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How to keep your IT skills up to date

When I was growing up, I was always told that you went to college, got a degree and then got a job. The implication here is that once you have your schooling done and over with, you don’t have to go back and learn anything else in the formal sense. The rest of your career is more or less “on-the-job” training.

If I tried to apply this same logic to my career in the IT industry, I’d still be working on a Novel Server and referring to the stack of red books on my shelf whenever I needed to brush up.

The problem is, IT knowledge can quickly become obsolete and about as useful as that set of encyclopedias I bought in 1990 – all good knowledge up until that year!

Most of us trained and formed our base knowledge at college or through various certifications. Then we got jobs working in IT. Some of our jobs required us to keep different certificates up to date, but for most part we can get by simply having the knowledge to get the job done.

When I worked in an MSP, I had a test server sitting on my kitchen table with the MCTS exam 70-640 Configuring Windows Server 2008 study book on it, which was as thick as a dictionary. Each night I would come home, mentally exhausted from the day’s issues and problems, and attempt to work through the material.

Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, and then 2012 Server was coming out…

Even if I mastered all the material for that certificate, it would be obsolete in a short matter of time. This goes to show how challenging it can be keeping up on technical knowledge.

So what’s the answer?

If you’re after knowledge and skill sets, here are a few tips I’d like to pass along that I acquired in my 20 years in the IT field.

What are your cringe topics?

You know the ones I mean. These are the terms (or worse: acronyms) that come up in conversations with other techs that you nod and smile about, but really could not explain if asked. As these topics come along, make note of them. Then take the five minutes you’d normally spend on mindless surfing and search for an article on the subject. Or, better yet find a YouTube teacher who is good at explaining it. You’d be surprised at how quickly your knowledge stays current if you do this regularly.

Ask the experts!

Take on the position of learner and simply ask someone who appears to know something you don’t to explain the technology to you. IT conferences are a great way to make these kinds of connections. Don’t just run around hunting for swag. Get into meaty conversations with the vendors who are experts in their fields.

And finally, if you want to pursue certifications, then focus on exams that are not software specific. CompTIA has some great foundational certificates that will give you knowledge you can use to build a firm foundation. Even if you don’t plan to take the exams, pick a topic and buy a study guide on it. Stick it on your desk or in your backpack to read it in small bites.

When study time is limited, it’s better to put your efforts into concept topics such as networking, security and cloud management, than into specific software operating systems, such as Windows Server 2012, for example.

As an IT admin or MSP we are required to be a “jack of all trades” and that often makes the single software certificates a good thing to have, but not always the most practical for increasing our overall knowledge.

But above all, simply keep learning!

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