Quickly Learning New Technology

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face in a long term technical career is the constant change that occurs. While we often joke about the rate of change in the javascript space, the fact is that nearly every sector of technology is undergoing rapid change all the time, and the rate of change is accelerating. While it wasn’t so bad 20+ years ago {When Will started}, this is definitely something that has become a worse problem in more recent years. In the 90s, you could learn a new programming language to a reasonable degree of competence and have a career for years before you had to deal with major changes in technology.

However, the 90s were almost 30 years ago. Now, you might learn a brand new javascript framework and find that you have to adapt to major changes in it within 6 months to a year. In addition to framework changes, the way we write, edit, and work with code is constantly changing. In addition to improving things like source control practices, agile processes, QA, continuous integration processes, and deployment processes, your own team is probably constantly making changes to how they work, based on their own experiences. The point is, if you thought that you could just rest on your laurels, you may be in for a rude awakening.

No matter how hard you work, you will not be able to keep up with the rate of change in technology. Or at the very least, you won’t be able to keep up with most of it. The best you can do is to keep up with the stuff that you actually need to do your job. However, even then, your job is probably also changing quickly, so it can be tricky to determine what you need to learn before you need it. Instead, you are going to find yourself constantly adapting to changing circumstances and having to make quick decisions about what to learn.

Constant, life-long learning is absolutely required for a career in technology. At no point in the near future will you be able to get by in tech without learning how to adapt to constant change. Instead, you are going to have to embrace change and learn to deal with it. Best of all, if you do this well, it will eventually become a competitive advantage for you. Best of all, if you are smart about it, it won’t be nearly as difficult to keep up with technological changes as you might think.

Episode Breakdown

Accept that you can’t keep things from changing.

One common response to sudden change is to try to avoid or bargain with the change. While you can do this for a while (or even for a very long time in the case of some platforms), it eventually catches up with you.

The longer you wait to deal with change, the more it costs you. Consider how many businesses resisted getting a domain name and a website when these first became available. While they could have brought the perfect domain for less than $50 back in the day, it might cost thousands of dollars today, if it is even available at all.

While you probably don’t want to immediately learn the newest technology as soon as it arrives, you will want to learn relevant technology soon enough that it gives you an advantage. This also means that you need to make sure that you are aware of change that is about to happen. You can’t take advantage of change if you don’t catch it early enough.

Look for the opportunities in change

While change is disruptive, sometimes that disruption can work to your advantage. Major technology changes mean lots of new jobs, jobs where you can be ahead of the pack with far less effort than might be required for older technology.

New technology can also give you the opportunity to change your career to work in a different area. Say a new single page application framework starts becoming popular – if you can quickly build expertise in that, you can get ahead of other candidates in getting a development in an industry you find interesting. Technological changes can also help you get promoted within your own company if they plan on using the newer technology.

Limit the set of things you try to learn at once

You can’t learn everything all at once and you can’t learn everything. Rather, you have to pick and choose based on what you think might work. You’re going to want to pick technologies that provide compelling business advantages. While the tech you pick might not work out, you’ll still learn from the experience and that will help you in the future.

Become comfortable with some ambiguity here – you’re not always going to make great choices and you generally only start making good choices after you’ve made a number of duds. Whatever you do, don’t try to hedge your bets by learning a whole bunch of things at the same time – that’s a recipe for learning none of them well.

Embrace “Just in time” learning

You’re never going to be able to learn everything you need to know, before you know it. While this has probably always been true to some degree, with the rapid changes in all areas of tech, it’s pretty much impossible to know everything you need for a project when you start.

Instead, you will probably realize mid-project that some service, piece of technology, or library can significantly help you with your work. You’re going to have to get good at learning on the fly. Like using proper agile methodologies for development work instead of the waterfall method, your own learning will need to become more and more adaptive and reactive to circumstances.

The other problem with trying to learn everything you need before you start a project is that it can paralyze you and keep you from starting at all. Remember that a halfway decent plan forcefully executed is always better than a perfect plan that never gets started.

Learn how to learn

The way you learned things in school is probably not all that helpful for learning things quickly in a professional environment. Schools have different objectives and different ways of measuring progress than you do and their methods reflect that. While you probably learned a lot by rote and repetition, that is not necessarily the best way to learn things as an adult.

You’ll also probably find that most tests of your skill with new technology are not great either. Remember that there is a big difference in learning something so that it is measurable and learning something so that you can use it.

You’ll also find that the progression of things you learn is going to be different than most tutorials that are out there. Instead, most of the time, you are better off to pick up the bare minimum you need to understand the technology. After that you should pick the next things you learn based on what you actually need to do with the technology.

Make your learnings actionable

If you learn something, but can’t do anything with that knowledge, it really doesn’t help. While abstract knowledge is probably valuable to you in its own right, that doesn’t make it terribly useful for getting things done.

While you might typically listen to a podcast, read a book, or watch a video for entertainment value alone, when you are learning you need to take extra steps. In particular, note down the actions you can take with the information you are learning. If you are consuming material and aren’t learning anything, quit consuming it. You don’t want to waste time when you are trying to learn on the fly, because time is the most limited resource you have.

Characteristics of actionable learnings: Defined actions taken on defined projects/goals in a defined scope within a defined period of time. Think SMART goals, but much smaller in scope. The part about them being defined is the most important one.

Structure your learning intelligently

While in school you probably got by with “cramming” for tests. The next day, you took the test and then you probably never used that information again. While it gets you through some of the filler classes in school, it’s not a good strategy for stuff that is critical to your career.

Generally speaking, a low, consistent level of slow learning, punctuated with occasional “rapid cramming” for specific needs, is the best way to retain knowledge over time. This doesn’t mean that deep, obsessive study doesn’t have its place. If it didn’t work, your medical care would probably not be as good as it is. However, any med school student will tell you why they didn’t have a full time job during most of their studies.

You only have so many hours in a day, and you can only really focus for so long. After that, your ability to retain new information drops off sharply. Given that you probably already have a full time job and other commitments, this rules out things like cramming.

Take useful notes

While lots of people, especially tech folks, will tell you that they don’t need to take notes, you should do so anyway. A lot of tech people have good memories, were smarter than the other kids in school, and probably didn’t have to study as much as others. At least, that was the experience of many.

There are several useful aspects to taking notes. First, it helps cement what you have learned better than simply listening or watching. It forces you to restructure the content you are consuming into a form where you can store it. Notes can be relatively sparse and should largely be limited to either tactical things that you can make use of right now, or detailed breakdowns of the underpinnings of things you are using.

If you can’t come up with something to write down in your notes, you should question whether the material you are consuming is useful. Odds are good that it isn’t, or is structured in such a way that taking notes is not easy.

Tricks of the Trade

Don’t get in your own head. It will prevent you from being able to learn quickly because you will be stuck fighting old battles in the new technology.

Tagged with: , , ,