There’s Always Something New To Learn

March 28, 2012

When I walked into work this week, I found once again that my job was a little bit different than it was when I had left on Friday. Our hosting provider had changed our automated scripts to run every 15 minutes when we had originally scheduled them to run every 2 minutes. Developers in my Twitter stream were lobbying the group that oversees the HTML specifications to add a new tag that would allow different sizes of images to be delivered to 3G smartphones than desktop users typically see on broadband connections. And I’ve got this sneaking suspicion that our stations’ social followers are spending increasingly less time on Facebook and more time on Pinterest — I don’t even know what Pinterest IS yet.

While this might look a little overwhelming for a Monday morning, checklists like this one are part of what makes my job a thrill. We’ve got new challenges facing us in the Interactive space every day, and a constant influx of new tools and techniques required to deal with them. For a web developer, always being in learning mode is a necessity to be great at your vocation. Sitting on your hands is not an option.

I strongly believe it’s imperative for your station, your organization, and your own career that we make this education process a top priority. That we’re transitioning to a new knowledge-based economy means that our people will be every bit as valuable an asset as our broadcast towers. Every minute spent learning HTML5, iOS programming, or video editing is a minute that will add value for our listeners and clients, enrich our Interactive products, and put another step ahead of our competition.

Not that this training has to be a chore, like just one more task to be crammed into an already hectic day. Learning new things feels good: it’s that rush of dopamine to the brain’s pleasure centers and the sting of a good high-five from your colleagues that actually make it kind of addictive. There is something intrinsically satisfying about making those new connections, and it will always make my day to be able to share a new app or automated script with a coworker and make their job a little easier. We are applying new technology to real-world problems, and we are making our world better in the process.

Luckily, facing these challenges isn’t just a matter of competitiveness or personal reward; the resources you need are cheap (sometimes even free) and plentifully available everywhere you look. It’s why self-guided programs like Khan Academy are a good bet to reinvent our education system. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently made it his New Year’s resolution to learn how to code with the new Code Year course (along with a quarter million others just in the first week.) Designers, developers and filmmakers spend almost as much time publishing tutorials and writing guest blog case studies not just because it’ll help establish them as thought leaders in their field, but also because it feeds back into the general pool of knowledge. New creative minds are fortunate enough to stand on the shoulders of giants, and in this day of easy sharing and open-source, we all benefit as a result.

Get started: set a goal.

What Mayor Bloomberg and the rest of the Code Year participants were doing is increasingly common – they’re committing themselves to learning a new tool or skill this year. Pick a language, like CSS 3 or Ruby, or a tool, like Adobe Photoshop or Final Cut, and set out to master it. Be specific, write it down, and stick to it until you’re ready for the next challenge.

Make time for learning every day.

Set aside time on a regular basis to seek out and acquire new information. I’m a fan of using Google Reader to aggregate feeds from my favorite news and tutorial sites, making it sort of an inbox for the web. Follow creative minds you admire on Twitter for tips, stories, and inspiration. Sign up for courses like PSDTuts, Code Academy or Treehouse. You can even subscribe to educational podcasts and listen while you’re in the car. Check these resources as faithfully and as regularly as you would your email inbox.

Look for excuses to try out new tools and techniques with every project.

One of the best ways to reinforce your new knowledge is to put it to practical use. It might take a little longer than usual to build a page that’s fed dynamically with data from a shared Google Spreadsheet, but that extra time will have resulted in a page that can be updated instantaneously by a non-technical content manager and a script that can be repurposed to save hours of data entry down the road.

Share with others.

A mentor once told me that the best way to master a new skill is to “watch it, then do it, then teach it.” Sharing a concept with others is one of the most important phases of learning, and it benefits everyone involved. At our Interactive summit in Detroit last September, I was thrilled to hear about the success of New Jersey’s “Interactive Day” spearheaded by my colleague Billy Clanton, Jr. Account teams watched presentations, participated in Interactive demos, and played “Interactive Jeopardy” to test their new knowledge. Here in Philadelphia, we started a monthly learning series called Interactive Roundtable in which we’ll demo a tool like Final Cut or Twitter and then discuss the tech news of the day.

When Jason Zajac or I finish writing a script, a widget, or an app, the first thing we’ll do is run over to the other one’s desk to share the news: “you’ve got to show me how you did that!” That reaffirming phrase lets me know that the spirit of learning and sharing is alive here at Greater Media. It’s a big reason why I love this job, and I guarantee it’ll make your day as well.


TJ Nicolaides is making Greater Media great in his role as Interactive Technology Manager at WMMR-FM / WMGK-FM / WPEN-FM / WBEN-FM.