How to Stay Relevant

2012-11-04 Article

Staying relevant in the technology industry can be difficult, it seems there are so many new things to keep up with, let alone keeping up with the technologies you already know. I’ve seen too many developers simply learn skills, but not refine or improve them. You get caught up with trying to just produce as much code as you can and don’t think about producing more code in less time.

I always spent a lot of time working on side projects and would always make an effort to play with some new library or framework, however it always seemed like a never ending battle. So about a year ago I decided to try something new, I started spending 30 minutes a day reading up on something. Whether that was reading the jQuery docs, a book on advanced PHP topics or simply studying algorithms and object oriented design didn’t matter, the key was to spend 30 focused and uninterrupted minutes a day learning something new.

In this last year, I have taken my JavaScript, jQuery and PHP from good to great, thoroughly learned how to use CodeIgniter and Backbone.js, read a couple books on REST and API development, have become more seasoned with Git, and have mastered jQuery plugin development. This was done quite effortlessly with only 30 minutes a day, with a cost of only about $50 on a few e-books.

The trick is to really get yourself to do this religiously, in fact it’s really only been about 8 months since I really got going, admittedly there were some holes in this daily routine of mine. Really put yourself on a timer, no more or less than 30 minutes, and don’t get frustrated if you don’t understand something at the end of 30 minutes, just stop make a few notes of what you need to figure out for the next day and let the information you learned that day soak in. The last bit is crucial, you don’t want to turn this into uncomfortable mental work, if you get stuck, make that note as your next lesson.

Here are some major benefits to this I wasn’t really expecting right away:

Putting Your Knowledge into Action

I highly recommend you do this first thing in the morning as that is when you are your freshest and most motivated, however evening is okay too. But the great thing is that as you’re learning this stuff you can put it into action right away. 30 minutes is just enough time to learn something new, but not to learn too much. It gives you a few things to implement immediately, maybe even that day or as a task for later that week. Putting new knowledge to action improves retention many fold and over the course of a few months you will be amazed not just by the amount of what you’ve learned but about how much you retained. You simply cannot accomplish this by reading a whole book in one session and expect to remember and use it all.

Becoming an Expert of Your Tools

When I began this, there were many things I thought I would like to learn, such as Node.js and Ruby for instance. However I decided to focus on the tools we currently use at work. I have now become much more efficient and therefore produce not only much more elegant solutions but also have become much more productive in the same amount of time. I began to be able to answer questions about implementation more frequently, I became the guy at work people go to when they ask questions about coding something and how to approach it. Without even planning for it I have naturally been put into a project management role on our team, simply because I know the most. The key was, that it was almost a unanimous, unconscious decision by the team rather than by someone up top, this makes for a much more frictionless environment to work in.

Looking Like the Guru

There is only so much you can learn about things like jQuery, Backbone.js and PHP. Once you master them it is much easier to keep up with things as they come in, so make sure you join newsletters and get all the latest up to date information. When you come to work in the morning and tell everyone about a new method or technique to code something that just came out in the latest release, you will slowly become that Guru at work who is on top of everything. People will assume you spend hours everyday just learning stuff all the time, but we know it only took us 30 minutes a day.

It can sometimes seem difficult to keep up and stay relevant in our careers, especially once we get busy with the everyday stuff of life. I find spending 30 minutes a day is a very effective way to keep refining existing knowledge and staying on top of what’s new in the industry. I have began to encourage others I work with to do the same and make it okay to work on company time. In the end I know that 30 minutes we give up will come back to us multiple times as having a team that all grows together multiplies output exponentially.

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