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How technologists should approach professional development

Old approaches to professional development don't stand up to the pace of change in the cloud-native world. Here's how DevOps professionals can cope.

In the old days, professional development was about reading books, magazine articles, online bulletin boards and attending conferences. Your company might fund a week off for you to go for training. You might even take a college course on the weekend or at night. Things moved at a slower pace back then, both in terms of technology churn and employee turnover.

Today, things change fast -- really fast. For example, v.1 of Kubernetes first appeared in 2015. V.19 was released in late 2020. That averages out to a version tick every six months. New Java releases come at the same pace.

Compare this to releases of the Windows OS. Windows 1.0 appeared in its rudimentary form back in 1985. Windows 10 showed up 30 years later in 2015, which averages a version tick every three years.

The pace of change in the IT industry has accelerated immensely. In a complicated, highly integrated, cloud-native environment, one unanticipated change can cause havoc.

I know this from personal experience. I had a whole bunch of Kubernetes Deployments that worked perfectly fine, until one day they didn't. It turns out Kubernetes upgraded the API group for Deployments to apps/v1 in version 1.9. Any manifest file that used one of the old group IDs, such as extensions/v1beta1, apps/v1beta1 or apps/v1beta2 would blow up in recent versions of K8s. I had a lot of fixing to do to set things right.

New technologies arrive often, and established ones change fast. Developers have to keep up, which might require an entirely new approach to professional development.

Modern professional development approaches

For many, the conventional wisdom of "going out for training" is still in play. You attend an intensive course in which you are given a PowerPoint deck, a PDF and 3-5 days of lectures and labs. You're expected to gobble up the information to some productive end.

And, unless a project comes along that allows you to exercise your new skills, you will have forgotten all you've learned or things will have changed so much in the interim that what you learned months ago is outdated. These are real perils, and they happen all the time.

Take command of your professional development

So, what's to be done? Enter the bar scene from the movie, Good Will Hunting.

All that you need to stay ahead in IT is there for the taking. It's just a matter of doing the work.

The movie is about a working-class genius named Will Hunting with a photographic memory who can absorb vast amounts of information. In the scene, a grad student is trying to embarrass one of Will's friends at a bar by engaging him in a deep discussion of economic trends in 18th century America. But Will steps in and, of course, has read his fair share of 18th century American economic theory. In his big speech to the grad student, Will says: "You dropped $150 grand on an education you could have gotten for a $1.50 in late charges at the public library."

The point of the analogy is this: All that you need to stay ahead in IT is there for the taking. It's just a matter of doing the work.

An abundance of resources at your fingertips

Conventional professional development methods have become inefficient. In-house employee training is now more rare. It's up to you to identify the resources you need to stay current.

Fortunately, most everything you need to know about a given technology is available online. Vendors, foundations and organizations that produce a particular technology provide countless tutorials. There's a good case to be made that, given the ample resources available practically for free, you shouldn't depend on a third party to deliver the material you need to move forward with your professional development. It's a waste of time and money.

Want to learn about Kubernetes? Check out the tutorials published by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). Want to learn about the details of Envoy? You can check out videos from recent KubeCon conferences. Want to learn how to handle transactions under a microservice architecture? Database and NoSQL vendors like MongoDB and Couchbase provide a suite of online videos that describe how to do exactly that. These are just a few examples of the thousands of educational resources available out there.

Putting it all together

To be professionally viable, you need to stay current with trends and technologies in your field. The unemployment lines are filled with people who learned a technology years ago, stayed stagnant and then found themselves out of work when a company's tech stack changed. Some companies are willing to help those in the throes of obsolescence. A growing number are not. In many ways, you're on your own.

To stay relevant, take complete responsibility for your professional development. The resources are there for you. Get going.

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