I am a Linux system administrator, and have been working in this industry for more than 6 years. I have been in some large projects as well but could not find a chance to work with other experienced linux admins. When I was working with teams, I was the most experienced one.

So, my question is, I always look at the manuals and search on the internet when I setup servers (like Mysql, Apache-Lighttpd, DNS configuration), even if I have done same configuration in the past. I may have done the same configuration more than 50 times, but I still need to look at the manuals and websites to remember the arguments and not miss some important points.

Is this normal? For example, if I work for a large company with lots of experienced system administrators, will it look like I am not experienced while looking at manuals, commands on the internet? It is hard for me to setup a DNS server or tune mysql without looking at their manuals. However, I am very comfortable about what I am doing.

What do you think? Is this normal?

  • I would be more worried if you didn't check manuals than if you did. Checking them ensures you get it right first time and don't "guess" if you can't quite remember
    – user155695
    Nov 30, 2009 at 8:52

8 Answers 8


I am told by my coworkers that they think I have a very good memory. I can tell you even with my good memory I always refer to documentation and notes daily. I could not live without our Documentation wiki, my personal Evernote information, my VCS repository of scripts.

When you are a general consultant like I am and are expected to know a little about everything it is just not possible to have every single thing memorized. Perhaps people that work in large IT shops may be able to focus on a particular thing long enough to actually internalize lots of details. But when you are doing something different every day it just isn't possible.

In my opinion the important thing for you to do is to make sure you organize your notes bookmarks, links to manuals and such so you can lookup things quickly. Write yourself documentation. Store your scripts and command lines in a version control system. Instead of trying to memorize everything, simply work on setting yourself up systems so you can find things you need quickly.


So here's my own take:

  1. Don't expect to know everything about everything. Just know where to look it up, and have the confidence to do something about it.
  2. Learn frameworks, not technologies. Technologies change too fast to deeply embed yourself into. Learn the reasons WHY you need them or HOW they should be configured. When a replacement technology appears you can judge the replacement on it's own terms, not one supplied to you by a vendor.
  3. Take notes and keep a worklog. Notes can be snippets of code, confuration file notes, and even command line entries. Worklogs are notes of your actions as you take them, with a time and date stamp.
  4. The ideal system administrator (in my mind) is a generalist not a specialist. Generalists need to know many things, and how they interact. Read 108 Task a SysAdmin Might Do.

Keep reading documentation, most people don't.


Perfectly normal. The human brain isn't very good at absorbing such quantities of specific information, like arguments and configuration syntax, unless you are frequently typing them over and over.

Experience manifests itself in the ability to quickly locate information rather than recall the finite details from memory, in my opinion. If you know what you are looking for (from previous experience) and you know where to get it (man pages, search engines, mailing lists, etc) then you needn't store all of that detail.

This can make it slightly harder to self-quantify your experience and is probably the cause of your doubt. I have pondered the same in the past. But from working alongside less experienced admins it should be easy to recognise the difference in your methodologies, speed and ultimately, skill.


I don't find it abnormal that you refer to the documentation on a regular basis -- no point remembering it all if it's written down. What I do find a bit strange is that you don't appear to have put much into automating all your common administrative tasks, with personal documentation, notes, scripts, etc. I hate doing anything more than once, so I'll write something down for myself for next time I need to do it, then refer to that more frequently than the official documentation (although that's always there if I need to clarify a point or deal with something I haven't quite dealt with before).

  • I have a large collection of Perl scripts, which I have written in the past. However, the requirements do not match most of the times, and finding those scripts, modifying for the new setup takes more time than writing them from scratch. Personal documentation is the same story. I generally know where to look at. So, for instance, searching in google and clicking on the specific Mysql documentation page is faster than finding my notes generally.
    – Yuri
    Nov 12, 2009 at 7:27

Absolutely normal. In fact, I would argue that quite a few problems stem from not reading the manual and forging ahead from memory -- granted, you should know some basic options and of course the theory behind how systems and protocols work, but for detailed syntax and configuration, always read the manual. It's always less costly in both time and client happiness to do things right the first time around than fix them later. Also, if you have a varied skillset, you can't remember everything.

Learn how to effectively look for help. Learn the ins and outs of Google. Organize your resources, subscribe to appropriate mailing lists or read their archives, and possibly become a member of some forums that are relevant to your work environment. IRC channels are always popular as well.

Good Luck!


While I don't consider myself a Linux expert by any means, I refer to documentation all the time. My argument is that the documentation is always there, and always the same. I don't have to rely on memory and make a possible mistake.

I like to tell the story of a misplaced / in an rsync command with the famous --delete switch as an example.

In my day job I am a SQL Server DBA, and the one thing we encourage is to have Books Online open all the time. If you know where to look in the documentation, it makes your life much easier.


You would be abnormal if you didn't need to refer to any documentation.


yesterday it took me 40 minutes to remember I needed a sysctl for iptables NAT.

I'm documenting it this time.

it never hurts to refresh your memory. I'm constantly reading and re-reading manpages and other documentation. it rarely hurts and you usually learn something new.

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