How to become a certified IT ninja

When it comes to solving IT problems, knowing where to look -- and what to put out of your mind -- is most of the battle

If you're a seasoned IT pro, you've probably run across a situation where you fixed a simple problem for someone and they looked at you like you had two heads, exclaiming: "How did you know how to do that?" You probably answered, "I don't know, it just seemed like the right answer." Naturally, they think you're joking with them or, worse, patronizing them. In fact, you weren't. (This XKCD strip encapsulates this concept perfectly.)

What these casual users can't understand is that the same intuitive approach persists all the way down to the deepest levels of IT. The only difference is that, the deeper you go, the fewer menu options there are to choose.

[ Paul Venezia knows networking. Check out his Networking Deep Dive Report. | Also see InfoWorld's 10 tips for boosting network performance. ]

For example, I was recently presented with a problem where email sent from a site to comcast.net and hotmail.com users was not getting delivered and was queueing up on the mail server. Mail sent to other sites was delivered without issue, and the mail server had clear, unfettered access to port 25 on any mail server you tried, including comcast.net and hotmail.com. The only other datapoint was that this server's external address range had been migrated from one IP subnet to another.

My first reaction was to do a reverse lookup on that IP address and note that there was no reverse entry. Then telnetting to comcast.net's MX on port 25 elicited the expected message that it refuses to accept mail from servers with no valid reverse DNS entry. Add the entry with the provider and flush the queue. Problem solved.

Just about every action in IT boils down to troubleshooting; even new builds require troubleshooting of integration issues. Those with strong general troubleshooting skills can fix just about anything, even systems they've never seen before, given enough time and access to Google. Add in experience and foundation, and you have someone who can at the very least find the source of any problem within a short period of time. These people are absolute gold and should be cherished in any organization. They may not be the ones that make the bacon, but they save it on a regular basis.

But there's another important element to people like this: They're not afraid to push the button when the situation calls for it.

When faced with a problem, people tend to collect into three mindsets. The first is not to do anything, lest we make the problem worse. These people tend to look around wildly for others to help rather than do anything. The second mindset is to take note of the problem characteristics and do some research before calling a vendor support line to verify their assumptions and planned approach. This is effective, but certainly not quick. The third mindset takes all the angles of the problem into account and gauges the potential impact of their first troubleshooting step, and then generally goes about fixing the problem. Well, most times -- sometimes they make things worse, but they also tend to leave themselves a path back to where they started when the situation goes even more pear-shaped.

The point is that they're not afraid to touch something that's broken without throwing the responsibility of that action on someone else. They're also generally consultants or have a background in consulting, where they were routinely called in to address problems that others couldn't -- or wouldn't -- solve. There's plenty of money to be made simply standing next to timid IT admins and soothing their fears while they stop and restart services on a Windows server.

All of these mindsets exist in just about every IT organization, and the intent isn't to disparage those with a more conservative outlook or to demonize the more flippant attitudes about critical IT systems. It's to find some sort of balance within the organization. There are times that being cautious is exactly the right move, and there are times that being somewhat reckless is what's needed.

The individuals who combine all those traits in the same brain are the black belts of IT. If you can understand enough about computers and computing infrastructure to be able to see several steps ahead while working on a difficult problem you've never faced before, and you know when to pull out the machete and start hacking -- and when to lock down the system and call a vendor (especially when there's downtime and time pressure involved) -- you're not just an admin.

You're even better than a technologist. You're an IT ninja.

This story, "How to become a certified IT ninja," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

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