Information Technology is a very difficult field to keep up with. Not only does computing power increase year after year, making the number of things we can do with computers increase, but drastic transformations always plague this industry. Complete paradigm shifts are a major part of our recent past such as mainframes, to client/server, to virtualization to cloud computing. In addition to these changes there are also silos of technologies we might want to focus on such as database design, programming, infrastructure or cloud computing. Inside each of these categories there are different platforms to learn, such as if you are a programmer, do you know C++, Java, Python or Cobol?
So what is a technician to do? The important thing is to keep grinding through new technologies and never give up on learning new things. Your career depends on learning new things all the time.
The main constraint we have with learning is usually time. Time is fixed and there is only so much of it in a day. You need to take care of personal things, work, fun, family and studying. So if your skill capacity is based off of your time, then the skill capacity is also fairly fixed. Everyone’s skill capacity will be different because some people have more study time, less distractions and learn at different rates but in any case your own skill capacity is fairly fixed. As you learn new things, it’s like turning on a faucet that fills up your skills but pay attention that some of these skills will not be needed down the road. When technology changes and winners/loser are decided, some of the skills that you have may no longer be useful. Like the HD-DVD and the Zunes of the world, not all your skills will be valuable. You can think of your skill reservoir as having a drain with no stopper on it that slowly leaks your skills out into the ground. You need to learn faster than the drain lets out or you’ll not have any usable skills in the industry. I’ve often heard this referred to as walking up a down escalator. If you don’t keep moving, you’ll be at the bottom of the stairs again.
You have plenty of choices here such as what to learn, and how much of it to learn. For example, you could pick an individual technology and learn it to an expert level. I use the CCIE and VCDX certifications as an example of this in the diagram below. You’ve filled up your skill capacity with either a Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) or a VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) and that might fill up most of your skill capacity. The drain is still dribbling out your skills as new versions and updates come out. You need to continually learn new things to keep up with that expert level of knowledge.
You can also learn several different things at a lesser level of detail. In the example below, instead of learning a technology really deeply, we’ve learned several technologies at differing levels. A Cisco Certified Networking Professional (CCNP), Microsoft Certified Solutions Administrator (MCSA) or a VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP). The benefit to this choice is that employers might be looking for one but not all of these skills. This broad level of knowledge might make you more employable but you’re not an expert in any one technology. Again, the drain is still leaking these skills into the earth.
I can’t tell you want to learn but one of your goals should be to maintain skills that employers need. If you’re not picking the right technologies it may be more difficult to find work. In the example below, you have some skills but an employer is looking for other skills. Maybe you should consider changing what things to learn to fill up your skill capacity?
What Should I Learn?
At this point you see the goal, but now you’re asking what you should be learning to stay employable. That’s a pretty hard thing to get right. You can see major major technologies being used right now such as VMware Virtualization, Microsoft Operating Systems, or Amazon Web Services. You can pick these technologies which are probably a good choice, or you can bet on some of the new fun stuff that hasn’t taken off (at a massive scale) quite as much yet such as Containers or DevOps pipelines. If you pick the new hotness you might have some very valuable skills but you’re also making a bet that these will be important skills to have. If you lose the bet, that drain at the bottom of your skills tank might be open at full blast for those skills if they aren’t embraced by the industry.
My advice to you is this though. Just keep filling the tank with SOMETHING! As long as you keep learning things, you can adjust what is in the tank as you see the industry change directions. My best advice is to pick technologies that you think seem fun or are passionate about. It won’t seem like work if you continually learn things that you’re interested in. Start there and just keep filling the tank.