One of the reasons our clients hire us is for our knowledge and experience with leading-edge technologies.
Therefore, to provide superior service, our consultants need a strategy for staying current with the latest onslaught of technology advances.
Keeping up to date on new technologies is not just for consultants, however. While we’re always here to help, the impact of technology on business processes and innovation is profound and unavoidable. Every leader must pay attention on some level. But how is this achieved, when life (and the Internet) pulls us in so many different directions?
This article offers a few simple techniques for continued learning I’ve embraced over the years and, to get you started, provides a brief (and largely unscientific) list of resources for ongoing education gathered from our consultants.
But first, let’s briefly explore the reasons for investing time to stay current.
The world is changing very fast, therefore you either keep up or will need to catch up. All of us need to be looking out for new technologies that can open up new business opportunities and/or decrease our operating costs. Take for example, today’s teens. Many 20-somethings will not deal with your company if they cannot do it via their smartphone. Do you have a mobile-enablement strategy?
The world also grows smaller every day, meaning far away places affect us and far away people compete with us. For example, are you aware of the technologies that new company in Brazil is using to steal your customers?
Your relevance depends on it. To lead, you need to ask the right questions. You need good instincts. And to do this you need to know how things work at some meaningful level. When the car repair-person asks you if you’d like to do “xyz” maintenance, how easy is it to decide if you don’t know a camshaft from a piston rod? To lead well, you need the right foundation of understanding.
Your efforts to stay current function much like a traditional investment. If you stick with it, have a good plan and make regular deposits, your value as an IT leader grows. The converse is also true – poor planning and small investments can leave you ineffective and irrelevant.
Here’s my personal approach for staying current:
Figure out what’s truly important in your world and then make a plan to get smart on these topics. In my role as Technology Solutions Vice President at Centric, it’s my job to organize practices around technologies to allow us to better serve our clients. Centric is big in custom development and system integration. Therefore, obvious important topics to me are mobile and modern web development (Rails, PHP, CSS, etc.). But we’re also actively building skills in Big Data, and what we feel are soon-to-be-standard enterprise applications such as e-commerce platforms. I regularly read about these topics.
Make space for learning. A day’s frantic activities will always work to crowd out the strategic. Therefore, you need to give the strategic priority. My current approach is to start one day per week (long before the phone starts to ring) with coffee and my to-read pile. I also go to lunch one day per week with my to-read pile. The approach does not matter so much – making a habit of it does.
Spend time with people on the front line of tech. In my world, these people are typically our software architects – amazing folks that are dedicated to staying current. They’re the cool kids that would rather program in the evening than watch the game du-jour. Find these people in your shop, attend their meetings and take them to lunch. Let them tell you all about their latest projects, ask them to show you some code!
Dream up learning activities. Go after projects that will get you hands-on experience with new technologies. I’ll admit that this is less of a focus for me now. I’ve always attempted to have my hands (at least a little bit) on the keyboard. I was the first to have a home network back when you had to run your own DNS server and hard-wired drops were the only option. For years I was the only one that updated Centric’s website (yes, I wrote a bit of code). Two summers ago I forced my kids to complete Code Academy tutorials (I did them too). You get the picture. Build a website for the Cub Scout troop. Code your own iPhone flashlight app. Define a project that gets you smarter in the things that matter in your world.
Take Advantage of High-Tech News Aggregation Tools. iPad-friendly tools such as Flipboard, Instapaper, Feedly and Reeder are great for building a customized magazine of what’s important to you.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for staying current (yes, sadly, it’s like exercise). I’m hoping the advice above is helpful. But for those of you hoping for some quick, “where do I go?” kind of help I’ve compiled (with the help of many of our consultants) a list of great resources for continual learning. Block your calendar now and get going.
Appendix- List of Centric’s Favorites
News Aggregation Tools
- StumbleUpon.com – State your interests and see what pops up
- Google Alerts – News emailed to you based on search queries
- Zite – Learns what you like and gets smarter the more you use it
- Flipboard – Great iPad app for centralizing content from numerous web sites and sources
- Instapaper – Great app for saving things to read later in your own personalized newspaper
For The Cool Kids
- Twitter – Follow the tech rock stars to stay current on any technology imaginable (yes, Twitter matters and is important. You should have an account)
- InfoQ – As in InfoQueue, it’s a site focused on software development covering mobile, HTML5, agile, java, SOA, cloud, etc.
- Y Combinator – Hacker News site created by Y Combinator. Can work a bit like Digg, where most popular stories rise to the top
- Stack Overflow – Q&A site for programmers; old school forum on steroids
- The Pragmatic Bookshelf – Pragmatic Bookshelf is a source for books and instructional videos, but they also publish a really nice and free online magazine that you can download as a .pdf (potentially deeper than a CIO would want to go, but great for everyone else!)
- TekPub– Top-quality screencasts for programmers (most content is paid content)
- The Next Web – Online publication delivering international perspective on latest news and technology
- MIT Technology Review– MIT technology review about technologies that matter. Content is much broader than software, but very well done
- Engadget – Web magazine with obsessive daily coverage of everything new in gadgets and consumer electronics
- TechCrunch – Technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products and breaking tech news
- O’Reilly Radar– Insights, analysis, and research about emerging technologies. Nice mix of the traditional with the new
- RailsCasts– Free and paid screencasts on all things rails
Online Universities / Training / Tutorials
- Lynda – More than 1,800 video courses for just over $25/month
- Coursera – Free online university courses on numerous topics
- Udacity – Another option for free, online courses for high school students, college students and professionals
- O’Reilly School Of Technology – Online learning directed toward achieving various accreditation certificates
- Pluralsight – Hardcore (paid) developer training
- CodeAcademy – Learn to code interactively, for free
- Starter League – Learn to code, design and ship web apps at the best beginner-focused software school in the world
- Object Mentor– Uncle Bob Martin’s software best practices ranging from Agile to object-oriented design to embedded systems
- Zero Distraction – Eclectic articles most related to technology by Alex Knight
- Anil Dash – Anil Dash blogs about the way technology shapes and transforms culture, media, government and society
- ReadWrite – Tech blog aggregation site; also sorts via most popular articles
- GigaOM – Where tech and business blogging come together
- Here’s a list of old magazine standbys, some that have been around for more than 25 years.:
- CIO Magazine, Computer Reseller News, Computerworld, IBM Data Management Magazine (formerly DB2 Magazine), Dr. Dobb’s Journal, EDN Magazine, InfoWorld, InformationWeek, Linux Journal, Wired and ZDNet
- Infoworld – A standby; great for broad exposure to many topics
- IT Manager Daily – Business technology news and insights
- US-CERT– Great site related to cyber security
- CNet– Tech news aggregator, news, video, downloads, podcasts
- CODE Magazine– .net technology online and print magazine
- .net Magazine – Not just .Net but a front end developer and designer magazine from the UK (.net, frameworks, design, tutorials, etc.)
- A more extensive list can be found here