Consultant disease: not knowing what you don't know..

Consultant disease: not knowing what you don't know..

Summary: In the legal system, reverence for formal qualification, no matter how dated, over experience produces some astonishingly bad decisions - decisions that roll back the conceptual clock but which we have to live with anyway.


Chris handles DNS issues, but she wasn't here and because it had to be on Solaris 10 I said words I shouldn't have. Many hours later I was indeed covered with something, but definitely not glory - in fact, the only thing that saved my butt on in.named and its nefarious colleagues was a FOSS script - the h2n thing by HP's Andris Kalnozols.

In denouement I was painfully reminded of one of my other attempts at being Mr. Helpful - one in which I met the client's EMC for the first time, didn't know it was shared three ways.. and, well, thank God they had good backups.

But, all retrospective humor aside, there's a deeper lesson here: I know all about setting up Solaris Bind/DNS - on 2.5.1 from more than ten years ago. Guess what? yeah; and what neither you nor I know is just how much similar certitudes discolor other judgements about how easy, hard, or even feasible a lot of other things we're supposed to know about really are.

Given that I rant about this all the time - and got caught by it anyway: how do you think the more ego driven amongst the pointy-heads make out? And bear in mind, please, that I got caught by volunteering to do - a mistake most of the people whose experience twenty years ago still qualifies them as experts aren't naive enough to make.

And that signals a real problem: the overwhelming majority of high end IT consultants and project managers carry 20+ page resumes - now it's true that relationship knowledge is forever, but equally true that most of what the expert knew even a few years ago is likely to be seriously out of date: better treated as a guide to where he's going to go wrong than anything else.

Since people adapt, and most experts aren't foolish enough to actually touch a keyboard, the typical corporate consulting scenario combines relationship management among the seniors with the technical skills of a few juniors - and this costs lots of money and must surely lead to some howlingly bad decisions, but on net allows the industry to bump along more or less cheerfully.

There is one arena, however, where reverence for long irrelavant and correspondingly incorrect knowledge constitutes a real threat to progress and that's the legal system.

When a lawyer wants an expert witness, the qualification process focuses on formal certification - and a ph'd granted thirty years ago followed by ten years of teaching and twenty years as an peripathetic expert easily outranks the BSc who actually wrote the code or developed the policies the court's trying to assess.

And the bottom line on that is simple: court decisions often flout age over change - and make absolutely no sense at all.

Topics: EMC, Hardware, Hewlett-Packard, Networking, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

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  • Regarding the technical rather than legal aspect...

    I've found myself in the same place from time to time, but really, what's the alternative? As consultants we are getting paid (generally) for our depth of experience and broad range of knowledge and while you can look at it as "volunteering" from one perspective it is also "getting business" from another--how do you get engagements if you can't make some confident statements about your competence and capabilities?

    As you say, it's hard to know when those are relevant or not, so what do you do to avoid getting into those situations, even when aware of the potential for problems?
    • My approach is to check and recheck

      i think I know - therefore I look it up.

      This works, except when I don't know that I don't know.. i.e. when you hit one of those certainties you never question because, well, you know, they're right, right?

      Except, of course, when they're not. :)
      • Exactly (n/t)

  • Warning: hypocrisy on the horizon

    I assume that Anton is busy just now so I'll fill in for him -

    You're OK so far but don't push this one too hard or you risk providing an element of justification to those who prefer to stick with tried and trusted kit, the old ways, etc.

    People who go for Windows because there is bound to be someone who knows how to fix it
    The DP and accountancy traditionalists
    Those who know who to recommend to avoid being fired...
  • It's called learning

    or in your case retraining ;-)

    If I don't know something I look it up - one of the advantages of not dealing with a minority OS. With Windows, someone, somewhere has had the same problem or needed to set up the same thing and their suggestions and feedback will be on the Net.

    One thing all of your conservative rants follow is the belief that you have the answer and that answer will stay the same forever. In the real world you do need to adapt (and touch a keyboard) and keep up with new developments (and I don't mean the latest Sun press release).

    Any consultant has a responsibility to accept that ongoing training is a part of their job - otherwise they end up as museum attendants with lots of knowledge -about the dim past.
    • I think you missed the question

      And if you think Paul is just being conservative, then what is up with the latest post (not this one)?

      As an aside, I find solutions for Linux issues to be better documented on the Net than Windows ones, presumably because the people who tend to use it are more technically competent on the whole and have a culture of shared problem-solving. When I research Windows issues, I tend to find a lot of people with the same issue, but few solutions to it.

      But anyway; the question isn't about whether you should go look something up if you don't know it, the question is what do you do about "knowing" something that simply is no longer correct? I don't know about you, but I could spend all day every day going back and verifying everything I have learned in this field and never doing any real work... and probably still manage to miss something that I "know" but has changed.

      I think that specialists can probably keep up by training and re-training as you describe, but it's no answer for the rest of us. And I would genuinely like to find one--I get paid for having a broad perspective and coming up with answers, and what I can't say when something comes up is "I think I know but I have to go have a training session before I really know."