In this business, we have to learn constantly, sometimes under duress of project deadlines.

Back to School

In this business, we have to learn constantly, sometimes under duress of project deadlines.

September is that month when most of us trundle the little ones to school after a summer of fun and games, camps, beaches, family vacations to Meat Sculpture Adventure Land, and all that June and Ward Cleaver stuff. Boy, my Fabio and I are lucky enough only to be blessed with nieces and nephews! Still, I remember the rhythms of school-age children, and somewhat wistfully I recall when the summer months meant I didn’t have to learn a thing.

Those days are long gone, “with O’Leary in the grave,” to steal a line from W.B. Yeats. And with much the same melancholy that pervaded the poetry of the Irish Revolution, I know there’s no longer a time of year in which we system engineers, developers, architects, DBAs, Web gurus, and the like get to say to a customer, “Sorry, school’s out. I’ll get back to you on that one after Labor Day.” School’s never out for us, at least not for those who don’t want to fall behind the state of the art.

Sure, we can schedule the part of our learning that centers around certifications. For example, I still have to re-certify for the current MCSD requirements over the next 12 months or so, and I can actually plan when I’m going to study for which test.

But it’s the other component to the learning plan of the IT professional that’s tougher to schedule. That’s when your employer or customer says, “We decided we need a Flumitz Server organization built. You can do that, right?” or “We need some customization of that Accounts Receivable app. It’s written in Visual Codewhacker. Can you have it done by next Wednesday?” or “We need to bind this fresh vegetable database to the traffic signal sequencing system for Milwaukee. And keep the parsnips fresh, OK?”

First, find the nearest small, dark, quiet room and have your panic attack (you’ve already agreed to the assignment, of course, since it’s a genetic imperative for all of us developers). Auntie recommends bringing along one of those shredding posts for cats; they’re excellent tension-busters and they fling really, really well.

Then, fire up your favorite Web search engine. Remember that you don’t have to start the project knowing every minute detail of Flumitz Server, Visual Codewhacker, or database/traffic signal binding. You just have to start with enough knowledge in the area so that you can ask intelligent questions. You’ll always start by asking questions. Various solution frameworks and problem-solving methodologies have different names for this phase of an assignment, which Auntie calls the SOB (Saving Our Bacon) phase.

The answers you get to your questions should help you focus the regrettably necessary, additional after-hours research you’ll need to do to start putting your solution together. The further along you go, the more you’ll be able to be specific in your searching. At the end of the job, when you’ve built a solution based on a tool or technique you previously didn’t know squat about, you’ll have acquired not just new skills but a real-world example of their use, which you can flaunt like crazy the next time you update your résumé, meet a headhunter, or pitch to a prospective customer. Now that’s learning, and the feedback’s a lot more satisfying than a B+ and “You’ll see, Miss Pea, you’ll need to know polynomial factoring when you’re a grown-up.”

Like it or not, in this business we have to learn constantly, sometimes at our own pace and sometimes under duress. If you’re being approached with these Dilbert-like, seemingly impossible jobs with tight deadlines, you can either think, “What are they, crazy?” or “What am I, good or something?” Try the second train of thought, because they probably are crazy anyway, and that has nothing to do with your skill set. If you’ve got a rep for being good, build it and nurture it, and remember that the most important thing you’ve learned in your life isn’t Flumitz Server or polynomial factoring—it’s how to learn.

Just understand that there are times when you’ll be cruising Visual Codewhacker tutorial sites at 2 a.m. for a snippet that will let you bubble-sort Accounts Payable entries by astrological sign. It’s a cost of doing business and, believe it or not, a sign of your own success. When you’re done, take a night or two off, and then get your buns back into study mode for that certification exam you had to put off to do the Flumitz job.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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