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Why I Don't Tutor

By stretch | Monday, June 13, 2011 at 2:04 p.m. UTC

I often receive emails from people asking me to help them out. Some people seek merely clarification on a blog article, or a recommendation, or a pointer to someone else, and I'm happy to oblige. Others, though, ask for dedicated support and mentoring through the early stages of their career. This I don't do, and it's not just because I'm a jerk (I am a jerk, but that's not the only reason). I want to take a moment to explain my reasoning, because I think this attitude of hand-holding is ultimately harmful to the industry.

There are three main reasons I won't tutor or mentor people one-on-one.

#1: Time

My time, like everyone else's, is limited, and the question you think has a "quick" answer typically doesn't.

#2: Scalability

When I write a blog article, it takes roughly the same amount of effort on my part whether it's read by ten people or ten thousand people (the difference being negligible data transfer costs). Emails, excluding mailing lists and CCs, are one-to-one. This means that if I answer your question about IPsec VPNs today, and someone else asks the same question a couple weeks from now, I have to come up with the answer again. This isn't efficient (see reason #1).

Couldn't I just forward them a copy of the first email? Sure, but that's messy and reliant on my own memory. Why not put it online somewhere it's more easily organized and readily accessed? Follow this line of thought through a couple more iterations and you arrive at the solution that Packet Life has become.

#3: Personal Growth

We've all heard the old adage: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life." Packet Life is my attempt at handing out metaphorical fishing rods; I don't deliver individual fish via email. The idea here is that people interested in becoming good engineers need to develop sharp critical thinking skills, and these skills can come only from looking for answers on your own.

Posted in Rants


June 13, 2011 at 2:26 p.m. UTC

I think that is understandable. Most people are busy and the reason for a blog is to share information. I believe from there it is up to the user to use all other resources to get further clarification. There's so much information out there that one can create their own path.

June 13, 2011 at 2:34 p.m. UTC

Thanks a lot for the amazing site,info and efforts ..

June 13, 2011 at 3:04 p.m. UTC

Jeremy, you are bang on. Hand holding is indeed necessary for one's early IT career (for most of us anyway), and I have a great recommendation for those who need it: Cisco Learning Network. I took my CCNA training from the CLN through my local community college and it was a fantastic experience. I got all the hand holding I needed and passed the CCNA my first go (with a few years of on the job experience thrown in, but not with Cisco gear, but that's another story...).

Keep up the good work Jeremy!

June 13, 2011 at 5:24 p.m. UTC

I agree 100%. I also believe that the internet is a vast compendium of knowledge- if you can't find what you're looking for in various blogrolls/knowledgebase articles/RFCs, then honestly you probably wont' make it far in IT.

This sounds horrible, but I feel it's pretty reasonable- IT requires people who self educate. Things change too fast to rely on anyone else to be 100% up to date, and sometimes you're the only one in the data center, it's 2 in the morning and you should probably know how to figure out WHY everything broke.

With that said, Stretch you've been a blog I follow regularly- You explain things clearly and keep a steady stream of good content. Carry on the good work.

June 14, 2011 at 5:57 a.m. UTC

I fully agree. I have this problem at work as well. I'm perfectly willing to answer a question, and maybe delve deeper into it if they don't immediately grasp it.

If it goes any further than that, I give them reference material to read and study, whether that be one of the many copious books that adorn my work space, or hyperlinks. I tell them that if they still have questions after they've done their homework, come back and we'll talk. I'm all about passing on knowledge, but I have my own studies to pursue, and it's not doing anyone any favors if they rely on me to regurgitate solutions on demand. It may be more frustrating for them, but it'll be better if they learn on their own, with maybe the occasional nudge in the right direction.

Last thing I need are co-dependent technical people running the enterprise.

June 14, 2011 at 10:42 a.m. UTC

Thank you very much for this amazing site. I really appreciate your effort and you have helped a lot already

June 14, 2011 at 12:25 p.m. UTC

I completely agree with your reasons specially #3 which is the secret weapon for any engineer or even IT person which si really seeking to absorb and learn the technologies.

Once again and will keep on saying: Excellent site and great job Jeremy!

Kind regards from a Puerto Rico follower!

A guest
June 14, 2011 at 3:34 p.m. UTC

Why would you call yourself a jerk? Is that a badge of honor? Just saying...

June 15, 2011 at 11:19 a.m. UTC

Our students including myself, from an ICT-academy in the Netherlands , think that your excellent site is a bonus for all the IT technicians. We often use your sheets to configure the routers and switches and to understand the terminology on a particular subject.

Thanks very much for all the information and we hope that you will carry on with your site and the given information.

Kind regards from the Netherlands ;-).

June 15, 2011 at 12:49 p.m. UTC

So, I see. You don't need to tutor, just tutor me :-)

June 15, 2011 at 3:59 p.m. UTC

you are right.
I understand for that.
Thanks for your Blog post.


June 15, 2011 at 7:48 p.m. UTC

The site you've created and maintain is an incredibly generous use of your time - the information within is fantastic. As an individual who tries to maintain his own site just to spread the nerdy word, I can understand time constraints and applaud your work.

Just wanted to throw my 2 cents in - I think your rational is sound and you're helping more people by spending your time publishing your content.

