Comment lines: When climbing onto the shoulders of giants, use a good ladder

IT professionals are required to be innovative. A technology learning "framework" can help you get a head start on acquiring the knowledge and insight you need to have a truly innovative impact on your products, systems, and processes. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

Tony Efremenko (tonye1@us.ibm.com), Certified Master IT Specialist, EMC

Tony Efremenko photoTony Efremenko is a Certified Master IT Specialist with IBM, with over 24 years of experience in the software industry.


developerWorks Contributing author
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26 May 2010

Also available in Chinese

Refining your IT learning framework leads to innovation

I don’t know how you spent your time during the recession of 2008-2009, but like a lot of people, I had to buckle my belt, stick to basics, and push forward. From a work perspective, it was clear that any plan that started with "First, we buy this thing…" or "Let me take some time away from billable work and evaluate this for a few weeks…" was not going to be well-received. So I hunkered down and worked with proven tools and techniques that had yielded success in the past while trying to leverage the best of my personal efficiencies.

That time opened my eyes to areas where I could improve things, and it’s clear that a lot of things that were left to themselves then are getting much needed attention now. In the last few months I’ve seen how some older generation systems that were designed with less power and outdated designs are finally getting replaced with next generation systems, and those improvements are giving me back a lot of valuable time. In that same spirit of applying overdue improvements to the systems I work on, I decided that now is a good time to apply some upgrades to the "system" that I use the most: me.

Because my productivity dial got turned up so high during the recession, I decided to try and find a different dial that I could turn to get more professional growth. As a consultant, I accept the reality that to stay ahead of the competition, I have to show progress in my newly delivered products; I can’t just produce the old things with greater and greater efficiency (although that’s better than producing the old things with less and less efficiency). To get more professional growth and the end-results to show it, I would need to find better ways to do things; I would need to innovate more.

To do that, I look out as far as I can toward the horizon of what’s new and exciting in technology to see where a given path might lead me. My objective is to build upon the right things; things that I hope will be around for a while. I don't want to build my brilliant answer to life's problems on an outdated foundation. I also don’t want to use some new technology to arrive at a discredited solution that’s been passed by in the marketplace.

Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Now, you can’t go wrong quoting Isaac Newton. But if that's is a bit too high-brow for you, try this one from the equally wise Three Stooges:

" I can't see, I can't see!"
"What's'a'matter!?"
"I got my eyes closed."

Whichever quote inspires you, the bottom line is that I believe with a little discipline and structure, you can open your eyes to what's already out there and use the daily deluge of new IT information as your starting point for innovation. I use frameworks for lots of things in IT, and they work well to provide a structure and a quick starting point to move things along. In fact, we all have our own "learning frameworks" for picking up new stuff, whether we’re aware of it or not. I will share some specifics of mine with you here, hoping that maybe you’ll be able to add some of these nuts and bolts to your own framework to make it work for you a little better.

In describing my own learning framework, I want to:

  • Remind you that the demands for learning new things in IT and learning them quickly and thoroughly are more intense than ever -- and that for most of us, innovation isn’t just a luxury, it’s a requirement.
  • Emphasize that, as with computing frameworks, it’s good to have to a kind of disciplined system and repeatable method to help you come up to speed on new things. There’s some science to support doing it this way, and adding some discipline to the mix can work wonders.

Ladders, in theory

If the Internet is the highway for all of this knowledge, globalization has increased the speed limit needed to keep from getting run over. In a global economy, failing to at least stay on top of things means that someone, somewhere will find a way to do that thing you do more cheaply and make your edgy solution a commodity.

It’s possible that I might stumble upon some good ideas as part of my daily work, but I don’t want to count on that alone. I work in an innovative environment and my daily tasks are challenging, but I don’t want to stay just a little bit ahead based on what my personal context will bring; I want to get as far out (or up) as I can to see all of what’s out there. One way to do that is to stay on top of change and incorporate the best ideas into my solutions.

I like it when conventional wisdom has some grounding in a scientific approach. I’m not a developmental psychologist, but I thought it would be fun to check into some textbook research into how people learn and retain information. What I found is that, according to Cognitive Psychology (Fifth Edition, John B. Best, Eastern Illinois University, Copyright 1999, Wadsworth Publishing), while rote repetition of a topic produced learning and was helpful, users became more skilled in memory strategies when they had some sort of system in which to apply it. Further studies confirmed that that knowledge and reason have a "braided" relationship, meaning they feed off each other.

So, my take-away is that as you learn something and then apply it, you can go back and learn more on a second pass. The second pass would provide deeper insights to get a greater overall knowledge. My own test of whether this works is whether I can explain it to someone else.


Ladders in practice (well, my ladder)

With science backing up what a lot of us suspected anyway, here’s my knowledge acquisition framework; it’s simple enough, but the details -- where you get and apply the ideas – are what’s important.

