High-speed IT learning

Have you ever had to learn something quickly because your company bought a product without talking to you about it?

One of the things I love most about being in IT is that we always have the opportunity to learn something new.  Ok, perhaps "opportunity" isn't the right word.  What I probably meant to say is voluntold.  You know the word voluntold don't you?  It's when you're told to volunteer for something.  And quite often we're voluntold to not pass up the current opportunity to learn something new... and usually on a very tight schedule.  I remember the first time I ever installed a production cluster.  I had heard of clustering but hadn't really read much on it or even known much more about it other than what it was.  I couldn't have told you the reasons for using it, or what you had to have to get it up and running, or even how to go about doing it (much less doing it right).  None of that deterred our shop though.  I was the DBA and they wanted a SQL cluster.  Oh and guess what... we've already received the hardware and we're going to have it ready for you to install SQL by next week. 

So here I am reading like a madman on clusters:  how to install them, how to support them, etc.  I actually had less than a week to get fully functional on SQL clusters.  And that's of course not even the 16th time I've had to do something like that.  My experience with replication was very similar.  I had a little more experience with replication, but I still didn't know much before I put together my first production scenario. 

While this rapid learning is very common in IT, there's some advice I can impart to you that should help you when you have to become an expert on something quickly.  First, know that you don't have to be an expert right away.  That's really kind of a common misconception.  Take the learning in stages.  If you have to install a SQL cluster then try to pick up as much as you can on installing SQL clusters.  Don't worry about maintenance or troubleshooting just yet.  Find some resources online to teach you what the basics are so you'll know more or less what it's all about and then try to find something with a step-by-step walkthrough of the install.  What you really want is something that'll hold your hand through this first one.  Then if you've got some time, try to find something that talks about some things that can go wrong with the install just to kind of prepare yourself for the kinds of things to watch out for.  And in the absence of any internet material you can always call the vendor.  Most of the time they love to show you how to install their product.  Here's the rub though... sometimes tech support at companies can be a little less than desirable and they might turn you down unless you open up a specific case or can provide your customer number.  What you have to do in that case is go through sales.  Tell them that you're either a new customer, or you've got a trial version you need to install to evaluate for your 500-server enterprise.  Sales always swings a big bat at any company.  Nothing will prevent them from making a sale and if that means twisting the arm of a tech support guy to make him walk you through an install then that's what they'll do.

Another good way to find out about a product starts at the vendor again.  While you're on the phone with the vendor, ask what the biggest challenges are in their field.  Ask them how they handle these challenges, and then ask them who their biggest competitors are.  Once you have their competitors you can ask them how they're better than they are.  Then go to their competitors and ask them the same questions.  It's amazing the things you'll learn about a product by asking the competitors. 

The thing you need to realize is how much companies love to talk about their products and their field of specialty.  They will educate you all you like as long as the sale is looming.  And be as dumb as you like.  If you don't understand something, ask.  They'll answer you without judging you because again, they want the sale.  So ask as many questions as you like.  Hell, most of the time they'll even sit with you on the phone or on a web conference while you do the install or whatever it is you need.

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