The only constant truth in our industry is that technology is always changing. At times, it’s difficult to keep up with everything new that is being introduced while you stay active in working your day to day duties. That challenge grows even harder if these new innovations diverge from the direction that the company you work for is heading. Ignoring such change is a bad idea. Failing to keep up with where the market it heading is a recipe for stagnation and eventual irrelevance. So how do you keep up with these things when your employer doesn’t sponsor or encourage your education?
1) The first step is to come to the realization that you're going to need to spend some time outside of work learning new things. This can be difficult for a lot of reasons, but especially if you have a family or other outside obligations. Your career is a series of priorities though, and while it may/should not be the highest thing you prioritize, it has to at least be on the list. Nobody is going to do the work for you, and if you don’t have the support of your organization, you’re going to have to carve out the time on your own.
2) Watch/listen/read/consume, a lot. Find people who are writing about the things you want to learn and read their blogs or books. Don’t just read their blogs, though. Add them to a program that harvests their RSS feeds so you are notified when they write new things. Find podcasts that address these new technologies and listen to them on your commute to/from work. Search YouTube to find people who are creating content around the things you want to learn. I have found the technology community to be very forthcoming with information about the things that they are working on. I’ve learned so much just from consuming the content that they create. These are very bright people sharing the things they are passionate about for free. The only thing it costs is your time. Some caution needs to be taken here though, as not everyone who creates content on the internet is right. Use the other resources to ask questions and validate the concepts learned from online sources.
3) Find others like you. The other thing that I have found about technology practitioners is that, contrary to the stereotype of awkward nerds, many love to be social and exist within an online community. There are people just like you hanging out on Twitter, in Slack groups, in forums, and other social places on the web. Engage with them and participate in the conversations. Part of the problem of new technology is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Something as simple as hearing an acronym/initialism that you haven’t heard before could lead you down a path of discovery and learning. Ask questions and see what comes back. Share your frustrations and see if others have found ways around them. The online community of technology practitioners is thriving. Don't miss the opportunity to join in and learn something from them.
4) Read vendor documentation. I know this one sounds dry, but it is often a good source for guidance on how a new technology is being implemented. Often it will include the fundamental concepts you need to know in order to implement whatever it is that you are learning about. Take terms that you don’t understand and search for them. Look for key limitations or caveats in the way a vendor implements a technology and it will tell you about its limitations. You do have to read between the lines a bit, and filter out the vendor-specific stuff (unless you are looking to learn about a specific vendor), but this content is often free and incredibly comprehensive.
5) Pay for training. If all of the above doesn’t round out what you need to learn, you’re just going to have to invest in yourself and pay for some training. This can be daunting as week-long onsite courses can cost thousands of dollars. I wouldn’t recommend that route unless you absolutely need to. Take advantage of online computer-based training (CBT) from sites like CBT Nuggets, Pluralsight, and ITProTV. These sites typically have reasonable monthly or yearly subscription fees so you can consume as much content as your heart desires.
6) Practice, practice, practice. This is true for any learning type, but especially true when you’re going it alone. If at all possible, build a lab of what you’re trying to learn. Utilize demo licenses and emulated equipment if you have to. Build virtual machines with free hypervisors like KVM so you can get hands-on experience with what you’re trying to learn. A lab is the only place where you are going to know for sure if you know your stuff or not. Build it, break it, fix it, and then do it all again. Try it from a different angle and test your assumptions. You can read all the content in the world, but if you can’t apply it, it isn’t going to help you much.
Independent learning can be time consuming and, at times, costly. It helps to realize that any investment of time or money is an investment in yourself and the skills you can bring to your next position or employer. If done right, you’ll earn it back many times over by the salary increases you’ll see by bringing new and valuable skills to the table. However, nobody is going to do it for you, so get out there and start finding the places where you can take those next steps.