Life-Long Learners


I use to teach some evening classes at the local community college.  Actually, I’ve been teaching evening classes at a variety of places since around 1980.  But in teaching college students, it became obvious to me that there were two types of students (ok, this is not a binary joke that begins with: There are 10 types of computers students, those that get it and those that don’t.)

The first type of student was very enthusiastic about learning whatever technology I happened to be teaching that semester.  These were the students who always read the textbook material before class, paid attention in class, and turned in homework not only on time, but which also went beyond the requirements of the question with additional features and functions.

The second type of student would come into class with no idea of what was going to be covered that night, played solitaire on their computers during the lecture and turned in their homework barely on time or perhaps a little late with the minimum of features and functionality to get a passing grade.  (You may argue that there was a third type that never read the book or did the homework and missed every other class, but I submit to you that they never graduated or at least not within the IT curriculum.)

But what made one group so different from the other?  Why did some students no only excel but appear to want to go further into each topic while other students spent more time typing to figure out the minimal amount of work that would still get them a passing grade and eventually a diploma.  After years of seeing this same pattern, I think the answer involves a curiosity or desire to learn as much as possible, a need to understand how things work and why, and a passion for making a difference with what they have learned.  Typically this went beyond the mere desire to get a job in the latest new technology or in a field they perceived as making a ‘great’ salary.  Rather, this high performance group can be classified better by their desire to continually re-invent themselves every few years to keep up with the changes in technology.  I suspect it also keeps them motivated by continually challenging them. 

Eventually that other  finds themselves working at a company or organization which is barely getting by, where innovation is absent, the excitement of what they are doing is absent and where staying the course become the norm.  Eventually these people drift into other careers either out of boredom or out of layoffs as those companies shrink or go out of business.

It was because of this realization that I would often tell my classes that if they think they can go to school for a few years, graduate, and then get a ‘cool’ job where they will never ever have to pick up another book again, they were kidding themselves and wasting their own money or the money of their parents.  Technology and specifically computer technology is changing at a rapid pace that requires successful people to continually learn new things. I’m not implying that you should jump from one technology to another every month or even every year (although I know some changes appear to come out that frequently).  However, I would have you consider a continuous growth in your skills in your current technology of choice along with an eye on trends that may lead to a major change in your career path every 5 to 10 years.

What do I mean by continuous growth?  Well there are books, on-line webinars and training videos, conferences and even local user groups.  For example, this Saturday is a SQL Saturday event in Tampa FL (http://www.sqlsaturday.com/86/eventhome.aspx) focusing on BI (Business Intelligence if you haven’t been keeping up with the ever-changing acronyms).  In fact, there are a couple of other SQL Saturday events around the country on the same day.  These events offer a full day of training typically for free.  Can’t beat that price!

Who do I mean by an eye on long term trends?  Take the example of the growth of the Internet since the mid 1990’s, or of web application development vs COBOL or FORTRAN applications on mainframes, or more recently the explosion of SharePoint as an office tool platform since 2007.  Most recently, the latest ‘bright shiny object’ is BI, especially with all the new capabilities offered through SQL Server 2012, SharePoint 2010, and PowerPivot for Excel and SharePoint.

So are you spending at least some time with or without your organization’s support learning these new things?  If so, I salute you.  You are definitely a life-long learner.

BTW: I may not find time for a technical blog entry this weekend as I will be at the Tampa SQL Saturday event where I will be conducting a session on using External Data Content Types in SharePoint 2010 (http://www.sqlsaturday.com/viewsession.aspx?sat=86&sessionid=4621).  On the other hand, maybe I’ll do a review of the event.  Follow us on Twitter with the hashtag: #SQLSAT86.

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