I was having a chat with Kasia a little while ago and we got on the topic of knowledge. I had mentioned that the MySQL folks have asked me to take the MySQL Core Certification Exam, which I think is a good idea. They'd like some feedback on the exam and I'd like to be able to tell people that it's a worthwhile certification, etc.

Along the way I said something like "I don't know how much they expect me to study, but there's a whole lot of stuff that I just don't know without the on-line manual nearby." Call me selfish, but that was one of my motivations for becoming a MySQL mirror (mysql.zawodny.com). I wanted to ensure that I'd always have fast access to the documentation.

Anyway, the conversation went roughly like this:

k: That's true of most everything I know..
k: I'd be lost w/o books and manuals
j: Yup, me too
k: I'm good at looking things up
k: I've always felt sort of guilty about that..
k: People think I'm bright.. nah
k: I'm just efficient with google
j: Heh, right... I think lots of people are like that.
k: Do you ever get that feeling?
k: "If people only knew how little I really know..."
j: All the time.
k: Oh, good. Not just me then.
j: Not at all.
k: That makes me feel better.
j: It's most noticeable when I'm talking with VPs at work and they're like, "but we have you so it's no big deal..."
j: But that's probably just good delegation on their parts too... "That's your problem, not mine..." :-)

And then I had this "ah ha!" moment.

In thinking about the difference between "knowing something" and "knowing how to find something" I realized that I'd heard this all before in a different context.

Back in the late 90s when I was occasionally building things that passed for knowledge management tools at Marathon Oil, there was all this talk about knowledge workers. These were people who'd have vast quantities of information knowledge at their fingertips. All they needed was a way to organize, classify, index, search, and collaborate with it.

I think we've made it. I've become quite efficient at finding information when I need it. But the information isn't organized like I had envisioned a few years ago. It's just this big ugly mess known as the The Web. Lots of pockets of information from mailing lists, weblogs, software projects, communities, and company web sites are loosely tied together by hyperlinks. There's no grand schema or centralized database. There's little structure or quality control. No global vocabulary.

But even with all that going against it, it's all indexed and easily searchable thanks largely to Google and the companies that preceded it (Altavista, Yahoo, etc.). Most of the time it actually works.


Really. Think about it from the point of view of 6 years ago.

Now that I think about it, there was also a lot of talk about corporate intelligence back then too. But one thing I learned in my time at Yahoo Finance was that a lot of people who work for very respectable multi-million dollar companies used Yahoo Finance (and various other common web sites) for corporate intelligence--not some fancy tool that was designed and marketed for corporate intelligence.

We're all just very efficient at scavenging on the Web. Some are simply more efficient (or can think of better keywords) than others.

So, anyway... I just figured all this out. I guess I'm a little late to the party on this one. But I can't help but to look back and laugh at all the stuff that never materialized.

Posted by jzawodn at June 01, 2003 08:53 PM

Reader Comments
# kasia said:

Sure.. now my boss will read this and think "why do we pay her $$$$ a year again?" :)

on June 1, 2003 09:28 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Damn. You get $4/year, huh?

I need a raise.

on June 1, 2003 09:31 PM
# pete said:

At my old job I basically used Google (and this was before Google was really used by, well, almost everyone) to find out what anyone needed to know. No one else seemed to know how to find anything.

Today, I too, am one of those people who doesn't know everything, but knows how to find the answers to a whole lot of problems...

I think some people can do it, and some just can't. I like to think that I learned how to learn.

on June 2, 2003 12:07 AM
# tfr said:

I've been thinking for a while, that once Who Wants To Be A Millionaire gets old, they should make a next tv-quiz show, where Regis asks you a question, and then you have 30 seconds with Google on that display thingie in front of you. The questions, can ofcourse be, harder than currently. And the time you have with Google can shorten when the bids go up. Wonder if Google would be up to sponsor something like that. :)

on June 2, 2003 12:33 AM
# Rob Rix said:

It's pretty much the difference between having a fish and knowing how to catch your own. Or as Terry Pratchett wrote, "give a man a fire and he'll be warm for a night, set fire to him and he'll be warm for the rest of his life."

For me, I'm a good coder, but that's only part of what goes into my code, both web development and desktop stuff. I also know how to research. I guess I fit into both the R and D slots.

on June 2, 2003 02:10 AM
# Byron said:

You won't believe how ofen I've had this exact conversation with other hackers. Your conversation with kasia almost mirrors my experiences exactly.

Have you ever noticed though, that those who have had a few years using the web and various search engines, are generally able to find more things a lot faster and more accurately than those who are new to the whole thing.

Another thing that strikes me with regard to troubleshooting is the number of people who don't user google groups to gather information. More often than not when I run into a problem with a piece of software, setting it up or using it, google is my first port of call. Before even user documentation.

Hmm, maybe it's just me being a lazy sap ...

on June 2, 2003 02:51 AM
# Jason said:

Ack, my secrets out!

