I have become a dinosaur and it is my own fault. I’d love to point the finger of blame elsewhere, but I can’t. I have allowed my skills and viewpoint to go stale. I have meandered into a rut and it is time to do something about it before I, like so many dinosaurs before me, sink into extinction.
I came to this realization by taking my own advice, albeit inadvertently (see below). During a recent lull in project work, I was tightening up my marketing materials and had been sharing them with business colleagues from across the years. I received several good responses with suggestions on how to sharpen my skills and services descriptions. Then “Ken’s” email hit my inbox. He politely upbraided me for my “data mart-centric” viewpoint of Business Intelligence in a world of Hadoop, HBASE, and Hive. In fact, my materials would have no resonance for him unless they showed the value I could bring to his company rather than his pursuing his own custom NoSQL and in-memory solutions. Talk about ripping off a man’s happy helmet and slapping the complacency from between his ears.
But Ken was right and his feedback served as a call to action. First, I began re-working my services materials to present a more contemporary view of the industry, one that reflects not just where I have been but where analytics is going. Second, I am investing time in deepening my knowledge of newer BI technologies and processes in a substantive way. More important, though, his words started me thinking about how I wound up here in the first place. After all, I’ve been reading and hearing about all of these things for years. Why had I not acted before this? My ruminations resulted in a “should have done” list that has now transformed into six strategies for avoiding extinction.
- Take a sabbatical. Few people realize how beneficial it is to turn one’s focus for a short period of time from the day-to-day professional grind to something new and different. It clears out the cobwebs and refreshes the soul. It facilitates new perspectives and new ideas. Unfortunately, few companies are enlightened enough to offer this kind opportunity to their employees. Just imagine how motivated and effective a workforce could become if it were given the opportunity to recharge its batteries periodically. But beware; this is not a vacation. It requires time (at least a couple of months), effort, and a plan.
- Learn one new skill every year. It is so easy to fall into the habit of working within one’s comfort zone and failing to step beyond it. Learning a new skill, even if you will not become a practitioner of that skill, yields many benefits. First, having a greater diversity of tools in the toolbox expands the number of options when solving a problem. It also informs your own core competencies and yields insights into alternate approaches to a problem. It is best to learn a skill that is in some way relevant to you or your work, and which can be acquired by spending a few dedicated hours each week over a period of months (unless you have the opportunity for a sabbatical). I prefer self-teaching myself, but learning as part of a formal class or online course are also great approaches.
- Go to a conference. Every BI practitioner should attend at least one good conference each year. Yes, it is expensive, but the exchange of ideas alone more than pays for itself. The opportunity to see in detail how colleagues have approached a problem, how thought leaders in the industry view current issues, and what the new trends and tools are all help to keep us fresh and informed. But it is not enough to simply attend and forget. Every attendee should walk away with a personal action list.
- Get professional feedback. Most companies have periodic employee reviews, but this isn’t what I mean. Rather, sit down with a colleague you respect and discuss your skills and goals, and get feedback on where you are and where you might be going. This should be an ongoing practice, like networking. Having ample opportunity to see oneself as our associates do helps to keep us honest about our own skills and to avoid becoming complacent.
- Don’t do it the easy way all the time. Yes, most of the time in our professional lives we are looking for the most efficient means to an end. But when the opportunity arises, particularly when learning a new skill, don’t necessarily do it the easy way. For instance, if you are teaching yourself a new platform that is available on several operating systems, learn it on one you are less familiar with. The going will be slower for a while, but with that type of immersion the number of new skills you will have in the end will be significantly greater, as will the number of new neural pathways you will have built.
- Abstract yourself from your job occasionally. Similar to getting an outside perspective is to abstract oneself from what one does and look down at it from above. Do I have all the skills I need? What can I do to be more effective? How does what I do today affect my colleagues, my employer, and my industry? Am I positioning myself for evolution or extinction? By looking at one’s work as an abstraction periodically, one is able to see more readily where the strengths and weaknesses are, what is relevant or not, and how the pieces might be fitting together differently because change happens.
I am presently on sabbatical myself (I have an enlightened employer, you know). It ends in two weeks and there is yet much to accomplish. I still have those marketing rewrites to polish and publish. I also plan to plow through most of this stack of books on Java and MapReduce. I have been as busy these past two months as I ever was on the last round of big projects, but I know that I will be going back to work with a broadened viewpoint, fresh insights, and new skills. I have a revitalized perspective on problems I left behind eight weeks ago. And because I have recharged my batteries, I will return to work with renewed energy and focus. Okay, I’m probably still something of a dinosaur, but I have positioned myself for evolution rather than extinction. My inner mastodon is channeling Hadoop.