The Importance of Knowing the Internals

I know things have been a bit quiet around here of late, most of my spare time is going to my recent editorial duties! But once that is over, things will be taking a slightly different turn around here. I’ll be going back to my roots. Back to the internals. Why? Well the thought kinda kicked off after something Massimo said a few weeks back on Twitter. I completely agree with that on many levels. But on others, I don’t. And the grounds for the “don’ts” are pretty much based in laziness, much in the same way that scripting guru’s are generally the laziest people to be found (yes Lam and Dekens, I’m looking squarely at you :P).

When I was in the last 2 years of high school, there were 4 different maths classes. The first was pretty much a remedial class, for those who didn’t like maths and didn’t want to like it. The 2nd was geared for probably 80% of the population. Third came the “above average” class, for maybe 10% of people. And finally, the 4th and “hardest” class was for around 1% of students. The interesting thing was, levels 2 and 3 were somewhat cumulative. That meant the people in level 3 actually learnt the entire level 2 curriculum in a single year (instead of 2), then moved onto the advanced stuff in the final year. But we still had to sit every level 2 exam for both years, in addition to the level 3 exams.

Here’s the relevance of that little story: the final year of level 3 was pretty much learning how to prove or derive most of the level 2 concepts and formulas. What was the effect of that? By learning a smaller set of deeper knowledge, the higher level constructs became little more than logical conclusions. Instead of learning 500 formulas, I could just derive the 500 from a much smaller set of principles and formulas. So when it came time to do that final level 2 exam in the final year, I got a near perfect score despite completing the level 2 course a year earlier. I didn’t have to remember the what, because I knew the why. But it didn’t just stop there – my deeper knowledge of maths threw a whole new light on physics (excuse the pun) too.

The same happens with technology. The world of Cloud in some respects dictates we become detached from knowing what is behind the veil. We are told the hardware shouldn’t matter, neither should the hypervisor or even the operating system in the case of PaaS. And it shouldn’t, except for when it does. If you understand the fundamentals of virtualised hardware timers and process scheduling, you’ll be much more competent at anticipating which apps are likely to run into problems when running on an IaaS, and what you might recommend to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with only knowing the what, of course. But if you’re pwned by your curiosity anywhere near as much as I am, knowing what just isn’t enough.

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5 Responses to “The Importance of Knowing the Internals”

  1. Andrew Hardy Says:

    Having done the “4th and hardest class for the 1% of students” and having been pwned by my curiosity into taking subjects like “Quantum Mechanics & Electromagnetics” and “Multivariable Calculus” at University I can only conclude that “ignorance is often bliss” 😉

  2. Michael McNamara Says:

    Hi Stu,

    I was trying to let you know that your HTML redirect from your old domain is not quite working just right. FIrefox is reporting “Firefox has detected that the server is redirecting the request for this address in a way that will never complete.”.

    Just thought you’d like to know.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  3. Mike Laverick Says:

    I think you make a very valid point here Stu. There is a tension there isn’t there? Most of the time the cloud debate drives home the message of abstraction – and not worrying about the small stuff – or what Chad Sakac calls “the plumbing”. But like you I get worried. I actually do want to sweat the small stuff to some degree because I need to know how it all works – well, for when it doesn’t.

    The tension is the one between being concerned about the very big and very small pieces that make up the puzzle – and not wanting the technical niceties to be lost in some amphorous cloud. To some degree were being asked to believe in the “black box”. That inputs go in, and positive inputs come out – the others side, but were being asked to not worry too much about what is going on inside the box. I’m thinking of Schrodinger here… [Quite why is beyond me – I’m student of literature, not sciences – but I’ve always strong amateur interest in physics].

    The trouble with black boxes is that the lack of awareness of what’s going on the inside of it – is worrying thing for folks (like me) who have built a career on knowing the technical details of how-things-work. It kind of makes me think of what Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Unless we understand how technology works then it will remain a mystery to us…and only the master magicians will be able to fix it when it breaks…

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