How to Train for What's Next

In talking with my manager, she brought up an HR issue for all firms, (but I'll focus on technology). "How do we identify what skills we are going to need next year and start training for them?" I've mulled over this for some time, as I find myself documenting the training I've taken and provided for 2009, and how to plan for 2010 and beyond. I've realized that it is impossible to predict the future, especially so in technology where a technology product may only have a 2-3 year lifespan. However, that is not an excuse not to train. We are all responsible for our own education.

If you participated in competitive sports growing up, you're going to recognize a lot of what I have to say. You have to practice, practice, practice; and practice hard, so that the game is easy. What does this mean though? If you think back to futball (soccer) practice, every day we would run laps around the field. Why? Were we going to forget how to run? No, we run to build strength and endurance so when there are 30 seconds left in the game, we would still have enough energy to compete. This I think is the first thing to understand in training. We need to drill on the basics constantly.

For developers, this means exploring the .NET CLR or Java JDK or our product documentation forward and backward. For IT infrastructure professionals, this means knowing what every feature of our web server, database, or application is for. It isn't groundbreaking and it won't set your resume apart, but I believe this is the required technology foundation. If you are planning on spending your personal development budget, or your team/company's training budget I think this is where the bulk of the money should go.

The next step is on-the-job training. We identified earlier that new technologies are constantly coming and going. Depending on a training company to identify the trend, then create a curriculum and offer the training to you guarantees that you are always one step behind. When we are evaluating solutions to problems, this is a chance to take advantage of all of the basic training we have invested in, and identify gaps where new technology may fit in. Perhaps an under-funded IT shop could take advantage of a cloud-hosted environment, or a data-centric analysis shop could invest more in GIS. You won't be able to keep a heads-up view and identify opportunities for new technology unless your foundation is strong.

At this point, you won't know everything about the new technology, but that's ok. You've identified the gap where new technologies could be used, and you can explore the technology enough to see if it fills the gap. If it does, this provides a springboard to explore other uses of the technology, product, or process. If it doesn't fit well or meet your needs, that's valuable as well. This ensures that you are learning new techniques that are directly related to your business needs.

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