Inevitably, we are all going to come across things in our jobs that we are deficient in. Maybe we know a little about a certain topic, but we need to know more. Maybe we know absolutely nothing and need a basic introduction to the topic. Regardless, there will come a time in which we need to increase our knowledge and understanding of something in this ever growing world of networking or just IT in general.
The problem as I see it, is how I go about filling in those gaps. When you just start out in the IT world, you may not have a good methodology in which to learn about IT things. If you have been in the industry for a long time, you may already have a good system that works for you. No matter which category you fall into, the fact that you will constantly have to learn is unavoidable. There are NO exceptions to this rule. If you wish to be at the top of your game in IT from a technical standpoint, you must make a habit of constantly learning new things. Failure to do so means that your knowledge will become dated and you will drift off into obscurity working as some corporate slave in a dark and dreary cubicle. This may or may not involve working for the government. 🙂
Now that we have established that static knowledge is a dead end, let’s look at how to ensure we are always at the top of our game. I offer you the 5 step plan. Others have 12 step programs. Maybe some have less. I only have 5. I am all about efficiency…..and my program doesn’t cost you a dime.
1. Examine your current level of knowledge. – How much do you already know about the subject in question? The answer to that question is going to dictate the kind of resources you use. Let’s use BGP for example. If you need to learn about the basics of it, there are a few good books that can handle that. There are also plenty of websites with white papers and blog posts that give a generic overview of BGP. There are some classes out there that will accomplish the same thing. However, there are quite a few books and white papers that will completely blow your mind if you don’t already have a decent understanding of BGP. The service provider side of BGP comes to mind. Enterprises and service providers use BGP in VERY different ways.
2. Find out where the information is. – For starters, you need to identify what kind of learner you are. Some of us are visual learners. Some of us are audible learners. Some of us learn by doing. Perhaps you are a mix of several different methods. Only you know what works best for you. If you need a lot of pictures and the topic is relatively mainstream, maybe a visual CBT(computer based training) course is what you need. If that is the case, I highly recommend you check out CBT Nuggets. If what you are looking for is somewhat more obscure, then I would recommend asking other people who do what you do. There are a variety of resources in which you can ask these questions like LinkedIn, forums, or Twitter. I prefer Twitter because it is a lot quicker. The only possible problem would be having enough people see the request. If you are new to Twitter, or very rarely use it, you may not have many followers who would see your message. Feel free to engage others in a substantive manner and over time your followers will grow. If all you do is tell everyone what you ate for lunch or what the weather is like in your part of the world, you probably aren’t going to get anywhere. If you absolutely refuse to use something like Twitter, then consider posting on Cisco’s forums if your issue is of a Cisco nature or networking-forum.com. There are other forums out there as well as mailing lists(NANOG comes to mind). All of the major vendors have support forums as well. Keep in mind that you may have to sift through tons of information before you finally find the information you are looking for. There is not always going to be a technical paper or book that explains exactly what you are looking for. Sometimes you have to piece it together from multiple sources. Actually, I would recommend that you use multiple sources unless it is some vendor specific thing that you can only get in one place. I have found out that you cannot trust a single source for 100% accuracy. Not that all sources are wrong, but imperfect human beings write books, white papers, and blog posts. Other imperfect human beings double check these same sources. When the content is of a technical nature, things get missed. This is especially true for the deeper technical things.
3. Execute. – You have all of the appropriate resources identified. Now you just need to get that information into your head. There are no shortcuts. While I wish I could learn kung-fu like Neo did in The Matrix, it isn’t going to happen. You have to put in the time required to absorb all of that information. Sometimes it can be done in a matter of minutes. Sometimes it takes weeks.
4. Ignore any distractions. – In the course of your learning, you are bound to come across something else that is interesting or neat. Resist the temptation to get sidetracked and stay focused on the main thing you are trying to learn. If you want to go back at another time and research the other items that pop up, then make a note of them. By focusing on the main thing you are trying to learn, you have a better chance of retaining information then if you start going in 100 different directions with every new thing that appears.
5. Allow the information to digest. – Sometimes it helps to simply think about things. Just go over it in your head. I tend to do this in conjunction with step 3. If I need to absorb a large amount of information, I like to take it in pieces and digest it little by little. By stopping to sort things out in your head, you can really come to terms with what makes sense and what doesn’t. I am very thankful my current employer allows me the freedom to do this. While it may look like I am spacing out on any given day in my cubicle, lots of times I am just thinking about something I just read or watched. It’s my way of performing a “write memory” on my brain. One of the other things I will do is drive to and from work in complete silence. That really helps because all I have to focus on is not crashing the car, which is relatively simple.
**Note – When asking others about a certain technology or product, do yourself a favor and research it first. Try and figure some things out on your own. This isn’t so much a problem with people who have been in the industry for a number of years as it is with those who have only been in IT for a few years or less. It’s not that people don’t want to answer the question. There will always be someone who will just blurt out an answer. The issue with asking without having done any research on your own is that you miss out on a great opportunity to develop your own research methods. There’s a reason that lmgtfy.com was created and is often quoted on Twitter. It has been my experience that those who last in IT are the ones that only need a nudge in the right direction. They don’t want their hand held. They just want a sanity check every now and then. The people who never want to put in the time or effort to figure something out and habitually want you to solve their problems are the ones that won’t make it in the long run. Well, they might have a job, but they won’t be anywhere near what they could be if they put forth some effort.
I am not going to make the bold claim that the 5 steps I laid out will work for everyone. They work for me when I follow them, and I don’t always follow them. I find the instances in which I have tried to cram something new into my head without following these steps ends badly. I forget something and have to start all over again. When I take the time to really dig into something and not rush it, it tends to stay with me at least from a conceptual point of view.