5 low-cost tricks for keeping up with new technologies

keeping up with technologies

Technology change has always been fast, but now it’s even faster. The current wave started with the famed foursome -- social, mobile, analytics and cloud – and has been quickly followed by emerging technologies like the Internet of Things, robotics, 3-D printing, wearables, augmented reality and more.

However, not every workplace offers IT pros the chance to get their hands on these technologies, whether to bulk up their resume, sharpen their skills or just because they want to. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to gain some exposure.

“It’s really important to get hands-on experience with relevant technologies or add new skills to maintain your market value,” says Hallie Yarger, regional recruiting director at Mondo. Here are some ways to stay up to date and even get up-close and personal with emerging technologies.

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1. Keep up with the news

With the volume of sources covering new tech developments, it’s a challenge to develop a curated news feed that works best for you. For Kyle Sheth, an industrial designer at Intelligent Product Solutions, however, it’s an essential part of his job, if not the company’s culture.

Each morning, Sheth takes time to check his Chrome plug-in that aggregates the news of the day, “from something the MIT robotics team has done, to a college kid who’s come up with a new way to style a button that provides a delightful user interaction,” he says.

In his work on physical product design, mobile apps, websites and web apps, Sheth keeps up with blogs and websites like Engadget, TechCrunch, Digg and Github, as well as portfolios from students or professors to see how they’re applying libraries of code. “Developments on the forefront don’t always make the headlines, so you need to stay pretty tapped in,” he says. The Verge is also a daily read. “They report on what’s going on with a certain amount of levity that I appreciate,” he says.

Sheth also relies on his work colleagues to share their insights gathered from their own news aggregators, whether via Skype messages or in the breakroom. “No one mandates that we share this information; it’s part of the company culture that we want to find these innovative technologies and figure out how to use them creatively for our clients,” he says. “We’ve become a news source for each other.”

Which news source you choose really depends on how much time you have to dedicate to the task, Yarger says. “For the everyday person who wants to be up-to-date at a conversational level, it’s important to check out the industry-standard news sites and blogs,” she says. “If you want to add to your market value, you need to keep up with the trends and the most recent versions of the technology you have experience in,” Yarger says.

Meanwhile, Yarger says, tech pros use Twitter to get real-time updates. To keep the tweet volume at bay, Yarger suggests identifying 25 or so power players to follow.

2. Buy it yourself

This may not have been possible even a couple of years ago, but with the encroachment of consumer technologies into the professional realm, prices are low enough that IT professionals can set themselves up with new technologies to try out. A design director at Intelligent Product Solutions, for instance, recently bought a 3-D motion controller from Leap Motion, which retails for $79.99, to research a solution to a design challenge. “It uses a simple development language so that even a designer without a huge code repository in their head can use it,” Sheth says.

Similarly, for another recent project involving 3-D image manipulation, Sheth’s team bought several types of optical mice and trackballs in the $25 to $75 range to play around with. Such purchases are considered creative exploration and not always charged back to the client, he says. “It’s a lot different from an engineering-based project, where buying different types of circuit boards and sensors can really rack up quickly,” he says.

3. Look to the community

Of course there are times when price does become a factor; in those cases, there is the open source world, Sheth says. Rather than purchasing a 3-D printer, Sheth has used the 3D Hub website, an online 3-D printing service platform that facilitates transactions between printer owners and people who want to make prints. This and similar services are making technology accessible to people without costing an arm and a leg, Sheth says.

Similarly, a growing number of open source CAD programs are available online that you can run in a Web browser, not so much to create a fully developed product but to learn about the technology, he says. Maker Faires and maker spaces are another way to learn about what’s available in the open source world, Sheth adds, whether to program a simple circuit board or a more complex interface.

4. Find a meetup

A staggering variety of meetup groups exist that are dedicated to technology, Yarger says, especially in bigger cities. For people who want exposure to others with in-demand skill sets, like Angular, meetups can be a great way to get started because they offer a casual and conversational environment, she says. “You can find out how they learned it, whether on their own or another way,” she says. “Literally every client we have that has a role in front-end development is asking for people with Angular skills.”

Some meetup groups also offer hands-on experience, such as through “hack days,” in which teams of people are given a challenge to solve. This can give less experienced people a chance to work with more senior programmers in a quasi-real-world but more forgiving environment that the workplace or even a full-fledged hackathon, she says. “When you’re supported by people who know you’re in it to test your skills, the stakes are lower than when you’re competing with people with hands-on experience who are there for the competition vs. wanting to learn,” she says.

Some meetups focus on specific subgroups in the IT profession, like women, which “gives people a chance to shine who don’t have an opportunity to do that at work,” she adds.

5. Take a class

And of course, there’s the old-school approach to learning: Going back to the classroom. General Assembly and Devbootcamp are two businesses that offer on-site computer programming classes throughout the U.S., Yarger says, in valuable skills like Ruby on Rails and user experience/user interface (UX/UI) development. Online tutorials are available through websites like Codecademy and Codeskills com. All of these services “enable you to get something on your resume and boost your credibility but are cheaper than going to get your master’s or associate’s degree.”

Sheth is also a fan of online coding classes. “There are so many out there -- take the word ‘code’ and add any synonym for ‘school,’ and you’ll find one -- Code University, Codecademy, Code Institute,” he says. His own favorite, meanwhile, is Treehouse, an online interactive education platform that, for $25 per month, offers classes in a wide variety of languages that are appropriate for his interest in front-end Web development, he says. “It’s beautifully designed, and that makes it easy to learn,” he says.

Treehouse provides a good balance between letting you get your hands dirty and providing help when you need it, Sheth says. “There’s a good community behind it, so if you’re having trouble, and the videos and lessons aren’t helping, you can go to the forum and ask questions and get help really quickly.”

The community aspect is essential, Yarger agrees. “There’s a lot of value in creating a network for yourself, or finding mentor to help guide you,” she says.

Brandel is a freelance writer. She can be reached at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This story, "5 low-cost tricks for keeping up with new technologies" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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