Most of us haven’t learned everything we know about technology from books or classes. Instead, when things go wrong, a quick search on Google or Bing typically brings up possible solutions from others who have experienced the same problem. I often wonder about that unfortunate guy who is the first to tackle a difficult issue. Who does he rely on for help? Or, maybe you are trying to figure out how to use a new .NET SDK or T-SQL function. Chances are, someone has written an article explaining how it works.
Because we are so dependent on shared knowledge, I believe it is important to give back to the community. Did you figure out an interesting solution? Write a blog post about it. Did you learn about a new technology or feature? Give a presentation at your local user group meeting. Have some free time? Take a look at the questions on your favourite forum and see if you can answer any of them. By giving back to the community, you expand the collective community knowledge and end up helping other technologists, most of whom you will never meet.
In my own case, I have written books and articles, presented on SQL Server topics, and taught at a non-profit for career changers. Back when I was a developer in the 1990s, I spent some time answering questions in the forums. I’m sure many of my answers were useful, but I benefited as well. I learned so much from the forums that I realized participating was worth it as a training tool for myself.
That’s another reason it’s great to write or present. When you explain a topic to someone else, you need to understand it on a deeper level. The trainer benefits as much as the trainee, but it’s also a way to pay back the universe for the help that you have received from others.
At some point, you may find yourself spending too much time on these volunteer activities, or eventually you may end up feeling burnt out. In my case, I grew tired of helping on the forums a few years ago. I was concentrating on T-SQL, and you typically need the schema and some sample data to work on the problem. Sometimes, one post could consume so much of my time as I tried to get these resources or discovered that one thing the poster left out of the original question. At least for me, it was no longer worth it. When writing a book or article, however, I reach hundreds or thousands of people, and it is more fun for me.
Whether or not you decide to give back, always remember to thank those who do. Without their help, your job would probably be much harder than it is. A simple word of thanks can go a long way. And, if you get the chance down the road, you should think about how you can pay back their help by helping someone else.