4 min read

Cheat Sheet or Quick Reference?

Cheat Sheet or Quick Reference? What's in the name? In this post I give my view on the use of cheat sheets. I'll also explain why I hate them (cheat sheets) and the misuse of the term.
Cheat Sheet or Quick Reference?
Photo by Hrushikesh Chavan / Unsplash

Cheat Sheet, Quick Reference, Key Facts, Quick Start Guide, the list of names for similar types of reference documents are as varied as the topics they cover. So why do Cheat Sheets seem to be the most popular name and format?

In this post I'll give my view on the use of cheat sheets, and the term in general, and why I think they've become popular. I'll also explain why I hate them (cheat sheets) and the misuse of term.

The term cheat sheet originally comes from those tiny bits of paper crammed with the most useful bits of information needed to pass an exam. As the name suggested they were used to cheat and gave just enough information to prompt the individual's memory or a formula they never learnt.

And this is why I think they have become popular in recent years with the push for professional certifications. I believe that both writers of them and their audience see them as enough information to bluff your way through a given scenario or certification. In the case of certification it seems that many people now see the goal as being to learn the minimum possible to pass. As such a google search for "aws solution architect cheat sheet" returns over 166,000 results. The more worrying fact for me is that out of the 10 results on the first page 4 were from training/learning websites. These are clearly aimed at people who want the easy way to pass a certification with minimal effort.

So, you might be asking yourself, am I against all these sort of documents?

The answer is a resounding NO! I just don't like cheat sheets.

I often use quick reference guides, especially for things I am learning or don't use very often. I also refer to documentation more often than people think. My main issue is what cheat sheets specifically are aimed at.

So why am I against cheat sheets?

Well first of all I am against cheating as I believe it devalues the certifications and qualifications. This is inherently unfair to those who have worked hard at gaining the knowledge and expertise. This is one reason I report any suspected cheat sites/adverts or sites offering "exam dumps" which is against most exam providers terms and conditions.

The second reason is that I think it gives a false perspective of the certifications. I see people saying they have got a certification after a few months studying and how can they get a job with those skills. For me the certification shows you have learnt and demonstrated the skills so should be able to get a related job or have a related job anyway. Many of the certifications, especially AWS professional and speciality, are much easier to pass with experience and expected duration of experience is often given in the exam requirements.

Finally, I think it gives a bad image of reference documents. By calling documents cheat sheets it implies they shouldn't be used if you know what your doing. This shouldn't be the case. Skills should be more than just the ability to remember the format of a command you use only in rare cases or unique scenarios. Skills shoild be based on understanding whats needed or gone wrong. Anything that can be looked up in documents is not skills or experience, know which command to when is more important than remembering the structure.

So what should we call the documents that are not just for passing exams?

Well for me these general come in 2 forms based on their purpose.

Firstly is quick start guides. These documents are often a page or two long and are designed to get you up and running on a specific technology. Usualy a step by step guide they walk through the steps needed to get up to speed on something or get a solution ready for use. They offer explanations where needed but often refer to other documents for more information and are guide as a jump start to get going. These are often common in applications, such as for an IDE's showing how to connect to GitHub, or technical solutions such as how to spin up a basic VPC.

Second I think are reference guides or command guides. These can be simple one or two pages such the Git Cheat Sheet (yes I think this should be renamed) or the more complete reference guides such as AWS CloudFormation Guide that shows the structure for every resource type. Ether way they cover the key information needed on a topic. They can be written with learning in mind such as the Getting Started with AWS guide which talks through the basics of AWS, or more detailed documents that talk through specific solutions and deployments.

So why does it matter, and why write about it, in the grand scale of things?

Well I think in an industry where we are trying to be more inclusive, and encourage more people from under-represented backgrounds, vocabulary matters. For me the name cheat sheet has negative meanings. It implies that you are looking at something you should know. This can cause people to feel like they should not use them, when in fact they should be at everyone's' fingertips.

In Linux operating systems, most reference guides such as command structure are build into the program through either man or -help to ensure you can complete a task. So if these items are in some programs/commands why not have a pdf or web links to similar close to hand.

For me as mentioned earlier the skill and expertise is knowing what components to build into a solution or what to look at when troubleshooting. Yes, some certifications require hands on labs, and in some cases they are closed book/no manuals. If you're a specialist then this can make sense. If I hire an experienced Cisco engineer or Kubernetes developer I would expect them to know the majority of the command for general operations. But would I expect them to know every possible command and make up of parameter flags, probably not.

Engineering, which most modern computer roles are, is a mindset and process driven skill. Give me someone with the right mindset and I can teach them commands.

As always welcome your view and experience with this.