Drinking from a Firehose
Whenever I interview a person for an open position I always ask the person how they keep up-to-date and keep their knowledge set relevant with industry trends and new technologies. The answer can tell you a lot about the person across the table from you, and the beauty of the question is that it gives you lots of opportunity for follow-up questions so its easy to determine if the candidate is being honest.
This makes it really easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some candidates don’t do anything to stay current, or say that they a book that is 10 years old (and can’t remember anything about it.) Others tell me that they follow tech. news, read blogs, contribute to open-source, utilize twitter. Its easy to see when someone has passion and pride for the work they do.
That all being said, while I am trying to evaluate the candidate for the job, I’m also hoping that they will give me good ideas for how to improve my own content consumption pipeline. I am constantly striving to become better as a person, as an engineer, and as a general technologist. Scouring the Internet is one way to find new technology and new ways to learn, but you typically need people to reframe your vision or to open your eyes to new possibilities. I’ve learned a lot from interviewees.
So, in the spirit of sharing, I wanted to take the time out to document how I consume content and try to stay relevant and learn new things. Hopefully in exchange, I can get some great ideas from readers.
Step One: Content Acquisition
The first stage of the process is content acquisition. I try to cast a pretty broad net here. Google Reader is my savior here. I get feeds from a ton of place including web comics (SMBC, XKCD), tech news (TNW, Wired), Lifestyle (Uncrate, Acquire), individuals blogs (Bad Astronomy, Al3x), and individual post discussions for interesting posts, or posts that I have commented on so that i can follow the conversation and continue to participate.
In addition to blogs I also keep TweetDeck running and try to dip into my Twitter stream a few times a day to see what is happening (lots of stuff comes from @hnfirehose, some of it is good, some of it is junk but you can quickly separate the wheat from the chaff.) I really love Instapaper and how it integrates into Twitter for iPhone. I use the Instapaper bookmarklet and hook it up on my iPhone so that when i find something good i can save it to read later when I have time to focus on reading.
I also learn about a lot of new things from co-workers and friends via word of mouth, from books (I keep a list of books I want to read (tech and otherwise) on Goodreads), and magazines (I really like Communications of the ACM.)
Step Two: Content Shaping
Step one results in a lot of data to sift through, so I try to go through my Google Reader every day and clear out everything. I will read or skim some articles right then and there, but for the most part I take the articles that I think are interesting and I save them in Instapaper.
Step Three: Content Consumption and the Feedback Loop
Once I have pruned all of that content into something that is roughly manageable it typically ends up in Instapaper. At first I wasn’t sold on Instapaper but, as I outlined above, i’ve come to depend on it. I like that I can use it on almost every device I have and that on my iPhone I can download and archive articles for reading on planes, etc.
I try to find 30 minutes or 1 hour each day to actually read through the stuff that has gotten into Instapaper. This doesn’t always happen so I end up with a sizeable backlog that I try to manage. Some of the news related items “go stale” and just get removed but many of the technical articles will be good whenever I do get to them. When I find a blog article I really like or I think would be interesting to people I know i share it. Sometimes this is personal emails, sometimes it is Twitter, sometimes I note it in my Google Reader public stream . When I find a blog I really like via a Hacker News article or through a cross-link I typically add it to my Google Reader so that I can follow that writer in the future.
When I comment on blogs I always add the blog post’s comment stream RSS to my Google Reader so that I can keep up with the conversation. I set up a specific “Conversations” tag in my Google Reader for these. After a few weeks (or whenever the conversation dies down) I remove these.
Step Four: I’m pretty sure that I forget a lot of good things!
Once i’ve gone through and perused the stuff that seems interesting and dug into the stuff that is really interesting some of it gets put to use immediately, some of it sticks with me, some of it embeds itself deep in my brain and comes out at random times (“hey, i saw a plugin that does that.. let me google and find what it was”) and some of it is just lost. I think that most of what I lose are individual libraries and things that I’d like to try but have no immediate use for. I’d love to be able to put these things in my toolbelt, but I don’t have a good place for them that I use regularly that is searchable.
So… How do you stay current? How do you keep up to date with the latest libraries and technologies in fast growing communities? Two place that I think would be great to learn from that I want to focus on improving are attending local user groups, and contributing to open-source.
How do you keep this stuff from slipping right in to one ear and out the other? Do you have a repository that acts as a final resting place for things that you have no use for immediately but that you want to use in the future? How do you search it? How do you organize it?
Help me out!