Avi Freedman's Tech and Biz Topics

on internet plumbing, gadgets, nerd herding, and other related topics

Teaching Others for Fun and (Likely) Profit

Teach someone something and they will forever think you are smarter and more accomplished than they are. Maybe not 100% true, but I’ll stand behind it as a general statement.

I’ve experienced this first-hand from both sides.

The benefits continue to accrue from the Internet Routing articles and tutorials that I started doing in the mid-1990, but I also have realized that the people who I learned from indirectly are just smart guys that I can hang out with, geek with, and even debate with and assist.

I started the Internet tutorials because I was quite upset with how hard it was to come up to speed about routing, BGP, peering, transit, and generally understanding how the Internet works and how to play in the ‘big boy’ sandbox of networking.

15 years later, I still run into people who are networking professionals who think I ‘invented’ BGP, and the sales people I work with run into CIOs and VPs in enterprise IT who were helped out by the routing tutorials or inet-access mailing list posts.

One thing that I find helps and is a good indicator that you may have something interesting to write about is whether you just learned something that was full of things that were confusing that shouldn’t have been – that is, sub-topics that, once puzzled out, were not that hard after all (just poorly-explained).

Luckily, I remembered most of the things that frustrated me – Cisco-specific terminology, strange Cisco CLI issues, iBGP vs eBGP complexity (this was before any easily-approachable book on BGP was available). When I realized how simple some of the issues were when I ultimately figured them out, they stuck in my head long enough for easy recall when I decided to start documenting the Internet infrastructure.

That’s probably key – write about something while you remember what confused you when you were learning it. I’m quite sure that noone would want to learn to program from me. All I could say is to keep playing with it until you figure it out. I learned when I was 8, and took (and still take) that approach. I remember trying to type a basic program in and (please no laughs) not really getting what a subroutine was and omitting the lines with RETURN because I thought well, I’m hitting RETURN anyway to enter the command. Then I read some more, got it, and moved on.

For the routing tutorials, my intended audience for the geekly bits was the vast set of people familiar with basic routing on computers, but who had no routing terminology background.

I think there continues to be a big need, and I’m not sure the eHows and Demand Medias will really address the problem.

For highly specialized topics, the state of the art of approachable introductory material to given topics is generally pretty sad. I’d encourage you, the next time you find yourself just having come up to speed on a particular topic in your or another field, to document it. You’ll benefit, either by gaining even more insight as you write it up, or by personal exposure – Google and Bing crawlers are good enough to find pages, especially if you have other content you’ve generated on your site.

Topics in your field are probably the easiest, but as an examples of some topics outside the geekly fields that I have on my list to write up:

1) Explaining the basics of diabetes to smart, generally-educated people. My wife has Type 1 and I am still amazed and how poor some of the introductory FAQs are, and I still have some basic questions that they don’t seem to answer – particularly about the sugar and fat metabolism, and how the body recovers on its own from low blood sugar, the relation to the use of Glucagon and the body’s manufacture of it.

2) Documenting what I’ve learned from having a disc herniation (image 1) (image 2) (image 3). It’s now symptom-free but got bad enough to require painkillers for uninterrupted sleep. I was completely frustrated with the lack of clear and good explanation of the typical course of treatment, and even more frustrated at the lack of the ubiquity of disc decompression as a recommended option after NSAIDs and physical therapy. In my case, it was a former pitchman for a company that made specialized traction devices (look at the VAX-D and DRX9000) that led me to get treatment using a DRX, which cured my symptoms after the second treatment. Even more frustrating was that the Physiatrists and Orthopaedists that I saw were unwilling to answer some of my basic questions and were also unwilling to explain the course of treatment beyond the current step that they were recommending.