing? I do! Remember when the CompTIA A+ certification exam had questions about IRQs, DMA channels and DIP switch? I do! When's the last time you had to try to hunt down a DIP switch on a motherboard to reset the CMOS? I bet you it's been a while. Just a few years ago, virtual machines (VMs) in the cloud were the new thing. Now we no longer do VMs in the cloud because containers are taking over and who needs the infrastructure at all? We've got serverless!

I'm sure the next iteration of computing services will be even more different. I'm still waiting for my direct mind-to-cloud connection where I can think of how happy my users will be, and the magical cloud makes it happen. We can all wish.

Technology never stops and neither should you; the sooner you realize this, the sooner you can compete with that new hotshot junior engineer.

Learning How You Learn
People learn differently. We all consume information, notice patterns and put two and two together wholly different. Some of us enjoy reading books, others prefer to Google their brains out to learn something, and others get a lot from online courses, screencasts and videos.

The first step is determining which way you learn best. When you read a book, do you feel like you retain the information better? When you watch a YouTube screencast and see the presenter as he's demonstrating something, do you prefer to pause, reflect and continue? Each medium is entirely different, and it's important to figure out which way you learn best.

Most people don't even consider how they learn. They just go along with whatever everyone else is doing. If their company provides training dollars, they will gladly take advantage of it by attending in-person training but end up learning it all by themselves (yours truly included). The key is to figure out what you enjoy the most. I personally can't read a book or watch an online course. I get too distracted and just want to do! This is how I eventually learned I need triggers to learn -- small tidbits of information that give me pointers on where to look so I can figure things out for myself.

Here are a few places I suggest depending on your personal learning style:

  1. Online Courses: LinkedIn Learning, Pluralsight and Udemy.
  2. In-Person Training: GlobalKnowledge
  3. Trial and Error: Lots of Google!

One method I can vouch for is short screencasts. As I've become more knowledgeable, I've found that I tend to cherry-pick knowledge. I can't sit in front of a trainer for a week or even manage to pay attention to a three-hour course. I Google a lot because nine times out of 10, I know what I'm looking for; I just don't know how to do it. I don't need to be told any background information or learn everything there is to know about Azure or IIS. I merely want to get more information on how to create an Azure VM with PowerShell or how to setup a scheduled task. I don't want to watch slides roll by or hear all about how a presenter knows a lot of stuff. Just get me to what I'm here to learn and let me go.

To help myself and others like me digest content, I created an e-learning platform called TechSnips, which eliminates PowerPoint entirely and focuses purely on technical screencast demonstrations. I've found that I get distracted way too much and bored when presenters give too much background information, long intros or summaries. This is why I created TechSnips. This service gives myself and others the ability to pick only what we're there to learn and get on with our day.

The longer you get in the tooth, the easier it is to catch a case of know-it-all syndrome. Realize the early signs by noticing an offhand comment to Junior or rolling your eyes at someone else's "uneducated" decision. Catch it early by setting aside time to learn however you learn best.

If you're against "training" and prefer more of the Google approach like I do, there are always services like TechSnips that can get you over the hump and on your way -- and just might teach you a thing or two.

About the Author

Adam Bertram is a 20-year veteran of IT. He's an automation engineer, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, Pluralsight course author and content marketing advisor to multiple technology companies. Adam also founded the popular TechSnips e-learning platform. He mainly focuses on DevOps, system management and automation technologies, as well as various cloud platforms mostly in the Microsoft space. He is a Microsoft Cloud and Datacenter Management MVP who absorbs knowledge from the IT field and explains it in an easy-to-understand fashion. Catch up on Adam's articles at adamtheautomator.com, connect on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter at @adbertram or the TechSnips Twitter account @techsnips_io.


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