CXO

10 ways that IT pros and developers can keep their tech skills up to date

With the rapid pace of innovation, it can be difficult for tech professionals to keep their skills current. Here are 10 tips to help you boost your professional development.

Keeping your technical skills up to date can be a daunting task, but it is extremely important for those in the tech industry, where fast-moving changes impact work.

"Innovation is accelerating so quickly in our current business ecosystem that a massive gap lies between the number of tech jobs available and the number of skilled workers who can actually fill these positions," said Sarah Franklin, senior vice president of developer relations and general manager of Trailhead at Salesforce. "Furthermore, traditional higher education simply can't keep up, leaving students to graduate college with nothing more than a diploma and debt—and without the skills needed in today's tech job market."

The rapid pace of innovation also creates new career opportunities, said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA. "Technologies of the present and the future will always need skilled technicians and engineers to implement them. But the rapid pace of change makes it almost impossible for any single tech workers to stay up to speed on everything," Thibodeaux said. "The best option is to choose a few areas that you are interested in, whether it's related to the job you have now, or the job you want in the future."

Here are 10 tips for making sure your tech skillset stays relevant.

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF)

1. Set time aside

Reserve time during your day to take a deep dive into something new, said Chavous P. Camp, COO and CBO of Carolina Innovative Research, Ltd. Co. "Whether it is a new piece of software, a new dev tool, new framework, or new operating system, take the time to poke around and get your hands dirty with whatever it is," Camp said. "This, above all else, will keep your skills sharp, your knowledge fresh, and you on the cutting edge of what is going on in your side of technology, be it UI/UX or physical hardware."

It's easy to get caught up in the day to day workload and not make time for what's next, said Sandy Carielli, security technologies director at Entrust Datacard. However, it helps to actually block time on your calendar to learn in some form, whether it's reading an article, going to an event, or trying out a hands-on activity, Carielli said.

Raphael Arar, a designer and researcher at IBM Research, said he tries to reserve time, even if it's just 15 minutes a day, to learn a new skill. "This can take the form of watching online tutorials, taking a MOOC class or chipping away at a technical book," Arar said.

2. Find innovators in your space, and follow them

Follow blogs, subscribe to newsletters, and follow industry leaders on Twitter, said Carielli. If you're not sure where to start, ask your mentors or others in your field who they follow. And if your organization subscribes to any analyst reports, see if you can get access to them.

"Not only will you learn about new technologies and trends, you'll get a sense of which ones are generating the most interest in your industry," Carielli said. "This will help you focus; if you can only go deep on a topic or two, or your organization can only send you to one training per year, knowing what people are excited about will help you narrow down your options."

3. Attend tech conferences and trade shows

Industry events can often be the biggest source of insights and learning for tech pros, whether the event is linked to a vendor or centered on technology themes, said Siddhartha Agarwal, vice president of product management and strategy at Oracle. "Increasingly, smaller, informal meet-ups are also a great way to stay connected with your community of peers and glean new tech skills," Agarwal said.

Conferences are also a great opportunity to network with peers, have questions answered, and find out how other people are solving the problems that you have, said Ryan Lee, COO of CBT Nuggets.

If you do not have the resources to attend in person, you can often listen to recorded presentations from home, said Mike Melnicki, head of engineering for developer tools at Atlassian. "You can speed through the sections that are less interesting and focus on what is relevant," Melnicki said. "One of the conferences that seem to have consistently great speakers in the software industry is Strange Loop."

SEE: Knowledge transfer: An underutilized approach to developing IT skills (Tech Pro Research)

4. Tap your network

Talk to friends and colleagues about what they are working on, and ask a lot of questions about what they've learned, Melnicki said. "I refer to a group of people in my network as my 'stable of experts'; people who are brilliant in various specialties that I can contact when I'm looking for guidance in their particular area of expertise," he added. "Whenever I need to learn more about a certain topic I invite them for a beer."