Please keep doing what you do!

June 16, 2011 at 10:02 a.m. UTC

Kind related:

As a senior network engineer, I would be constantly asked by the junior guys how to do things.
I'm always happy to share knowledge, but after a while I took the approach of "sure, I'll show you, but you need to document it and send it to all the other guys!" This has a few advantages, they remember more as they've had to document whatever it was, others learn, and in the long run it makes less work for me.

June 17, 2011 at 10:07 a.m. UTC

I agree with you, this blog help us a lot, it's the best. So we are very grateful to you and to this blog.


June 21, 2011 at 2:10 p.m. UTC

I can relate. I came up in IT before I had the luxury of Alta Vista and Google, and if I had to research something, it meant cracking open some dry technical reading material. One of my sharpest proteges used to try to use me as his own personal "answer man." If it were short or one-word answers, I would usually oblige, but more often than not, he was expecting a full technical lecture on whatever subject matter he was asking about. I made it painfully clear to him that if he ever asked me a question on anything network related, I was going to assume that he had already looked it up on line. So when he'd ask a question, I would always preface with a question, "Did you Google it? What did you find out on line?" (in front of others). Before I knew it, he stopped coming to me unless he was completely stumped on something complex- but he at least researched and got 80% of it figured out, and I would help him out with the remaining 20%. Worked like a charm, and he's now one of our "rock star" network engineers.

June 23, 2011 at 2:59 p.m. UTC


I completely agree with your comments regarding those that come looking for the "quick answer" or even an informal long-distance tutoring. However, I'd like to propose that what the IT industry needs is a subtle shift to the apprenticeship model. Because of the commitment involved, this works best with an almost one-to-one relationship and would likely be that of a junior engineer and a senior engineer working for the same firm, or at least those who can spend the required time face-to-face.

There is no doubt that becoming self reliant and self learning is highly crucial, but for those early in their careers, nay any of us learning, the Internet can be filled with much misinformation that we cannot easily discern. In addition, looking up quick answers to solutions, while they may solve the immediate problem, often doesn't lead to a true understanding of the material.

In much the same way that skilled trades of the past required years of apprenticeship to become proficient, much can be learned by having a personal mentor who is more experienced and knowledgeable. There are a great many things that a good mentor can teach. I liken the teaching to more of directed guidance. That is, asking the right questions to point them in the right direction and start their thinking. Or by providing enough information to kick start the trial-and-error of troubleshooting. But in all cases after the discovery/fix, the follow-up and expansion on the subject is where the additional knowledge is conveyed.

In my career I have benefited greatly from those with more knowledge to share, and the patience to share it. I have also seen those who care only for the "quick fix" and never fully understand what they are seeing. It's not hard to imagine that the former did not get there by way of the latter.

I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to mentor, even if just for a few months, the junior engineer or the new intern. You'll quickly discern if they are truly interested in the field or not, but if they are you'll be helping them in more ways than you know.

Or, if the thought of helping them doesn't appeal to you, you'll be at least training them to take over some of your lesser tasks. ;)

June 26, 2011 at 6:41 a.m. UTC

Understandable. LOL at not sending fish via mail though :). I live in Fairfax I've stumbled across your blog on numerious google searches when I've gotten stumped on something. Good stuff! I live in Fairfax too btw.

July 5, 2011 at 1:43 a.m. UTC

i understand not sending a fish by email, but if i give you my postal address any chance? a large tuna would be nice!!

no, you're right, and more importantly on the last point, I remember being 13 or 14 studying science and asking my older brother some answers, he'd never tell me the answer but lead me on the path to find it out for myself, and its the only way you will retain the information, because if you're spoonfed, once that food has gone down your throat, you forget what you were eating! Keep up the good work!

July 6, 2011 at 8:50 p.m. UTC

Jeremy, you are doing something great. And I like your opinion on tutoring. Keep up the good work!


July 12, 2011 at 2:00 a.m. UTC

I like your site, it's very useful...

December 12, 2011 at 8:47 p.m. UTC

Albeit old. Very well put.

April 29, 2012 at 1:39 a.m. UTC

My instructor had a similar view point which I half liked and half utter dispised. He'd give us a task and then exactly no explanation on how to go about the task. It was kind of like throwing a kid in a pool to teach them how to swim. I can see the need for teaching like this for sure but it can be frustrating at times.

May 19, 2015 at 1:37 p.m. UTC

I should copy this rant and place it over my desk at work and disseminate it to all the satellite offices I get grief from each and every day...sigh! Great explanation, and much respect!


November 26, 2015 at 12:19 p.m. UTC

Tutoring is fine and I enjoy it while I'm being paid to do it. However it's far too time consuming an activity for a hobby, I don't enjoy it THAT much.

I completely sympathise as I partake in a few internet forums and reddit, and I have become somewhat of a House MD. in that I'll only help out the interesting cases. It just gets boring when people create the same threads over and over having clearly not searched the forum first. That or they are being plain lazy "I need advice on what switch to buy" is synonymous with "I've been asked to do this and can't be bothered to identify accurate requirements and do my own research. So I'll just ask the internet and hope someone else did the same thing a few months ago and can just tell me what they did so I can copy them. It's easier than thinking for myself."

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