Over the time I've been here there has occasionally been a list posted in the break-room. This list is the, "Incoming freshman today...." list of things they know, experience, or haven't experienced. It contains things like:
- Were born in 1990
- ...have never known life without cable or satellite TV.
- ...probably have never seen a rotary dial phone.
- ...have had internet access for most of their school life.
And other such things. Ostensibly this is to help foster an understanding of where incoming freshman are coming from, but generally they just cause faculty and staff to just feel a bit old. In tech circles this sparks conversations about the first computers we used.
Which got me thinking about a few things. One of the items that is frequently put forth about Kids These Days (tm) is that they don't KNOW anything, they just know how to FIND things. There is some debate about this, but it is a common sentiment. I believe that kids these days (KTD) have figured out keyword based searching, and the search engines have gotten good enough at mind-reading that arcane search incantations aren't needed nearly as often as they were in the past.
Before Google, there was AltaVista. This was an era of the internet where boolean search incantations were needed to really narrow down to what you wanted. I didn't switch to Google for a long time because Google didn't have the NEAR search term, which I used on AltaVista as a way to narrow results to be more relevant. I didn't know at the time that Google effectively threw that term in on every search.
Those of us who lived through that era of the internet built up searching skills. I remember some searches I did back then that were pretty complex. I can't remember the exact terms used, but they looked like this:
bootes AND (antaries OR proxima) AND (fulcrum NEAR pinnacle)
I had a logic class in college, so these sorts of parenthetical statements made sense to me. Still do, I just don't end up needing to uncork the boolean logic to find what I need anymore as the search engines have gotten good enough that I don't NEED to do it. I know google allows much of the above, but I haven't had to do it so I don't know the syntax for it.
So I posit that yes, KTD don't know anything, but neither are their search skills robust.
Which brings me to Novell. I got to thinking what a NetWare administrator in 1990 had to know to do their job, and how I could fit into such a hypothetical time.
Right now if I don't know the answer to a problem I have a few methods to figure it out.
- Hit the online Novell Knowledge Base over at novell.com/support
- Hit the peer-support forums over at forums.novell.com (or nntp://forums.novell.com/ if you prefer old-school)
- Pay for a support incident
- Ask around the office
In 1990 the options were similar, but a key player was missing:
- Hit the peer-support forums over on CompuServe, which required a modem and a CompuServe account.
- See if the problem is mentioned in the book-shelf of manuals, which was a big investment to own.
- Pay for a support incident.
- Ask around the office.
When I first started this Novell Administrator gig in 1997 most of the admins I knew had CompuServe accounts, even though the support forums had officially moved to NNTP. There was still plenty of traffic on the CS servers, though those died out fairly quickly. The office I started in had a subscription to a monthly publication from Novell of their support knowledge base, which I made extensive use of. Somewhere in there Novell made the archives web-searchable and I stopped using the CD's.
As I see it, a NetWare admin of 1990 was on average more knowledgeable about their product than the NetWare admin of 2008. Such administrators avoided the cost of paying for support incidents by having the manuals in hard-copy form, and plonking down real money for CompuServe accounts. If I have a weird problem I'll hit up the Novell KB to see if there is a TID on it, then check the support forums to see if it is mentioned there, before I'll expend an incident on the thing. In time I've managed to teach myself how NetWare works in some very basic ways, simply by troubleshooting oddball problems. This is why I typically end up talking to backline support when I call in, unless the problem is a known issue in the private KB. My skills are probably on par with what was normal 'back in the day'.
I think this holds true for a lot of the tech field. Back then there was a lot of stuff you just had to KNOW. Or failing that, have spent the money to get the backup resources in place (manuals, support contracts). These days a base understanding of how things work is the key to phrasing the right search queries in the online knowledge bases, and less rote memorization (training) can be effective in solving a greater list of problems.
Prosthetic memory! Prosthetic training! The tools of geeks everywhere.