What do you do to stay sharp

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What Do Top Agile Talent Do to Stay Sharp and Fresh ... First, your ability to claim expertise relies on staying up to date. And, ... developers and watch the market.

What Do Top Agile Talent Do to Stay Sharp and Fresh Jon Younger Toptal and Agile Talent Collaborative

How important is it to stay on top of your game as a professional? It’s hard to argue with the need to stay sharp as a professional over the course of a career. Despite his extraordinary wealth and youthful age, Mark Zuckerberg cites his focus on personal growth as a critical factor in his ongoing success. As he describes it, “Every year, I take on a personal challenge to learn new things and grow outside my work at Facebook. My challenges in recent years have been to read two books every month, learn Mandarin and meet a new person every day. My personal challenge for 2016 is to build a simple AI to run my home and help me with my work. You can think of it kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man.” The link between performance and development is obvious, but also well-established in research reviews; for example, a recent summary by Richard Rohs found that training and other developmental activities returned anywhere from $3 to $6 for every $1 invested in development. Moreover, as Eric Bloom of IT World wrote some time ago, the half-life of your tech is about two years. That means you face a double challenge. First, your ability to claim expertise relies on staying up to date. And, second, the next gen newbies coming up will quickly surpass your skill set if you don’t keep up. So, what do you do to stay sharp?


That’s a question we posed to members of the Toptal community last week. The individuals on Toptal’s platform represent the top 3% of technical experts – data architects, designers, developers, engineers, and other technology and business specialists - and are a group of professionals who operate in a fast moving, dynamic and frequently changing (and obsolescing) information technology. Hence, we might expect this group to be vitally concerned with remaining more than competitive. Second, these experts are entrepreneurs; they are independent businessmen or women, and usually operating without the safety net of an employer. Its “showtime every time” for agile talents on the Toptal platform, so one would guess that the value they place on self-development would be generally pretty high. Third, these individuals are part of a truly diverse and global community of agile talents and represent many regions from Asia to Latin America. Thus, their thoughts about how to stay fresh and up to date are unlikely to be constrained by specific national cultures. We also learned that Toptal colleagues tend to utilize one of four strategies for keeping fresh. The matrix below provides an overview of these, and focuses on two dimensions, based on what colleagues told us: •

Whether individuals tended to collaborate with others in staying up to date, or saw professional development as a more solitary activity

Whether individuals focused on a particular tech based strategy for keeping sharp, or a range of events and activities


Based on the comments we received, the matrix below best describes the various strategies that colleagues use to stay sharp, along with illustrative statements from Toptal agile talents. Individual

Tech Focused “Side projects in new technologies” “Being interested in programming languages and giving new ones a try”

Interpersonal “Networking and co-working with others. Peers are a great source of knowledge”

Broadly Based “Conferences/meet-ups, petprojects, blogs/articles on medium.com, books/video courses” “I read known newsletters with weekly updates on the trade and frequent local and mainstream events to get to know other developers and watch the market novelties and best practices” Being part of communities. Working as a single professional, one tends to create their own shell and stay within it. I have made it a point to meet not only more and more people from my own field, but problem solvers in entirely different domains – in shipping, agriculture, water and utilities industries. Meeting new people on platforms like Toptal also helps.

What might agile talents do to improve their approach to ongoing professional development? The research suggests five activities to consider:

4 1. Re-up and renew … make an assertive decision about your professional emphasis by annually re-visiting your platform bio (and photo). Staying fresh is a commitment that starts with a review of the last year, and a clear point of view about the direction of professional development, and the activities that will make it happen. Think of it as a new year’s resolution – we recommend a letter to yourself - to invest in updating your career and investing in your professional reputation and satisfaction. Then, signify these changes by appropriately updating your bio and photo for a new year. 2. Anticipate trends. Start the process of renewal planning by looking out and inside. By out we suggest a focus on what’s happened in your area of expertise in the past 1-2 years, and what’s likely to happen in the next 1-2 years. Identify potential areas of opportunity, but also areas of weakness or vulnerability. Make this assessment a key step in renewal.

3. Seek feedback from respected colleagues and friends. As the point above suggests, it’s equally important for your renewal plan to address both strengths and weaknesses. Ask people who know you well, are supportive, but also will give you honest feedback. 4. Put a disciplined plan in place. The research on change makes the point that personal growth masters focus on one or two areas for improvement or development, establish specific plans and milestones, and regularly review or

5 assess progress. Heroic goals sound good, but are generally unlikely to be successful.

5. Acknowledge and celebrate small wins. Last, but not least, give yourself a pat on the back for progress. Successful professional development is a journey of small steps. By giving yourself a pat on the back for effort, you are more likely to keep it up.