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Staying on top of the heap (relative understanding)

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

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One of the biggest challenges technology professionals face is staying on top of the quickly changing technology landscape. While there are some tried and true technologies that aren’t going anywhere soon (like SQL), you can bet every other professional out there knows these as well. So how do you keep up with change? Here is one technique I use that helps me a great deal.

Change is something we should know a lot about. A whole school of thought has developed around the inevitability of change at the project level. But change is just as ubiquitous at the industry level, and not everyone gets it. Businesses face new problems, technologies emerge to better handle them, and IT professionals must adapt and become proficient at these or have their value in the marketplace diminished.

One technique I’ve used to stay abreast of technology is relative understanding. My definition for this is that you can understand something most easily through comparison to something known.

For a trivial example, take driving a car where your experience is with automatic transmissions. You would have spent time learning five things:

  1. A key turned in the ignition switch starts the car
  2. The steering wheel controls your direction
  3. Stepping on the gas peddle accelerates.
  4. Gear shifting happens automatically when you accelerate
  5. Stepping on brake slows and eventually stops you.

If faced with learning how to drive a car with a standard transmission, you have to know five things:

  1. A key turned in the ignition switch starts the car
  2. The steering wheel controls your direction
  3. Stepping on the gas peddle accelerates
  4. To shift gears you need to press the clutch while manipulating a lever.
  5. You need to keep the clutch pressed while idling
  6. Stepping on brake slows and eventually stops you.

Here, it is easy to see that the knowledge needed to drive cars with automatic and standard transmissions are virtually identical. You already know most of what you need to know to drive a standard. All you really need to spend time learning is:

  1. Gear shifting does not happen automatically in a standard like it does in an automatic
  2. In a standard, you press the clutch and manipulate a lever to change gears.
  3. In a standard, you keep the clutch pressed while idling

Recognizing this is more difficult when facing complex tasks that may be abstract in nature (technology oftentimes) or large in scale (like an enterprise business system). So when I approach something new, I start asking myself “What do I know that shares characteristics with this?”  When learning Ruby as a Java expert, for instance, I quickly understood that I didn’t need to relearn every operator, flow control statement, or language feature to be productive. What I needed to know is “How is Ruby different from Java?”

So what do you think? Do you use relative understanding? Is it a conscious process? What are some ways you may have used it in your professional or personal life?

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