Article

Creating a personal skill development plan that works

David Davis

Few industries change as fast as technology, and no set of professionals are tasked with keeping up with work changes like engineers, developers and other technology professionals. No matter if your role is in web or software development, IT or Dev Ops, data, cybersecurity, machine learning, or cloud computing, learning new technologies is critical to your career development, job security and company’s growth. 

While you’ll naturally learn new skills on the job by virtue of your tasks or advancement within a given company, a proactive approach to learning allows you to steer your career and progress deliberately regardless of external factors and changes to your role. 

The core of a proactive approach to learning is a technology skills development plan, which gives you a framework to follow. And for technology leaders, helping your team design skills development plans will ensure you’re on the forefront of new advancements in your industry.

How to know what skills to develop

A meaningful plan depends on knowing what skill to work on as much as it does learning that new skill. Figuring out the “right” thing to learn is wildly relative and may have more than one suitable answer, so two of the best places to start is identifying your own skills gaps and evaluating what the market is looking for. 

 

Do a self-assessment to determine where you stand

A simple way to evaluate yourself is to bucket your tangible knowledge into three categories: tools, skills and tasks.

  • Tools: These are the resources at your disposal to do your job. Tools include programming languages, SaaS platforms, systems and certifications you’re proficient in, like VMware, C++, Wordpress, R, Tableau and so on.

  • Skills: This is how you apply and use your tools. Within a single tool, you may excel at analysis, architecture, data manipulation, troubleshooting, architecture, QA or any number of relevant skills. Consider your tool (be it Google Analytics, Angular, Linux, AWS, Kubernetes or Cloudflare) and ask yourself, “What do I actually know how to do with this?”

  • Tasks: Tasks cover broader responsibilities at your job. What does your company rely on you for? What are some projects where you played an integral role? Are you expected to regularly do things outside your job description? An example of a task (compared to a skill) would be performing a cloud migration, undertaking a security assessment or building a CI/CD pipeline.

Each of these categories blends into each other, and will provide you a jumping-off point to begin mapping out skill adjacencies and areas for improvement to focus on.

 

Identify what skills are in demand, both in the market and in your company

Learning for the sake of learning can have value, but at work, your manager will want to see how your skills development helps drives toward business needs. A good way to find what to learn is by simply talking to your manager and asking for open feedback. 

To cast a wider net and get a sense of how you can “future-proof” your skills, search job listings for roles you’d want to advance to over the next five years, or jobs at innovative companies who do the type of work you aspire to do. Look at the tools, skills and tasks involved. What minimum technical skills do they require? What software programs and platforms do they utilize? What tasks would expect you to take responsibility for? You may even want to look at the ads within your own company as you make a broader career development plan for yourself.

 

Consult your colleagues

The best sources of information are often sitting right next to you. Ask the high performers on your team what skills they can share with you — and what resources they tapped in order to learn their skills. Offer your availability to help them with tasks outside of your day-to-day so you can get hands-on experience with tools you might otherwise never use.

Focus on learning activities that move the needle

Once you have a good idea of the skill you want to learn, it’s time to go to work. Above all, your skills development goal should be S.M.A.R.T.:

  • Specific: “Get better at Javascript” isn’t a specific goal; outline exactly which elements of the language you want to get better at.

  • Measurable: You’re goal should have some sort of soft or hard metric that lets you clearly know if you’re improving. For example, a developer could focus on personal efficiency at completing requests, or a data professional could focus on increasing adoption and use of the data they provide to the marketing org.

  • Actionable: Stretch yourself to hit your measurable goals, but make sure your plan doesn’t overstep others’ authority or ownership on your team. You want to people to support you in your skills development plan, and that requires keeping their trust.

  • Realistic: Learning an entire new framework or language in a few months may not be realistic. Start small and concrete, then move from there.

  • Timely: Do you have the time to fit your skills development in without draining yourself? If you can’t perform your day-to-day tasks while learning new skills, you probably need to rebalance.

 

Once your goal meets those criteria, these three ideas will help you reach them:

Set a daily/weekly/monthly learning plan cadence

To keep your plan timely, break your skills development plan into days, weeks and months. If you work best on a time-structured basis, set a goal to work a set amount of minutes a day on your goal. Others may want to benchmark by progress. If you’re working through a Pluralsight course or path, for example, set of goal of where you want to get each week (which you could measure using Skill IQ).

 

Carve out time on your calendar to learn

Since the skills you learn will help you on the job, don’t hesitate to set aside time on your calendar as part of your development plan. Blocking out the time is crucial. If you don’t, something more important will come up, or a meeting could get scheduled over the time you had set aside in your mind.

It’s a good idea to include your manager in your plan, especially when it comes to learning on the job. Good leaders should understand and respect your desire and commitment to learn and help provide you with opportunities to do so. Make sure you follow through on your plan and report back to them on your progress so you can keep their trust and show them your skills development time isn’t going to waste.

 

Teach others what you’ve learned

The best way to help your skills stick is to teach someone else. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

Walk a coworker through a new program or process you learned, or offer to take a few minutes in team meeting to share a new concept. If they have questions you don’t know the answers to, incorporate researching the answers to the questions into your plan.

If you work remote and don’t have people around you to teach hands-on, you can always jump online write a blog post, film a tutorial or post in a developer forum. 

 

Don’t wait to develop your skills

This is arguably the most important tip I can provide: Get started today! The fact that you’re reading an article like this means you have the itch to grow, so capitalize on that by devoting even just 15 minutes a day, and you’ll give your skills development journey the momentum boost it needs.


Need a little more help on your skills development journey? Keep your technology skills in-demand, learn new skills quickly and measure your team’s workflow efficiency with a free Pluralsight trial.

David Davis

David Davis

David has authored over 50 courses for Pluralsight around enterprise data center technologies such as cloud computing, virtualization, and... See more