I have a lot of people continuously ask me how I keep up with changes in technology. It’s actually kind of funny though, because there are lots of times where I feel behind too! Since I research this stuff probably more than most, I thought this would make for a great topic to write about.
The first thing I do is simply read the news. I am a news junkie. I love knowing what’s going on in the world of technology and feeling like one of the first to know something. This is obviously something everybody can do very easily by adding news sites and blogs you’re interested in to an RSS reader. There are two types though. You need to cover broad technology news sites like Slashdot, Wired and Mashable and always have them in your reader. You also need to find specific rotational ones. Anytime you are learning a new technology, find three blogs that talk about it. For instance, when I was comparing Java EE 6 to Spring 3 awhile ago, I had Adam Bien’s blog in my RSS reader. When I was done with my comparison, I removed it. Always keep these rotating. You shouldn’t need more than a couple months (or less) to research any particular technology anyway. If it’s going to take more than two months to learn about it, it’s probably not worth it, ha!
Second, I watch the book trends. Some people think it’s funny that I buy so many technical books. There is so much information online for free, why pay for a book, right? I actually look at this a little differently though. My view is that if there is enough interest about a particular language, framework, tool, etc. that people are devoting time to write complete books on it, it has to at least be a little interesting! I never buy paper books anymore, only PDFs. This way I can take my whole collection of books with me to every single meeting! “Bobby, how do I provide JSON and XML data formats for our JAX-RS service?” Well, give me 20 seconds and I will tell you since I have a book titled RESTful Java with JAX-RS as an indexed and search-able PDF. I certainly could just as easy look this up on the Google machine, but sometimes this takes longer than you think and I’m looking for an expert answer, not a hundred potential answers. Another key thing about books is I always buy the cookbooks! Anytime I see a cookbook for a particular technology I’m interested in, I will always buy it. It’s great to see examples when diving in to something new. One particular one I recently bought was Windows PowerShell Cookbook. I’m not a Windows Server administrator and I prefer Linux for servers anyway, but going through this book gave me just enough information and examples of working PowerShell scripts that I now feel comfortable discussing it with anybody and comparing it to *nix shells.
Finally, I have playgrounds that I use all the time! I can’t even tell you how many times people complain about not having administrator writes on their company laptop. Of course big companies don’t want you installing a bunch of stuff and messing with their standard desktop builds. I actually do have admin rights on mine (or at least I did at Ameriprse, not sure what Target’s policy is), but even if I didn’t, I would still establish my own playground. Did you know that you get your own VM at SliceHost for $20 a month? Did you also know that you can get an AMI (Amazon Machine Image) really cheap (exact price depends on configuration and OS)? You could SSH or Remote Desktop to these from your company laptop and play around with new technology all you want! Right now on my laptop I have the following installed: Tomcat 6 and 7 (Java, Groovy, Scala), WebSphere 6.1 and 7.0 (Java EE), IIS6 (.NET), Apache 2.2 (PHP, Ruby and Phython mods installed), Oracle 11g, MSSQL 2008 and MySQL 5.1. I only run the ones I’m using, but they are all configured and ready to be used at any time! I’d recommend every technology enthusiast establish their own playground and actually play with technology. As the old saying goes, the only way to learn programming is to actually program!
So, that’s my advice on how to keep up with technology! Read the news, stay on top of book trends and establish your playground to try new things out! Obviously what works for me will not work for everybody, but now I have something I can point to when people ask me!