Becoming good at anything takes practice. Practicing takes time.
Time…is something that adults seem to have very little of. It’s extremely easy to become overwhelmed in the fast paced career of Information Technology. There is always so much to learn, and so little time. At some times, I feel like I am drowning in all the things I need to do in order to stay employable in my field. Here is a methodology that I have used throughout the years, and it has become one of my better methods for keeping my head above water in the sea of do, and doing the things I need and want to do for acquiring gnu skills.
I accumulate a lot of shit. I keep receipts, useless mail, books, old clothes, dogs, cars…you name it, I’m probably accumulating some of it right now (…yup that too). Check out this screenshot of my bookmarks.
If you are anything like me…then you are good at finding things on the Internet. Researching things quickly and effectively has been one of my greatest skills. Sometimes in the process of using this skill things can get a little messy. You can see from the screenshot, I am pack ratting bookmarks. Often I don’t have the time to read every single page of great information I find, so I end up bookmarking them for later. After awhile, my bookmarks become an oceanic reminder that I don’t have enough time, and that I have A LOT of learning I need to catch up on. One tactic I started to use is filing things into bookmark folders. Now when I bookmark, everything gets filed away correctly and at the very least I have a system for separating information.
Once you are able to organize all your materials, you should be able to start making a plan. Your goal is to keep your present career skills honed and updated. After filing away your bookmarks, you can start focusing your learning efforts. Here is where you stop, think, and make some decisions. “But SQL4GNT…there are so many to choose from?” Indeed, there are. So why not make it easy and just start with three subject areas. How would I choose? I would go with something that relates to my direct job function, one that relates to my career growth, and one that is completely for entertainment. So, I have chosen; Databases, Security and Business Intelligence.
Now that I’ve chosen three, very broad categories, it’s probably a good idea for me to pick a few aspects from each. Let’s stick with our simple number of three. Yeah that’s right, the first pass was to create the root nodes, and now…lets make some children nodes. If I start digging deeper into Databases I can pull out three subsets that directly relate to my job; Automation, TSQL, and Replication. For Security I can pick the three that sound the most entertaining; Penetration Testing, Wireless Hacking, and Metasploit. Finally, for career growth, I can choose three aspects of Business Intelligence that can help me advance; Dimensional Modeling, ETL, and Statistics. I’m sure you can see at this point that things are getting very focused.
I now have three categories and three aspects of each category that I want to learn. Now, I’m going to make one more pass and define the first goals for each.
Automation – For this aspect, I wan’t to first focus on learning how to automate my sql installs
TSQL – I would like to pass the certification exam
Replication – I want to focus on the things that go wrong with replication and how to fix them
Penetration Testing – Using Kali, how can I get started with pen testing?
Wireless Hacking – Using Kali, can I break into my own home network?
Metasploit – what is it all about?
Dimensional Modeling – wtf does this even mean (note I signed up for the SQL Saturday precon on this subject)
ETL – How can I update a data warehouse with only the data that changes each night.
Statistics – Using a set of test data, how can I apply statistics to do…cool stuff?
Do you see where I’m going with all this? I’ve very methodically broken down what could be an overload of information, focused it, and set out specific goals to measure my success.
Now you are ready to start sifting through the massive amounts of bookmarks, books and whitepapers that you have been amassing for the sole purpose of becoming awesome. Now, one of the hardest parts of this…find the time. This will require you to analyze your days, and figure out where you can effectively fit these items in. I have a set work schedule, or at least I have the ability to take an hour lunch during the day, and I know that I have at least one hour after I get home from work where I can indulge in self-entertainment. That’s two hours so far. What about work related research? Since this post is really about keeping your career skills updated, then you should have some time at work to research. I’m a DBA so my boss does not mind when I spend time honing my skills and keeping up with the times, just so long as it directly relates to my current tasks and projects. So let’s be conservative and say that I have about a total of one hour a day to spend researching on the job. This gives me a total of three hours, which is coincidentally enough to devote each of those hours to one of my focused subjects.
Get your tools
Now you have a plan. You’ve organized, focused, and scheduled. Now you are ready to get the tools you need, and sally forth. Start with your lab. I’m always amazed, insanely amazed, to hear how many people don’t have a virtual lab. With at least 2 free hypervisor technologies out there, there isn’t much of an excuse as to why you don’t have this setup yet. I’d wager that most of us have a home computer that is capable of running at least 3 vms. That’s a great number; since three is also the number of subjects you are studying. Personally, I have a lot more vms. I have six on my work laptop, three on my macbook, and 3 on my home desktop. I have configured a windows domain on my work laptop, this is where I do most of my databasing. I have a few linux vms on my macbook where I do my security research, and I have some larger network accessible vms on my desktop where I store my data warehouses. Regardless of how or what you setup, you really need to get a virtual lab. This step might also take an investment. Microsoft OS licenses are not free, and joining the MSDN or ActionPack will take some upfront investment, but as I’ve touched on in other articles, keeping your career skills up to date, requires investment. You really should have a percentage of your salary that goes toward educational materials, and an MSDN subscription is a very good investment.
Finally, DO the DO
At this point you have all the right components for actually doing what you need to do. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do the thing and you will have the power.” This is one of my favorite quotes because I like having powers, and I like doing things. Grab one of your bookmarks, and read the article. Do the thing. Take the content in that article and apply it in your lab. Do the thing. Reading and applying an article of information is a great way for you to retain the information and have the power.
So there you have it, my hack methodology for organizing learning goals, and keeping your head above water in the field of Information Technology.