“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”
-- Henry Ford
Whether the ink on your diploma is still fresh or you have long ago forgotten where you put the thing, real learning begins when you graduate and ends only when you give up. In the IT profession, continuing education must be a part of your career plan; the industry just changes too fast. But how do you find the time? Many struggling to work while attending school imagined how much easier life would be in the working world, but the reality is a frenzied juggling act trying to balance work and personal life with too few hours in the day. The two keys to success are creating a learning action plan and mining the vast array of options available to us in a connected world.
The Learning Action Plan
As with all disciplines, the key to success is to make this goal a priority. Define where you want to be at the end of the year so you can map a feasible path to that destination. Make it part of your work performance plan; increased competencies will benefit both you and your employer. Consider both the technical skills and leadership qualities you’ll need to stay competitive. Rely on your manager or a mentor to help you identify growth opportunities and commit to them. If your company supports 360 (aka peer) evaluations, ask for one; the input can be quite valuable.
Be clear on where you want to go with your career. Someone planning to spend many more years in the technical realm may focus the greater percentage of learning on deepening technical knowledge. Those aspiring to management need to put a laser focus on three key leadership skills: communication, collaboration, and influence.
Document your plan and share it with your manager. Accountability is important because, as the year continues, it will be only too easy to let it slide. Education is important and urgent; make sure it doesn’t get pushed aside.
College. At one time, the only real option was to go back to school. For some, this is still a viable concept, but it takes a major time commitment. If you’re looking for a dramatic career change or a promotion to senior management, college may be your best option. With online courses, you can attend classes on your own schedule, without wasted time on travel. Many colleges offer great adult education or continuing education programs, where you aren’t required to be pursuing a degree. Check out your local university, but also look online for e-learning offerings. Marist College is becoming known for its mainframe educational offerings; it operates the Institute for Data Center Professionals. With the increasing demand for new talent in this area, other options will emerge.
Scheduled classes. Many vendors offer in-person training that can be scheduled at your company site or at the vendor’s offices. This is the best way to really learn a product from a master; these classes are ideally suited for newcomers to a field and those who are transferring to new responsibilities. Experts in the field also have created businesses to offer classes that are product-agnostic. Some mainframe education leaders include Peter Enrico, Cheryl Watson, Toigo Partners, and others; these educators generally offer a great deal of real-world experience. Many of them came up through the ranks, learning on the job; their courses are suitable for people at many different levels. It’s also useful to engage with top experts in your field; such networking often pays off.
Conferences. There are two major types of conferences—vendor-affiliated and non-vendor. The former is particularly good when you want to gain more value from your existing investment in hardware or software. You have the chance to meet with systems engineers and developers and really understand how to work smarter. The latter is designed to help you go wide and deep; you learn a lot on a variety of subjects. For people new to an area, this is the best way to get the equivalent of many weeks of education in one week. You can often access archives for sessions you missed. For experts, conferences are often where the new, leading-edge material is found. It’s beneficial to meet the creators of the new technology and see where the future might lead you. The newest type of conference, the virtual trade show, offers most of the benefits of an in-person conference with two significant differences—you won’t need to travel to attend and you can generally access the material for a longer time after the show. Technology has made virtual trade shows an engaging and enlightening learning mode, allowing people to interact virtually, obtain interactive product demonstrations, talk to colleagues, and do anything you can conceive of doing in cyberspace.
Online training. Training is available when you want it online via Webcasts, podcasts, and videos. The challenge is finding it. Sign up for regular emails from IBM, z/Journal and Mainframe Executive (via www.MainframeZone.com), Tech Target, and others to be notified of upcoming Webcasts. Check with your vendors; most have an events page, highlighting Webcasts and podcasts. Much good content is available for free and often can be viewed at your convenience. Should you decide to listen live, you get the added benefit of being able to ask questions. Increasingly, premium content is available at a charge, but considering the alternatives, it’s often worth opting for this kind of training rather than a more costly option.
Mentoring. A mentor is a career guide—someone who can help you navigate bureaucracy, hone your skills, and generally assist you. Everyone should have mentors throughout their career and, as soon as possible, offer to mentor others. Even if there’s no formal program at your company, nothing can stop you from asking someone to mentor you. Select people who are in roles you’d like to attain; people who have perfected a skill you’d like to enhance. A mentor knows the career mine fields and can help you traverse them unscathed. What’s in it for the mentor? Aside from the compliment of being seen as a leader, mentors learn from their protégés. Everyone has ideas to offer; we all bring innovative ways of doing things to the table. No matter your experience level, it’s always refreshing to see more possibilities.
On-the-job training. Most well-experienced mainframe professionals learned their craft this way. Teaming with experts and learning hands-on can be the most powerful learning experience possible. Along with formal training, pairing new hires with the legacy talent is a fast track for success. When beginning a new job, always ask to be matched with someone who can help you navigate the system and the organization. Every company manages their infrastructure differently. You need help learning how people get things done at your company and determining what needs to be done. New mainframe professionals often challenge that this option doesn’t seem to be available to them; their more experienced counterparts don’t seem to want to help. If you want help from a mentor, do your homework first. Read the manual and attempt to help yourself before asking a question. Request an opportunity to watch someone perform a task and ask questions as they work. Offer to take on tasks as you learn them. Most people pride themselves on their hard-won knowledge; build a relationship so your colleague will want to help you succeed.
Group affiliations. For many areas of IT, there are groups of like-minded individuals who meet in person or have a technical exchange site where questions can be posed and answered. Groups may also be much more informal—an email list of people who share information. CMG (Computer Measurement Group), SHARE, and other organizations provide a network of support to draw on when you’re trying to deal with a new challenge. It’s possible to develop a network of colleagues across the globe. Few problems are completely unique; someone has already been working on a solution. You simply have to ask. LinkedIn is also a way to develop a powerful information network. You can access people in your own network and connect to other people via their network connections. You need to be invited to join, but it’s easy to find a friend who is already a member. Set up your profile and start asking friends/colleagues to join your network. You can form interest groups, post questions, or search on your IT areas of interest to find LinkedIn groups to join. In fact, the MainframeZone LinkedIn group, which is administered by Mainframe Executive publisher, Bob Thomas, is intended to be a resource for all things mainframe. This group features discussions on the latest mainframe-centric topics, news, articles, and blogs. Or, check out www.Trexxers.com, the new mainframe community Website. This site includes news, articles, links, events, and a technical exchange.
Where once a training plan was created for you and in-person training was funded, the burden is now on you to seize the opportunities to learn. With the breadth of opportunities available to learn at low cost, you can find the knowledge you need, no matter what your budget or ability to travel. As financial advisors note, pay yourself first. Make it a priority to invest in your own education first. As American spiritual teacher, author, and philosopher Vernon Howard put it, “Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.”