It's OK to Say "I Don't Know"

Sysadmins are accustomed to having answers. The answers. But, it's inevitable that at some point in time, we won't have an answer to a given problem. Sometimes, this presents no issue, such as when one stumbles upon a unique failure in the test environment; there's probably plenty of time to figure it out. Other times, such as during an outage or emergency event, not having an answer can have a debilitating effect. Note that I said an answer, not the answer.

You see, sometimes, an appropriate answer is:

I don't know.

It may be uncomfortable, loathsome even, to have to admit that one doesn't know something. Especially for sysadmins (remember, we typically have the answers). But the sooner it's said, the sooner we can tackle the task at hand. I'm not sure what it is that leads many sysadmins to be unable to make this statement, but so much can be accomplished, and quicker, when it's spoken. Perhaps its a desire to avoid feeling inferior or inadequate. However, the sooner the admission is made, the sooner those feelings of inferiority and inadequacy are replaced by the joy of solving the problem.

A story.

We were in the middle of an outage. The team began investigating the issue and reporting back their findings. One of my sysadmins appeared to be frozen. I asked him for a status update. He mumbled. I repeated my request and he seemed unsure of what to do next. So I made it easy for him:

Just tell me you don't know and I'll help you.

A little hesitation. Some encouragement from me...

I... I don't know where to start.
POW! Now it's time to roll up our sleeves and git some lernin'!

I sat down with him and got him started in the right direction. From there, he took the reins and we resolved the root cause of the outage. No time was wasted and everyone learned something in the process.

There is always something to learn. We can't possibly know everything. We can, however, always ask for help. That's why we work on a team; collectively we'll come to an answer, maybe even the answer.