Times have changed; we are not “workers of one company” anymore. Spending a full professional life in the same company is nowadays an anomaly. I believe that we have to rethink the way we live, and also the way we learn. We can no longer consider that what we’ve learned at school will be enough to stay performant our whole life. In my humble opinion, this is not a problem of how long we have studied, but how often we are studying.

In this article, I would like to share my feelings about this concern, and how the Xennial generation must change its habits to handle it. I’ll show you how I’m addressing it in my day-to-day Xennial life.

A Necessity to Adapt

New technologies are emerging really fast. To keep up with the trends, we have to adapt. It appears that, in some professional areas such as Computer Science or Biology, for example, lifelong learning is clearly not an option anymore: it becomes unavoidable.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you need to be spending all your nights browsing the web to find new things to learn. But I believe that, if you want to have a market value, to feel confident in your daily life as a programmer and to have new opportunities to move on, you have to continuously learn news things.

The Coffee Machine Health Check

Have you ever been at the coffee machine, hearing other developers talking about some technology that you have never heard about? Probably, and it’s quite normal. This phenomenon is happening every day in software companies. I call it the coffee machine health check:

  • If no new term pops up for a week, it means that the whole team is not moving forward….
  • If you’re feeling lost too often in the discussions, it means that you are regressing…

If you fit into one of the categories above, I hope the following will reassure you and help you keep up to date.

Day after Day

When I was a software developer, I remember working with a great software architect who taught me a lot of things. He used to say the following:

  • Spend around 1 hour a day learning, and you will stagnate
  • Spend more, and you will progress
  • Or spend less, and you will wane

Note: In this context, learning means improving what you know or what you are able to do.

This kind of mantra helped me become — I hope — a good software architect. I’m not saying, however, that you have to apply this to yourself. What really matters here is that learning is a day to day task. If you’re not learning, you are declining.

😨 What to Do?

Calm down; there are many ways to face the challenge of lifelong learning. First, you have to understand that learning is not a side effect of your work life. On the contrary, consider it a necessary part of your work to get things (well) done. Easier written than done. Besides, your manager is probably not ready for it.

However, as written above, you won’t make a career in just one company, so start investing in yourself, too.

You already know some learning techniques, because they are the same you used as a student (such as reading books). I would like to highlight a rather new simple approach which fits well with the day to day work life: Microlearning.

Eat a Nugget

Nuggets by Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMcDonalds-Chicken-McNuggets.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

From my point of view, the key concept of microlearning is to split the learning process into small units; each is intended to be ingested in a single bite. The content is split into small nuggets; each nugget refers to a concept, an idea, or whatever — something that can be learned in less than 15 minutes.

You might be surprised, but it really is easy to find 15 minutes in your day to learn something new. The moment I prefer for this is right after lunch. You know — when you’ve just grabbed a cup of coffee and sit back on your chair. Yeah, that moment when you wonder what you could do in the next 5-15 minutes before getting back to work. You should try it!

Trust your Brain

If we take a closer look at how the human brain works while learning, we can find great benefits to the microlearning technique. For instance:

  • Our brain has a short attention span. Microlearning helps to avoid procrastination by keeping the study sessions focused and short.
  • We have a low retention curve. Frequently using microlearning on the same subject helps to reinforce the knowledge, and thus the retention — it’s better to say a word 10 times during 7 days than 100 times once.

If you want to delve deeper into that topic, I strongly recommend that you check out the Learning How to Learn course on coursera.org.

Learning can also happen as a team effort:

  • Random meetings: a person chooses a topic and talks about it for 15 to 20 minutes. Afterwards, a discussion starts between all the participants.
  • Brown Bag Lunch: invite someone in your company to talk about a specific topic during lunch time.
  • Dailies: split a huge concept to be learned into several chunks that can be taught in sessions of 10 to 15 minutes. For instance, by using dailies, developers from Murex have taught more than 1000 hours of content to their teammates over a period of 6 months. Teammates don’t have to move — they just have to twist their chair, learn something for 10 minutes, then resume working.
  • etc.

To me, microlearning is a good way to stay abreast of new technologies, whether you consume a hands-on article, a getting-started tutorial or dig into a more specific topic. I think that you should definitely add microlearning to your habits.

Microlearning Is Not the Alpha and Omega

As always, the cake is a lie… You cannot rely only on microlearning. One cannot learn everything in a 15 minute time slot. For fundamental concepts or a complete overview of a topic, other types of content such as books, videos, MOOCs (such as on Coursera) can help you. I recommend reading not yet published books like the MEAP (Manning Early Access Program) or O’Reilly’s Early Releases. These programs are opportunities to access books that authors are still working on.

Having access to an online library with full text indexation could be really helpful, too. Type a word and you have access to all the books containing this word in the digital library. An unlimited access to this kind of platform is affordable — it often costs as little as the price of just one book per month (~$40).

You can also go to meetups and conferences to meet people, exchange lots of ideas, feedback and engage in useful discussions.

Conclusion

Here are some key points that I think every developer who doesn’t want to fall behind should do:

  • Tech watch: spend at least 5-10 minutes per day on it. You can look at news sites such as InfoQ, or any site applicable to your tech domain.
  • Learn a new paradigm or a new language at least once a year (you could start with reactive programming or functional programming)
  • Stay up to date in your domain field
  • Teach others: to me, it’s truly the best way to learn

That’s it! Thank you for reading! I hope microlearning works for you. Give it a try – and let me know how it worked best for you in the comments section below.

Image references:

[1] CNN 

[2] Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[3] courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital and Draper Labs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons