Every job offers training and professional development. Almost none of them actually provide it.
The lure of training has been dangled in front of me more times than I can remember. In nearly 20 years of working for other companies I attended a grand total of four technical training courses paid for by my employer.
There would be a few seminars and free workshops as well. But any way you slice it, I was sent on paid training about once every four years.
When I eventually worked out my employers weren’t going to invest heavily in my professional development, I started doing it myself. On a recent decluttering of our house, I found dozens of old technical books and video training courses on DVD that I’d purchased. I’d spent thousands of dollars on them over the years. Some of them were good, some of them not as useful.
Today an IT professional can avoid all that clutter, and get by with ebooks and online training courses. We can carry our entire training library everywhere we go, on a laptop or mobile device.
I still invest in professional development today. I’m fully aware that books and online training subscriptions are unaffordable for many people in the industry. And that’s fine. I’m not going to tell you that spending lots of money is necessary. In fact, you can get away with spending almost nothing on training, even if your employer is not contributing anything, and still pick up new skills all year round.
How to Keep Up with Technical Learning
Your technical skills fall into two general categories:
- knowledge (awareness)
- experience (ability)
In total there are four types of technical skills you possess.
Conceptual awareness is your knowledge of how things work. This includes your understanding of things such as application models, architecture and design patterns, security concepts, and best practices.
Conceptual awareness is the difference between “getting it” and “not getting it”. When someone says they “just don't get programming”, or “just don't understand how virtualization works”, they are missing the conceptual awareness.
You can develop and maintain your conceptual awareness through reading books and white papers, watching videos and presentations, and participating in communities of your peers such as forums, Facebook groups and Reddit. These communities often discuss concepts in a product-agnostic manner, such as discussing security concepts and best practices like least-privilege access.
Capability awareness is your knowledge of what a specific product or service can do. This extends your conceptual awareness by providing you with an understanding of how a specific product achieves an outcome.
Keeping with the previous example of least-privilege access, your capability awareness would include an understanding that Microsoft Windows and Active Directory are capable of supporting a least-privilege access model. Meanwhile, your legacy phone system that can only be logged into with a single account that has full admin rights is not capable.
You can develop and maintain your capability awareness by following news, blogs, and RSS feeds. For example, software vendors often release blog posts and PR statements to journalists that their product is capable of something, but don’t go into technical detail on exactly how they do it.
It doesn’t consume a lot of time or mental storage to stay up to date on what products are capable of. Maintaining your awareness of capabilities means you can confidently select products for evaluation when you need to solve a problem.
Don't confuse capability awareness with understanding of a product's fit for purpose. Evaluating products is crucial, so that a product's claimed capabilities aren't assumed to be the reality.
Product Training Experience
Product training experience is your hands-on experience with a product or service under training or simulated conditions.
Most technical training is constrained to a limited scenario that aligns with how the vendor thinks their product should be used. Real world deployments often stray from that ideal usage due to a wide range of factors that influence how we deploy technology in our unique organizations.
There is still value in product training experience even if you haven’t used a product in the real world yet. You can develop and maintain your training experience by reading tutorials and training guides, watching or attending training courses, watching conference talks, and sitting certification exams.
Product Usage Experience
Product usage experience is your hands-on experience with a product or service in real world conditions. This is your ‘on-the-job’ experience and can be highly valuable as you learn how a product behaves outside of the vendor’s ideal usage scenarios.
With virtualization and free/cheap cloud services available today, it's easier than ever to gain product usage experience. You can sign up for a free trial of cloud services like Office 365. You can spin up virtual machines for free in Amazon Web Services or Azure, or low cost VMs in Amazon Lightsail or Digital Ocean. You can install Visual Studio Code and start programming for free.
Mixing It All Together
The best outcome is to put some time into all four areas of your skills. I spend 10-15 minutes each day just skimming the news and staying vaguely up to date with what's changing. For anything that needs a deeper look, I'll set myself a task for a few days in the future to read a more in-depth article, or watch a tutorial. When the time comes to start using a product, I'll usually start with some “just in time” training, using a course, book, or conference videos to get me rolling.
There will be ebbs and flows as you focus more on training one month, then implementation another month. But over the course of the year you should be satisfied that you’re growing in all four areas of technical skills.
To stay employable in the ever-changing technology world you need to:
- Build a solid foundation of conceptual awareness. This must not be overlooked because it is the basis upon which all your more specific capability, product training, and product usage knowledge is built.
- Stay up to date with the capabilities of the leading and emerging products in your areas of interest.
- Undergo regular product training in some form, whether it be classroom training, online courses, books, free videos on YouTube, or reading vendor documentation.
- Use the products that are available to you to the maximum extent possible. Simplicity is good, but a lot of us barely scratch the surface of what’s possible with the products we’re using day to day.