Social media is another way to stay connected to your network and on top of technology trends, following hashtags specific to your focus area and joining LinkedIn groups with other professionals in your field, Agarwal said.

5. Seek online courses and credentials

Companies like Udemy, Khan Academy, Jhana, Coursera, or LinkedIn offer low-cost or free courses to help keep tech skills fresh, said Mai Ton, vice president of human resources, OneLogin.

"There are plenty of online classes that can help you not only keep current on technical topics, but even achieve technical and industry certifications," said Dwayne Melancon, vice president of product at iovation. "These often include hands-on labs using virtualized environments, so the learning becomes much more practical and effective."

Taking an online course through a university can also be beneficial in that it involves collaboration and learning as a collective, said Andrew Selepak, professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida. "This is especially important as our jobs now involve more teamwork through a computer screen with people telecommuting or holding meetings through video chat or Slack," Selepak said. "The online classroom environment is built on utilizing these same skills while also learning new tips, tricks, and technology to allow us to better do our jobs."

6. Join a professional organization

Professional organizations, such as ISACA and ISSA, periodically run training weeks or incorporate training into their chapter activities, said Melancon. "These not only provide access to training materials, they often give access to local mentors or experienced practitioners, providing great learning and networking," he added.

All major cities and many smaller ones have some sort of professional computer industry association nearby, Camp said. "Join the ones most interesting to your specific niche, and then attend the meetings," he added. "Yes, this one requires you actually put on pants and interact with other humans, but this is also an excellent way to see what others are doing and swap ideas. You will generally come out of these events sharper than when you went in."

7. Read

It may sound simple, but reading technology news and blogs every day is one of the best ways to keep up to date on the latest trends and skills needed in tech. As people you admire professionally what books or publications they read, and start with those, Melnicki said.

"Find a few bloggers that are relevant to your area of expertise and follow them," said Robert Pryor, director of professional services for Key Information Systems. "Find a few good technical publications to help stay current with what might be coming down the road."

Most major vendors operate on at least a quarterly release cycle, and for many, staying out of the loop on what's new will leave you lost, Lee said. "There are plenty of people dedicated to keeping blogs up to date with 'quick hits on release notes, and there are always major press releases from the vendors themselves," Lee said. "RSS feeds are great for this."

SEE: Hardware Projects Using Raspberry Pi (TechRepublic Academy)

8. Experiment with personal projects

You can often learn the most by trying things out for yourself, Melnicki said. "You'll realize that once you have a chance to work on side projects for yourself, what used to seem like magic becomes demystified," he added. "Get yourself a Bitbucket account and take advantage of the free private repositories so you can work on tutorial projects without the fear of having to learn in front of an audience."

If you're a programmer, write code in your spare time for projects that you are passionate about, said Peter Yang, co-founder of ResumeGo. "This will help keep your technical skills as sharp as ever," he added.

9. Hold internal peer reviews

Sharing approaches with your teammates is a great way to stay ahead, said Aniket Sharma, QA analyst at Work & Co. "Internal peer reviews—be it via code reviews or performance reviews—can be a great way to understand where you stand in terms of technical depth/quality," Sharma said. "It can be immensely beneficial to both the employee and the company as it not only develops employee tech skills but also enhances product/company quality, it helps you set future goals and enhances decision making."

10. Diversify your knowledge

Networks of the future will include very diverse endpoints, Thibodeaux said. "You're not going to be working in one vendor's solution. You'll work across multi-vendor solutions even more than you are today. The complexity you are dealing with is immense," he added. "Employers want people who are able to work across a number of different domains, interfaces, operating systems and platforms."

It's easier to do this today, with several self-paced options available online, said Eric M. Rintell, president and founder of Rintell Technologies. You should pay attention at vendor conferences and new product announcements, to better determine where to put your training time and dollars, Rintell said.

"I've learned after decades in the industry that the smart people accept and adapt to change, while foolish people resist it, usually resulting in losing their jobs," Rintell said.

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Image: iStockphoto/SvetaZi

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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