by Esther Schindler

Cargo Cult Network Administration

Dec 08, 2006 3 mins
IT Leadership

Job skills evolve through several stages. While each of us can point to “experienced” individuals who seem to have the same year of experience, 20 times over, most people grow from frantic documentation-searchers to technical competence to conceptual understanding. For a manager, however, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

Two important stages in any techie’s development are what one acquaintance calls the “cookbook” stage (a fairly junior level) and the “comprehension stage.”

Someone at the cookbook stage has a list of recipes for each exact situation. Unfortunately, people in this level rarely understand what they are really doing. If the recipe doesn’t exactly apply to the task at hand, they may not know what to do, or may not know how to adapt their procedure. The smart ones, I think, are usually surrounded by books and MAN pages, so that they can learn the answer for next time. At a minimum, that helps them add to their recipe collection.

There’s nothing wrong with someone being a junior worker; we all have to start somewhere. But the dangerous stage of career development is the the cargo-cult sysadmins, who don’t know why what they’re doing works (or doesn’t work). But, because the magic worked in the past, they continue to repeat the same actions, under the presumption that it will continue to work. That’s one reason I’ve had so many IT Support people solve a configuration problem by re-installing the OS. With a limited number of hammers in their repertoire, these administrators can bang on an equally limited number of nails.

When a techie makes the transition to expert-for-real, one could say they’ve reached the comprehension stage. The individual may not know the command required, but he or she understands how the OS works well enough to figure out a way to accomplish what’s necessary, even if it involves reading documentation.

The more interesting question is one that every manager has to cope with: how do you—or how does another sysadmin—determine criteria for judging a techie’s work? Unless you came up through the same technical ranks (and thus you’re familiar enough with the language or network configuration to spot a “miracle happens here” arm-wave when you see one), you need some way to determine if this individual is really growing into the job, or is merely memorizing a lot of cookbook recipes. Or, worse, not memorizing them. (I think this is one reason a lot of techies get the bright idea that writing a book is a good career move; the external acknowledgment is evidence of expertise for the less-technical boss.)

If you’re a manager, what clues do you use to determine how your people are evolving in their careers? If you’re a techie, what criteria do you wish your bosses would use to train the cookbook people, and to weed out the cargo cult?