On Being a Developer Dinosaur (oh no!)

Did someone forget to mention that this industry changes fast? Really fast!? I must have missed that…

Something happens to your skills when you work for years on one core type of project, with one main toolset. You get really good, and lightening fast at doing that one thing. However, your skills in the greater scope of your industry start to get out of date.

What if you’ve scaled back your time for professional tasks, maybe due to a job change, or having kids, or health issues? Perhaps a work-from-home situation is giving you less time for interacting with peers? The problem of skill stagnation gets worse and, well, you can guess. You become a dinosaur in your industry.

What? No! Never!!

And so I find myself at an alarming time in my development career. One that strangely not a single one of my past professors, classmates or even the many dozens of co-workers or managers I’ve had, ever talked about. Hm. Apparently I was just supposed to know. The only career advancement offered to me was to the business track – business analyst, project manager and beyond. I started in that direction, then had kids, and now am working from home in a very-part-time capacity while taking care of 3 young sons. So here we are.

Refreshing and keeping your skills up to date is a complex process. There are so many ways to go about it. However one thing is simple – cognitive science tells us we get better at what we do and think about the most. This means, practice and keep exposing yourself to topics you want to master. It’s not so much about which path you choose to learn, but about immersing yourself in the topic in whatever way holds your attention.

Here are some things I’ve been doing to upgrade and strengthen my development skills. I plan to go deeper into these topics on this blog, and post about specific things I’m learning.

  • Online courses. There are a variety of sites that offer online courses on development topics. CodeSchool.com is one that I have my eye on, and LaraCasts is the one I’m currently enrolled in.
  • Industry publications. If you haven’t already, buy a subscription to the professional magazine for your industry/language/framework/stack of choice. If you freelance or own a business, the expense can be written off. I subscribed to PHP[architect] starting with the electronic copies, but switched to the printed editions because it’s nice to get off a screen and hold something in my hand for a change. A publication will give you a vetted range of topics which gives you a taste of things you might want to learn more about. It also keeps you up on what’s happening in your industry.
  • Podcasts. It’s hard to overstate the value of an audio podcast you can listen to in your off-time. I’m currently working through episodes of The PHP Roundtable when I’m doing laundry, dishes, going for walks, etc. It’s nice to hear voices, and get the tone about various topics.
  • Local usergroups. I joined Hackforge, a local maker-space / tech-accelerator / club that does talks, classes, and casual meet-ups about all kinds of tech topics. So far it’s been a great networking opportunity, and a refreshing chance to socialize with like-minds. I’ve also learned quite a bit from talks and seminars. If your city has one – join!
  • Articles. I put this one last because I find that searching online for articles to read is a very haphazard way to learn. It’s also hard to know how reliable what you’re reading is, or how out of date an article might be. Personally I find that I’ll look up articles once a topic has piqued my interest from one of the previous sources.

For me, a specific curriculum to follow is very helpful. This is why I have a task board (I use Trello), and created specific goals of things I want to learn, publications I want to read, and courses I want to take. I’ve mapped out the skills I want to learn, and the best places to do so. It’s created a bit of a back-to-school feeling which I like, and which enforces a level of discipline which is helpful.

No matter what method of learning works for you, the important thing is to keep at it. Gone are the days when people learned a skill in school or even a trade as an apprentice, and then performed that job for the rest of their lives without learning significant new skills, new tools, or new techniques. This blog will help you make learning a part of your career and work it into your life regularly, with a variety of sources to keep it fresh and interesting.

What are you learning these days, and how? Tell me about it in the comments!

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