Gathering knowledge and keeping up

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When training and coaching Microsoft Business Intelligence developers and analysts, people sometimes ask how to keep up with all the new stuff developing. Or, how to start building your knowledge inside your profession. Here are some thoughts about that.

Be aware of your un-knowledge. Keep track of things you encounter in your profession, but you don’t know about yet. Use simple lists like Asana, Wunderlist or Google Keep to list the items you’d like to know more about. For me, it helps me to keep focused and not wander about reading ‘just interesting’ things. For others, it provides a starting point (‘where to start’).

Train your Google skills. Having just a list of subjects to study doesn’t give you immediate knowledge – often, you have to search for it. And although you’d think nowadays everyone knows how to use Google, it’s surprising how often people come with questions that can be easily answered. Especially when looking for technical stuff, use Google’s search operators. Some general advice:

  • Error messages? Be sure to include the exact message – “in quotes”.
  • Same goes for SQL Server-related queries – lots of pages contain “SQL” and “Server” but don’t have anything to do with Microsoft SQL Server
  • Seeing totally unrelated results? Use the minus sign to be sure some keywords do not occur on a page
  • Need something from the SQL Server documentation? Add ‘MSDN’ to your search query. ‘site:microsoft.com’ could work well too

Read Blogs. Whenever you encounter a problem that’s slightly more advanced than the basic stuff, you’ll more often than not find an answer on weblogs. Leave that blog open. After you’ve solved this solution, take a second look at that blog. Does it contain other interesting things? On to the next point!

Use an RSS reader. Contrary to what you might think, RSS readers are not something from the past century. Or maybe they are, but so are mobile phones. RSS readers are invaluable companions for keeping up. Personally, I’m using feedly.com. It offers me a nice plugin into Google Chrome, and on every site that has an interesting stream of articles (blogs, news sites, whatever) I hit the ‘add’ button. Things are kept together for me in a cloud account, so I can login at any device using apps or the website to start reading.

Use a ‘read later’ application. Apps like Instapaper are great for lengthy articles (not necessarily blogs) that you encounter during your work, but don’t have the time for to read immediately. They also create a reading list with all unread articles for you. Flipboard also has a nice ‘read later’ function, with the additional benefit that it also includes stories from your Twitter network, in a nice magazine-style layout which works great on tablets. You get to see the tweet, but (as is often the case) when the tweet contains a link, the article to which the link points is also included in the Flipboard magazine.

Use Twitter. Maybe. Or maybe not. I’ve got mixed feelings about Twitter. It allows you to stay really on top, but it can be hard to filter out content from garbage here because of the ‘broadcasting’ intersecting with direct communication between people. When you’ve got the time to check Twitter throughout the day, it’s great for staying up-to-date. When you don’t, my experience is that it’s too much information to filter out efficiently. On the other hand: following community leaders and influencers can be quite effective – by tweeting they highlight the really exciting stuff, and often raise articles from blogs you didn’t know about yet.

Get to know the community. Especially in the Microsoft environment, the community is huge and positively engaged. Although you cannot follow everyone writing about Microsoft BI and SQL Server because of the sheer number, you should definitely follow some of them. And by following, I mean: keep their blogs in your RSS feed and follow them on Twitter (if that works for you). Who the ‘community leaders’ are depends on who you learn the most – but in the Microsoft world, look for MVP’s in particular. Spend enough time reading blogs / articles that you encountered in your search trails, and you’ll  get a vision on who brings the new stuff, and what’s interesting for you. Also, you’ll be one of the early birds when the people you learn most from will speak on events, provide training, or else.

Make use of events. This depends for every profession and every country. When you’re doing Business Intelligence in the Netherlands, take a special look at the following usergroups / event organizations:

  • For the SQL Server community, connect to SQLPass in global as well as local chapters. For the Netherlands, the local chapter has quite interesting events, communicated via the mailinglist. You can subscribe at http://www.sqlpass.nl/ (the website is outdated, but the mailinglist is still in use).
  • For BI professionals in general, stay tuned to the events of BI Podium. Thought leaders are often speaking there.
  • Keep a close eye on Meetup, looking for data events. In the Netherlands, Data Donderdag is great if you’d like to take a closer look at recent IoT / Big Data / Data Science developments.
  • Keep vendors in sight. Of course, they’ll spam you with marketing-nonsense and their utopian view of data reality. But their events are generally not expensive and give you the chance to catch on early with new developments.

Online events and webinars are great too. Although you’re missing the chance of meeting people in person (and thus extending your network), you can often hear really interesting people teach you for free.

Look for missed events. Especially with Microsoft conferences everything is available online a few after the event (here’s Ignite, for example). Of course you don’t have the time to see every video (if you want, they’re available in 1,5x speed too). But at least take the time to download every slide deck and scroll through them to see if anything new stands out. Then, you know what to focus on to extend your knowledge.

Conclusion – who do I follow? I’ve mentioned the ‘community leaders’, ‘thought leaders’ and ‘who to follow’ several times. I’m currently trying to share my feedly-RSS (applied for early access). As soon as that’s finished, I’ll update it here. For the time being, here’s some names to follow, grouped per subject.

Data platforms. Curt Monash is a great independent source.

Microsoft BI. Anyone you see speaking at events. In particular, follow Chris Webb, Jen Stirrup, Jen Underwood, Marco Russo, Jamie Thomson, Paul White, Gerhard Brueckl, BI Monkey and anyone on SQLBlog.com. Also, keep an eye on Koen Verbeeck (Author of the Year at MSSQLTips.com) and Hans Geurtsen (in Dutch)

Microsoft SQL Server. Still follow SQLBlog.com. And sqlservercentral.com. Then Thomas LaRock, Brent Ozar, Aaron Bertrand, Paul Randall, Gianluca Sartori (Spaghetti DBA), Thomas KejserArvind Shyamsundar.

Visualization. Stephen Few – as long as you can stand strong opinions. Alberto Cairo for a more inspirational ‘have you thought about this’ style. Ben Jones. For exciting, new and out-of-the-box stuff, go to Jer Thorp (blprnt).

Data modeling. Hans Hultgren, Lars RönnbäckMartijn Evers for Agile Data Warehousing. Chris Adamson for Star Schema’s (wrote an excellent book about that, too). I haven’t seen any articles of Bill Inmon the last few years, but he’s a great writer and clear thinker. Ralph Kimball deserves all credits for his Dimensional Modeling writings, although more recently his opinions seem to be paid for by Cloudera.

Keep in mind: this is only from my list I’m currently following – and then not everyone. Leave your suggestions who to follow (and why) in the comments section below!

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