Time and Attention

Time keeps on tick, tick, ticking in my head

It sounds so cliche, but the older I get the faster time seems to move. The world of technology is changing rapidly, and I’m finding that in order to keep up I need to simultaneously focus AND unfocus my attention.

How does that work? It means intentionally choosing what to focus on and dive deep into to, while also deciding what things can wait or be ignored. This is easier said than done. Sometimes I feel like I have a technology version of Attention Deficit Disorder where something can command my full attention and next thing i know I’m going down the rabbit trail of some other shiny technology. When this happens too often, I begin falling into the "jack of all trades, master of none" trap.

Typically, I have tried to keep a balance; picking one area for depth, and all other areas for breadth. This approach has worked pretty well, but lately I realized I could be more refined with my approach. Here’s the plan:

All technologies will be categorized in an "attention tiers". An attention tier is not a ranking of my current level of competency, rather its a way of allocating how much time and attention I would like to dedicate to each. The tier represents a competency goal.

  1. Specialty/depth – Deep dive. Anything in this tier is considered foundational to my technical career. At least half of my available time and attention will focus on these technologies. This includes things like SQL, SQL Server (a very broad label, I know), Analysis Server, MDX, DAX, Power BI, data warehousing, dimensional modeling, etc.

  2. Functional knowledge/some experience – Less depth, but a working knowledge. This can be reading a book and working some examples, or taking a PluralSight course on a particular subject. This tier includes technologies identified as ones I should know, but don’t necessarily need to be an expert in. PowerShell and BizTalk would be the perfect examples for me.

  3. Conversational knowledge – This tier includes technologies where I will devote time to watch a video or read a blog post, but probably leave it at that. Learning enough to know at a high-level what something is and have a general conversation about it. A personal example for me is the Hadoop ecosystem.

  4. Ignore (for now) – Anything in this tier I am ignoring. There is just too much to learn with too little time. Any technology in this tier isn’t necessarily banned forever, it only means a particular technology doesn’t interest me, or is too broad to learn without making it a higher-tier focus. External things (i.e. work) can quickly move things up from this tier. Personal examples include Linux, PHP, SharePoint, and the approximately nine million JavaScript frameworks.

Putting into action

This month (October 2015) has several events I will be attending (or have already attended) to demonstrate how I’m allocating my attention.

10/15 Introduction to Power BI V2
This was a great presentation by Audrey Hammonds at the Microsoft Integration Architects user group. Power BI is very much a tier 1 specialty/depth topic for me.

10/20 Hadoop + HDInsight = Big Data on Azure!
The session is tonight at the Azure in the ATL user group. I have kept Big Data and Hadoop at arms length so far, but I’m attending tonight to move this into tier 3 conversational knowledge.

10/24 Atlanta Code Camp
The Atlanta Code Camp is an annual event with many sessions covering many different technology tracks. It’s a great opportunity to be exposed to tech you might not come across in your daily work. As such, every session I’m planning to attend falls into tier 3 conversational knowledge. The sessions I’m targeting:

  1. REDIS:It’s more than just a cache
  2. Thinking in F#
  3. Node.js crash course
  4. Beginning PowerShell Scripting for Developers
  5. Accelerate Cloud Adoption in Azure through DevOps

10/26 ETL Architecture Reusable Design Patterns and Best Practices
The upcoming meeting at the Atlanta Microsoft Business Intelligence user group. ETL falls squarely into a tier 1 specialty/depth skill.

Being able to classify these events ahead of time helps free my mind to focus on the topic being presented and sets my expectation level of understanding. In other words, if I’m attending a presentation on a topic I only want conversational knowledge of, I can focus better knowing that I’m "taking it off my plate" as the conclusion. It’s about finding a balance between learning new things and freeing the mind of distractions to focus on a few things.

The attention tier strategy is simply a framework for allocating time and attention for professional development.

What strategies do you use for managing time and attention?

Time and Attention