One reason people are attracted to the IT industry is because it’s perpetually changing. There’s always a new technology, new product or gadget on the horizon that will change how we work or play. This is what makes our industry one of the most exciting and challenging today. It also makes it one of most challenging. Let’s explore some options for keeping your IT skills current.
Most companies provide at least some training resources for IT staff. A few years back I worked for CompuCom, which gave their employees access to a hundreds of online training courses. I could take any class I wanted without my managers approval.
But what if you’ve exhausted your company-provided training options? I’ve found that even those companies which provide excellent training may not have it in those areas which interest you most. You may need to search outside your company.
Even if you have access to all the training you desire, it never hurts to consider other options. Training is definitely not a “one size fits all” product. Having more options will make your IT department more skilled and happy, which helps you retain the best talent.
Pass a Certification Exam
I hesitated putting this at the top because there will always be a healthy debate about how valuable certifications really are to one’s job. I’ve worked at companies that placed little value on them, and I worked for bosses who used them as a way to promote advancement and salary increases. I fully understand that some people will study only to pass the test. But overall, those people who have passed tests tend to keep their IT skills current.
With well over 1,700 professional IT certifications available, there’s bound to be a few that would round out your skills on about any subject. In fact, the sheer number of certifications available can be a block for those new to the industry. If you’re uncertain which certifications pertain to your job, ask you manager or coworkers. There might be certifications that can be reimbursed by the company if you pass the test and gain specific IT skilles they need.
There are too many certifications to go into in this article, so I asked a few friends which IT certifications made the most difference in their careers. PMP and CISSP were the two most mentioned, followed by VCP and MCSE. None of these are quick and dirty exams you earn over a weekend of study.
The PMP has become a hot exam for IT professionals as they manage larger and more complex projects. It’s also one of the most difficult and costly to earn.
tom’s IT Pro is an excellent place to start if you’re unsure about which certification will get you the best IT skills.
Attend a Conference or Seminar
I never regret getting out of the office to attend a conference or seminar that’s related to the IT industry. I’ve found the more focused conferences provide the most value. For example, the Intel Developer Forum might be more useful for a developer than CES. But even large events can be educational. Those that provide breakout or hands-on training are a great place to gain IT skills.
The goal here is to see what else is going on beyond your cubicle. Here are a few recommendations for conference that might not be on your radar:
Spiceworld: No, it’s not the all-girl band from London. Spiceworks organizes this event for IT pros and tech marketers. It includes over 60 presentations and speakers. It’s not too late to ask you boss if you can attend the November event in Austin, TX this year. Cost? A very reasonable $399.
Microsoft Cloud Roadshow: You’ll have to be patient as Microsoft adds more cities, but this 2-day event was incredibly well-received. It includes a keynote as well as a number of IT-related sessions that cover Microsoft Azure.
Cisco Live: This is Cisco’s premiere education and training event for IT pro. Tickets to Cisco Live are not cheap, and they are often held in exotic locations, but they are worth attending if you’re knee deep in Cisco products.
Interop: I attended this event back in the 90s when it was as packed as CES is today. And it still feels like one big party, but it’s one of only a handful of IT events that attracts a larger international audience. It also draws distinguished speakers in the IT industry.
Visit a Customer
Before you come unglued, hear me out on this one. You’re probably asking why you’d ever want to visit a customer when that’s someone’s job in sales. Too often IT is put in the odd position of believing their customers are company employees. And that’s true to some extent, as they request support from IT staff. But it’s customers who use the products your company makes that keeps the lights on.
Navigating a customer visit can be testy. I’ve had good luck working with account managers who have tight relationships with your company’s most valued customers. Start out by explaining that you’d like to learn a little more about how customers use your products. You’re not there to sell or provide technical assistance. Basically, you’re there to listen. Have patience because it’s worth it.
One thing that makes a customer visit exciting is that you never know what you’re going to hear. Customers might be using your products in ways you never considered. They may share frustrations about your product that you can share with your team. If all you gain from the visit is a little bit of empathy, then it was well worth your while.
The last customer visit I made was to a dentist who had purchased several PCs from us. When I asked where he stored his PCs he pointed to the ceiling. When I ask why, I learned that space was at such a premium that there just wasn’t room for a full-size PC case in each room. The customer stored them in the ceiling where heat and dust were sure to cause eventual problems. I returned home with a plan to build future computers for this customer in small cases that mounted to the back of monitors. Seeing how little space this customer had to work with gave me a new perspective on the size of our cases.
I believe that visiting customers can be one of the most educational moves you can make. Even when I’ve heard about problems or received negative feedback about one of our products, I’ve found the good greatly outweighed the bad. It’s a sure way to improve on your IT skills.
IT Skills: Sharing is Caring
Want to really drill down into a subject? Offer to provide in-house training on the topic you’re studying. Doing this serves a few purposes. It’s a wonderful incentive to study the subject at hand. You’ll have to learn it well enough to teach. The repetition that comes from the learning and sharing will be reward itself. You’re also making yourself more valuable to your company by being willing to share your knowledge with your colleagues.
I’m in the middle of brushing up on a subject in order to train a number of new support staff in a few weeks. Knowing that I’ll have to share my knowledge has given me greater focus to hone in on those parts of the topic that I can confidently share with others.
A manager once told me that his most valued employees were not always those who held the most lofty titles or had amassed the greatest number of skills. In his mind, the most valuable employees were those who could train and mentor newer employees.
What types of training have you found to be the most valuable in your career?