Drinking from the Firehose

I recently changed jobs. I went from being a web administrator in the medical field, working with SharePoint and ASP.Net to deploying and configuring software on Unix 1 servers for a shipping logistics company. By my wife’s description (“He works with computers”) my job hasn’t changed much. In actuality, the only consistent thing between the two jobs is “He works with computers.”

It’s been intimidating to make such a big change. In some ways I feel almost like I’m starting over, learning all new systems. Fortunately, I’ve been playing with Unix for fun for almost 15 years, so I’m not starting from scratch. But at the start I had a few meetings where the only words I understood were the conjunctions 2. It felt like drinking from a firehose.

My “strategy” (if you can call it that) for learning everything I need to is based on how I’ve watched my children acquire language. This is the human mind’s first task after birth and the process has worked for many thousands of years, so I think it’s worth examining. It’s also very simple. It is natural, it’s the way I would have approached it by default, without thinking about it. And that’s part of why I think it’s interesting, because the human brain is so powerful. It’s natural approach is so effective. By mindfully approaching the subject like a language immersion study I am learning much faster than I anticipated.

When a child learns language she starts with a very simple base vocabulary and let context and usage inform the meaning of the new words as she encounters them. She also isn’t shy about asking for the meaning of some words if she can’t figure out the meaning on her own.

So that’s essentially what I did. I sat quietly and listened during my meetings and listened for how our systems are built and how they relate to each other. I usually waited until after the meeting to ask for clarification on some of the systems or acronyms so that I didn’t disturb the productivity of the meeting. I worried that asking these questions after the meeting rather than when they came up would detract from my ability to understand what was going on in the meeting. Actually, though, I found that steadily, day after day, I was building a more comprehensive mental picture of the systems. Every meeting I understood more and more.

I’m still not there, yet. But I’m now at a point where I feel comfortable, more or less, doing my job. This is really encouraging since I was very stressed about starting a job in a completely different discipline.


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