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How to Stay Technically Ahead?

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How to Stay Technically Ahead?

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In the software development industry, it is crucial for a software developer to keep their skills up to date. It concerns me however the amount of developers  I find that do not invest in their knowledge portfolio (Dave Thomas from the Pragmatic Programmer). They simply just plod along developing software which is given to them with little drive to do that bit of extra research or to investigate a potentially new technology.

I was recently saddened to hear of a former employee who had spent many years developing against a legacy system but did not pursue the opportunity to upgrade it enough. Unfortunately, when the contract was terminated and he left the company, it was a mad dash to begin tutorials on Spring & Hibernate to get an understanding on some of the technologies which have been out in the Java industry for ages.

So what is the best way to learn new technologies? And how can I develop a culture within myself of keeping up to date with some of the new things coming out? Below are some pointers that I have picked up over the years:

  • Subscribe to a technical mail post or RSS feed
    Within the Open Source community I read daily posts of new architectural patterns, Java components and Open Source tools. There is no human alive who has the time to sit down and develop a thorough understanding of them all. However it does not hurt to skim over some of the new technologies coming out or have a bit of dig into what is available. I personally subscribe to either JavaLobby or Java World and find 1-2 hours a week on the train to open my laptop and read daily what is emerging in the technical market.
  • Don’t get stuck into too much reading
    I once heard a speech on the influence of Greek practices on the Western world (resulting in an over dependence on knowledge rather than practice). There is a tendency to spend too much time reading articles, attending seminars and performing analysis before commencing code. This unfortunately leads to developers who can hold technical conversations but are unable to deliver. When learning a new technology my ultimate preference is to sit alongside someone who understands the technology and work on an example and ask questions. In my opinion, it is the best way to learn a new piece of technology. When that is not available I read the bare minimum and then just start coding - you will learn more when your reading is event driven by your coding experiences.
  • Have timeouts with colleagues to discuss technical ideas
    You should never underestimate the daily 5-10 minute conversations with colleagues over technical ideas. It is helpful to gain other points of view to either strengthen your case or change your perspective. In talking to some of the most junior developers, I have found things I was not aware of. Within my team we have weekly 1 hour innovation sessions. In this we investigate a range of new technologies and learn off one another. Developers love the opportunity for innovation and creativity,  and this kind of investment is crucial for staff retention.
  • Join a User Group (e.g. JUG)
    JUG’s (Java User Groups) are global, and it is the perfect place to get an understanding of new technolgoies and expand your network.
  • Establish a strong understanding of the common technologies
    Across many organisations you will find a common set of technologies or frameworks used. It is important to gather a moderate understanding of each of these as it will remove any lead up time if you change jobs or projects.
  • Work on or start and open source project
    I try to reserve a couple of nights in the week (mainly Thursday or Saturday nights) where I can work on a personal project. My family generally goes to sleep around 9pm hence I take the hour from 9-10 to work on something I enjoy. Doing this out of the office gives you more flexibility and uninterupted time to sit relax an enjoy your coding.

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