One of the most important aspects of your career is professional development but it is also the one thing that most people neglect. Well, at least until they wake up one morning and discover that they are no longer content with their current job. At this point they start talking to recruiters and either have to learn additional skills in order to capitalise on the latest technology fad (as an aside a couple of hot areas at the moment are Sharepoint/MOSS and Unified Communications) or they simply move sideways to a different company doing a similar job for similar pay. Professional development is something that should be continually worked on and in some cases closely managed to maintain a current skill set and advance you career. This is true regardless of whether you are a student just entering the work force or a senior executive dreaming about days on the golf course. The only way to be relevant is to stay relevant!
Ok, so now that the lecture is over lets discuss some of the activities you can engage in to stay relevant. One of the simplest things to do is to read the newspaper every day. I don’t mean read every page meticulously (although this can be great when you are relaxing on the weekend), I mean scan the paper for important events, announcements and other information that is relevant to what you do. Tuesday is of course IT day in the paper with all the major papers having an IT section but the Financial Review typically has one or two pages most days on Information which covers National events and announcements in the IT space.
Other ways of getting your IT fix are through subscribing to, and reading, a number of broad spectrum blogs. Whilst it can be interesting and beneficial to subscribe to blogs that are specific to your niche area, you can often become blinkered and forget that the IT world continues to evolve around you. You can also stay grounded by talking with colleagues, preferably outside the organisation you work in. Quite often they may have come across news or other information that might be relevant to you but the only way to know for sure is to talk to them (yes, I know IT people aren’t that communicative but trust me, the more you do it, the easier it gets!).
One technique I use for staying in contact with people is via instant messenger or Skype. A number of organisations block access to these technologies which is not only very draconian it also prevents you from doing your job. I have a large number of contacts that I regularly contact for their thoughts on design decisions, issues that have arisen or to discuss best practices. Of course, this relationship has to be bi-directional in that you are willing to offer assistance as and when it is requested. This might seem a waste of your time, but I can guarantee that in the long run everyone benefits – you increase your knowledge and your employer gets a better product/outcome.
Of course, if you don’t already have a set of colleagues that you can turn to for assistance then you need to establish these industry contacts. To do this you can convince your employer to send you to industry conferences (for example CeBIT or TechEd) but one of the best opportunities is sitting on your doorstep. Attending local events run by the ACS (such as the Branch Forum), user groups (such as the Perth .NET Community of Practice – http://www.perthdotnet.org or the SQL Server User Group – http://www.sqlserver.org.au) or other industry bodies (see the Australian IT section for a calendar), are a great way to meet people. More recently the .NET user group formed a weekly coffee group that meets at Tiger Tiger (http://www.tigertigercoffeebar.com) every Tuesday from 1:30pm – there is no commitment, you can simply rock up, talk shop while enjoying some food or coffee for an hour or so.
Lastly I would suggest a regular investment in technology books and/or training courses. Unfortunately technology related books tend to be quite expensive in order to cover the investment of writing them from a extremely niche market. Again, this is an area where the .NET user group has continued to lead by example, setting up and maintaining the .NET library. This is housed at the Silicon Beach House (http://www.siliconbeachhouse.com) and for more information you can contact the user group co-ordinator, Mitch Wheat (mitch @ iinet.net.au). In terms of training courses there are a range of local providers but they are usually quite expensive. A strategy for conducting your own learning is to look at the requirements for passing some of the certification exams and using that as the basis for a study plan.
In closing I would like to remind you that professional development is your responsibility, NOT your employers. Whilst I would encourage employers to provide staff with an opportunity to develop their skills, at the end of the day it is your life and as such you need to make professional development your priority.
[This post is for those who read my blog but don’t get the ACS WA Offline publication where it will be printed]