Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Keeping Up with the Poindexters

In 2003, I taught a Java class. Usually, my classes had a diverse mix of students. The students varied in age, career points, and IT knowledge. This class was different. Nearly all the students in the class were around the same age, and all of them were IT workers. What made this class more interesting is all the students were displaced workers. The reason why they were in my class was the same for all the students - "I was laid off a year ago, and I'm having a hard time finding a job in my field because my skills are out-of-date. So, I'm in your class to learn new skills so I can get a job." Nearly all the workers in the class worked with "dinosaur technology" (ex: mainframes, COBOL), and they got caught up in the Year-2000 frenzy that was occurring in IT a few years back. During that frenzy, their skills were extremely valuable. Now that the frenzy was over, they were no longer needed. The problem was that they rested on their laurels, and they didn't prepare for the future.

If you are involved in the IT industry in some way (professional, student, instructor), you understand that the field changes often, and it is very important to keep up with the latest technology. If you don't keep up, you may end up like my students in my 2003 Java class. So how can one easily keep one's skills current? After all, it seems like there is not enough hours in the day, and it seems that there is too much information.

Here are some tips to help keep up-to-date in this ever-changing field, or as I put it affectionately, "keep up with the Poindexters":

  • Take classes It is a fact of life that in order to survive in the IT world, continuing education is a must. Don't feel like you're being singled out - other professionals, such as doctors and teachers, have to participate in continuing education in order to maintain their licenses. For those who are located in the US, the most economical solution is taking the class at a community college, if there is one in your area. The class, including your books and lab fees, can run between $250 - $400 USD, depending on where you live in the US. Classes conducted by private, for-profit institutions are significantly more expensive, and the pace is sometimes too intense for someone who is relatively new to IT.

  • Attend Seminars and Conferences If money is an issue, this may not be the best solution. However, if your university or employer is sponsoring a conference or seminar, you may be able to go for a low cost or for free. Seminars and conferences allows you to get the latest information from professionals who are either working with these technologies or are the inventors of these technologies. Seminars and conferences are also a good way to build your professional and social network.
  • Join a Professional Technical Organization This is a way to "kill two birds in one stone", so they say. Not only will this help with building your professional and social network, but it will also help you keep current with the latest trends in technology. Plus, membership to some technical organizations can have its privileges. You may be able to get discounts at events or on products just for being a member of a particular technical organization. If you are a student, you can join at a significant discount. For example, the American Society for Quality (, a professional organization focusing on quality, offers a significant discount on membership fees for students. The American Society for Quality and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (a.k.a. IEEE) ( are two national organizations. For local organizations, the best thing to do is do some research and find out about the technical organizations that are available in your area.
  • Subscribe to E-Mail Newsletters This is an easy way to keep up with the latest information on a variety of technologies. Usually the E-Mail Newsletters provide a summary of the topics being discussed, along with a link to a more detailed article. It allows you to filter what you need to know. It is a time-saver in the long run. You don't have to filter through 20 web sites to get the latest technology information. This can also be an economic solution, since most sites offer this service for free.
  • Use a News Aggregator Many sites offer RSS (rich site summary) feeds with the latest updates and news. A news aggregator allows you keep up with the latest news from your desktop without having to go to a number of sites. No, this blog does not offer an RSS yet. :)
  • Talk to Other "Digitheads" "Digitheads" is my term of endearment for fellow IT professionals. Sometimes talking to your colleagues can give you some insight to the latest technologies. While this is a good way to get some information, you need to be careful of personal bias or misinformation from your colleague.

  • Subscribe to technical magazines (on-line or print) Like the newsletters, this is another way to get the latest information. However, with some publications, be careful on the quality of the information. Some of the articles may be slanted because of the author's or publisher's bias.

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