How I stay current with tech

Deloreans on paradeI'm continuing my series of posts about how I do or have done certain things in my business/tech career, and it has been helpful for me to write out my responses to these questions in a way I can point other people to. I'm honored to get requests from friends and colleagues now and then to talk with their students, children and co-workers who have an interest in developing tech skills, going into business and related topics.

One of the most common questions I've gotten is how I stay on top of current trends and tools in information and Internet technology.

Of course, the answer to that has changed a lot over the last 10-15 years. It used to be that one actually did have a hope of being on top of most of the major breakthroughs, news and trends happening with the Internet and related industries, if you were willing to spend the time on it.

Today there are legions of news sites, social media feeds, conferences and other cottage industries devoted to covering technology trends, news and breakthroughs that seem to barely scratch the surface, and trying to keep up with them would be more than a full time job. So whatever your area of focus or interest, you surely have to do some picking, choosing and compromising, and even then you'll probably miss out on some relevant or even important stuff. A lot of my own approach is focused on keeping up on trends related to website development and online publishing, software development for the web, network architecture and security, encryption and privacy issues, and "life hacks" that make me more productive.

One distinction worth making early on here is that it's one thing to keep up with the latest news in consumer technology - the latest products, gadgets, services and other cool shiny things that users may decide to try out - and keeping up with actual innovation, invention, shifts and breakthroughs in the underlying technology and tools that make all of those consumer-facing things possible.  I don't want to sound too snobbish about that distinction and certainly there's some overlap (there are consumer products that are revolutionary when they are released because the underlying tech they're using is revolutionary too), but I cringe sometimes when I see that we've confused voracious consumption of technology with understanding and learning about what goes into building technology. Sorry, but following Cisco on Twitter or shopping at Best Buy will not make you a tech expert.

So given those disclaimers and distinctions, what are the tools and methods I use to keep up with technology?

Use a great feed reader

feedlyIf you are trying to stay up on technology trends, you almost certainly need a good feed reader.

I still know of people who farm a little collection of links and bookmarks that they pull up in their web browser every day to see what might be new and interesting on those sites. Who are these people and how did they get stuck in 2002?

As of this writing I have 82 different websites / sources that I want to keep track of and know about any newly published posts or articles, and so it's not practical for me to visit those 82 sites every day to see what's up.

A feed reader will let you put all of the websites you care about in one place and then let you know when there's new content to read. It saves you the time of going directly to the site on a regular basis (though you can still read the articles/posts themselves right on the original site if you want) and most of them come with handy features that let you organize things by categories or tags, mark a bunch of posts at once as read, save something for later reading, share something to a social media site, and so on.

My favorite feed reader since the demise of Google Reader is Feedly. It's free (although I pay for the Pro version to support them) and works on a desktop browser, tablet or phone.  I have sources for business/productivity sites, updates for hardware and software I use, culture and humor sites, blogs written by friends, news about my local community, sites that I manage myself (so I can make sure posts are showing up right), technology news and others.

Avoid pop culture tech news

Related to my distinction above about consuming technology products versus learning about tech itself, I suggest avoiding reading pop culture tech news.

If a the audience that a journalist or blogger writes for is everyone in the world and their approach is to try to dumb down the description of the technology that goes into creating a given tool/innovation/etc. so that it's understandable in 15 seconds or less, it will most likely not be a good way to learn about what's really going on behind the scenes of that thing. Many of the resulting articles end up feeling like only slightly jazzed up press releases and product announcements.  I find most of the mainstream news sites that have a "technology headlines" section are either so focused on the most sensationalist parts of a given tech story or so badly get the technical details wrong that they're just not a good way to actually learn anything substantial or meaningful.

These kinds of pop culture tech articles are still useful to people who aren't trying to become experts and just want to have some ambient awareness of what's going on in the world of tech. And it is helpful to read them once in a while if you are interested to see what the mainstream perception of tech trends looks like, if only for an upcoming dinner table conversation.

So, who are the tech news sources that are writing for people that really want to understand the underlying technology? A few to consider:

  • Ars Technica is one of the best; high journalistic standards, a stable and growing publishing infrastructure, lots of geeks on staff who have been in the world of tech a long time, and amazingly fast at getting stories out about tech-related things happening right now.
  • Hacker News is where many hackers and geeks go to share and read stories and analysis of innovation, change and disruption in the tech world and beyond. Simple, crowd-moderated and always full of interesting things to read.
  • Wired Magazine has consistently been a place where I've learned about people, companies, tools and trends in technology well before hearing about them elsewhere. I've struggled with their objectification of women and their occasional tendency to become a product catalog for major tech vendors around the holiday season (if not year 'round), but the quality and depth of their reporting is impressive.
  • Slashdot used to be the definitive source for all kinds of technology trends and news. While they haven't always scaled well and are sometimes just mirroring what other sources publish, it's still a good place to find useful resources and commentary on a variety of topics.
  • The front page of reddit is usually a weird mix of cultural memes, mainstream news, rants and scientific explorations, but all of that is sourced from a vibrant community of users and "subreddits" that feature almost any topic you can think of. Many, many more widely read tech publications just have their writers sit around all day watching what is trending on reddit, and then write about that.
  • TechCrunch is another good tech news site; sometimes a little too much on the sensational/gossipy side of things, but far less so than many others.