1. Think like a CIO

Your CIO knows what the hot trends are because he or she is responsible for how the company spends its money on IT services, and doesn’t have money to waste. A CIO doesn’t have infinite time to dive into a topic, but any decisions have to be strategically correct and provide a good Return on Investment. Put yourself in the shoes of a CIO to determine if your idea has merit, because these are the people who are the decision makers in the industry.

To help you think that way, it helps to understand the business pressures at hand. For example, I read the Wall Street Journal to keep a daily bead on how businesses in various industries are doing. This is part of my client focus in which I try to understand the pressures my clients are experiencing. For overall IT industry trends, I like to have a filter of some kind. To know what others are interested in, I read periodicals like Information Week and Network Computing. There are many good industry periodicals out there, but these might be good places to start. Find out what’s got others excited to see where the industry is trending. (See Resources.

Speaking of trends, I have found that the expansion of multi media videos and slide shows help me ramp up my knowledge quickly. If you haven’t seen it, a really nice tool of this type is the IBM® Education Assistant. It provides videos, slide shows, and guided cursor shows on topics ranging from securing your Web application to IBM DB2® integration. The Education Assistant even has guided help on using the Education Assistant!

If you can, try to attend an industry conference. A very important reason to do so is for additional motivation to innovate. While getting to a conference costs more than an online subscription to an industry magazine, you have to ask yourself: where else am I going to get access to so many innovative, skilled people in one room other than at an industry conference like IBM’s IMPACT event? It’s very hard to measure a dollar-for-dollar return on such a thing, but the creative energy that flows from such events is astounding. When I attend our IBM conferences, I know I get the best information and insight from the people who created the products. It motivates me to excel and gives me a boost for months to follow.

Also, don’t forget to keep track of the competition. There are probably other companies that do the same thing kind of thing you do, and it’s important to understand where they’re coming from.

2. Act like you have to build it

From a high level, you now know where you want to go, but to really understand something, you have to try it out. Perhaps it’s been a while since you coded something and perhaps you no longer consider yourself "technical." One thing that learning frameworks show us is that adults learn best by doing, and there are now more ways than ever to test drive a technology.

Thanks to cloud computing, it has never been easier to do that. In this context, "cloud" means renting a virtual machine to try out a product accessible via the Internet. Doing this enables you to try things out with a smaller investment footprint. For example, IBM has devoted an entire developerWorks zone to the cloud. You’ll find many IBM products are tailor-made for execution over a cloud, whether it’s an entirely new offering a component that you can now access via the cloud.

Of course, you can also use many IBM products on a 60 day trial basis before purchase (see Resources. If you are an IBM Business Partner, you might also be able to access IBM software for specific uses. See the IBM Software Access Catalog for more information.

Most tools and technologies also come with samples that enable (and encourage) you to do just that. In addition, if you like lots of code snippets and examples that illustrate how to a job done, you should be a regular visitor to developerWorks, which contains many wonderful samples, context-aware write-ups, and tutorials. It’s always my first stop for digging in on new information.

If you prefer professional guidance to self-help, consider IBM training. Many traditional classroom courses are now available remotely, making technical education more convenient and cost effective than ever. Over the years, I have worked with many of the instructors directly, and you can’t beat their experience, dedication, and insight into how products are presented and how they should be used.

3. Repeat as necessary

Once you have drilled into a topic, you’re primed for some serious insight. I use IBM Redbooks for a deeper reference on topics that I seek. I particularly like the performance tuning handbooks such as the ones for WebSphere Application Server and Linux on System z, but there are so many outstanding ones it doesn’t seem fair to single out any of them here.

I always recommend getting credit for the learning experience, a diploma of sorts. An excellent way to obtain that credit is to certify with the product. Product certifications are industry-recognized credentials that show you have worked with and understand the product, and are great ways to illustrate your knowledge for your clients.

Of course, the final test of your knowledge is if you can explain it to others. Remember to give back to your profession by mentoring others in whatever topics you decide to learn about. It will help your protégés, of course, but it will also help you solidify your own knowledge, and enhance your professional and technical integrity with both your clients and colleagues.


Conclusion

I'm lucky. Here at IBM, pursuing innovation is part of the culture, so I've got access to tons of information on our industry-leading initiatives. If you're reading this, then you do too. IBM developerWorks is a fantastic forum of original ideas and new technology. It’s a great resource to get a leg up on your competition, and stage yourself for innovation. But there are other areas to explore, and I’ve listed some of them here. I want my innovation to be based on the best available knowledge, and I get it by first thinking like a CIO, then getting my hands dirty by trying out what I think works, then circling back to do it again until I can certify on what I’ve learned. Finally, I give back to help others, which cements the knowledge in.

So, watch your head as your ride those giants’ shoulders, and good luck harnessing all that insight and knowledge into your next generation of projects, products, or offerings. Now, if that giant would just stand still for a minute while I shore up this ladder...

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