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Beginning Professional Development

By Andy Warren,

I've written a couple articles recently (Professional Development and Time for Training) about professional development topics. This time I'd like to go into more detail about how use to books and magazines effectively, building a library, and how to talk your boss into funding some of the purchases.

When most people think of books and magazines they think "print". That is the norm, but more and more you can get electronic versions of the content as well. I don't find it as easy to read, but that's a personal preference. I think the other thing people think is "money". There are quite a few trade magazines that are free (none focused on SQL Server that I know of), but few free books. Again, perhaps it's obvious, but you have to invest some money to take advantage of books and magazines.

What do books and magazines have that web based sites like this one do not? I'd argue that anything destined for print is better written and edited. I enjoy web articles for their informal nature, how they focus on sharing ideas more than they focus on presentation. A good editor can help an author render the most technical and confusing subject both readable and interesting. The other advantage they share - in print form - is easy portability.

I enjoy magazines because I don't know what the content will be. It's a lot of fun to open an issue and see what the editor has put together in an issue, especially themed issues like my friend Steve Jones puts together in our own SQL Server Standard. Invariably I end up reading something that I think I otherwise would not have, because it has an interesting lead, or I recognize the author, or maybe just because it follows an article I wanted to read. Books on the other hand are almost bought with a clear need or goal in mind. There is something very nice about reading a well written book where the author steps you through material in well thought out fashion. Note that I'm not saying all books meet that standard!

Early in my career I bought my own books for two reasons. One is that I preferred to build my own library. It's nice to have a set of books that you know and can turn to when you're looking for an answer. The other is that at that point my employer wasn't going to pay for it anyway! About six years ago my boss finally got his boss to go along with ordering some books for the very small team I was on, perhaps five employees total at that time. The deal was I could order 8 books. Not bad, happily I go off to Amazon (and Fatbrain, remember that one?) and order the eight books. But the next time he went off to beg for bucks I proposed a twist. Get approval for x dollars instead of x books and I'll make the most of the money. That agreement was reached and with some hard work I will able to procure 14 books for the same amount (around $250 I think) by buying some used books. Over the years we continued to invest here and there in our library and when I finally became a manager, increased our spend to $250 per quarter, buying a combination of new and used books to fill out the library.

It's fun to see a library grow. It's a very useful tool in many ways. It's handy when you're stuck of course. It's very nice to be able to point younger developers to books on a topic that they need to improve in, knowing that you have a good selection on that topic. It's nice as a hiring tool too, prospects see a hundred or so technical volumes plus magazines everywhere, they get a sense that learning is encouraged if not required.

As a manager, I never had enough money to satisfy all the requests for books, so I worked out a simple process to help me figure out what to buy:

  • Have my team send me an email if they saw a book they thought was useful and/or would just round out the library. I'd queue these in a folder and revisit at the start of each quarter.
  • Send out a current inventory once per quarter and ask the team what subjects we didn't have enough coverage on.
  • I would look at upcoming product releases that would require new books - SQL 2005 release for example
  • Roughly prioritize the list. I say roughly because while I might want a good book on a more obscure topic only if I could get it for $10 or so.

From that I'd have a list of books and topics. From there I'd spend an hour or two browsing Amazon and other sources, looking for used books first. Sometimes it was a new book we needed and it didn't make sense to wait for a used copy. A little back and forth time would usually yield more books than I could buy, so I'd get the best assortment I could and then opt for the cheapest shipping method. Never quite enough money for everything we wanted, but at a $1000 a year in a few years you can have a nice library.

On the magazine side I usually paid for SQL Server Magazine, our own SQL Server Standard, MSDN Magazine, and Visual Studio Magazine. Those where the core magazines for where I worked, using a mix of SQL and .Net. I also had perhaps a dozen more subscriptions to free magazines. It's a good idea to read at least one news magazine like Eweek, and one geeky magazine like Wired or PC Magazine to see what's going on in the broader IT industry.

Keeping track of this stuff was never easy or especially effective. Initially we put routing slips on everything and passed them around, usually they would all wind up on the desk of a couple people that were too busy to read them and pass them on. Plan B was to email out the cover image and table of contents to everyone when it arrived, those that were interested could come get it and fight over it got it first. We made no effort to track magazines after that. I'm sure we lost a couple occasionally but it wasn't worth any more effort than that. For books we had a simple sign out card and maybe once a year we'd try to get everything back on the shelf. We keep the books in an office where we could have someone keep a loose eye on it so that no one ran amuck, but it really required very little time to maintain. Once a year we'd purge out magazines that were more than a couple years old, and we'd take a look to see if there were any books that could be dropped (NT4 books for example were no longer needed).

I promised some tips on using these effectively, so let's do those now:

  • Carry a book or magazine with you everywhere. You'll be surprised (or not) at how often a meeting starts late, friend is late for lunch, or you're kept waiting at the doctor/dentist. Read while you wait and you might easily get in an extra 30 minutes of reading per month. Please do not read while driving!
  • Teach yourself to read one article in any magazine you pick up. Bonus points for reading something that doesn't directly correlate to something you're working on at the moment.
  • To really learn any subject you'll need 2-5 books about it - most authors just don't cover it all. Buy one and read it, then you'll have a better idea when you go back to pick the second book.
  • Set a schedule for reading. I used to read for an hour each morning from 6-7am, right now it's usually 30 minutes around 7 pm. Whether it's daily or weekly, make it a part of your routine

So how do you get your boss to pay for it? Sometimes you just have to ask, but it helps to have a plan. You might try some of my thoughts about as the basis of the plan. Try to address concerns the boss will have. Good talking points are:

  • It's a relatively small investment that you'll leverage across team members
  • The value isn't lost if someone leaves (in contrast to money spent on training courses or conferences)
  • It will be a good thing to mention to potential new hires
  • It's a part of a professional development strategy - over time you may still need to attend real training or conferences
  • Spending some each quarter will let him evaluate how effectively the money is being spent
  • Offer to take ownership of building the book request list each quarter and keeping track of everything
  • Discuss how much of your time it will take away from work if any
  • Have an idea about where the books will be kept, and if you need money for a bookcase

You can try sizing it to your team by asking for x dollars per developer, or you can just do the flat rate thing. I'd try for $500 to launch with and include the cost of the bookcase in that, then $250 a quarter. Get more if you can, take less if that's all you can get. Separately I'd ask for him to pay for a few magazines, maybe $100-$200 per year. That dollar range is usually possible for either the manager to approve, or at most his/her manager to approve - doesn't usually need the CEO to sign off.

If you can get it started, order as many of the free magazines as you can. They'll add a little volume to the library and you never know what will appeal to your peers.

I hope I've got you thinking about whether you're using books and magazines as part of your own professional development program as well as whether your current employer might support the idea of a central library. A little effort might net some savings and some more learning resources too!


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