On Windows Blogging and Technical Competence

Yup, we had a brain fart this weekend, and the readers called me on it.

Today I learned a very valuable lesson. No good deed goes unpunished.

Well, maybe not exactly that lesson. That lesson pretty much gets taught to me on a weekly basis. You work in technology delivery long enough and basically you'll start to think that a career as a S&M whipping boy starts to sound a lot more attractive then providing solutions for demanding customers.

The lesson I learned today was that as a writer in the tech industry, there are people out there that will do anything to try to prove how incompetent you are. Since writing for various publications since 1995, this has happened over and over again. You take your beating, you brush yourself off, swallow your pride, and move onto the next article.

Anyone who writes for this industry on a long-term basis sees the same sort of things happen. They get challenged. The issues we write about are complex, and we don't always get it right every time. Or at least, the definition of "right" is so frequently variable that even though you may have come up with a potential or completely valid solution to a problem, it might not have been the most ideal or expedient solution.

Typically, when I make a legitimate mistake in an article, I do my best to correct it and point out that the information I provided was misleading, or incorrect, and I make the correction.

In this case, mea culpa, I had an actual knowledge gap. Brain fart. I'm getting old and this year, I found out that at the age of 40, I've been living with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) all of my life. This didn't exactly come as a shock to the system when I received the diagnosis, but now at least I know why my brain works very much differently than everyone else's.

I tend to think sequentially, not in parallel, and if you know anything about ADD, people who have it tend to hyperfocus. Hyperfocus can sometimes be a gift, and has helped me provide insight into complex subjects when I perform various thought exercises, but this hyperfocus also affects the way people like myself problem solve -- you sometimes ignore or forget other avenues of possible problem resolution.

Let's get back to knowledge gaps. I forgot about something that potentially could have saved me a an awful lot of time last weekend -- that Windows 7 (and Windows XP) has a System Restore feature that uses point-in-time snapshots of your system configuration that theoretically, would have fixed my Mother-in-Law's various Windows problems in less than a half an hour.

I've heard of but I've never actually used Windows' built-in System Restore, as I'm more accustomed to enterprise grade system imaging and bare-metal restore solutions like Acronis or Ghost Enterprise. So I can't attest that the solution would have worked, but sure, probably, it could have saved me some time.

I say "Probably" because I have no idea if System Restore would have fixed a severely messed up machine and Windows 7 has known issues with losing restore points.

This may be a bias and a sign of my age, but I come from the "Old School" and use the proven enterprise methodology of PC support -- if the box is really messed up, then back up the application and user data, format the hard drive, and re-image and re-install the apps and the user settings.

In the company I work for, that's actually standard operating procedure if you mess up your laptop. This is also known as the "Nuke it from orbit, it's the only way to be sure" approach.

PC technology has evolved tremendously since I began my history with computing in the early 1980s. Professionally, I entered the industry in 1986, when I was in my last year of high school and doing part-time work for PC stores, resellers and systems integrators.

Back then, we had DOS and LANs were based on LAN Manager, Novell or Banyan-Vines. Windows didn't become a household word until 1990 or so, when Windows 3.0 came on the scene. The earlier Windows 386 and 2.0 were absolutely unreliable pieces of crap, and most popular apps up until that point were still DOS-based.

It was possible back then as someone who worked in IT and with PC's to know just about everything about them, but even in "simpler" times it was still a challenge.

Today, things have become much more specialized and diverse when it comes to supporting PC operating systems and PC/Minicomputer hardware. We now have folks that are specifically PC support experts, other folks that are Windows server-oriented, and folks that work with mid-range systems like Solaris, AIX, HP-UX and of course, Linux. And no, I won't forget the mainframe.

Over the course of my career I've been just about every single one of those kinds of people. In the early 1990s, when I was working in New York City's financial district and in the World Trade Center, I was doing trading floor Windows support using OS/2 (with Windows 3.1 VDMs) and Sun workstations.

Circa 1993, I put in some of the first MIPS R4000 and DEC Alpha based NT 3.1 workstations and servers on Wall Street. Yes, Windows once ran on those weird architectures. Aside from Itanium, which is also becoming something of an endangered species, it doesn't anymore.

At one point, I was actually a Microsoft Certified Professional, and I contributed to books on Windows NT 4.0 and wrote numerous technical articles about Windows 2000. Around this time, when the market became saturated with Windows desktop support people, I started looking at other stuff, such as Linux and Open Source, which was emerging as an important technology in the mid to late 90's.

So you could say that my "Deep Understanding" of Windows as a desktop operating system ended in 1999. Yes, I've followed up with computer-based training, I've read books, kept up with articles, worked with beta versions of desktop Windows for the last 10 to 12 years and kept my home lab up-to-date, but let's face it, there is a LOT to know now about Microsoft products, because if you compare the size of the Microsoft ecosystem as it is today to what it looked like 15 years ago in terms of the complexity and the scope of its products, it is immense.

As my career evolved, I also moved towards the server and enterprise side of things --- which is really a completely different animal than dealing with the minutiae of desktop OSes.

On the server side, you're more concerned with authentication and directory services, infrastructure services, databases, application servers, storage, disaster recovery and high availability, and more recently, virtualization and Cloud.

To say that I have a Windows Server bias over consumer versions of Windows is an understatement. I use and do solution design with enterprise-grade technology. It's what I'm comfortable with and what I know well.

However, do I know my way around the registry? Yes. Do I understand the fundamentals of Windows NT OS architecture at the component level? Yes.

Can I design or consolidate an heterogeneous enterprise Windows/Linux/UNIX infrastructure for a multi-billion dollar company using leading edge multi-vendor Virtualization and Cloud technology? Hell yes.

Ask me to evaluate competing host-based hypervisor technology and benchmark virtualized Windows 3D driver performance? Yeah, I'm your guy.

Ask me to go fix my Mother-In-Law's Windows 7 PC? Well, yeah, I can do it, but I'm probably not going to do as good a job as someone like Ed Bott or Adrian Kingsley-Hughes who live and breathe Windows desktop and PC technology on a daily basis.

I'm not even going to pretend I even understand or are even aware of every nuance of Windows or PC hardware that both of these heavy-duty SME's know about.

Trust me, if I could find someone to take care of my relatives' computers so I never have to blow a sunny and gorgeous Saturday morning in May ever again, I would.

However, if any of you actually has a (insert ethnicity here) 70-year-old Mother-in-Law, and if you have to take care of her computer, I absolutely dare you to tell her that you refuse to fix their machine because they keep breaking it, or to tell them to go drag it to Geek Squad and let them figure it out for $150 per incident call. Let's see how far you get. Really.

Does this mean I'm incompetent when it comes to fixing or at least understanding PCs and PC operating systems? That I shouldn't even be allowed to blog my opinions on the subject? You can certainly imply it, but I'm going to laugh in your face.

Now, as to the System Restore, thanks. I'll try it next time. Maybe.


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