Learning is not a bad thing, dont be afraid to know too much

I recently had a quick discussion with a fellow DBA about learning new technologies after their comment that he only did SQL Server work. The task in hand was simply to promote an Oracle script and I offered to show him what to do. Unfortunately the response was that he was a specialist not a generalist. I was further dismayed the other day after meeting with an ex work mate and his colleague at the SQL Bits event in London. The subject came up as to what exactly I did, good question and when I find out I’ll let you know :). Anyway my response was that I do the same job as my ex colleague (primarily SQL Server DBA) but have and can (and do) lots of other things such as development (primarily C#) and at one time in my life was even an Intranet Web-master for a large pharmaceutical. Now again I heard the same phrase repeated, “better to be a specialist than a generalist”.

Moving further into the discussion the conversation was moved by me commenting about how good Linux was becoming -particularly Debian based builds and that how disappointing Vista had been. I was a little disappointed at the response really. Basically in a nutshell my colleague’s friend said that Linux was rubbish because he hated the command line, likes GUIs, had a nightmare installing the release after Gutsy Gibbon (Hardy Heron) ON Hyper-V and that Microsoft was going to batter Linux in the years to come.

Lets just look into some of these statements :-

“hate the command line” – Command lines are great, in fact if you have a strong Microsoft background going back many years you should love the command line. Why you might ask? Well one reason is that it helps you to learn the full extent and power of the environment.

know you environment

When recently I said to someone how great the SQL Server Management Studio GUI was they replied, “you mean that nice looking GUI that wraps around the command line you use!”….Er yes actually they are mostly correct. In my day to day SQL Server activities I tend to quickly launch new Query tabs and very quickly type a command to perform some operation that through the GUI would take either longer to action OR will cause various additional operations on the SQL Server or Database that you was not expecting (these are well documented). Another recent example was me asking another SQL DBA to launch SSMS in another user context in Windows 2008. Unfortunately they didn’t know what to do because “the Run As option looks like it is removed in Windows 2008”. From the command line I ran my usually runas command and we were in business.

Secondly the beauty of the command line is that you can batch operations therefore allowing extensibility -which is surely the whole point of modern day computing, making the computer perform the repetitive operation?! Try extending the GUI natively and I think you will find that quite difficult to do without resorting to command line/ input commands.

“like GUIs” – GUIs are great, in fact GUI’s are excellent. They are however pointless on there own for a serious professional. GUIs are there to make you life easier but there will always be a point at which the GUIs ability to give you exactly what you want ends. There are times however when a GUI is not necessary all the time, and this was once understood at Novell during the earlier days of NetWare. The most obvious reason is that a GUI uses a lot of system resources, so why is it necessary on a server? To dismiss Linux for GUI reasons is not very easy to understand by someone who understands Linux, because X is the most customisable GUI interface there is and has numerous windows managers to choose from unlike Microsoft Windows.

Some are more resource intensive, some very lightweight, or you can go with none at all.

“nightmare installation” – yep we have all had these scenarios but it doesn’t happen just on Linux, in fact the same is true on Windows. Obviously a massive commercial operation that Microsoft is generates a much higher rate of vendor support and that is primarily the reason why Windows installations tend to be less painless. However most recently I have noticed the Apps team having all sorts of problems with their Windows 2008 installations due to driver support and so that demonstrates to me the problem is not unique to Linux. Secondly I would also suggest that on newer hardware the most recent builds of Linux (for me anyway) have installed seamlessly and the only problems issues I ever really have these days surround OpenGL configuration (or in other words games playing!). If you are not really interested in gaming then I would be very surprised if you are hitting any major problems with any of the major releases. The development release cycle of Linux is also much much faster and so if one distribution didn’t work the successor might. Failing that there are numerous distributions to try, You will find one that works seamlessly if you try. Most of the Linux installers are now all GUI driven and provide wizards and for me are much easier and quicker than Windows. Another bonus is that due to the partition structuring and file structuring of Linux you can very quickly destroy and overwrite your System leaving your home partition in place, install a clean copy, install any apps you require (very quickly from the package manager – unlike Windows) and map your old home partition back in place. All your configurations remain intact! Try doing the same with any version with Windows and getting your build back together will take you the best part of a day.

“Linux on Hyper-V” – oh come on, you cannot seriously suggest to me that just because you have had a nightmare installing Linux on Microsoft’s virtualization technology that there is a problem with Linux!! How about on VirtualBox, how about VMWare or on the other numerous virtualization environments?

“battering Linux for years to come” – the stats really don’t support this theory do they? Windows 7 really does look to be much better than Vista, but Microsoft has consistently lost OS market share over the last two years.

linux on the up

Every other OS has persistently gained in varying amounts. Although the losses and gains are small, they are very significant due to the power that Microsoft wields and the pre-installed nature of new hardware. My guess is there will continue to be further continued decline in market share over the years and I think this will only benefit Linux as people realise there is not just one OS in the market place.

Let us not forget that Linux is free!


But anyway I have digressed a little from my subject of specialisation against generalisation, but the point is that there is a big different between being a specialist in one thing as opposed to being a specialist in perhaps several skills with a generalist knowledge of others. For instance if you don’t understand RAID (subject:hardware design), how can you hope to understand or design and troubleshoot efficient SQL IO subsystems? I have lost count of the amount of times I have tried to educate fellow DBAs in RAID If you don’t understand Active Directory, how can you possibly hope to understand SQL Server security – for instance how does SQL Server authentication become more available than Active Directory?

So yes we all need to try a little harder to be more specialist, but if the cost of this is to ignore your broader general knowledge then I believe you haven’t quite grasped the whole point of Information Technology. To demonstrate I shall give you a final example. For years you have worked on a development language and you pretty much can do anything that you could ever need to. You ignore new languages one by one as they are designed and released since as far as you are concerned you do not require them. One day you watch in awe as someone puts together a GUI interface in minutes written in perhaps C# or Swing to display a record set. You suddenly realize that writing Assembly perhaps is not such a great idea any more.

By knowing a little about many systems we can learn a lot about a few.

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One Response to Learning is not a bad thing, dont be afraid to know too much

  1. B16Enk says:

    You know what Mark this article reminds me why you and I got on so well and became friends. I too work at a large city institution and am often perplexed with the attitude of the GUI babies!

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