Field NotesDon't Lose the Manual

Mark Scott

I have been mucking with computers since I was in the 5th grade. I built microcomputers on breadboards, wrote assembler programs, manually linked network drivers, assembled computers from piles of boxes—all those really old school techie things. From mainframes through UNIX, MS-DOS®, Novell, OS/2, Microsoft® Windows NT®, Windows® 95 and up, I have been there. It is a running joke that computers are afraid of me and run correctly when I am in the room. And as much as I do not want that to go to my head, I generally expect that I can do things on computers that are beyond the ken of most mortals.

So I have to admit, I am used to things going my way when I perform an install. I recently needed to install Commerce Server 2002 with Feature Pack 1 and the Starter Site. Well, after you have performed about 500,000 Microsoft server installs of various types, you can begin to think you know what you are doing. You stop reading instructions. And you stop paying attention. I had in my hand a detailed set of instructions. They were screen for screen and response for response. But I said to myself, "I don’t need no stinkin’ instructions" and began clicking away. Before you know it, I was through the installation. And nothing worked.

Now I remember when installations were tricky things and every time you did one, your palms would sweat and your heart would race. But things have long since gotten better, so I tend to take it much more casually. I assumed I could just tweak a few things and get the installation running just fine. Three hours later, I wasn’t so sure. After a dozen frantic Web searches and e-mails to friends (and five hours later), I knew I needed to start over. This time I needed to do it right.

On my second pass, I read the document slowly and carefully. I thought about each and every keystroke and mouse click. Of course, the instructions were based on a specific scenario, and my scenario was slightly different. I had to think carefully about each and every task. Was that already on this server? What were the differences between Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server™ 2003? I had to install several small items in the right place during the installation. Everything had a set order. I verified each component after its installation was complete. It was important that I didn’t miss a thing. I had to combine the instructions from Commerce Server 2002, the Feature Pack, and the Starter Site. If you have any experience at this, you know the drill. It is amazing what happens if you actually RTFM (read the flippin’ manual). Things will then work.

I also have the advantage of development and IT experience. Since Commerce Server is a development platform, knowing a bit about the requirements for Visual Studio® .NET, Visual Basic® 6.0, Office Web Components, and Microsoft XML Core Services turned out to be very handy. Systems administrators often gloss over the developer components, but an understanding of all of the individual pieces of the puzzle might just help you get through that next install. To avoid continually building and configuring servers, I now write my own installation manual so each server comes out the same. Even with the manual, some installations just require more attention to detail than others.

My office needs to set up servers for development, quality assurance, staging, and production. These servers work together in farms, so the process needs to be repeatable. I found the experience somewhat humbling. It is good to remember that I am a mere mortal, and I can hit a roadblock from time to time as well. When I am faced with a complex install, I need to go slowly, step-by-step. I also realized the value in my experience. Having slowly walked through this installation, I now have a better understanding of the complete process. I can take this newfound wisdom and apply it to future challenges for the benefit of myself and my customers. This is what makes us professionals—that acumen and experience.

It’s important to remember that the people we help (our co-workers, clients, family, and friends) don’t always have the same experience to rely upon. They may get lost or frustrated because of the subtle intricacies of these complex systems. Maybe next time, I will be a little more sympathetic when they call for help. Maybe I will remember this and take a more humble approach when they ask for help installing their new software, formatting a document in Microsoft Word, or e-mailing those vacation pictures to the rest of the family. Maybe—nah, who am I trying to kid?

Mark Scott is a Senior Consultant with Microsoft Consulting Services. He works closely with clients to help design and build large scale, data-centric applications.

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