Follow the Leaders

Posted on April 19, 2010

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Do you want to get smarter on technology topics?  Me too!  In fact, in the software industry, there is way too much to learn and I am constantly adding to my “Learn This” list.  This list is useful (and sometimes daunting), and I try to work hard to widdle it down.  But my “Learn This” list is subjects and topics that I am aware of.  What about areas of software innovation that I am unaware of that might be useful for me to learn…how does one find out about the new and exciting?

What I have found that works is to simply Follow the Leaders.  Most industries have thought leaders (established and emerging) who push the boundaries of the establishment to redefine what we already know to be true, or define something we don’t yet know.  Some of these leaders are world renown and some of them are only known in very small circles.  Most all of them, however, take full advantage of Web 2.0 technologies and use simple and cheap tools like blogs, micro-blogging and other social media tools to share their knowledge, and this can be a huge advantage for the rest of us!

RSS is your friendRSS icon

If you want to make yourself smarter in your field, one of the simplest things you can do is follow the blogs and Twitter feeds of industry leaders.  You could bookmark all the URLs to their blogs and check them constantly, but that can be extremely cumbersome.  My suggestion is to take advantage of a RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader.

I won’t go into full blown definition of RSS, but if you’re interested in more information, check this out.  What is important is that an RSS reader will allow you to subscribe to a website (news, blogs, even Twitter) and then receive a copy of the latest article from the site, without ever having to go there.  There are a number of RSS readers on the market right now, but the one I am using and have had a lot of success with is Google Reader.  I would recommend you set up an account for free and check it out.

Twitter as a business tool

Forget what you think about Twitter.  It isn’t like Facebook.  Well, ok, it is in the sense that many people will tell you what they are doing every minute of every day to the point that you don’t care.  But Twitter can be an extremely useful tool for finding out new information and discovering new people of interest in your field.  I mainly follow technologists and I find that their tweets to be a wealth of information.  If you don’t believe me, read this article from the NY Times about getting the most out of Twitter.

Start Small

Once you have a RSS reader setup, you will need to add some useful sites to it.  Start by googling somebody you know from the industry.  What’s the name of the guy that created that open source project I love?  Who was that guy that spoke at that conference?  Who just left Sun/Oracle?  Google them, find their blog and add the RSS feed to you reader.  If they have a Twitter account, follow them.  Don’t try and find everybody you can think of immediately, because you just won’t be able to do it; just start small.

5 Minutes a Day

Make an effort to check your RSS reader everyday.  A simple way of doing this is to check Google Reader from your smart phone (don’t have a smart phone? why not?).  I have Google Reader bookmarked on my iPhone and I check it any chance I get.  My wife loves it when I do this.  It only takes 5 minutes a day to open up the reader and read one article or blog entry.  You will find that you are reading articles waiting in line, at the doctor’s office, wherever you have a spare few minutes.

Build Your Network

As you begin reading blogs, you will notice that most experts also tend to refer to or quote other experts.  Usually they will provide a link to another blog.  You should make a point of adding this individual to your RSS as well.  If somebody you respect is quoting somebody else, it means they either agree or disagree with this person.  In either case, it is useful to add this person to your blog too.  You want to build a network of experts with a variety of experience, who can paint a diverse picture of a subject for you.  One perspective is usually not good enough (something I learned as a History major!).

Also, don’t stop at blogs.  Most of these experts also have Twitter feeds which allow them to micro-blog.  These experts are more likely to say, “Hey, check out this cool article” on Twitter than on a blog.  You can also see who an expert follows on Twitter, which may mean you should follow them.  If you see your expert retweeting this individual’s tweets or engaging in a dialogue, then check them out!  Usually a Twitter feed has a reference to an individual’s blog on it.  Now you can add their blog to your RSS reader!

Keep it Organized

This process can lead to an explosion of blogs in your Reader.  I currently subscribe to 78 different blogs.  Luckily, Google Reader allows me to set up folders for these blog feeds so that I can at least apply some organization to them.  You will find that your ever expanding blog subscription list will feel a lot more manageable.  Also, don’t be afraid to cut some fat.  If you find that you never like or read entries from an certain blog, unsubscribe to it.

Remember to Have Fun

My last bit of advice is to have fun.  You need to have a balance of work and fun.  You can add ESPN to your RSS reader and find out what’s going on with the Red Sox or you can subscribe to your friends food blog and find out how to make a restaurant quality steak.  You will find that having this balance keeps you coming back for more.

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