Professional Development for the Web Worker

I’ve been in the consulting business one way or another for nearly two decades now, and in that time I’ve watched a lot of people come and go. Many corporate workers look at independent consultants and think “wow, I could take my current skills and make three times what I do today just by going into business for myself!” If you’re an independent, you know it’s not quite that easy: working for yourself also comes with a lot of expenses. But there is a more subtle trap that all too many professionals fall into: in a year or two, your current skills will be, if not worthless, certainly worth less than they are now.

Web workers, because of the pace of the fields we tend to be in, are perhaps more prone to this trap than other entrepreneurs. If you’re going to strike out on your own, it is critical that you have some plan for continuing your professional development. Otherwise, you’re liable to wake up some morning and discover that all of your clients have moved on to other consultants who haven’t let their skills fossilize. Here’s my own five-point plan for staying up to date:

1. Read the news. Five years ago this meant subscribing to the major trade journals in your field. These days, in software at least, I’m finding that paper isn’t worth the bother of cluttering up my mailbox. Everything I’d read in the trade journals shows up on web sites and in blogs first, and everything is in one RSS feed or another quickly. So, subscribing to a reasonable set of 15 to 30 RSS feeds in your field, and keeping up with them, will help you spot major developments and trends.

2. Learn a new skill every year. For a software developer, this means taking the time (your own time, not billable hours) to learn a new programming language each year, to the point where you can write non-trivial applications in it. For a designer, it might mean learning a new tool, or digging into a new markup language. The point is to see other ways of doing things, to get your hands dirty, and to increase your chance of saying “oh yes, I’ve worked with that” when customers come to you with requests. You might even discover a superior alternative to your current toolset.

3. Speak at a user group. You should not only be attending your local user group, you should get yourself on to the program. There are two reasons for this. First, there’s nothing like talking to your peers about some piece of technology to make you really learn that technology. Second, becoming known as a speaker is an important part of personal branding, which helps distinguish you from the pack.

4. Attend a conference. At least once a year you should get to a major conference in your field, especially if the bulk of your career is spent working with people over the web. Even if you learn nothing from the conference sessions, time spent over meals and in the halls talking with other attendees is a great way to figure out what the up and coming hot areas are.

5. Ask yourself the hard questions. Take a day off at the end of each year to take stock of your business and your career. Are you still doing the same things you were a year ago? Is demand still as high as it was? Are customers asking for things that you can’t provide? Is there new technology that you’ve been unable to deliver because you don’t understand it yet? Being honest with yourself about where you stand and where you think the market is going will put you way ahead of those who keep just doing the same things they’ve always done on autopilot.

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