Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

This is going to be an odd post, I think. I’ve become… disquieted. Not upset, not concerned, just a bit at odds with something, and I’m not even sure how to clearly express it.

It’s about paying attention to details.

Now, I’m extremely detail-focused. Clinically so. Possibly pathologically. But I feel I have to be; it’s easy enough to make mistakes (and I make plenty) if you’re not paying attention, and in my industry a single mistyped character can break things in pretty awful ways. So I think detail is important to what we do.

So I’m a bit amazed at the folks in my industry – presumably folks just as concerned with detail as myself – who have remarkably little grasp of detail. For example, I got an e-mail from someone the other day who was trying to find my “Learn PowerShell at Lunchtime” book. He’d read about it, but was having trouble tracking it down. That’s probably because the title is Learn PowerShell in a Month of Lunches. First, that little detail is important. Second, I can’t believe a technology person couldn’t have punched “powershell lunch” into Google and not come up with the right title. And this is hardly the only, or even worst, example I could come up with. I’m sure you’ve run across folks, possibly even colleagues, who are the same way: give them some piece of information, and within minutes they’ve gotten it messed up in their heads.

There are actually a couple of deeper reasons behind this. The big one is that we’re all so damn busy all the time! So our brains go into this deliberate “triage” mode, trying to filter out as much noise as possible and store just the “Cliff’s Notes” version of what was just jammed into the frontal lobes. That’s what turns “Month of Lunches” into some twisted alternative. It is critical that you recognize when your brain is doing this to you. It means you’re too busy, and not retaining important facts. That will come back to bite you.

Another reason is that not everyone processes facts in the same way. If you’re a visual person, and someone audibly says something, you might not pick up on it right away. Again, you need to know this about yourself so that you can immediately re-position the information in a way your brain will retain. Whether that’s taking notes, asking the person to write it down, or whatever – get the information into “your” format as fast as possible so that your brain will keep it.

I get the same thing when I’m discussing theme parks with some of my friends. I’ll say, “Disneyland in California,” just to be clear; not everyone immediately makes the distinction between that and Walt Disney World in Florida. Within moments, I have a couple of friends who’ll say, “wait, the one in Florida?” And it isn’t because they’re distracted and simply didn’t catch it – their brains just don’t seem to process audible information very rapidly, and latched onto “Disney” but not the state name when the information came in.

A lot of folks will say, “you know, this is a real nit-pick, Don. Relax. It’s a book title/theme park.” Yeah, I know. The book title thing doesn’t bug me, really. But it is inevitably a marker for folks who lose lots of little details, including important ones, throughout every day of their lives. When you’re too busy to quickly retain detail, or when you’re simply not the type of person who does so easily, then there are certain jobs you simply can’t do. You can’t be an air traffic controller, for example, because that job requires near-immediate and incredibly complete recall. I’d also suggest that you won’t make it very far in IT. Sure, you might be fine with next-next-finish, but if you’re not good at collecting and recalling details, tools like PowerShell are going to prove vexing to you.

One of the first things I’ll check, when I’m teaching PowerShell, is folks’ ability to retain visuals. For example, I’ll type a couple of commands like Get-ChildItem or Get-Service, and then point out that the command name consists of a verb like Get, a dash, and then a noun like Service. I’ll make it clear that while it might be verbally pronounced “get service,” there’s always a dash in between the two words. Moments later, I’ll have folks typing “Get Service” (without the dash), and I’ll spend some time figuring out what works better for those students than the on-screen visuals. Often, we can find something that helps them retain better; sometimes, guys will struggle for the entire week because those little syntactic details (which are, after all, inherently visual) won’t “stick.”

Details are important, and being a wizard in IT means being able to quickly process and retain those details.

So, some action items:

  • Pay attention to your own ability to recall details. If you’re proving not-so-good, work on it. Figure out tools to help you retain more immediately and more completely.
  • Pay attention to the same ability in those around you. Folks who can’t get the name of favorite TV shows right maybe should not be reprogramming routing tables in the infrastructure. At least not without a peer review of their work.
  • Understand that folks with better retention will always be better-suited for some jobs than folks with lesser retention. If you find that you do have good detail retention, start using it. It’s a big boost to a better job or a promotion, if you play your cards right.

3 thoughts on “DO YOU PAY ATTENTION?

  1. Don,
    Great topic as always and I know exactly what you mean. I am a much more visual than audible learner. Listening to phone numbers on a voice mail for example… i either need to repeat the number over and over in my head or write it down immediately. Even using both those techniques i invariably end up with some numeric dyslexia where i transcribe numbers in my brain.
    As a presenter I also do my best to learn from the questions in the group how people are best equipped to learn the material and modify my delivery on the fly. I also strive to present the material in as many forms as possible without it seaming that way. Having visual backup to what I am saying or drawing a practical “every-day” example in words to help explain a heavily technical topic.
    Thx for sharing as always :o)

  2. Reblogged this on scriptwarrior and commented:
    Great read from the venerable Don Jones – take a look 🙂

  3. Steve Robbins says:

    I share your pain! Accurate support documentation is the life blood of any IT department. I find that 9 times out of 10 the person putting a system in is too keen to move onto the next project to iron out all the issues and produce correct documentation. We have tried to automate the process as much as possible and even then we find that does not get followed as well!

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