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Professional Development Plans

By Andy Warren,

Over the past couple years I've written three different articles about professional development (Professional Development, Beginning Professional Development, and Time for Training) and had a lot of interesting discussion around them. Professional development is an incredibly important topic regardless of your career field, and it's certainly challenging in our world. This time around I'd like to offer some more suggestions about creating a formal plan. Reading the earlier articles isn't a prerequisite for this one, but I think reading them (or re-reading them) will help set the stage.

Before we create a plan, let's talk about how much time and effort you might want to put into professional development. I think most people fall into one of these groups:

  • New to the job or profession and trying hard to acquire situational competency - these are the people that typically pursue exams, classes, books, etc, with feverish intensity
  • Stable at the job/profession, knows what they need to know for day to day stuff, and experienced enough to know that if something new comes along they'll figure it out as needed. People in this category probably spend no more than 40 hours a year of targeted professional development, usually in the form of a class or conference.
  • Tired of the job but can't afford to quit. They are almost as effective as the stable group, but they have no interest in another class/conference. Many of us wind up here because the technology treadmill just keeps going faster and it certainly doesn't stop.
  • Striving to be a the top of their profession. Some in this group enjoy the job security that comes from being a cut above the pack while others just have the type A super competitive gene. These people always have a book in their hands, going to a conference, loading up SQL 2019 beta for a test run.

As a guess, I'm going to write down how many PD hours are typically used by group:

  • New (400+ hours/year)
  • Stable(40 to 100 hours/year)
  • Tired(0 to 40/year, but as close to 0 as possible)
  • Striving (100 to 400, but it's skewed because they tend to work on projects that drive learning during business hours too)

Note that I know those aren't perfect, but I hope you'll agree that they are reasonably illustrative.

During our career we'll move in and out of each of those groups. That's important, because it's easy to start kicking yourself for not doing enough without realizing what mode you're in and why. For example, in the last year I've changed jobs and launched a new business, bought a new home, had a second child, and sold a business I'd grown rather fond of (SSC if you hadn't guessed). That's mostly kicked me into the stable group even though I tend towards the striving group normally. Life is starting to settle down a bit so I think by the end of the year I'll be back in the mode of trying to climb another step or two. Too long in the frenzied pace of new to the job or top of the profession groups can burn you out, and while we may all end up in the tired category, it's not a place we want to stay for more than a year or so because we're not serving our employers as well (making us more likely to be in the next round of layoffs) and we're not maintaining our employability. Can you identify which group you're in right now? Is it the right group based on you're at in life right now and will be for the next 3-6 months? Sometimes you just do the best you can!

I suggest that you build two plans. One focuses on what I call maintenance that should be no more than two hours per week so that you can fit it in during free time at work, and one that focuses on growth that has a goal and either a deadline or commitment to spend x hours per week/month until the goal is reached. Better to aim a little lower and hit the goal than to set a high goal that you never reach. I like to reevaluate my plans every three months and if I'm off track I scold myself and reset my goals. Life happens.

For example, right now my maintenance plan consists of the following:

  • Read my blog list (if something new pops up)
  • Read the few email newsletters that I subscribe (some daily, some less frequent) and click through for a five minute read if something looks interesting
  • Find an interesting article to load as a link on my local user group site (www.opass.org)
  • Scan the notifications I get for topics I've subscribed to here on SSC and read a few if time permits, and a couple times a week post a comment
  • Update my blog once a week
  • Read SQL Mag, SQL Server Standard, MSDN Magazine when they arrive (that week), and queue a bunch of others for when I'm waiting on someone (CIO, Network Computing, PC Magazine, Queue, probably a couple more)
  • Scan Cnet.com once a day for geek news
  • Write two articles a month for SSC

My growth plan is focused on partitioning and I try to spend an hour a week experimenting and extending my knowledge. Note that this is a niche subject, but interesting, and it's easier to focus on something you find interesting than not. I expect it will be Sep/Oct before I finish up with partitioning and then reassess both my plans. Typically the last quarter is a light quarter for me as I like to enjoy breaks around the holidays, and I'm also coordinating a SQL Saturday in November that will take up a lot of time. In both cases the only resources I need are my laptop and subscriptions I've already paid for. In other cases I might need to invest in books, software, hardware, or classes. You won't always know exactly what resources you need, but you can take a guess and work on funding them in advance.

Effective professional development requires a plan, a goal, and the time and will to implement it. I think time management is one of the biggest challenges most of us face and it might be worthwhile to kick off your next upswing by reading a time management book. A good professional development plan will over time separate you from the pack. One last thought - consider creating a blog devoted to your PD efforts. It may not be fascinating reading, but it serves as a great reference when you need to go back and find something you did months ago, and it's incredibly powerful tool when you can can show your next potential employer a couple years of PD history.

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