Continuous Learning: Your Competitive Career Advantage- 10 minutes read - 2003 words
One of the challenges of a tech career is the necessity to stay up-to-date on technology advancements. A key part of your ability to solve business problems with technology is understanding how to use the latest advancements to create a solution. Therefore your value as an individual contributor or manager is partially driven by the amount of knowledge that you have cultivated during your life.
Technology is a Moving Target
Acquiring this knowledge isn’t easy. Over the last 30 years, information technology has advanced at a breakneck pace. Complexity has exploded as well. It’s certainly not possible for one person to know everything in tech. But it’s become impossible to have comprehensive knowledge even about a single technology product in many cases.
For example, take Microsoft SQL Server, a commonly used relational database. Early in my career, one of my areas of expertise was SQL Server. I learned how to install it, support it and troubleshoot it. I became proficient in writing queries in Transact-SQL, SQL Server’s query language. I learned how to performance tune queries and how to efficiently transfer data in and out of the database. At the time, that was pretty much everything I needed to know to be considered a SQL Server expert.
But that was in the early 90’s and SQL Server was about to explode in complexity. Microsoft acquired a few companies and integrated these new products into the SQL Server platform. A data warehousing engine was added with its own tools and query language. New capabilities were added to run highly available and scalable implementations like failover clustering and database mirroring. This added large new surface areas that SQL Server experts had to learn about.
Many of these new product features became their own categories of expertise. Instead of generalist SQL Server experts, we started seeing niche specializations like SQL Server data warehouse experts or a query tuning experts. When it became common to shift database workloads to the cloud, traditional SQL Server roles transformed even more radically.
This constant advancement of the tools we work with in tech forces us to frequently reframe our value proposition as a worker. A successful technology career will require lifetime learning to stay relevant.
Continuous career education is not an easy path. Although it can be difficult to keep up, the fact is that the more knowledge you have, the more value you can add to your employer in the modern business environment. Your knowledge becomes a competitive differentiator for you in the workplace. The more knowledge you have, the more likely it is you will get that new job or that promotion. This is somewhat unique to particular lines of work like technology, and obviously knowledge is not the only job skill you need. But in many tech jobs, knowledge is perhaps your greatest asset. You need to plan carefully to cultivate this knowledge.
Side Project-Oriented Learning
It should be clear that effective career education cannot be a one-time event. Although a college education is still important, the skills you learn in those four years are not enough to sustain a forty year career. Learning needs to be continuous. In the modern world, knowledge has a shelf-life (as opposed to wisdom that stands the tests of time).
Successful tech workers have a process to learn about their field continuously. Often it’s not intentional but simply an enjoyable pursuit. Many software engineers love coding and learn through side projects. They identify new programming languages or tech stacks they would like to add to their resumes and work on related projects in their spare time. The side project becomes a form of training, just like elite military forces that train through simulated scenarios to develop their skills in a low-stakes setting.
Learning at Work
The most effective learning will probably come from your 9-to-5 job. Your job is by far the most valuable source of education. This knowledge grows out of the trials and tribulations of real world scenarios. On-the-job training allows you to clearly see the impact of your successes and failures. You can observe how your work output affects your team and your employer’s results. The beauty is that you can learn not just from the effort that you put into a specific project, but also from the consequences your work has on the larger systems you are working within. You can’t easily get this contextual learning from individual side-projects.
If you write some poorly structured code on a hobby project, it’s likely you will never suffer the negative consequences. Therefore you won’t learn from it. But in a real work environment, your poor code will impact your team and your employer. This technical debt that you have created could slow your team members down and make them miss an important deadline. Or even worse, your code could cause a problem in production that affects customers and hurts your employer’s bottom line. You will be forced to confront the choices you’ve made in the past, and you will gain valuable experience correcting problems caused by previous mistakes.
Although unpleasant, these challenges are the fire that will forge your growth as an effective technology worker.
Choosing the Right Job
Don’t have a tech job yet? You can still apply the same mindset to whatever your current job or daily pursuits are. Even if you’re working as a barista or an Amazon driver, you are still presented with so many learning opportunities each day. You can learn how to deal with customers or coworkers, develop a deeper understanding of the software you use in your job, and overcome whatever mental challenges your job entails. No matter what you do on a daily basis, if you approach your day looking at each challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow, you will find that over time you will develop the knowledge and discipline that will move your career forward.
When making decisions about a new job opportunity, it’s important to consider how much you will learn from the role. Many don’t think about this and choose jobs simply based on factors like company reputation, job title, or compensation. However working for a highly regarded company with a respected job title may not necessarily put you in a good position to learn the job skills you need to move forward in your current career path.
