Asking the Right Questions

I’ve found that learning technology is a bit like studying for an exam (though in the case of computing, an exam in your favourite subject) and like in an exam situation, while there’s some value in reading the book, there’s always more to be gained by attempting a few past exam questions.What I mean is, experience can be gained by dealing with issues and situations that require you to delve deep into the workings of a system. The real trick is in finding examples of those types of situations.

Thankfully, there are several places where you can find tough questions that need answering. The most obvious perhaps, is literally exam preparation materials. Lots of technologies have associated vendor certifications and studying for them, or just attempting at the sample questions, can provide significantly challenging ways to get to grips with a new system. The more advanced exams, like those associated with Red Hat Linux or Cisco networking, are situational in nature, presenting the student with a system in a given state and then challenging them to fix it or prove that there’s nothing wrong, or somehow alter it to meet a certain criteria. This type of exam really pushes the student and so the preparation materials are very much geared towards the real world. The exam prep approach has the added bonus of actually helping you prepare for an exam that, if passed, can look great on a CV.

In recent years there has been a spate of books that provide overviews of the types of scrapes technology professionals regularly find themselves in. The books, mostly geared towards computer security, offer an example of a problem, the details of the system, copies of log files and other supporting materials, and then challenge the reader to determine the best course of action. These books, thankfully, also come with the answers so it is possible to recreate common situations in test environments and verify the results.

A great source of awkward questions is the wild and varied world of the online forum. Like certification exams any technology worth its salt has a forum associated with it (either officially supported by the vendor or not). While most people tend to look at these forums as a place to ask for help, or a place to find out how someone in the past dealt with a situation they now find themselves in, forums are actually a great place to find inspiration when it comes to really getting into the inner workings of something. Most serious forums require that requests for help are as detailed as possible so you can use those requests to configure test environments to recreate, and maybe even fix, the problem another poor soul is trying to deal with. Again, similar to the exams, forums come with an added bonus in that a lot of them recognise efforts to help people and, in the case of Oracle and Microsoft (and I’m sure several others) those efforts can be recognised by the vendor in ways that can seriously help your career, like being invited to participate in programs like the Microsoft MVP and Oracle ACE. (You can read my first post to the Oracle forums, which I used recently to help round out my RMAN knowledge, here:

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