Learning to learn

“A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five!”

– Groucho Marx

Recently my colleague Sara Shelton posted an article listing non-technical things we IT specialists need to do to maintain our careers. Each of the nine items on Sara’s list is a key to IT professional success. One particularly worthy of a drill down was learning:

“It is critical for the technical professional to hold themselves accountable…to learn new languages, new tools, emerging technical trends, and best practices.  With technologies changing more than ever, technical professionals need to focus on their own learning to stay on par with or ahead of the curve.”

Based on what I see around me this is easier said than done: IT jobs requiring specialized skills are going begging, while some folks with strong IT resumes who lack in-demand skills have trouble finding a job. Staying current is a core competency for IT professionals.  Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:

  1. Be aware: The prerequisite to learning about changing technology is to know how it is changing. Keep in touch with your field by reading the free magazines like Information Week, DR Dobbs, or Information Management, or following top blogs and websites, or monitoring top IT leaders on Twitter.
  2. Be obsessed: The IT world is full of people who really like IT: they love to program, they love gadgets, and it drives them crazy when something they’ve built doesn’t work. They hate being on “death march” projects but sometimes work overtime just to get a really cool subroutine working. If learning related to IT topics is a chore for you, then it will be really hard. If it used to be fun but isn’t anymore, sometimes getting into a new tool, technique, language, or DBMS can put the fun back into it.
  3. Start with a blank slate: Sometimes the skills you know give you a leg up in learning new ones, but sometimes they get in the way. I’m a long time relational database designer/developer now working with Qlikview. Naturally I started Qlikview with lots of pre-wired knowledge about how databases work.  The funny thing is that a lot of that pre-wired relational information is simply wrong for Qlikview’s columnar database structure. I literally had to unlearn some of my relational assumptions to make progress with Qlikview. Be prepared to clear your head and start fresh every time you learn a new tool. You’ll figure out soon enough whether or not your background helps or hinders.
  4. Get your hands dirty: You can’t learn a newtechnical skill without using it. Most languages and software tools are either available as free downloads (eg. Java and Hadoop) or have limited but almost fully functional demos (Qlikview, Spotfire, and many more). In addition, there are often either tutorials, community assistance, or even free online training to help you get going.
  5. Get help: There’s a thriving online and even in-person community for many tools and topics.  Resources on any given topic are easy to find online. If you prefer working with people you know then I’d recommend looking at learning a MicroSoft tool like .Net, SharePoint, or SQL Server.  Microsoft tends to support thriving local communities with monthly meetings and free Saturday seminars.  Mark Hudson describes the communities here in his post about local Microsoft activities, which goes well beyond the Business Intelligence-only topic implied by the title.

Maybe it is a challenge for us to be “on par with or ahead of the curve”, but sometimes the hardest part is getting started.  If you do get started you may suddenly find yourself obsessed.


One thought on “Learning to learn

  1. Bob

    My colleague Chris Stout adds this thought (wish I’d thought of it myself!)

    6. Give Help: “It is as valuable to “Give Help” as to “Get Help”. Sometimes, especially when we’re going through tutorials, we learn the “how” in our rush to get the mechanics down, but never spend too much time on the “why”. I’ve found when I actually start helping others my learning goes a bit deeper and start thinking more on the why and when to use something and more details of what’s going on under the hood, etc. I can always fool myself into thinking I know more about a subject, but if someone I’m teaching me starts asking me questions I don’t know the answer to, it comes more apparent I have more learning to do myself!”

    Thanks Chris!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *