Learn Where You Are

In order to make progress in your career in IT, you need to actively plan your professional development rather then allow others around you to control it. For anyone in IT, the task of learning new skills and technologies is part of your work: and you can do it right where you are, in your current job.

I teach a technical career class from time to time. It’s a workshop designed to help technical professionals learn how to get where they want to go in their careers. As part of that workshop, I’m often asked “how did you learn what you know today?” – to which I always reply “the same way you should. Right where you are.”

This inevitably leads to the comment “I can’t learn anything new where I am – XYZ won’t let me/nothing new to learn/same old stuff every day.” Not true. You can learn something right where you are – and in this article, I’ll show you how.

OJT – On the Job Training

In front of me now are a series of bookshelves, which are mostly empty. I used to keep hundreds – literally hundreds – of books on my shelves. Most of those books are gone now, since I’ve switched to using mostly electronic books for my reading. I can store thousands of books (yes, I now have that many) on a smaller device and have them all with me wherever I go.

But the shelves aren’t completely empty. I have a few books I can’t find electronically, but most of the space is taken up with notebooks. Some are the old-fashioned black-and-white-speckled notebooks like you might have had in college; others are the three-ring binder type. All of them are filled with notes I took at each job I had.

Sure, I had – and still have – required job training, like you might have at your company. Things like Human Resources training, business conduct training and the like. In fact, where I work now, there is an amazing amount of on-line and in-person training I can take that is technical and directly relates to my job.

But often, this isn’t the type of training I’m thinking about. This isn’t really the kind of thing that helps you progress in your career – it’s something that everyone has to take to comply with legal regulations.

Perhaps you get a bit more training than that. You might have someone assigned to “show you the ropes” by your boss. That person might be an enthusiastic, engaged, trained instructor, skilled in the ways of making someone productive quickly. If so, you’re quite fortunate – I haven’t had one of those experiences yet. Usually the person assigned to “bring Buck up to speed” has other work to do, and isn’t motivated very well to help me succeed. This type of ‘On the Job Training’ (OJT) is also not what I’m thinking about that you can use to be successful in your career.

Conferences and Vendor Training

Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to work at a company that believes in training for its employees. Maybe you have a budget for training, either by attending conferences or by vendor-led training.

But in tougher economic times, these kinds of programs are often the first things to be cut. They’re seen as not being valuable enough – just a “free vacation” for you, with little benefit coming back to the company because of your training. (I’ll address this very real shortcoming in another article)

Also, if other companies don’t offer these kinds of perks, it’s not as if the company will lose you to another firm purely because of the better availability of training somewhere else.

And then there’s the possibility that the company will spend a lot of money sending you to conferences and training, only for you to leave shortly after and benefit another company with that training. Say what you will about that situation, I’ve heard this argument time and time again from companies that are unwilling to pay for training.

So while this type of training can be incredibly useful, it’s still not the kind of thing I’m thinking about.

Taking Responsibility

Take a look at the OJT options I’ve already discussed. In each case it’s someone else that has control of your career. In my classes this is the biggest hurdle for the students to get over: you are in charge of your own success.

“Well, sure” you think to yourself, “I’m fully aware of that.” And perhaps you are. But many times our actions belie our beliefs – we do things, and then when we think about them, we realize they don’t move us closer to our goals.

The Career Notebook

So let’s return to those notebooks on my shelf. These days I use OneNote, an electronic note-taking tool, but regardless of the format, the key is to have one.

You might think that you don’t need to do this, since you learn in other ways. I suggest that you try it – grab a notebook and a pencil, or create a OneNote or other electronic notebook, and give it a chance. Whatever you choose, make sure you can keep it with you at all times – literally at all times while you work. And make a habit to write things down. I’ll explain what things to write down in a moment.

There’s science behind this method. Writing things down – even if you never refer to them again – uses a different part of your brain than hearing the information, which is different yet again from seeing it. Combining all of these methods cements information in your mind, and helps you recall it when you need it.

