Alvin Toffler, the futurist, said:
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
If Mr Toffler is right, then it’s time to get good at (un/re)learning.
Competitive advantage these days is often about out-learning other organisations.They need to learn to stay relevant with changing customer demands and available technologies. Or better yet, learn continually be innovative in their area.
Smart tech companies learn by running experiments using the scientific method. They run experiments to validate whether their claim is true or not, rather than running on speculation.
Personally, I think learning is fun. There’s something satisfying about acquiring new knowledge. I can identify with the people who enjoy their workplaces when offered growth, where I’d say personal growth is closely coupled with learning new things.
Knowledge is often compounding. So something you learn today might be the foundation of something you learn how to do tomorrow, which might then be foundation for the week or month after that.
Understanding can be improved by seeing things from more perspectives. I think this applies well to software development - there are often different levels of abstraction that the same concept can apply to. For example, having confidence that something is well-named and adequately tested, with concerns neatly separated can first apply to a function, or a class, a module, an add-on, or an app, or a system. Any further practices and principles you learn you could try applying the learning in other contexts.
It’s known that utilising multiple senses increases the likelihood that information is retained. So in that sense, I don’t stick to one format to learn things.
In this internet age, there are are a plethora of ways to learn, it’s just a matter of finding the medium that suits you. There’s a tonne of free content out there, but sometimes paid channels will get you a slightly better quality of teaching.
Here are some channels:
- Watch LinkedIn Learning, FrontendMasters, or YouTube videos
- Purpose built learning platforms like OReilly Learning, and khanacademy.org
- Listen to podcasts like Masters of Scale, Legacy Code Rocks, EmberMap
- Experiment with ideas and prototypes whilst doing work
- Side-projects outside of your regular work
- Read e-books on kindle to go deep on specific topics.
- Visit news aggregators like Hacker News, and read the comments from smart people, rather than just taking an article at face value.
- Use a service like Pocket to save articles for reading later, in a nicely presented format.
- Monitor what people share in slack channels
- Googling anything on demand as-needed
- Peer, mob programming
- Attending meetups like WellingtonJS
- Being directly taught or mentored by others, or just casual conversation
I think as you mature, you also begin to appreciate that the best content might only be available in a specific form. For example, perhaps a command line tool you’re trying to learn doesn’t have a blog article or StackOverflow answer, and the best thing is instead to read the man pages, or perhaps even read the source code 🤓. The point is to value the learning opportunity itself and push through your indifference to the medium you need to get it from.
Sharing what you learn is a great way to sense-check, and prove to yourself that you’ve understood the material. Sharing also perpetuates the cultural change that is needed for an organisation to become a ‘learning organisation’.
Some ways to do this:
- Casual conversation.
- Contact people directly whom you think would benefit from what you’ve now understood.
- Post in slack channels.
- Write blog articles.
- Present to a group.
- Mentor others.
Tertiary study is great to package up knowledge nicely in conjunction with a price tag.
In my experience, universities will give you a good base of theory, but application of that theory won’t be realised until you’re actually working.
Polytechnics and short courses will provide some practical skills to help get a job, but students may lack some depth of knowledge when they need to make certain decisions later.
I’d argue most educational knowledge can be learned from the internet practically for free. You just need to know where to look, and be responsible for your own learning. If you can figure out how to do this, you can set your own curriculum, and you can keep learning for your entire life.
There are obviously so many resources out there. For many people, it can be tricky to think when you might have any time to do this.
Here’s some win-win ideas:
- Read/watch/listen on the bus/train/plane or waiting for an appointment.
- Listen to a podcast whilst exercising.
- Ask or work with someone who you know has the answer (whilst respecting their time), which is good for relationship building.
- Learn by doing.
- Learn by teaching.
Learning by doing I believe is one of the most important approaches. Look for opportunities to combine learning with making actual work progress too. As long as you’re getting good feedback fast, you’ll know if you’re doing things right.
They say teaching is one of the best ways to learn something. You need to know it inside and out. ‘Presenting’ has been my own learning challenge in recent times, one that I know I’ll only learn by doing, and not just observing / reading.
What to learn
At times I enjoy learning anything for the sake of learning, but I’ll often I’ll have some heuristics guiding my decisions on what to learn, and to what extent. Knowing when to stop learning in an area will help free up time to move onto other things. Try to see a few steps ahead. Think about what you need to know in a week, month or year’s time. Having some overarching career objective in mind might be useful. It’s certainly part of what guides my decisions.
Some general thoughts:
- Technology trends
- Things that tie into your organisation’s current strategy and objectives
- Areas that give you great leverage
- Foundational first principles - getting back to re-understanding the things that rarely change.
- Areas of knowledge on the edge of your own
- Things that help your team do better
- Learning how to learn
- Ask around for ideas
It’s worthwhile dedicating time to learning to enhance your skills and understanding. This makes you a more valuable prospect for new job roles. On-the-job training is a paid alternative to going back to formal study. Don’t forget that fun-factor.
So: Learn things and share them with each other. Optimise your work for learning.
I hope you find this useful reading. Feel free to share any feedback and thoughts you have.