Achieving success as an IT industry worker requires a commitment to becoming a lifelong learner, someone who continually adds to their technical education as they advance through their career. To this end, it's important for IT professionals at all levels to create and maintain a continuing education strategy.
An active continuing education strategy is essential for maintaining relevance in a competitive IT job market, and to keep your skills and knowledge current.
Information technology is not a static industry. The only thing constant about the IT industry is change, which is why steady devotion to continuing education is so important for tech workers. Whether you're a desktop support specialist or a CIO, staying on top of developments in information technology is an essential component of your job.
Active vs. passive
Keeping your education current can be a significant challenge, which is best approached with a plan based on an active strategy instead of a passive strategy.
An active strategy mirrors the approach you would choose when planning a work project. It requires choosing a path to follow, identifying the targets you intend to achieve along the way, and the major goal that serves as the completion of the current path, and a launchpad to the next goal.
A passive continuing education strategy is reactive rather than proactive. Being passive leads you to pause your education even while technology and industry trends evolve. Eventually, your knowledge and skills will become less relevant to the modern enterprise until you update them.
Using an active continuing education strategy enables you to proactively make informed decisions about what you may need to learn next, and create a plan to do just that.
Set your path
Once you've committed yourself to an active continuing education strategy, the next step is to select the building blocks of your plan. These components aren't much different from those found in a traditional full-time education plan, but there are some slight variations.
The first step is to identify which IT discipline(s) you intend to focus on. If you are already working in the industry, then you might want to have a discussion with your employer on what they think you should study. Your manager or another coworker may know more about your employer's future plans regarding IT infrastructure, which puts them in a good position to advise you on what your technology priorities could be.
If you are not currently working, then you can choose to learn a new IT discipline that compliments your existing knowledge and skills, or you might want to double-down on your chosen field of specialty. There isn't a clear advantage between these two choices; instead, you should think about your personal career path and ask yourself:
Am I willing to relocate to find the job I want, or is it important to me to stay in the region I live in now? If you want to stay where you currently live, look through the local IT job listings to see if there is a highly-desired specialty that you could learn, or if it would be better to expand on your current skillset. Alternatively, if you are free to move to where your ideal job exists, base your new IT discipline on this knowledge.
What kind of work do I want to do in the future? Part of an active continuing education strategy is to set you up for future employment in a career you find fulfilling and rewarding. Make your education choice at least partially based on this goal.
How do you learn?
Once you know the subject of your ongoing education, you should research and select a delivery method that works best for the type of learner you are.
There are four classic types of learners:
Visual: learn more from pictures, diagrams, and charts
Auditory: learn more from lectures and voice-delivered lessons
Kinesthetic: learn more from hands-on labs and other physical activities
Reading/Writing: classic textbook-based learners who thrive on written materials
Knowing which type of learner you are — or which combination of learning styles suits you best — is a big help when selecting the type of education delivery system to employ. While you may not be able to choose your top option due to time constraints or work/life balance, you can at least keep your ideal learning method in mind when planning your ongoing education.
And, since this is a project after all, you should create a project plan for your continuing education. Your project plan is what "keeps you honest" during your learning journey. It should contain a list of objectives and milestones built on a timeline that is appropriate for the level of training you are undertaking.
Again, don't be passive about your project plan. Set hard deadlines based on the best scheduling information you have. It is better to miss a milestone due to an illness or other personal obstacle, than it is to have a vague "it happens when it happens" schedule.
Set a timeline
Finally, if your continuing education plan culminates in earning a new certification, choose a date and time for your exam as early in the process as possible and book the appointment. Your exam booking creates a statement of intent that will help you to be responsible and stay within the mindset of your ultimate goal.
Remember that the goal of continuing education isn't to cause anxiety or stress. But be aware that it has been proven in numerous human psychology studies that a typical procrastinator causes themselves far more stress than someone who creates a solid plan with a realistic schedule, and then strives to meet the objectives of their plan.
Lifelong learning is an outlook, a way of seeing yourself and your professional career as a positive and deliberate endeavor. IT professionals should see themselves as constantly evolving just as the technology they work with does. This is achievable through the creation of a continuing education strategy that builds intent and improvement into your personal and professional life.