So you broke a cardinal rule of tech professionals and let your skills get out-of-date. Now what? How can you find the time to update your skillset, regain your market appeal, and salvage your career—especially if you are working with an aging technology stack?
The obvious solution is to go through some tutorials for the latest technologies, work on side projects, and code in your spare time. But what if you don’t want to spend your off-hours writing code? Here are some ways to close glaring skill gaps while on the job.
Find a Problem and Offer to Fix It
In most companies, transitioning to an entirely new technology stack is so labor-intensive and expensive that the changes are often put off until it’s absolutely necessary. That’s an opportunity for tech pros who are looking to develop new skills or polish existing ones.
“Try to identify inefficient or problematic technologies that are too slow or tend to break a lot,” suggested Itamar Turner-Trauring, consultant, software engineer and author of the blog “Code Without Rules.” Research a possible replacement (or two) and offer to spearhead a pilot project where you try out a new solution on a small scale.
Look for a low-risk project that won’t impact external customers, or something that won’t take too much time to learn; new infrastructure testing or bug-finding tools are good examples. This will allow you to research and learn new technologies in your present role while creating value by solving a strategic issue or problem.
Alternatively, look for opportunities to replace broken workflow processes in accounting or marketing; offer to build a tool or app to fix it via a newer technology, suggested Allen Chung, senior director of engineering for a Bay Area financial technology company. For instance, if you’re looking to upgrade your Java or C++ skills, offer to build an app using Go or Node.
“Most managers will be open to the idea if you take a win-win-win approach,” Chung noted.
Even if your boss turns down your proposal, you don’t necessarily need hands-on experience with the newest libraries, projects and tools to enhance your marketability. Conducting the research and coming up a solution should provide enough exposure and familiarity to appease a future job interviewer who wants to know your skills and experience.
“Just being able to talk about a newer technology in a way that will be useful to a company may be sufficient to pass the interview,” Turner-Trauring stated. New technologies come and go quickly; it’s important to be defined by your current skills.
Refresh Your Programming Style
You don’t necessarily need to switch to a new programming language to stay relevant. Teaching yourself a new coding style and using modern language constructs in your current job may be enough to boost your appeal.
In fact, Chung has used this strategy as a stepping stone in the past. Once upon a time, he was given permission to implement test-driven development (TDD) during a prior C++ project. Following the TDD way of writing code gave him the proper foundation to learn Python and Ruby.
Understanding why certain programming styles and paradigms are good for different tasks confers a clear advantage that signifies higher levels of competence to a prospective employer.
Add New Features and Skills to Your Repertoire
Are you feeling stuck in a rut because you’ve been working with a legacy programming language such as enterprise Java or C++ for years? Adopting some of the latest features, updated functionality and bug fixes featured in Java EE 7 or 8 or the enhanced coding features in C++ 17 can make your daily tasks feel new again.
Whatever the language or platform, there’s no need to start over so long as you keep adding incremental knowledge. Becoming aware of the latest tools and techniques is hugely valuable and doesn’t require a great deal of time, Turner-Trauring added. He also provided this list of easy ways to stay up-to-date: “If everything you’re doing seems too comfortable and easy, you’re not learning. Feeling mildly uncomfortable is the key to success.”