On learning new technologies: why breadth beats depth

As a programmer you face an ever-growing stream of new technologies: new frameworks, new libraries, new tools, new languages, new paradigms. Keeping up is daunting.

  • How can you find the time to learn how to use every relevant tool?
  • How do you keep your skills up-to-date without using up all your free time?
  • How can you even learn all the huge number of existing technologies?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t learn them all—in depth. What you can do is learn about the tools’ existence, and learn just enough about them to know when it might be worth learning more.

Quite often, spending 5 minutes learning about a new technology will give you 80% of the benefit you’d get from spending 5 days on it.

In the rest of this article I’ll cover:

  1. The cost of unnecessary in-depth learning.
  2. Why breadth of knowledge is so useful.
  3. Some easy ways to gain breadth of knowledge.

The cost of in-depth learning

Having a broad range of tools and techniques to reach for is a valuable skill both at your job and when looking for a new job. But there are different levels of knowledge you can have: you can be an expert, or you can have some basic understanding of what the tool does and why you might use it.

The problem with becoming an expert is that it’s time consuming, and you don’t want to put that level of effort into every new tool you encounter.

  1. Some new technologies will die just as quickly as they were born; there’s no point wasting time on a dead end.
  2. Most technologies just aren’t relevant to your current situation. GitHub keeps recommending I look at a library for analyzing pulsar data, and not being an astrophysicist I’m going to assume I can safely ignore it.
  3. Software changes over time: even if you end up using a new library in a year or two, by that point the API may have changed. Time spent learning the current API would be wasted.

If you try to spend a few days—or even hours—on every intriguing new technology you hear about, you’re going to waste a lot of time.

The alternative: shallow breadth of knowledge

Most of the time you don’t actually need to use new tools and techniques. As long as you know a tool exists you’ll be able to learn more about it when you need to.

For example, there is a tool named Logstash that takes your logs and sends them to a central location. That’s pretty much all you have to remember about it, and it took you just a few seconds to read that previous sentence.

Maybe you’ll never use that information… or maybe one day you’ll need to get logs from a cluster of machines to a centralized location. At that point you’ll remember the name “Logstash”, look it up, and have the motivation to actually go read the documentation and play around with it.

This is also true when it comes to finding a new job. I was once asked in a job interview about the difference between NoSQL and traditional databases. At the time I’d never used MongoDB or any other NoSQL database, but I knew enough to answer satisfactorily. Being able to answer that question told the interviewer I’d be able to use that tool, if necessary, even if I hadn’t done it before.

Gaining breadth of knowledge

Learning about the existence of tools can be a fairly fast process. And since this knowledge will benefit your employer and you don’t need to spend significant time on it, you can acquire it during working hours.

You’re never actually working every single minute of your day, you always have some time when you’re slacking off on the Internet. Perhaps you’re doing so right now! You can use that time to expand your knowledge.

Here are a couple ways you can get pointers to new tools and techniques:

Newsletters

A great way to learn new tools and techniques are weekly email newsletters. There are newsletters on many languages and topics, from DevOps to PostgreSQL: here’s one fairly detailed list of potential newsletters you can sign up for.

Conferences and Meetups (you don’t have to go!)

Another good source of new tools and techniques are conferences and Meetups. Good conferences and Meetups will aim for a broad range of talks, on topics both new and classic.

But you don’t have to go to the conference or Meetup to benefit, or even watch a recording of the talks to learn something. Just skimming talk topics will give you a sense of what the community is talking and thinking about—and if something sounds particularly relevant to your interests you can spend the extra time to learn more.

Of course, if you can convince your employer to send you to a conference that’s even better: you’ll learn more, and you’ll do it on the company’s dime and time.

Your time is valuable—use it accordingly

There are only so many hours in the day, so many days in a year. That means you need to work efficiently, spending your limited time in ways that have the most impact:

  1. Spend an hour a week learning about new tools, just enough to know when they might be useful.
  2. Keep a record of these tools so you can find them when you need to: star them on GitHub, or add them your bookmarks or note-taking system.
  3. Only spend the extra time and effort needed to gain more in-depth understanding once you actually need to use the tool. And when you do learn a new tool, do it at your job if you can.

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