Friday, February 19, 2016

Upskilling your upskilling skills. Part 1: The Topics

Working in an industry that is moving at the speed of light requires a lot from us. We need to stay updated on current technology, while at the same time foreseeing what the next big thing will be and making sure we learn what is needed to join the fun. Not an easy task when you have a full time job, a family and a social life.

I've spent the past three years fine tuning my upskilling skills, figuring out which ways of learning suit me best, looking at the available tools out there and creating a schedule and a set of goals that will fit my daily routine. In this blog series, I want to share my thoughts and findings with you, hoping you'll become as addicted to learning as I am.

How it all began
My journey started three years ago, when I received doctor's orders to stay inside with my premature son for the first months of his life. Being "tied up" in my own house, I realized I needed something to focus on or else I'd probably go insane from the lack of mental stimuli. I've always loved learning and yearned for new knowledge, so it was very natural for me continue down that road in a more systematic manner.

Breaking it down
The first step to knowledge is to ask yourself: What do I want to learn? Asking myself this question three years ago, I had quite a long list of answers: Functional programming, public speaking, economics, ASP.NET MVC, saying "no", finance, Spanish, JavaScript, becoming tougher, TDD, and the list goes on and on...

As you can see, the topics I just listed are quite varied so I tried to categorize them:

Work related professional development
Includes all topics that are directly related to your work situation. For example, if you know DocumentDb could be a great fit for your upcoming project, DocumentDb should be a topic you put into this category. Or if you're interested in an opportunity ahead that requires you to expand your knowledge area, the topics in question should be included in this category.

Non-work related professional development
This is my favorite category, because it includes all the topics you think of when asked: "What have you always wanted to learn?" or "What have you always dreamed of knowing more about?".

Personal development
This is usually the most difficult category for many as it requires you to take a look at yourself and be utterly honest. What are your weaknesses? What would make you a happier person? How can you become the best version of yourself?

Rearranging the topics I listed above, my categories ended up looking like this:

Work related professional development
Topics: Functional programming, ASP.NET MVC, JavaScript, TDD

Non-work related professional development
Topics: Public speaking, economics, finance, Spanish

Personal development
Topics: Saying "no", becoming tougher

Pick three
Now that you've arranged your topics into categories, it's time to pick one topic from each category. The three topics you choose will be the ones you'll focus on learning more about for now. After a while, when you feel like you've learnt enough, you pick three new topics. 
You might be wondering why you should focus on three topics (one from each category) at the time, instead of giving one single topic your undivided attention. There are a couple of reasons for this: 
  1. There will be days where you don't feel like upskilling, because you're too tired to do financial calculations or you've simply reached your limit for how much functional programming you can stand within a week. When this happens, it's nice to get a break from the topic you're sick of and switch to another topic for a couple of days. Preferably, the topics will have different tools attached to them so that you gain some extra variation (more about this in part 2 of this blog series).
  2. We've all met that person who knows their area of expertise better than anyone else, but who lacks the social competence to communicate their knowledge. Or the person who is super-leveled and has excellent insight into themselves, but who really don't know the subject they're talking about at all.  In the first case, the person in question has only focused on professional development, and in the latter, it's all about personal development. It's important to balance these out so that you are able to interact with other people and communicate the knowledge you gain.

Wrapping it up
The hardest part about upskilling is getting started, deciding what you want to learn and what knowledge will be useful for you in the future. By breaking your list of topics down into categories covering work related professional development, non-work related professional development and personal development, it's easier to get an overview. Pick one topic from each category, and let these topics be the ones you'll focus on for now. In the next three parts of this blog series we'll take a look at the tools you can use, how you can create a schedule that fits your daily routine and how you decide on your goals of upskilling. 

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