Keeping Up with the Deluge

How do you try and stay current on technical affairs, given only 24 hours in a day and a job to do as well? Here's my take on it...

One of the many things that has changed perceptibly since the beginning of this century when I started working in IT is the amount of information freely available, and being created all the time. Back then, printed books and manuals were still the primary source of definitive information about a piece of software. Remember these? I bet you still have a few of them keeping your monitor at the right height still...

SAMS Active Serve Pages 2.0 Unleashed

The internet existed, sure, but believe it or not finding information was hard.
Back in the day, before Google became the ubiquitous entry point to everything, you'd find information through methods including:

  • Browser bookmarks of pages already visited
  • "Recommended links" pages from one site to others
  • Blogrolls
  • Directories, such as DMOZ
  • Web Rings

Sure, there were search engines, but they weren't comprehensive, and they were dumb. You had to hit on the exact search terms. Nowadays Google's auto complete is taken for granted, but if you stop and think about what it does in terms of information discovery and direction of search it's damn impressive.

Fast-forward 17 years, and look how the world's changed. Everyone and her dog is creating content, continually. Whether it's pictures of fried breakfasts, humblebrag photos of holiday destinations - or useful content about new technologies. And this is where it gets tricky. If you work in technology, part of your job - whether explicit or not - is keeping abreast of general trends, and sometimes specifically detailed changes in a given technology.

Even if this is not part of your job role, it's certainly part of keeping yourself employable. Who knows what opportunities will present themselves to you next? Being aware of technology, even if not au fait with it, is better than sheer ignorance. Sometimes you'll want to digest new information right away, and at others simply be aware of its presence for some time in the future when you come to need the detail in it.

But - how on earth does one try and keep on top of the deluge of information? Broadly put, there's information coming at us from all angles in the form of:

  • Conference papers and videos
  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Whitepapers
  • Twitter discussions
  • Books

The 'throughput' of these vary, as does their importance - and quality.

  • Generally books are released infrequently, and one only reads a book to get a detailed understanding of the particular subject - but if you need that level of detail a book can be the definitive place to go for it.
  • At the other end of the scale, Tweets are created continually, and arguably a great deal are complete tosh. However, there are gems in there which make it worth trying to sift through the stream to pick them out. For example, nowhere else do you get such frequent opportunity to see key experts in a given field discussing and debating points openly.
  • Blogs range in quality and relevance greatly, sometimes being an author's 'scratchpad' of notes (like this one!), through to carefully written and argued articles that would be as well published as whitepapers. They can also range from hugely specific and low-level all the way up to general industry commentary - and depending on your interest either or both are going to be interesting.
  • Whitepapers and Conference papers and videos can be an excellent source of learning material and in effect free training, as can Podcasts.

If you tried to read all blogs, follow all tweets, and read all the books you'd go completely mad trying, and also not get any other work done because of the sheer volume of it. So ... how does one even attempt to keep up?

Here's what I do, and I'm really keen to know how others approach this problem - let me know in the comments below.

  • I'm a massive fan of RSS feeds. They seem to be somewhat 'off-trend' in recent years, particularly with the death of Google Reader, but I think there's no sensible alternative.

    I use Feedly to track RSS feeds, splitting them up into 'collections'. I've shared mine here if you want to add them to your RSS reader or Feedly profile.

    With Feedly I skim through feeds (sometimes daily, sometimes weekly/monthly, depending on workload), and anything interesting I read there and then (for short pieces), or send to Pocket (for longer articles). I also like to share on Twitter interesting articles using the handy in-built twitter button (or via Buffer).

    In the past I've used Flipboard but found it too gimmicky and easy to miss articles.

  • I use Twitter a great deal. There's no way I can keep up with the c.1k people I follow on it, so I've created my own private list ("TopRead") on which I put key people who I wouldn't want to miss what they're saying. This includes people who are key in my area of tech, who often post quality articles or comments, and who don't post lots of random crap.

    I rely on people [re-]tweeting interesting content on Twitter as a way of discovering content that I might otherwise miss through not reading every tweet on my timeline. Twitter's "In case you missed it" algorithm does a pretty good job too of highlighting interesting tweets.

    Tweets linking to interesting articles/blogs I save to Pocket, using the Chrome Pocket extension which adds a Pocket link directly to the Tweet page (or the Pocket iOS extensions when reading on my phone).

    Twitter is a funny mix of personal and professional, and I like it for that. I post pictures of my fried breakfasts and beers that I've drunk, but I also post techie content. I've had some great conversations (including technical related ones), online and offline, as a result of this - conversations that wouldn't have come about if I'd posted technical content only.

  • Pocket is a great tool for making available articles that you want to read, with the massive bonus that it works offline so is perfect for when you're travelling. As you read stuff you mark it as read and it goes into your 'archive' so can still be found, but it's nice and clear what you've read and not.

    When I do read articles in Pocket, I like the ability to highlight and 'recommend' passages, sharing them on Twitter.

    My Pocket reading list (not archive) goes back five years 😳 and tends to be a LIFO system, never reaching zero (or anywhere near it). You can search and tag and all that good organisational stuff.

    I always think of Pocket as my Electric Monk, doing my reading for me so that I don't have to. Part of the problem is that an article could be interesting and I'd ideally like to read it, but not have time. So it'd be wrong to archive it off, but similarly it's not going to get read now. So my use of Pocket is not perfect, but it scratches my itch of worrying about forever missing an article I saw once, as I can always search through it for keywords. Maybe I should be saving whole articles to Evernote as a matter of routine instead.

  • I use Evernote for a lot of my digital life. In the context of this article, I use the Web Clipper to save copies of an article or PDF directly into Evernote, from where it is then fully searchable and can be located in the future.

    Saving full articles into Evernote tends to address the issue with Pocket above, where it's something I want to have available to me one day when I need it, but I'm not going to read and consume it *now*. For example, a comprehensive list of good practices for working with <x>. As and when I work with <x>, it'll be brilliant to have these to hand - but as of now all I really want to be aware of is what <x> does and how it fits in my current technical life, so I'm not going to spend time on a greater level of detail than that.

  • I've recently started listening to Podcasts when I go running, and have found them a great way to ingest a lot more information than reading blogs. Partly because I have nothing to do but concentrate on the podcast, but also because the medium works well for detailed discussion and explanation of technology. I'd easily trade one quality podcast on a topic over a dozen fairly-good blogs. Some podcasts I'd recommend:

Something you may note is missing from the above list is books. I do still read books, but very, very few. Mostly they are non-work - believe it or not I do have a life ;-)
The technical books that I do read I get as epub to consume on my Mac or Kindle, and quite often will dig into a few chapters thoroughly and skim the rest. It really does depend on the subject.

Your Turn!

What's your system for trying to capture, consume, and comprehend the deluge of information out there? Let me know in the comments section below :)

(image credit:

Robin Moffatt

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Yorkshire, UK