From the point in my career when I was a software engineer all the way to the present one of the most vexing professional questions has always been, “How do you keep up with the rapid pace of change in Information Technology?”
One of my former Ph.D. students and the coauthor of Information Nation, Indira Guzman, framed this question as a major concern in the career paths of information professionals. In her dissertation survey, Indira found agreeing with the statement, “Keeping up with the latest knowledge in my field is fun for me,” was a key indicator of occupational commitment to the IT field.
Yet for students and faculty alike, there is such a vast, expanding knowledge base in the information fields that it is close to impossible to keep up with everything.
For students, this may manifest as the worry that they may not know enough about specific technologies to find the job of their dreams. For faculty, it can seem like a never-ending uphill climb to keep the curriculum updated and fresh with explorations of the latest innovations. Our research faculty members have the additional challenge that the specializations within their own fields of study continue to expand at the same time as new technology sustains its mad rush towards new horizons.
So what’s the solution? Unless you are one of that tiny minority who can really get by on four hours of sleep per night, there are just not enough hours in the day to stay on top of everything that is changing in IT. Instead, here are three strategies that seem to work for some of the most successful alumni that I have met during my time here at the iSchool.
Strategy 1: Learn the Fundamental Building Blocks
When I was teaching our introductory course, IST195, some years ago, students would always ask me why they needed to learn binary and Boolean logic. The reason that I gave then and which seems equally valid now, is that these concepts are really at the heart of so many aspects of how information technology works.
If you understand the basic architecture of how devices, networks, and software work, you can then figure out almost any new technology on your own – or perhaps equally importantly, you can have intelligent conversations with experts who can teach you.
Strategy 2: Build a Unique Profile by Mastering Two Areas
While it is true that nobody can be an expert in everything, you can still develop mastery in more than one area. Then, when you build a bridge between two or more different areas, you will have a unique professional combination to offer. What if you were great at web design and 3D printing; or cybersecurity and mobile applications; or wireless networks and drones; or. . .
That’s why we have concentrations in the Information Management & Technology major – so that you can pick at least two areas where you will shine. Think back to those two people that created YouTube – they basically knew how to do two things, build web pages and stream video. From that they built an empire.
Strategy 3: Understand the Human Element
There is one aspect of technology that has hardly changed in 100,000 years: the human being.
Humans are the end users of technology; humans develop the technology and deploy it; humans maintain and improve the technology. If you spend some time while you are here at the iSchool learning about user behavior, effective teamwork, project management, how technology standards are written, or technology adoption in organizations, you will have knowledge that will never go stale.
People are people, after all, and they use the new technology for many of the same purposes as the old technology: to communicate, to organize, to coordinate, to build, to learn, and to entertain. At the iSchool, we call this the user perspective, and it has been a central part of our identity for many decades.
So learn the fundamentals, have a couple specialties that you can combine, and develop an appreciation for the user perspective. These areas will help you thrive at the beginning of your career and later on.