For crypto/security/privacy/crime/surveillance issues, I read Bruce Schneier on Security, Wired's Threat Level, and even the US-CERT Technical Cyber Security Alerts.

For Mac/Apple news (definitely more in the category of product consumption than tech innovation), I read 9to5Mac, Slashdot Apple and Macworld Magazine.

For the best geek friendly humor I've ever seen, I read xkcd.

Learn to Code

If "software is eating the world" as Marc Andreessen says, then I can't think of a better way to learn about what's happening to the world from a technology standpoint than learning more about what goes in to creating, deploying and maintaining software. I think it can be difficult for people who have never seen software being built to really picture in their own minds what really goes in to shaping the tools and technology that is changing our world. The movies mostly dramatize these processes in unhelpful, confusing ways, and so I think the average person thinks of "coding" as anything that involves green block letter text on a black screen.

But software coding is often more fun and nuanced than this, and you don't have to become a full-time programmer to learn about it. There are programming languages and tool kits that allow for some dabbling and exploring that is more fun than anything else (e.g. the LEGO Mindstorms robotics kits). These will get you familiar with the workflows and terminology of software development without feeling like you're starting a whole new life or career.

And if you really want to start to understand the kinds of issues that a Facebook, Google, Apple or Twitter face when they're making and launching updates to their systems, you could take a class, buy a book or follow an online tutorial for a language like Python, Ruby, Perl, Javascript or PHP. You could sign up for an account on Github and learn how people use it to collaborate on software projects. You could submit a "patch" for the documentation of some software that you like and use; no programming skills required!

This learning never stops. Even though I've been writing software in one form or another for most of my life, I've just recently been starting to teach myself two new programming languages, and each article I read or tutorial I review brings new insight into how the world of software development can work. This knowledge translates into other learning and researching I do about the wider world of tech and business.

Meet Other Tech People

As much as the online resources for learning about technology seem infinite, I still find no substitute for getting into the same room with other people who are interested in talking and learning about tech topics.

Whether it's by attending a technology-themed conference (again, not the product release kind like CES, but the tech exploration/innovation/learning kind like OSCon, DrupalCon or a WordCamp), attending a smaller tech meet-up in your own city, taking a class at a local university, or even just working for a day in a "co-working" environment where there are other people working on their own completely unrelated tech projects - all of these things help expose you to people and thoughts that can expand your own understanding of technology and what's possible with it.

If you're a particularly shy or introverted person, a 2- or 3-day conference can be a great place to start. You can pick from a variety of sessions that sound interesting to you, switch them up at the last minute if you find something more interesting, hang out in hallways and talk with other participants when you want or just sit in the corner with your laptop if you'd rather keep to yourself. There are conferences that are free, conferences that are a great value for under $100, and conferences that cost thousands of dollars and vary widely in their quality.

ABC (Always Be Curious)

I think that curiosity, and the willingness to spend perhaps unreasonable amounts of time satisfying it, is a pretty big part of staying on top of technology. Even if you don't have the time and energy to understand every tech mystery or story or system that comes along in your life, just getting in-depth with some of them will help you gain the context and tools to engage with larger trends.

If there's a device or appliance in your household that you've always wondered how it looks and works on the inside, either take it apart or search online for someone who has.

If there's a biological, chemical or mechanical system somewhere in the world that you've always thought was cool but never quite understood, throw yourself down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia and other online research to try to learn more about it. When a website gets slow and seems to be knocked offline, what's really happening there? When your computer's hard disk is said to be "fragmented" what does that really mean? How would the NSA go about tapping into a fiber optic cable underseas? How does a airplane's transponder actually work, and what does it look like?

If there's a piece of software you use on a regular basis that is open source, where anyone can look at the underlying code that makes up the overall program, go find that code and start looking through it to see what you can learn.

And so on. Find a system of some moderate complexity, and just try to understand it a little better. Take what used to be passing thoughts of "I wonder..." and turn them into "I'm going to find out how..."  Even if these kinds of explorations lead to gaining what feels like trivial knowledge in the moment, they have led me to really useful new insights and pieces of knowledge that inform my own understanding of other systems I encounter in the world of technology.

How about you?

That's my list of the kinds of things I do to stay current with technology tools and trends. If this ends up being a useful "how to" for you, great, but I also know that everyone has different ways of approaching learning and managing knowledge.  If you have other tips and methods that you use, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

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