You want to look for jobs that offer knowledge content that aligns with your learning strategy, while at the same time provides enough challenge so that you will be pushed beyond your comfort zone. This is the recipe for a high-learning job situation.
Sometimes it will be necessary to move into a job at a smaller company with less salary to achieve this. Smaller companies can offer more variety in daily tasks since job descriptions are usually less siloed. If your goal is to learn about artificial intelligence and you are working at a large company doing something unrelated to AI, it will be difficult to get that exposure unless top management decides to create an AI team or project. Even then you will be competing with your coworkers to get involved.
At a smaller company, there is often more flexibility. Perhaps you have a general job like software engineer or business analyst and you work on your employer’s client-facing web applications. If you want to get exposure to artificial intelligence, it’s may be possible to work relevant projects into your day-to-day job. You can look for opportunities to use AI in a way that relates to the software you’re working with and determine how it could provide business value. Pitching a project with real business benefits to your boss can put you in a position to dabble with the technology you want to learn.
The key is to solve a real business problem. In the less-structured organization of a smaller employer, you can often achieve flexibility to work on the tech you’re interested in because there is a lack of standards and policies that you will find in a larger IT organization. Smaller IT teams usually have less need for top-down controls about programming languages, frameworks, third-party APIs, cloud services, etc.
These aren’t universal truths and it’s completely possible to find flexibility in large companies and a lack of autonomy in small companies. But it is a key consideration you should evaluate when you decide whether to accept a new job.
Maximizing your Personal Learning Time
Outside of work or side projects, it’s important that you allocate some personal time to learn on a consistent basis. This personal learning will provide foundational knowledge for the tasks you perform as part of your job. For this learning, you might choose to read books, industry journals, blog posts, or tech vendor educational content. Podcasts and educational videos are also great sources of content. Everyone learns differently so you have to chose the media format that is most effective for you. Podcasts and audio books are great for learning while doing physical activity or commuting. Blogs or journals are great to read on your phone when you get a bit of free time. Reading books, especially technology or business content, requires a bit more focus and you should set aside time each day to eliminate distractions to do some deep reading and thinking.
Daily reading and study provides context and depth of understanding, but it becomes far more valuable when you can make connections between your personal learning and your work. I have found that I’m far more motivated to read a book or watch video training when it’s specifically relevant to a problem I’m currently trying to solve at work. The content becomes a clue in my search for a solution. Not only is it more compelling when the content is relevant but it makes it easier to retain information.
There will be other cases where you are drawn to a topic simply because you find it interesting. It may have absolutely no relevance with your current work or side projects. When something triggers your curiosity like this, by all means pursue it. It could expand your perspective and help you see current obstacles from a new creative angle. Also it could begin to open a completely new area of expertise for you that could be valuable to your career now or in the future.
Learning = Fulfillment
The simple consistent act of learning something new every day is extremely beneficial to your psyche and confidence. Learning keeps your mind sharp. It decreases the chance that you will suffer cognitive decline as your age. Learning is rewarding. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment. As you build your personal knowledge, you are developing your capability to solve problems and help the people around you. This not only helps your career but adds meaning to your life.
Lifetime learning is a fact of life in the modern knowledge economy. But I would venture to guess that 90% of most workers don’t spend more than a few minutes a week on personal learning. Learning is a difficult process. It takes discipline to put in the time consistently. It takes perseverance to absorb new concepts. Trying to understand dense complex technical material takes patience and it can be quite frustrating. Other leisure pursuits will always tempt you to give up on overcoming that learning struggle and take the easy route. Video games or YouTube are always there to pull your attention away from a learning struggle.
Those individuals that have developed the discipline to systematically learn new things every week over the course of their lives will reap the rewards that result from a compounding effect. Knowledge in tech domains requires deep understanding of foundational topics before moving onto layers of more nuanced and complex details. If you look at learning as a continuous pursuit like fitness or your morning routine, over time your knowledge and skills will grow faster than you imagined possible. Through the struggle you will find meaning and success. You just have to put in the work.
About the Author
John Berry has spent the last 30 years building software and data solutions for some of the world's most well-known supply chains. He believes supply chain and logistics are great career paths for those looking to establish technology careers. He is currently the IT Director for JUSDA Supply Chain Management, a member of the Foxconn Technology Group. In this role he leads a team that develops technology solutions for the global manufacturing supply chain. John is a contributor to the upcoming book The Digital Transformation of Logistics: Demystifying Impacts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution published by IEEE Press.
Want to learn how to use data integration techniques to optimize business results and supercharge your career? Enroll in John's Data Integration Fundamentals course on Udemy.