What I love most about the SAS community is the willingness to share information. Former IT manager Tom Karl answers “how do you stay current with the complete deluge of new tools (Hadoop, Spark) and methods that are streaming toward you all the time.” He provided the same advice he gives to his direct reports.
Staying Current in a Changing Industry
While resting our weary feet at SAS Global Forum in Dallas, the topic arose of what a royal pain it is trying to keep abreast of the various technologies that we need for our careers. This isn’t a new problem; I’ve worked in the IT domain for 37 years, frequently as a manager, and it’s one of the common issues that arise with staff. They don’t feel that they’re able to keep up with the new technologies that are being introduced.
Needless to say, this problem has grown by orders of magnitude with the technology explosion over the last 30 years.
So, what to do? It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I have some opinions on the topic, which led me to offer to write up my thoughts on the topic. (Also, I figure getting some brownie points with Tricia will get me invited to the next SGF Tweet-up!)
Here’s the approach that I take; I hope that some of you find it helpful.
Manage your Career
We’re all busy, unfortunately. With sometimes unsympathetic bosses looking over our shoulders, it can be a challenge to undertake any activities that aren’t 100% project-deliverable-related. However, the need to stay informed, in a sensible, cost-effective way, is identical to the need to undertake the necessary training or to improve your abilities with the “soft skills” that we all know are essential. If you’re not doing it, you’re draining away your employer’s investment in you, day by day. At some point, you’ll realize that you’re one of “those” people who are very difficult to assign, due to a restricted skill set. Neither your employer nor you want that.
Some of you work for an enlightened company, where the return on investment on keeping up to date is recognized. In these places, the onus is on YOU to carve out the time for this essential activity. If your company isn’t as enlightened, it can be a challenge. If training budgets are generous, offer to trade off some formal training for self-directed activities. If not, do it on your own time if you need to, and find somewhere else to work. It’s going to be a long career, and it’s a LOT more fun if you’re in demand because you have up-to-date skills and abilities.
Specialize Your Skills
Believe it or not, there was a day when one person could pretty much keep up with the whole computer technology business for a reasonable investment in time. Boy, are those days ever gone! (Along with punched cards, reel-to-reel tape drives, and vacuum tubes.)
Since you’re reading this on “BI Notes”, let’s assume that your specialization is in the SAS Business Intelligence area, as is mine. Sorry, don’t ask me how to:
- write code for a video game
- design a real-time telemetry system for spacecraft management
- debug a point-of-sale terminal operating system
While these are all valid, high-paying software specialties, they simply aren’t in my toolkit. It’s all I can do to remain competitive at the narrow piece of the high-tech business that I’ve decided to specialize in.
But don’t specialize too much
That being said, I think you’ll find your confidence is much higher, and you’ll be a more interesting conversational partner if you can at least recognize and comment on most of the major topics in the high-tech sector. In addition, here are some concrete reasons for maintaining “situational awareness”:
- Topics other than your specialty will come up in conversations with colleagues, clients, and managers. It always adds to your professional luster if you recognize the topic, and can make at least one pertinent suggestion or comment;
- You never know when something from out of left field will suddenly become pertinent to your specialization. Anyone noticed the uptick in buzz about “analytics on mobile devices”?
- Clients, customers, and managers will, for valid reasons, suggest totally inappropriate technology solutions to their business problems. It helps if you’re aware enough to present cogent reasons for rejecting these suggestions in the course of a meeting, rather than having to scuttle back to your office to research it.
I hope this has been enough to convince you to take a superficial interest in the entire business. Here’s how I try to approach it; the outside circles have more content, but I have more superficial knowledge. As I move in, there’s less to know, but I try to know more of it.
And have some fun!
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. If you’re in the technology business because you enjoy it, find something not related to your specialization to goof around with. Learn an interesting programming language, build a PC from parts, or learn how to use Photoshop. Purely to stretch your brain! You’ll come back to your “real” job more rested and relaxed.
My latest is a Radio Shack “robot” kit that uses the Arduino platform. Should be fun!
Work hard, have fun, and make the best of working in the most interesting business on the planet!