Remember the importance of informal learning

Informal learning is just as important as formal learning in the world of IT.

Today, we have a guest post from TechRepublic blogger Lauren Malhoit.

One of my company's big initiatives this year is "learning and growing." It's an important focus, especially in IT. The IT field has a ton of offerings for formal training, but another important aspect is networking with other professionals in your area. I spoke about this briefly in a blog I wrote earlier this year about Staying on top of tech.

Recently, I attended an OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project ) meeting. Admittedly, I'm more comfortable in infrastructure than web app security, so initially I had some reservations about attending the meeting. My intimidation quickly subsided when I recognized some of the other attendees. One of whom happened to be someone who does our external penetration testing; so it was great to sit with him and have him point out useful techniques and software specifically for my company. Although maybe it would have been possible to obtain that information in a formal meeting, it was especially beneficial to my security education to do so through open dialogue in an informal setting.

Not every after work event has to emphasize education though. There are several groups out there that get together primarily to socialize. Here, learning naturally seems to happen through osmosis. I organized and attended my first vBeers ( evening. This formally informal event combines two of my favorite things: beer and VMware.

Five of us (including the Indy VMware Users Group president) got together at a local bar to discuss VMware and some related topics. Each one of us contributed our knowledge to the conversation, discussing our work environments and projects we were working on. I believe that's really when you learn the best stuff.

You can go to formal training and hear about best practices, but we all know that those classes don't always apply to the real world. Often times those best practices are geared toward large enterprises, and they don't talk about scaled-down environments. At the vBeers we had people from SMBs, Academia, and a few people from larger businesses, so it was nice to get different perspectives. We discussed storage vendors that we're using and why our perspective vendors were better, Microsoft licensing, and a ton of other information.

Having mentioned these two evening events, and it being Women's History month, I feel it would be remiss to mention the fact I was the only female present both nights. So, I would like to take this opportunity to tell everyone, especially women, in the IT industry to attend these sessions every chance you get! For the most part, I've been lucky enough to work with people who are encouraging and could care less about my gender. Part of that, though, is because of my willingness to jump in and not care what gender they are as well. I've often heard the complaint from women that they don't have enough mentors in their field. While I'm lucky enough to have a helpful and supportive boss, a lot of people don't, and a good mentor can make all the difference! These events can help you find mentors in your field. There are also many women's IT groups out there, and while I think it's great to get involved with these groups, you should consider joining the general groups as well.

Lastly, I'd like to encourage people in IT to network with other departments in their company...especially if you're in an SMB. I started working for my company a little over a year and a half ago, and in true IT fashion, I stuck to my own kind for the first few months. However, the longer I'm there, the more people I've become friends with in other departments. I've been able to hear about other aspects of our business that I never would have known about just going to internal training or checking out the software we create. One complaint IT departments get is that they don't understand the needs of our customers (aka coworkers). Of course, there is the flip side, that the other departments don't understand that we need to administer the network and end user systems. I'm not saying that it solves every problem or that there still isn't complaining on both sides, but there is at least some understanding on both ends. Also, you can gain a better understanding of what your end user is looking for in a way that they possibly couldn't have told you about in a ticket.

In short, learning and networking can be a great tool in your IT tool belt...perhaps the most important tool. It allows you to prove yourself and learn from others, get your name out there, and hopefully make your network, and everything it touches, better.