This week I found my tech life colliding with my normal life in an unintended and somewhat enlightening way. I went to a store to pick up something that was out of stock and while I was there making small talk the person behind the counter asked me what I did for a living. I mentioned technology and he said that he was going to college for a degree in MIS, which just happens to be the thing I have my degree in. We chatted about that for a few more minutes before he asked me something I get asked all the time.
“What is the one thing I need to make sure I pay attention to in my courses?”
It’s simple enough, right? You’ve done this before and you have the benefit of hindsight. What is the one thing that is most important to know and not screw up? The possible answers floating through my head were all about programming or analytical methods or even the dreaded infrastructure class I slept through and then made a career out of. But what I said was the most boring and most critical answer one could give.
“You need to know the basics backwards and forwards.”
Why do we teach the basics? Why do we even call them that? And why are people so keen on skipping over all of them so fast to get to the cool stuff? You have to understand the basics before you even move on and yet so many want to get the “easy” stuff out of the way because memorizing the OSI model or learning how an array works in programming is mind-numbing.
The basics exist because we all need to know how things work at their most atomic level. We memorize the OSI model in networking because it tells us how things should behave. Sure, TCP/IP blows it away. However, if you know how packets are supposed to work with that model it informs you how you need to approach troubleshooting and software design and even data center layouts.
I’ll admit that I really didn’t pay much attention when I took my Infrastructure class twenty years ago. I was hell-bent on being a consultant or a database admin and who needed to know how a CPU register worked? What was this stupid OSI model they wanted me to know? I’ll just memorize it for the test and be done with it. Needless to say that the intervening years have shown me the folly of not paying attention in that class. If I went back today I’d ace that OSI test with my eyes closed.
The basics seem useless because we can’t do much with them right now. They’re just like Lego bricks. We need uniform pieces with predictable characteristics to help us understand how things are supposed to work together. Without that knowledge of how things work you can’t build on it. If you don’t understand the different between RAM and a hard disk you won’t be able to build systems that rely on both. Better yet, when technology changes to incorporate solid state disks and persistent memory storage you need the basics to understand how they are different and where you need to apply that knowledge.
I once picked up a Cisco Press CCIE study guide for the written exam to brush up on my knowledge before retaking the written. The knowledge in the book seemed easy to me. It was all about spanning tree configurations and OSPF area types and what BGP keepalives were. I felt like it was a remedial text that didn’t give me any new knowledge. That’s when I realized that they knowledge in the book wasn’t supposed to be new. It was supposed to be a reminder of what I already learned in my CCNA and CCNP courses. If anything in the text was truly new, was it something I should have already known?
It’s also part of the reason the CCIE is such a fun exam in the lab. You should already know the basics of how things like RIP and OSPF work. So let’s test those basics in new ways. Any of the training lab you can take from companies like INE or Micronics are filled with tricky little scenarios that make you take the basics and apply them outside the box. That’s because the instructors don’t need to spend time teaching you how RIP forms neighbor relationships or adjacencies. They want to see if you remember how that happens so you can apply it to a question designed to stretch your knowledge. You can only do that when you know the basics.
Basics aren’t just for learning at the beginning. You should also brush up on them when you’re at the top of your game. Why? Because it will answer questions you might not know you had or explain strange things that rely on the architecture we long-ago forgot about because it seemed basic.
A fun example was years ago in the online game City of Heroes. The players can earn in-game currency to buy and sell things. Eventually the game economy got to the point where players were at the maximum amount of currency for a player. What was that number? It was just over two billion. Pretty odd place to stop, right? What made them think that was a good stopping point? Random chance? Desire to keep the amount of currency in circulation low? Or was there a different reason?
That’s when I asked a simple question: How would you store the currency value in the game’s code? The answer for every programmer out there is an integer. And what’s the maximum value for an integer? For a 32-bit value it’s around four billion. But what if you use a signed integer for some reason? The maximum value is just over two billion in each direction. So the developers used a 32-bit signed integer and that’s why the currency value was capped where it was.
Over and over again in my career I find myself turning back to the basics to answer questions about things I need to understand or solve. We really want the solutions to be complex and hard to understand and solve because that shows our critical thinking skills being applied. However, if you start with the basics approach you’ll find that the solutions to problems or the root causes are often defined by something very basic that has far-reaching consequences. And if you forget how those basics work you’re going to spend a lot of time chasing your tail looking for a complex solution to a simple problem.
I don’t think my conversation partner was hoping for the answer I gave him. I’m sure he wanted me to say that this high level course was super important because it taught all the secrets you needed to know in order to succeed in life. Everyone wants to hear that the most important things are exciting and advanced. Finding out that the real key to everything is the basics you learn at the beginning of your journey is disappointing. However, for those that master the basics and remember them at every step of their journey, the end of the road is just as advanced and exciting as it was when you stepped on it in the first place. And you get there with a better understanding of how everything works.
I remember learning about the OSI model in University in the ’90’s, and it meaning nothing to me. It was just something extra to memorize for the exams. Then 15 years later I got a job at 3Com and suddenly, wow, I understood what it meant and how it applied to networking. Thank you Bob Metcalf and all those engineers that laid the groundwork for what we use today.