Mastery – Repetition, Variations, and Depth

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Today we have a guest editorial from Andy Warren as Steve is at SQL in the City Brisbane. This piece was originally published on Mar 25, 2015.

I was thinking about repetition today as I worked through setting up Windows authentication for Reporting Services. Have you done that? Get the systems team to install it, set up the service account, fix the SPN’s, change the config file to allow impersonation, and so on. It’s not a terribly hard task, but it’s one I do rarely, so I have to look up the information and puzzle through to get it done. Said more directly, I know the big pieces, but I couldn’t do it blindfolded.

A lot of what we do is like that. We’re given a problem and we work through solving it. Sometimes we learn it so deeply we can do it blindfolded (or at least without Books Online), but sometimes it’s one and done, perhaps never to be done again. Depending on the maturity and growth rate of your employer/client there are tasks you might only do every three to five years.  Is that enough to master the technique?

What does it take to master a technique? It takes repetition and variations, and an understanding a bit beyond just the syntax. We need to do it more than once to embed the rhythm of the solution in our brain and we need to learn how to tinker with at least the major options because the next client may want to use stored credentials instead of Windows authentication for their Reporting Services install.

Solving problems once has value, we can at least talk about what we did and why even if don’t have all the details memorized, but it feels slightly wasteful to exert that kind of effort knowing that if it comes up again later we’ll have to figure some of it out all over again. Some tasks may be worth contriving scenarios to drive more learning (something like AG groups or log shipping maybe), and others may not be (perhaps setting up merge replication or a Service Broker queue), but clearly we can’t expect to master all tasks (unless we have a very small list!).

I think there is value in understanding that. In being deliberate about what we choose to study more and what we assess as not worth more time we move away from guilt and the sense of wasted learning to a more practical view point. It’s not perfect, but it’s realistic.

I’ll add one more idea you might add to your toolbox. When you do something new or solve an interesting problem, write it down. Blog if you have one, but if not just write the steps in Word or Evernote or whatever it is you use. Bullet points, links, comments, whatever you have, and whatever you can write in 5 minutes or so. I think you’ll be surprised by how that reinforces what you learned and by how useful it will be if you ever need to look at the document again.

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