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How To Stay Ahead Of The IT Technology Curve

How To Stay Ahead Of The IT Technology Curve
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Keeping up with changes in information technology can be challenging for IT professionals working in the trenches. Here are some tips, advice and resources on how to continue learning to stay ahead of the IT technology curve.

If there's one constant in the field of information technology it's that things are always changing or in ferment. Not only do we have old technologies continually being supplanted by new ones, we also have new wrinkles of all kinds showing up on old technologies, too. This constant turnover in the field affects everyone who works in it, and raises the question of "How can we continually keep up with what's going on?" This turns out to be a very good question. And like most such questions, it also turns out that the answer is neither as simple nor as straightforward as one might think (or wish) it to be.

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Keeping Up Takes Time, Effort And Good Sources

The flippant answer to the question of how one keeps up with change is "work at it!" But there's really quite a bit more to it than that. In fact, it's almost as important to learn what information sources to follow as it is to do some following once those sources have been identified.

Before I get into those sources, let me first share some data from the Global Knowledge 2016 IT Skills and Salary Report (note: registration is required to download the full PDF file). I'm invoking that document because it includes some interesting data under two headings directly relevant to this story, namely:

  • How IT Professionals Stay Up To Date (pg. 18)
  • Methods for Keeping IT Skills Current” (a set of bar charts on pg. 19)

The survey is based on 14,000 responses to an online information query taken between September 21 and October 23, 2015, where over 70 percent of respondents came from the United States and Canada, and the remainder from the rest of the world.

Survey respondents reported seven different methods for keeping their IT skills and knowledge up to date:

  • Researching a topic online (85%)
  • Attending web seminars (65%)
  • Self-paced learning sessions (64%)
  • Professional seminar or conference (63%)
  • Downloading a whitepaper (59%)
  • Reading and/or contributing to a blog (50%)
  • Classroom training sessions (46%)

When it comes to training, those same respondents also reported that they obtained their training through one or more of these delivery mechanisms:

  • Informal learning sessions at work (46%)
  • Live instructor-led online training (43%)
  • Joining an online community (38%)
  • Formal training sessions at work (38%)
  • Mobile device used to download apps or content (36%)
  • Posting to or following someone on Twitter or LinkedIn (19%)
  • Using DVD-based training tools (10%)

The numbers presented in the preceding lists represent the total response across all classes of respondents. If you read the report, you'll also see that it breaks those numbers out for IT decision-makers, IT staff, and non-IT staff as well. IT staff tends to run a little behind IT decision-makers across nearly all categories, much to my surprise).

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Find Good Sources For Learning

The secret to maintaining and developing skills and knowledge boils down to a combination of training and other information gathering techniques. Best-of-breed offerings are best discovered by asking experts or professionals deeply involved in specific information or industry niches. That means finding a reliable expert can be a great place to start in keeping up with the focus of that expert’s expertise.

Communities centered around specific areas of skills and knowledge (like Tom's Hardware for computer hardware component topics, for example) are also great sources for such information.

What these experts or communities can help to identify about specific areas of expertise include are:

  • Good to exceptional training providers, with specific course and instructor recommendations (where applicable)
  • Good to great blog articles, how-to tutorials and other online publications
  • The best professional associations and societies devoted to specific technology niches
  • Relevant and useful IT certification programs and credentials
  • Well-informed and insightful industry analyst firms, and even top-notch industry analysts worth following, plus specific reports (or kinds of reports) worth reading

Each of these information or training sources has its own fan-out for relevant and related kinds of information and further sources. Training providers may offer subscriptions to entire training libraries for a monthly fee, but their materials may also include practice tests for certification or course exams, pointers to study guides, flash cards, and other helpful preparation and drill materials.

Great blogs will usually include regular references to good books, publications, online communities, professional societies and their conferences or seminars, and more.

Professional societies like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), to name just two of hundreds of such organizations, produce technical publications, hold conferences, operate local chapters in major metro areas around the globe, and provide pointers to all kinds of important technical standards, news, and information often of great importance to identifying new or changing bodies of technical expertise of interest to IT professionals.

You should make a survey of your chosen areas of technical interest to identify information resources that include:

  • Experts in the area who are active and vocal about the niche, and sufficiently interested in and opinionated about information outlets, publications, communities, and other resources to mention them regularly. Two good examples in the security niche include Brian Krebs on Security and Clement Dupuis who teaches on various security certs and runs CCCure.com. You can also check out this listing of 87 security experts you need to be following on Twitter.
  • Online publications that follow the niche carefully and closely, and are quick to pick up and report on emerging trends and important related tools and technologies. Good examples in the security niche include sites like Dark Reading and SearchSecurity.com.
  • Leading professional societies follow what's going on in their niches very closely, and often overlap with the certification category. This includes cert-focused organizations in the Security niche, such as ISACA.org, ISC-squared, and SANS, as well as topically focused and cert-neutral organizations such as the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) and the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams (FIRST). See this list of CyberSecurity Associations for more examples (the bigger or more popular a niche, the more likely it is you'll find lists like these).
  • Well-informed and insightful industry analyst firms include a set of big names, such as Forrester, Gartner, and the Digital Clarity Group. There's even a list of the top 25 security analysts available on LinkedIn, which also draws from smaller, more focused boutique firms and the information security industry at large.

Build And Maintain Your Own List Of Learning Resources

The more you dig into an information niche, the more good stuff you'll uncover along the way. If you curate your own list of favorite resources, and make a point of checking them out at least once a week or so, you'll find that it's not as hard to keep up with that niche as you might have thought at first.

At the same time, it's also important to keep up with general IT news so you won't be caught flat-footed by macro-economic changes or trends that could affect (or even kill) your chosen niche or niches. Also make sure to find out about new and potentially important and lucrative topics and opportunities outside those niches. Making the effort will be much easier, when you have a short list of favorite outlets and information sources from which to work with.

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