Gavin Payne is a principal architect for Coeo, a SQL Server professional services company, and a Microsoft Certified Architect and Microsoft Certified Master. His role is to guide and lead organisations through data platform transformation and cloud adoption programmes.
This is one of the two winning articles for the Learning at Work Week 2015 competition – Great work Gavin and hope you enjoy your prize bundle!
Those familiar with Mastermind, the UK TV quiz show, will know it’s the general knowledge round that makes or breaks a contestant, not their specialist subject. I take the same approach with my career development – it’s great to have a specialist subject but knowing about the environment I use it in is just as important.
In the beginning
When we start our careers in IT, we look quickly to become generalists. Knowing enough about most things, if only so we know what we don’t know. We then start a race to learn everything about a specific technology or skill. Then, once we’ve achieved a respectable standard, we start looking for newer, harder or rarer knowledge to learn. In today’s digital era and IT industry, that’s not difficult as the pace of change often sees the most important technologies being some of the newest.
Balancing depth and breadth
However, while the world always needs experts, now more than ever those experts need a strong awareness of the world they work within. Having deep knowledge gets the job done, but having broad knowledge helps us understand what the job is in the first place.
As our careers develop so should the breadth of our knowledge. Fortunately, our broad knowledge can be much more superficial compared to our specialist knowledge. Knowing how a business works doesn’t mean running your own and knowing how a new cloud service works doesn’t mean using it.
What a broader range of knowledge should do is let you start having different conversations with existing or different peers – and understanding your impact on their world. It might be understanding more about why a user needs a specific piece of functionality – or helping your DevOps team prepare for production deployments.
Learning 30% at a time
So how do we broaden our knowledge when we’re used to specialising? Our usual books, blogs and news articles about our specialist subject areas won’t be effective. Our existing knowledge makes reading those like sifting for gold in a stony river. We have to read the 70% familiar in the hope of finding the 30% of unfamiliar.
To broaden my knowledge, I flip those numbers around. I read material where whichever 30% I actually understand will be new and don’t worry I won’t understand the remaining 70%.
Doing this is easier than it sounds. For me as a cloud and data strategist, this can be reading an MSDN blog article about Redis Cache or the “powerful new omni-channel retail capabilities” in Dynamics AX. Rather than find new sources of information, I’m just more open minded about those I already use – MSDN, TechNet etc.
Maturing an IT professional’s knowledge
Technology’s pace of change has always meant and will always mean IT professionals need relevant and current knowledge. Nevertheless, they should also take a moment to learn about the wider environment that they’re a part of.
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