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Signal vs Noise - Staying Up to Date

📅 October 16, 2019 - 7 min read

Technology is so fast paced that to stay up to date, you need to be learning on a daily basis. However, the internet is so awash with vast swaths of information of varying accuracy and importance that it’s difficult to filter the signal from the noise and only consume that which will be of lasting importance.

This was a challenge that I faced myself in my career of staying up to date and learning about new technologies in a 80/20 fashion. In other words, what is the 20% of content I can “consume” for 80% of the impact.


Why is “staying up to date” important though?

Recently, Corey Quinn, writer of Last Week in AWS, had an interesting point when answering the question of “What’s the most consistently wrong thing you see AWS users do?”

Quinn: The most consistent mistake that everyone makes when using AWS—this extends to life as well—is once people learn something, they stop keeping current on that thing. There is an entire ecosystem of people who know something about AWS, with a certainty. That is simply no longer true, because capabilities change. Restrictions get relaxed. Constraints stop applying. If you learned a few years ago that there are only 10 tags permitted per resource, you aren’t necessarily keeping current to understand that that limit is now 50.

I’ve found this to be true in my own career. Often, there will be a workaround I have to do for a particular project, but then a new strategy is released that means there is no need to do that do that workaround any more. Without “staying up to date” I would keep doing this workaround!

The challenge remains however, that you cannot consume everything that is published, even about a specific technology. So how can you filter the signal vs noise?

Subscribing to newsletters

First and foremost, subscribe to these on your work email. Learning is a part of your work and so reading through information on a work relevant topic should be considered as such. Previously, I subscribed to them on my personal email and found myself with a mountain of emails to read through on my way home from work - not fun and I didn’t get any benefit from the content.

I find newsletters a great source of learning because they only include articles that particularly stood out with importance. Additionally, each article usually has a short summary that can make you decide whether to read it or not.

There is even a newsletter for HackerNews so you can have it boiled down as a sort of “Greatest Hits” of the week. This helps you feel connected to the community without having to spend all day scrolling.

Go to Meetups

I’m a big advocate of meetups for learning. Why? Because it’s dedicated time to focus on one thing. You’re not (or at least you shouldn’t) be checking Twitter at the same time, you’re just listening and learning.

Furthermore, it’s a great way to surround yourself with like minded people and build on your ideas. You can gain real insight into how people learned a topic or even got into the industry in the first place.

Join Slack/Discord/Forum Communities focused around a technology or topic

If you go to meetups, they will often have a slack or discord community that you can join and talk with other attendees. I’d highly recommend joining these, but be selective, not joining and participating in absolutely every single one. Instead, encourage conversation by asking questions, even if you think they are dumb - people will help you out. Slack is particularly good for meetups because it allows you to build relationships with the people in the local area. This makes it easier to look for new opportunities, to collaborate and perhaps to secure funding for your next great idea.

Additionally, if you have an interest in a particular technology or area of expertise, these will likely have a community around them also. Personally, I really love the Chaos Engineering Slack as there is always lively discussion and a lot of links being shared on the topic. Again this allows you to filter down articles and gain insights on the topic that you otherwise would not know.

Follow relevant people on Twitter (+ setup Twitter mute keywords)

Despite the hate, I find Twitter a great asset to me in my learning and “staying-up-to-date”. But it carries a couple of warnings. Firstly, it’s to setup Twitter mute keywords. I have around a hundred or so of these (unfortunately they cannot be imported via CSV or other formats), that filter out everything I don’t want to see (basically anything asides from tech). Additionally, I steer clear from politics and other “drama” that springs up in the community. Some may find this to be “putting up the shutters” so to speak, but I get my news elsewhere and my life is a lot happier not reading about other peoples personal lives.

Second is to be selective about who you follow in the community. Go to your favourite “tweeter” and look at who they follow and just follow them all, then if you find the content off topic then you can simply unfollow them. Overtime you can build a highly curated list of people who give you great content.

Listen to Podcasts (selectively) and Books

Listening to content whilst commuting is a great way to learn whilst on-the-go. There are a large array of podcasts that I subscribe to, both technical and non-technical as well as an Audible subscription for a new book each month.

Podcasts used to be a major source of stress for me as they would stack up in my “To Listen” playlist waiting to be listened to. Now I am much more rigorous about which podcasts I subscribe to and listen to. If I am subscribed to a weekly show, I don’t care to listen to each episode and just dive in on whatever episode I want to listen to. PocketCasts still says however that since July 28th 2016, I’ve listened to a staggering 84 days and 3 hours of content. Whilst I listen to this as well as doing other things, such as shopping or commuting, I do suddenly realise two things

  1. I barely remember a single one of those podcasts I’ve listened to
  2. I could have read/listened to a lot of books in those 84 days that would have had far greater impact.

It was for those two reasons that I have no switched almost exclusively to listening to audiobooks. They give you great insights in on the world whether technical or non-technical. Recently, I’ve been listening to a number of psychology and history books, which tangentially has given me new perspectives on technology.

I don’t really have time to read physical paperbacks (despite loving the tactility), so audiobooks are a great way to read without reading. I find my comprehension and memory better if anything when compared to regular reading as I lean towards auditory learning.

Relax

… you don’t need to be learning all the time. Although important, you should not overwhelm yourself with media to consume on a near constant basis. That is why I chose to not include tools like Pocket in this article. For myself, they led to massive FOMO and anxiety around how many articles I had stacking up. I read hundreds of articles previously, and truth be told, I remember almost none of them. What I do remember however, is books. For me, they provide much deeper insights and introduce new world views that allow me to learn in new ways.

Additionally, although it’s good to use these different channels, make sure to not be distracted by them and instead allot their own block of time to be focused on individually.

I have set myself the provision that if a tab is open for more than 10 days, then even if I think it might be the greatest piece of literature ever written, then I close the tab. You have to reason, if it is that good, you’ll probably hear about it by some other means.


Josh Ghent

I'm Josh Ghent. I make robust apps for the web. I wrangle code at Capp & Co. I act as lead maintainer of ESFiddle and organize LeicesterJS