Figure it out
It’s been more than a few years since I was in the Marines, even though it still feels like yesterday. Although it has been decades (has it really been that long?), it seems that I am still learning lessons today that the Marine Corps exposed me to back then. I mean that in the sense that many times I come across an obstacle in life or work that is solved by falling back on the little things I learned way-back-when. One of the biggest lessons I ever learned: Figure it out.
I give credit to technology for making our lives easier, which doesn’t always mean for the better. If you don’t know something, you can ask Google and get the answer. In fact, as you type your question, Google practically reads your mind and finishes your question for you while at the same time, giving you an answer. I believe that this part of technology is a disservice, especially those in the DFIR field because being told the answer is not the most important thing compared to personally finding the answer. It is the journey, not the destination.
My first response to being asked “how to do something” is “Did you try everything you know before asking me?” Whether it is a student or a peer, if I am asked a question, I naturally assume that everything possible was tried before asking me. If not, I question the question of asking in the first place because asking without trying to figure it out yourself is simply asking for the answer. You are asking to get to your destination without taking the journey. You are asking someone to do your homework for you. This is the easy way, the wrong path to take, and will gradually put a cap on your skills. Try before asking. Then try again. At some point you will run out of different attempts and then when you ask, I know (or will assume) that you tried everything you know how to try. Hopefully before that comes, you will find the answer before asking for your sake. Giving the answer will not be helpful if you have the ability to figure it out yourself. By the way, it is way easier for me to answer a question than it is to push and prod for the student to figure it out. Answering takes me 15 seconds while being patient to watch the process can take a lot longer...
I teach the Figure It Out* method because the Eureka! moments are those times where you learn something that you will never forget. It is embedded into your cranial cavity as if you were the first person to ever discover that answer. In reality, everyone could have known the answer before you, but as far as your brain is concerned, you did it first and therefore, will remember it forever because you discovered it. This doesn’t work if someone tells you that “C” is the correct answer. You will forget being given “C” as the answer minutes afterward but you will remember the “Ah ha!” discovery for a lifetime. You will actually be able to figure out more problems because of increased confidence. It's a good cycle to be in.
But, I have found that some people don’t want to take the journey to discovery. They truly just want the answer for a varied number of reasons, which are technically defined as excuses. Procrastination is not a reason. Laziness is not a reason. Not caring is not a reason. Because Google answers it for you is not a reason. I tend to feel that we need ‘figuring it out by yourself’ as a high school class, where cell phones are not allowed, nor any Internet, in order to teach that using our own brain is what solves problems.
As far as how the Marines do it….when given the order to “Have your squad at this point by 0300” or "get across that river in the next 45 minutes", there were no answers on how to do it, what to take, what to eat, what to wear, or when to leave. There were no expectations of failure or answers to what happens if you fail. No Google either. Simply, you are given a mission and you figure out how to complete it. That is what we do in DFIR. We figure it out. We have to.
How to figure it out
I'd be remiss in not giving some guidance on how to figure it out, or at least how to ask a question. Firstly, depending on what you are doing, figuring it out is going to be different every time. Basically;
1. Read the instructions, try and fail.
2. Figure out where the problem started and,
3. Try again. If fail..
4. Go back, read the instructions and guides again, try to find where the error may be solved.
5. Try again. If fail...
6. Get online and search. Forums, support/chat rooms, email lists. Find someone who has documented the same problem.
7. Try the suggestions that you found. If fail...
8. Put together your question. Do not ever ask, "Hey, this thing doesn't work. Can you make it work for me?". Rather, write up your question like a mini-research project:
-"I wanted to do this."
-"But I got this error."
-"So I tried this and got this error."
-"Then I searched for an answer and found these suggestions."
-"I tried again with the suggestions and got this error."
-"I don't know what else to try. Can you point me in the right direction?"
When I get a question like this in class, I am happy. Maybe a few more tries would have done it, but there is a point where if each try is simply repeating the exact process without changes, it is time to stop and ask. Part of the learning process in DFIR is self-learning. That which you cannot teach yourself, take a course in that topic. Read books. Engage in conversations about the topic. Practice and research. The last thing that should on your mind is thinking that "I'll just ask for the answer" without first making some effort to learn first.
*I can't claim credit for the "Figure It Out" method, since it was yelled at me by many senior Marines until I Figured It Out.