Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Great Disconnect


Maybe some of you know this, but my current day job is working at an IT support center at a University in the United States. In that capacity I encounter folks with all levels of knowledge regarding computer usage and maintenance. Some I would expect to have little knowledge, and yet there are others who I am shocked to find have almost no knowledge of basic operating system functions, be it on a PC or Mac.

It was sometime during the first few weeks of last semmester that I found myself in an undergraduate class that was to be an introduction to Unix and programming, namely C++. The professor, who we'll call Jim, had just completed his doctorate in advanced computer science. As I sat in the class I found myself surrounded by education majors, math majors, and maybe one or two full fledged computer science majors. I myself, am going for a M.S. in electronic media (television, radio, film) and was just taking the class for the fun of it. Stop laughing.

In this particular classroom, there was a system set up with a data projector so that the professor could display PowerPoint and other screens to the class. It quickly became clear that Dr. Jim, knowledge of programming aside, had absolutely NO clue as to basic operating system functions. Let me put that in laymans terms. He couldn't make Windows XP do simple tasks. More often than not, I would have to instruct him verbally from the back of the class (I liked to sit in the back near the power outlet since my laptop is a hog and drains the battery like a 3 year old with a juice box) as to how to do rudimentary tasks, which I found embarassing. I didn't like having to instruct the man who was supposed to be instructing me. One moment that stands out specifically was setting up the Putty client so that he could access the Unix server from the classroom. He had complained that the day before he couldn't get in because of the network connection. In reality, he did not have the correct settings. I literally had to walk him through it step by step, and suddenly, there was the Unix command line! Lest you think the tale ends there, fast forward a week or two to the computer lab.

We were getting our first exposure to the Unix command shell. It was completely different from DOS, that's for sure, yet I felt comfortable going through the system and exploring. When it came time to print out our homework, Dr. Jim had told us to use a certain command, only to have the grad assistant correct him and tell him that it couldn't be done that way. Often times I would go to the grad assitants and ask them how things worked in Unix and with a simple explanation I was on my way.

A few weeks later, we were all working on our first programming assignment. It was a small accounting program that would take your pay and deduct taxes and so forth. I suddenly found myself being a tutor as to how to get things done in Unix. This included instructing the computer science majors, who I thought would either be the last people that needed help, or those from whom I would be seeking assistance!

As if that weren't enough, we have a new hire here in the office. He's a great guy and an undergrad computer science major. Imagine my suprise when I learned that he did not know how to install printers or even burn a CD in XP!

I began to see that these types of situations are not that uncommon within the world of information technology. It's a scenario that is played out over and over. For those that didn't grow up with computers, you have an excuse. My hat's off to you for having learned so much in such a relatively short period of time. However, for those who call themselves IT personel, it's a different story.

Of course the world of IT is becoming much more specialized. Indeed go into your local bookstore and you'll find very thick books on IT security, Javascript, HTML, Pearl, C++, and the list goes on and on. But, does the growth of knowledge in specialized areas mean that general knowledge can be ignored? According to an article last year in InfoWorld
one of the main things you can do to increase job security in IT is to constantly diversify and add to your skill sets. They even go as far as to say "head-down coders beware". Specialization is no excuse for a lack of general knowledge. Liken it to a neuro-surgeon who has completely ignored or forgotten how the respiratory system functions in the human body. We wouldn't settle for this type of care from a doctor, and he/she would possibly lose their license to practice as well. How is it then, that this cuts the mustard when it comes to IT? Think you know all there is? If so, then there's yet another article you might find interesting. I guess the moral of the story is, don't stay with the familiar, and never stop learning.

The funny thing is, I don't consider myself an IT pro by any means. I know enough to be dangerous, and computer science isn't even what I've studied formally thus far. So I have to ask myself the question of why I'm flying solo in so many situations when it comes to computer know-how? Where have all the geeks gone?!

Oh, and as for that class I was taking, I decided to drop it. I figured I could do just as good of a job teaching myself as I could learning from a guy who didn't know the start button from a scroll bar.

1 comment:

BP said...

Hey bro! Like the new blog. Don't think I'll be jumping just yet, but I like what you've got here. Send me an email if you get some free time and let me know how things are going in your life. I hope you'll still drop by from time to time to read and comment on my Xanga. I've got your new blog bookmarked so I'll be visiting you. I also like the fact that you don't have to be a member to leave a comment. Hmmmm...maybe I will be jumping sooner!