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The IT Career Builder's Toolkit, Chapter 8: Technical Skills

Tips to Speed Up the Learning Process

Although these tips might be geared toward the technology profession, many are simply methods used to speed learning in any medium. As a father whose children were home schooled for many years, I teach my children the same concepts.

Start with Concepts

This is perhaps the most important piece of information I will give you in the technical skills game. The ability to quickly adopt and understand new technologies will be enhanced if you start with their concepts. In technology, that is what the technology is trying to achieve, or its core function. This is in contrast to a technology's specific methods or functions.

Many technologists are obsessed with knowing every command and tool at their disposal, but their grasp of when and how to apply them is often poorly defined. Unfortunately, when those screens and menus change, they feel as if they are relearning the steps to complete the tasks.

I have been chastised by some friends I know who specialize in midrange systems. They do not like that I refer to an AS/400 as the same thing as a PC running Windows 98 or Linux. They moan when I make the comparison, but they are missing the point.

I understand that the AS/400 is a highly optimized multithreaded platform, with an operating system tied closely to the hardware. I understand that you can run thousands of users on the platform, something that a PC certainly cannot do.

But I am not speaking in terms of how the platform performs, only in terms of what it is doing conceptually. I point out that both platforms have CPU, memory, disk space, operating systems, applications, and I/O. The name of the game is to get the data in and the data out as effectively as the system will allow.

The differences are academic.

This might sound simplistic, but it has allowed me, in my career, to take on projects using systems that I had virtually no exposure to. I would look at the conceptual understanding of what we were trying to achieve and then learn the semantic particulars of the new system in question.

Start with the concept—the why—and the process will closely follow.

Don't Study What You Know

As technology changes or new tools are developed, don't spend time studying elements that are common to well-known technologies. For example, if you have a strong understanding of user administration, groups, and shares on a network, it's not necessary for you to study these topics in depth during the release of a new network operating system.

The fact is, most of the concepts that you knew before have changed little, if at all. A cursory view of a book exposes items that are new or different. You must then determine if these items are truly new in concept and approach or simply in logistical placement.

You need to understand new concepts well. These are the items that you should spend time learning. Slightly altered tasks or methods don't require much study time, so don't waste your time with them. As long as you know that these things are available, if they have little conceptual difference to what you already know, simply knowing the differences is enough.

Don't Worry About Catching the Latest Trend

Because of the emphasis on the how over the why of technology, many technologists become process driven. Because of this conceptual misdirection, they perceive their value as tied to their knowledge of the step-by-step tasks to be performed. This, in turn, leads to a fear of spending time learning the "wrong" thing.

The idea is that if the technologists spend time learning the wrong thing, the right thing will pass them by and they will have missed the chance to learn the hot technology of the day. This, in turn, will negatively impact their career.

However, if you adopt a concept-driven approach to learning technology, this fear will be reduced. Instead, learn to identify the key concepts that are offered in any given technology. This conceptual understanding will leave you feeling far less stressed about the process—the how-to—because it will become apparent that it is more of the same thing.

This is why understanding the role of technology is more critical than understanding any given technology. Particular technology is just the tool for achieving a particular job. The technology is not the result; the solution is the result—or at least it should be.

In truth, if you understand the role of technology and technology concepts, you can quickly change gears and adopt the "hot" tool.

Focus on Solutions, Not Technology

This goes hand in hand with understanding the role of technology. The fear of being left out of the latest technology is built on the misunderstanding of what companies want. If you are effective at solving business challenges with technology, your career will flourish.

Management will be less likely to focus on the tools currently at your disposal if your track record is one where, regardless of technology used, you provide a solution.

I worked for a large law firm that had an incredible IT manager. He was focused on solutions, not the tools to achieve them. When a project (read challenge) arose, our first task was to create a vision for its solution, not necessarily formally, but in discussions.

"How would you solve this?" was the question. As answers and ideas were tossed around the group, a vision for what the solution looked like would appear. He then assigned it to one of us to find the best tool for the job.

When doing so, we always started with the known tools because they were easier to adopt. However, if newer tools offered enough performance or simplicity to warrant, we adopted them.

There was never a question of whether you had actually used the tool. The focus was on whether the solution was well conceived.

Focus on solutions, not on the technology to achieve them.

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