/me runs and hides

on June 2, 2003 05:23 AM
# Christian said:

Looks like Jeremey and User Friendly are in sync with each other


on June 2, 2003 06:00 AM
# brandt said:

we used to have this discussion in the English lit community as well. part of being a good English person was being able to locate works or criticisms of those works. however, when someone outside the community challenged one of my profs on not knowing some exact line of Shakespeare my prof retorted "isn't that what books are for?"

it's always been about knowing how to find it--not what's in your head.

on June 2, 2003 08:40 AM
# Tim Conrad said:

But, at the same time, it's amazing who won't admit to doing this. I think it really breaks down to being able to figure out a process, and know WHAT to search for, not just to do it in the first place. But, anyways, I've interviewed a number of people for unix positions, it's VERY rare that someone will say 'well. i don't know how to do that. i'd go search google or something on it' in troubleshooting questions. Then again, it's also amazing how many won't admit to 'experience' even on their home experiments. Heck, my only real MySQL experience is with stuff I've done on my own, but over the course of 3 or 4 years, that ends up being a reasonable amount of knowledge.

I just wish that schools would teach people how to properly do searches on the internet to find information quickly and effectivly. Instead, they focus time on, "Let's build a freakin' webpage, because the world NEEDS another geocities webpage!"

on June 2, 2003 11:02 AM
# Kasia's Boss said:

Hey, she gets $4 a year? When did that happen, I thought she was still getting on ly $2.50.

on June 2, 2003 11:43 AM
# Jeff said:

I like to think that I'm pretty good at looking stuff up on the web. Recently I ran into a problem that took me forever to find the answer to.

Which lead of an Light Emitting Diode is the positive? long or short?

I couldn't beleive how many searches it took me to find an answer. Try it yourself, I'm curious if it's hard to find or if I'm just an idiot.

on June 2, 2003 02:36 PM
# Le Petite Buisson said:

Jeremy's conversation is exactly what i encounter. But come to think of it, isn't just called "brainstorming".

As for using Google or the MySQL docs - well, I doubt it if you average marketing person would actually KNOW how to a search on "INNER JOIN" or "safe mysqld"

The fact that you are searching on these terms, shows that you have clue about your job.

On a corrollary basis, there's probably loads of marketing buzz terms we tech heads dont know about, which marketing droids regularly google on.

on June 2, 2003 02:36 PM
# Joe Grossberg said:

"The fact that you are searching on these terms, shows that you have clue about your job."


Chemists can consult the periodic table. Psychologists have their DSM-IV. Surgeons have Grey's Anatomy. Why should programmers be expected to memorize obscure commands and syntaxes (e.g. Linux's "uname -a")?

on June 2, 2003 03:27 PM
# Sterling Hughes said:

"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."

- Samuel Johnson

on June 2, 2003 06:52 PM
# Anders Jacobsen said:

http://cobolreport.com/columnists/julian/01132003.asp :
"The intellectual skills that the information age require therefore already look very different from the ones that we have valued in the past, even if the only changes are the two I have outlined. If we do become information retrievers rather than storers, and practitioners of trial-and-error rather than logical analysis, then our idea of what makes an intelligent person will seem to have changed enormously."

http://www.jacobsen.no/anders/blog/archives/2003/02/26/intelligence_in_the_information_age.html :
"As more and more people are "netchecking" their questions and kids are growing up not learning to be critical to their sources, Julian certainly raises interesting points, and I think it is important to highlight that the future "intelligent person" not only will be able to quickly retrieve information, but to discern trustworthy and/or comprehensive sources from the net's riff-raff[...]"

on June 2, 2003 08:45 PM
# Melissa said:

This reminds me of that Three Dead Trolls In A Baggie song - "Keep Your Parents Off The Internet".
Dad: I'm repainting the garage and I wanted to find out if Latex would bond to stucco. So I thought I'd do a search for... oh, I don't know... "Latex bondage"
The internet is a mass of information. The people with the power, so to speak, are the people that can navigate the internet and locate the information they need quickly and accurately.

It's like letting someone lose in the Library of Congress without an index. It would take forever to find what you need. But thanks to the librarian and the computer, an accurate search is done in seconds, saving you time and energy.

Let's just hope that Google never goes away, eh? ;)

on June 3, 2003 08:15 AM
# Nav said:

Q: Which lead of an LED is +ve?
A: shorter one is -ve, so the longer is +ve

Took under ten minutes to find...


Google is not the only place to search, especially when LED=led (past of lead) as per google. howstuffworks is an excellent site too...


on June 4, 2003 09:39 AM
# Eric T said:

> I've been thinking for a while, that once Who Wants To Be A Millionaire gets old, they should make a next tv-quiz show, where Regis asks you a question, and then you have 30 seconds with Google on that display thingie in front of you.

I actually sent this idea in to Google bizdev when Millionaire first came on the air, because I would sit and google the answers while it was on and figured it was a good idea for one of the "lifelines". You knew that the more Internet savvy friends on the phone lifeline were googling anyway.

Nothing ever came of it so they must have been busy building something cool for labs.google.com..


on June 6, 2003 04:25 PM
# Arnold J. Kellos said:

Wanted a person to put on a AD-word campaign to permote sale of an E-Book 706-564 4574

on April 28, 2005 11:35 AM
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