Continuing Your Education 140 Characters at a Time
You know you want to tackle that new standard for CSS you’ve been hearing about. Or, you know that you should understand how overrides enhance Joomla! extensions and templates. You’ve heard the term “MVC” or maybe “SDK” but you have no clue what they mean. Maybe you want to learn a new style of writing so you can build that personal blog. But excuses pile up, for instance: you don’t have the resources, or your current work load doesn’t give you the time, or the best excuse — you lack the brain power. And really, if a client isn’t paying for it how can you legitimize the time?
Yet, to stay current and competitive in our cutthroat freelance environment, you must keep learning the “bleeding edge” of your chosen profession, be it design, web development, programming, or writing, or something else. The challenge is to continually keep learning while working. Otherwise, with the tools of our trades changing so rapidly we can quickly get outmoded. So, how can we at least stay on “speaking terms” with new techniques and technology?
Three Internet social networking technologies are there for our use: Twitter, RSS, and Readers. In addition, online social groups aggregate information to make it even easier to keep a handle on what’s happening in our fields. Ning groups, LinkedIn groups, and Facebook groups all are our friends.
This article lists the steps you can take daily to keep yourself current. It only takes about a half hour to cull articles you want to read or keep for reference if you do it diligently. Treat this task like you treat your email time. It’ll pay off in increased knowledge.
Step 1: Find the Best Sources of Information
In order to keep up with technology, you have to find reputable sources of information. I tend to gravitate to online magazines that aggregate “the best of” approaches. In addition, I regularly read those blogs written by the originators of the software and techniques I use. For example, Eric Meyer is one of the best CSS coders in the business and JoomlaBlogger.com is a tremendous resource in up-and-coming as well as practical techniques for Joomla!.
One of the most difficult things to do on the Internet is find reliable sources of information. The ‘net is full of sites that purport to provide advice and training but if you know a little about your field, you’ll quickly discover that most technology sites are: selling something, have some sort of bias, or are written so poorly that they can’t be trusted. The key is to query your fellow practitioners on such forums as our very own FreelanceSwitch as well as your professional sites, such as Media Bistro, Joomla.org, Drupal.org, The Illustrator’s Guild, and so forth and find out what other folks are reading.
Step 2: Subscribe to RSS Feeds
To make it easier for you, I’ve compiled a list of those online magazines and blogs I regularly read (most are oriented towards the business of web design and the technological developments within the Open Source community).
- A List Apart: An elegant e-zine that publishes articles on the business of design as well as technologies, roles and jobs, techniques, and developments.
- The Best Of Joomla!: A news aggregator and product review site with extensive feedback as well as demo links. If you design using Joomla! this site is a must read.
- JFoobar Blog: A blog out of the Netherlands whose authors discuss the newest developments in web application development and content management systems.
- Design, Work, Plan: A designer blog that discusses the business of graphic and web design.
- The Open Road: Open Source software developments are discussed as they relate to software development cycles and businesses.
- The Unofficial Apple Weblog: The “inside scoop” on developments at Apple Computer.
- Smashing Magazine: An e-zine dedicated to the art and craft of print and web design. Each article is jam-packed with examples of the best of breed with links and tutorials. This is a must-read for designers. There are also many freebies and links to designer software.
RSS (Rich Site Summary) is a web technology that when applied, can suck the contents of a website and feed it into a Newsfeed reader such as the following readers:
- Google Reader (Web and Mobile)
- Bloglines (Web)
- NetNewsWire (Macintosh)
- SharpReader (Windows)
- LifeArea (Linux)
- AmphetaDesk (Windows/Linux/Mac)
- Feedly (an RSS Feed aggregator for Firefox)
Seek out specialty newsletter and aggregator websites and subscribe to their RSS feeds and Twitter links. Use the RSS reader (I use Google Reader for its ease of use and accessibility on my iGoogle home page and iPhone) to display your selected news sites in a way that lets you quickly peruse articles and rank the ones you wish to read.
Step 3: Follow the Site’s Twitter Page
When you identify sites that you find yourself following regularly, go to the site itself and if they have a Twitter link, subscribe to it. Use Twitter via these free or low-cost programs:
- Icon Factory’s Twitterific for Mac and iPhone
- Ian Dodworth’s TweetDeck for desktop and iPhone/iPod Touch
- Ed Finkler’s Spaz
- PocketTweets’ PocketTweet for iPod Touch and iPhone
- Seemic’s Twhirl
Check out Twitter Fan Wiki’s Apps Page for a compilation of the best of breed for specific operating systems, desktop, or mobile use.
Hint: Mr. Tweet is a great site to locate specialists in different technologies. It has a search engine that can locate Twitter users and then rank them by recommendations in a hierarchy. Since these recommendations come from their peers, and you can also see who in your world also follows these folks, you can quickly build up a reading list of Twitter profiles. The Twitter applications let you group your subscriptions for easier management.
I currently follow these specialists in Open Source software and Joomla! among many others:
Use Twitter to gain rapid access to suggested readings, videos, or specialists. When you find a Tweet from a specialist in your field, take the time to check out suggested specialists’ blogs or sites and if you find their information credible and useful, subscribe to their Tweets and RSS feeds. Network and grow your knowledge base. Converse with these specialists via commenting, Tweeting, and emails to share information. You’ll find you’ll gain a great resource should you have questions, need sub-contractors, or you are looking for work. This is beyond the shear breath of information you’ll tap.
Hint: Be sure to follow the Tweets of software companies who make the software you use on a regular basis. Almost every major and small company has a Twitter account. Read the Tweets to keep up with upgrades, betas, and future plans.
Step 4: Interact With People, Blogs, and Companies
One surprising fact that startled me when I first began to use Twitter and Google Reader to continue my education is how nice most of the big names in web design, Open Source, and print design actually are. I am very shy most of the time, but I found that the humanity that rings out on Twitter breaks down barriers and allows me to ask questions and make my own contributions to ongoing discussions, thereby building my reputation while I continue to learn at the feet of masters. Just don’t get lost in the enormous amounts of conversation because believe me, Twitter and RSS feeds can take up your day. But what a great way to connect with your peers.