Systems Administration: Synonymous with Autodidactism?

Autodidactism is a word that you (or at least I) don’t hear often. Ironically, do I hear people talk about it a lot, however. To put it simply, an autodidact learns on their own, rather than take coursework or study under a professor. I feel that the simple definition leaves something to be desired.

Learning is, for everyone, a process. A transition from emptiness to rough ideas, and from rough ideas, details emerge. In description, it is a lot like painting. The canvas of our minds are drawn upon, and then filled in to complete a picture of an idea.

Scholarship under a professor, or attending classes on a subject is sort of like paint-by-numbers. The picture is laid out for you, and your goal is to fill in the blanks with the information they present to you. If you are first learning to paint, this isn’t undesirable. The structure of the pre-drawn painting guides you and gives you repetition that solidifies good habits. Do it for long enough, and it also constrains you.

Being an autodidact means using a blank canvas, and discovering the picture on your own. You draw the outline, then fill in the open spaces using your own research. How excellent the picture turns out is a direct reflection on your efforts, not the given coursework.

If you are to learn a subject thoroughly, great effort must be made. With the paint-by-numbers course, it’s easy to see when you haven’t filled in an area, but if you’re painting on the fly, it can be much harder to tell that you are missing something.

It seems that no man (or woman) is an island. Until you reach very far in your career as an autodidact, you will be learning from the previous work of someone, whether the the author of a book or an artist on display in a museum. There is no shame in this, though, just as there is no shame in a formal education. Learning is the goal AND the process, so how it is best accomplished depends upon the person.

I am curious what methods you use to research new topics. As for me, I hear of something that interests me, and immediately do internet searches (or write down the subject if I am away from a computer), and go through the various internet sites (invariably wikipedia is included, despite the ill reputation it has among those who only prefer to read about so-called “facts”). I look for e-books, go to the library, and maybe stop by a bookstore or three. Sadly, that is where my progress typically ends. I don’t have enough time to research, learn, and acquire every subject that interests me, so I bounce around a lot to various topics. My trip to the Mediterranean was actually the logical continuation of a large segment of my life’s learning. I’ve been interested in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman history since I was in elementary school. Going there and being at the sites, experiencing things I’ve only seen in pictures before, was absolutely the next level of learning, and it renewed my interest in the subject ten-fold.

I am interested in learning more about how you learn, also. Please, share your methods. If you’ve never thought about your methods of learning before, take this time to do it. Others will read and gain from your experience, as will you from theirs. Improve yourself by sharing what you know.

I should also state that I started thinking about this post a week or so ago, when I read this blog entry, which absolutely fascinated me. Check it out when you get a chance.

  • Don

    The post you linked to is very interesting, as are your thoughts on the subject. I’ve got comments about both, so I’ll keep them separate.
    I’ve never really thought so much about the fact that a ton of what I’ve set about doing is technically “self-taught”, its nice to have something to label that concept.

    My current methods are very similar to yours. I guess since administration is by its very nature fairly non-specialized, we tend to keep a certain mental elasticity in everything we do. I certainly don’t rule out classes though, but rarely have the time to seek something like that out.

    As to the article you link to, and the concept of autodidactism in general, I think its a bit of a conceit. I think its better to consider it as more self-directed. After all, the books or articles we read

  • Don

    Well, a network hiccup ate the rest of my comment. Anyhow, the upshot was that the books, articles, or other resources we used were created by other people in order to pass on the knowledge that they’ve accrued. We don’t have to do the legwork of deriving everything from first principles every time we set out to learn something.
    Finally, one of the most valuable methods of learning that we tend to overlook are our various communal methods like mailing lists and forums. I don’t know about you, but there are definitely times I’ve been taught on forums as well as times I’ve taught others.

  • Matt


    Absolutely I have learned from forums and blogs. Heck, I’ve learned from *this* blog, and I’m the “author”.

    Collaborator might be more appropriate, since I end up asking for input as much as I offer knowledge. And that’s one of the reasons I brought this up. I really, firmly believe that the sum is greater than the parts. By communicating, opening up our operations, and really examining what other people do, and how they do it, and why, we can learn. A and B together are smarter than A and B separated.

    Thanks for the comment, I’m really glad to get feedback on this.

  • techwrench

    I agree, as we work in a field that doesn’t allow us time to concentrate on a single task for very long, I tend to use forums, books (some of which I have been working on for months at a time), podcasts, blogs. I have learned an amazing amount just from communication with my peers.

    I like to work with a piece of software, and see what it does in a test environment before I throw it to the wolves, I mean network.

    Classes, seminars and lectures are few and far between, at least for me.

  • Matt


    You bring up a good point. Maybe the tail is wagging the dog. Could it be that rather than naturally attracting people with those traits, IT Admins use autodidactism as a survival technique?

    Thanks for the comment!

  • shokk

    I went to college for Electrical Engineering and had a few required Comp Sci courses, but most of what I learned in programming came from picking up my dad’s copy of Kernigan and Ritchie’s C at 12 years old.

    After college, I was working on setting up some VLSI software that required Linux. I got pretty wrapped up in reading HOWTO docs and loved it. With the recession in 1992, I trained myself to be a sysadmin and the rest is history.

    Lots of OReilly books, forums, and PDFs have shaped me. There is a lot of material out there for those that know where to look for it. For those so inclined, hosts PDF versions of many books.