This past Monday night, the St. Louis .NET User Group decided to run their meeting using an Open Space format. The Open Space format is pretty simple:
- Get a group of like minded people together
- Poll the room to find out what topics they are interested in hearing about
- Do a hand count vote of people interested in each topic
- Dedicate rooms to the most popular topics and break the group up
- Let each group run their own discussion however they choose
What a blast! You can see the topics that were generated by clicking the picture above (more pictures from the event can be seen here). The audience came up with great (and highly relevant) topics to discuss and because the topics were audience generated, the meeting was much more interactive than the typical PowerPoint driven monthly meeting format.
Ways to Stay Current
One topic that was suggested and had universal appeal was Staying Current. Since that is pretty much my full time job, I volunteered to moderate the session. I thought it was an excellent discussion and I wanted to capture the dialog and pass it along my readers. Here are the key suggestions in the order that they were discussed:
Technology & Project Glossaries - This is a tried and true best practice for teams and organizations but can also work on a personal level for your own education. Maintaining your own glossary of terms and acronyms as you encounter them is a great way to reinforce and retain new information as well as providing a handy reference for yourself and others.
Distribution & Mailing Lists - Many organizations have mailing lists (both internal and external) to keep interested parties informed of ongoing events. It's usually a matter of contacting the list owner to get yourself added to the list. As an example, Microsoft has an internal distribution list with thousands of Exchange Server DLs and an automated web based tool to search and join the lists you are interested in. Also, most enterprises have an internal daily or weekly email newsletter with current company and industry events, often with competitive analysis information included.
Blogs & RSS Feeds - The ease of creating a blog on the Internet has made it trivial for anyone to get started. Blogs have also created a tremendous amount of transparency into organizations that were formerly black boxes. Many CEOs and commercial product groups now blog about their current issues and worries and where they think their respective businesses are going. And because this technology uses a publish and subscribe model, it has quickly become the format of choice for staying on the bleeding edge. Authors publish their content instantaneously and at their own pace and you can subscribe to as many feeds as you like and read them at your leisure. Blog readers come in many flavors - rich client, web, and mobile - and all make it easy to sift through your subscriptions and read the posts that catch your eye. Some popular blogs mentioned were: Scott Guthrie, Scott Hanselman, Joel Spolsky, Ars Technica, All About Microsoft (Mary Jo Foley), TechCrunch, and Technorati.
Search Engines - Where's the first place you go when you encounter a new term or technology? A search engine of course! This has become the defacto method for getting a crash course on any new technology. If there's electronic documentation out there, the search engines can find it for you. They're free and often index the content better than the site that actually publishes the content.
Wikis & Other Content Repositories - If you're lucky, the technology or product you're interested in has a wiki page or it's own dedicated wiki or content repository. This can be a great place to start learning. Content repositories are often started to help new team members get up to speed on a project without a lot of training or hand holding. The current breed of content management tools make it very easy to get a new content repository or knowledge base going. MSDN and CodeProject are perfect examples of large scale content management systems.
Development Books & Magazines - Development books offer the best way to get a deep dive on a new technology if you're starting from scratch. Unfortunately, the long lead time necessary to publish a book means that it is either based on beta-bits of the software or is printed after the technology has been introduced. Magazines offer a shorter publishing cycle but typically offer introductory material or a deep dive into a small subset of a technology. The advantage these two formats have over blogs is that they are (most of the time) more polished and professionally written. You may even be interested in writing a book or magazine article to get yourself immersed in something new. All publishers provide their submission guidelines and will work with new authors if they bring a topic that is of current interest to the industry. A quick poll of our audience found that about 20% regularly purchase new technology books and 50% read current industry trade magazines. You can often get free subscriptions to trade magazines by attending regional and national conferences and completing a short industry survey. Some magazines mentioned were: Dr. Dobb's Journal, CoDe Component Developer Magazine, Visual Studio Magazine, and Redmond Developer News.
User Groups - Some people learn best from others and there's no denying the viral power of word of mouth. Local user groups that meet on a regular basis form a great knowledge and news sharing network for learning about current trends and technologies. Plus you get free food and prizes - triple bonus! For those who don't live close enough to attend a regular live gathering, technologies like LiveMeeting and Second Life are extending community reach even further.
Friends & Peers - Finding a mentor or information broker within an organization can open a floodgate of new information. There's always a person you know who seems to be in-the-know and on top of everything related to a certain field or technology. Get to know them better and hook up for lunch on a regular basis for a knowledge transfer. It's even more fun when you can reciprocate from your own knowledge and specialties.
Podcasts & Webcasts - Some folks like to talk more than write and others like to listen more than read. Podcasts and webcasts are fastest and easiest way for these techies to exchange fresh content. Most PCs can now record directly from microphones, cameras, and their desktops to produce excellent quality multimedia content. Some sources that were mentioned: Channel 9, Microsoft Webcasts, .NET Rocks, Run As Radio, Stackoverflow, and Thirsty Developer.
Formal Training - An entire industry has cropped up around technical training for corporate employees. Companies like Centriq and New Horizons as well as university programs such as CAIT offer packages of comprehensive training on current industry technologies. If your employer provides a training budget and/or tuition reimbursement, these are worth a look.
Teach Others - Stretching yourself to teach others something new can be very enlightening and rewarding. Volunteering to speak at a user group is a great way to take a new technology for a spin and share your learning with others. Community colleges and training companies are always on the lookout for part time teachers to teach in-demand topics, so ask around and you can certainly find some opportunities.
Social Networks & Forums - Despite rise in popularity of blogs, forums are still as popular as ever and the new breed of social networking software makes it even easier to connect with like minded people. They offer extended conversations and most have event notifications to keep you apprised of new entries or threads. Also, most are indexed by the major search engines so they are readily accessible to outsiders. Examples mentioned: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Conferences - Major industry conferences (both platform neutral and specific) occur all year round these days. Most conferences strive to offer the most up-to-date topics to attract attendees, so finding one that piques your curiosity should not be a problem. Some popular conferences include: TechEd, PDC, VS Live!, and HDC.
Open Source Projects - Joining an open source project is a great way to take a deep dive into a new technology. The added pressure to produce workable results means you will take away more from the effort than you would by merely reading a tutorial and typing in the code. There are hundreds of open source projects in all languages. Some places to look for projects include CodePlex and SourceForge.
How To Filter Out The Noise
Following the discussion about ways to stay current and sources of information came the subject of filtering out the noise and choosing the right things to focus your time and attention on. The first step is acknowledging that there is too much out there and you will have to ignore some of it. The general consensus was to follow your passions and plan your learning roadmap around general technologies you're interested in. Use that as your filtering mechanism to weed out the distractions. A critical aspect of filtering is finding the time to sift through the noise and actually read the stuff you're interested in. Be creative - the long drive home; a wait in the airport or public transportation lobby; in a hotel room; during the wee hours of the night when the family is asleep. It's also important to choose a delivery format - printed, email, online, audio, video - that matches your time availability and find matching channels that carry content you're interested in. There are many methods for getting organized and creating filtering and filing systems. Some productivity resources that teach these techniques: Take Your Life Back, Getting Things Done, and 43 Folders.
One final note...I want to make sure and give credit to the St. Louis .NET User Group members collectively for the creation and sharing of this information. I participated, but can take only a fraction of the credit for what is presented here. The .NET development community in St. Louis and Open Space format made this happen.