IT managers can never get comfortable with what they know, and they must work hard to stay current in their field. Bluntly, that means always studying, training, or testing.
Having spent the past 17 years leading IT departments and managing IT teams, I have learned that I must be diligent in my studies to keep my head above the rising tide of new technology and business approaches. Here are some simple techniques that I have found that can help you define your study requirements and help you balance the continual learning effort with the demands of the workday.
Map out a study strategy
First, you need at least one resource, preferably three or four, that you can count on to keep you up to date. I have found such Web sites as TechRepublic, CIO.com, eWeek, Baseline, Optimize, and techtv to be incredibly helpful. Also, many offer free subscriptions to print magazines, which are excellent reading material while traveling for business.
Once you find the top sites that provide the kind of tech or news information you’re hoping to stay current with, bookmark these sites and make it a daily habit to check them out first thing each morning or as the last task at the end of each day.
To keep current, I have also signed up to get electronic newsletters from the tech magazines and sites I read, including CIO Insight, eWeek, TechRepublic, and Baseline. This provides a large amount of information on a daily basis and is an efficient way to watch for points of interest. I save some e-news for later reference and delete any newsletter that does not meet my needs. This information pull is a real time-saver. You need to research the right data sources to make it work well. I tend to seek out a combination of hardware info and management info.
The second step is to schedule in at least one hour a day to focus on learning. Despite one hour seeming like a very long time to schedule in each day, don’t try to skimp on the amount of time from the beginning. Plan for the full hour, and you’ll often be lucky to end up with 30 minutes—but you’ll also be lucky sometimes to get the full hour to focus on IT learning.
Early morning, I’ve found, is usually a good time to fit study time into my schedule, as the office is quiet and that’s when there is the least chance of interruption. That doesn’t mean it isn’t tough to get to work an extra hour early—it is—but the payoff to my career development is worth it.
Finally, pick a topic of study and focus on it until you have reached the desired level of competency. It’s also good to map out a few topics of interest so that you’ll know what to jump to once you’ve completed a course of study or refreshed a skill set. This is a never-ending career requirement. Without a plan or map of your learning and skills goals, you will often find yourself wasting time trying to determine what skill to attack next. Always have a plan.
What study approach works best
If you are looking for some serious training, then you will need to consider how to best approach the training. Some people are quite capable of picking up a technical manual and reading it cover to cover and gaining the knowledge needed. I am not one of those people. I have to read, read, and read again in order to remember.
When it comes to learning technical material, often hands-on training that provides physical manipulation is needed in addition to the reading and verbal instruction.
You will have to determine for yourself how much repetition and hands-on learning you need to master a topic or skill, but be mindful that there are many ways to learn. If you find the methods that work best for you, you will be able to learn more in less time and retain the information longer.
There are Web sites, such as TrainingCenter, that provide some very good and inexpensive Web-based training at a low cost. These can assist you in your education, but you will need to also set up the hardware/software so that you can practice what you learn. This not only takes motivation but a place, such as a home lab or work lab, to conduct the training.
You usually can find old equipment around work that is not quite adequate to put into service, but could be used for training purposes. Also, many IT professionals have better systems at home for lab work than they do in the office, so be sure to consider your own home set up.
Once you’ve mapped out your learning goals and are taking an hour a day to focus on a new skill or subject, the biggest hurdle to continuous learning is not letting it lapse.
I’ve found that setting a goal and timetable, and giving myself a little reward for each accomplishment has helped me stay on track.
I’ve also found that taking tests informally, or through certification programs, ensures that I’ve improved and learned what I set out to. For many, like myself, that means extra personal cost, as my company doesn’t reimburse for such testing. It is worth the cost to gain the extra knowledge and to add another skill to my resume.
Learning isn’t always fun, especially when you’ve got a long workday, and there’s always something else you need to focus on. But taking that one hour a day can certainly pay off both today and in the future.