But the most powerful part of creating a Career Notebook is that it forces you to take responsibility for your own learning, and allows you to learn right where you are. That’s right – there’s enough information in your current work environment to help you get ahead.

You Just Have to Tell Me Once

Whenever I start a new role at a company, or even a new task area, I take a lot of notes. I just write everything down I can about how to do something – even if it looks simple enough the first time.

This prevents me from thinking “I’ve got this down cold”, only to have to ask the person who originally told me how to do it to have to show me all over again. This not only saves me time, but it also saves the other person time, and develops the general belief that I can be trusted to learn something on my own with minimal instruction – something you’ll see in every job requirement at the professional level. It’s one of those subtle things you might not think about, but others are thinking about you. “He’s a nice person and all, but I just have to keep showing him the same things over and over!”

Writing the process down also helps me to communicate it to the next person who gets that role. In fact, I volunteer to help the new person learn the task, even if I’ve just been at it a few weeks. When I teach others, I learn more. Haven’t you ever wished someone helped you get up to speed quickly and efficiently on a task? Then be that person – your boss will notice when you help others succeed.

There’s another benefit to writing down a process. It allows you to research each step to see if you can do it faster, easier and better. In your notebook you can note places to research and what you find out about each part of the task.

Resources Are Key

That last point brings up a great concept – resources. In your notebook, make sure you write down the people that are the Subject Matter Experts (SME) on the topic you’re being taught. I can’t always remember all the names I’m told when I first start at a company, or which department or group has the information, keys, or other things I need to get a job done. I put down names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. This is another “you only have to tell me once” strategy.

I also note down when I talk to that person. If I know three people with expertise in a particular area, I’ll ask them questions in turn – so I don’t pester one person too often. I also make sure they know what I’m good at, and I always offer to help in return.

I’ll also write down books, articles and web links as I’m researching a topic. Last but not least, I write down the locations of internal forums and other places where questions like mine are sure to be asked – and hopefully answered. I’ll also answer the questions I can on those sites.

Developing a paper-network like this is essential to learning right where you are. Participate wherever you can, and ask people’s names and find out what each department does. You’re not only looking for a particular solution, you’re developing a bigger picture of your company – and that knowledge builds up over time. I’ve used this knowledge to cross-pollinate my career, finding what things in aerospace works in manufacturing, which concepts from healthcare inform my career in consulting and more. Being self-aware is a powerful career tool.

It’s a Task List and a History Lesson

I use my Career Notebook for far more than just writing down references or processes. I keep task checklists there, and I’ve even shared some of those as a Mission Critical Tasklist series. Making those checklists at each place I’ve worked helped me learn right where I was – no classes or courses needed.

There are other things I write down about my work environment, such as when to speak up and when to shut up. Lessons I’ve learned the hard way make a great history lesson on what to do and what not to do.

I’ve also recorded the actions of those I’ve seen in authority, and those who are my peers. I don’t write down names, but I do write down actions I’ve seen that work, and those that don’t work. Sure, most of us observe those, but have you ever stopped to write down what you learned from those (sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful) situations? Just today I read back through some of those notebooks, and realized that there are patterns of things to do, and things to avoid, that I should be following even now. I rarely share or show these parts of the notebook to anyone else – they are life-lessons that I take away from each situation.

Use the Notebook to Create a Professional Development Plan

Which leads to the best use of the Career Notebook, and the real way to learn where you are.

Start with your goal. What do you want to accomplish at the company where you work now? Write that down. Then create a plan to get there – books you’ll read, people you’ll want as mentors, those you will mentor, classes you’ll attend or create for yourself. Create a plan to develop your own career.

You’ll find that there are many things you can learn this way right where you are. The more situationally aware you are, the more you’ll see in your organization. And the more you put that learning into practice, the more those around you will notice. You’ll get opportunities you might not have otherwise – you might get a promotion, another role, or perhaps not. Either way, observing the training and lessons you can gain where you are now puts you on the path to controlling your own career – rather than having those around you control it.