Keeping skills fresh in tech pays off

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left and right brain

Feeling burned out? Uninspired? Or, even worse, unemployed? Maybe it's time to update your stagnant skill set to take on cool new projects in your current company, or to make your resume stand out.

My career in tech publishing hasn't lasted almost two decades because publishing is a particularly easy and lucrative field, full of print magazines and awesome editing opportunities. Instead, I attribute my success to three factors: luck, networking, and skill. I got lucky when I was hired to work customer service at a tech publishing company, and networking within that company helped me move over to an entry-level editing role. But you can't count on luck, and your network can only help you up to a certain degree, so improving and expanding your skill set is always good thinking.

Over the years, I've improved my skills with the help of mentors and colleagues, by learning on and off the clock, at conferences and events, and with a mix of formal and self-paced training. My first Linux installs were on old laptops on weekends, and the first websites I built were for friends or barter. (I traded one basic business site in exchange for personal training at a gym.) Being comfortable using a variety of Linux and open source tools, and knowing my way around Drupal, WordPress, ezPublish, Joomla, and other content management systems didn't move me into another field or allow me to add web developer job titles to my resume, but they did help my resume stand out among ones with fewer technical skills, and they allowed me to land dozens of freelance articles that otherwise would have been passed on to writers with more experience or larger networks.

If you're not sure which skills to add, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What interests me?
  2. Who's hiring?
  3. What skills are in demand?

What's interesting

When I started building websites, I did it because I was interested in learning about all the pieces. I'd used different content management systems at work, but seeing how a site went from idea to completion helped me better understand servers, hosting providers, databases, CMSes, design, security, and more. Adding skills in areas that interest you is relatively easy, inexpensive, and fun compared to picking up skills you need, but don't enjoy learning.

As much as I enjoyed learning about web development, I didn't feel passionate about it, so I didn't switch career directions. But the new skills helped me in the job I had at the time, and continue to be useful now. If you aren't under pressure to pick up new skills (for example, you're currently happily employed), adding skills in areas that interest you is a good start. If you're eager to change your current role, on the other hand, you should consider the open positions in your company, or look at what positions other companies in your field are looking to fill.

What's in demand

The good news is that lots of companies are hiring now, but they might not be hiring for your current skill set. If your current skill set includes Linux, you're in luck. The Linux Foundation released its 2015 Linux Jobs Report in March, which starts with, "Recruiters are in hot pursuit of Linux talent. As business continues its tectonic shift to an open source model, employers are hungrier than ever for skilled Linux professionals who can demonstrate their competencies." Key findings in the report include:

  • "Ninety-seven percent of hiring managers report they will bring on Linux talent relative to other skills areas in the next six months."
  • "Forty-two percent of hiring managers say that experience in OpenStack and CloudStack will have a major impact on their hiring decisions, while 23 percent report security is a sought-after area of expertise and 19 percent are looking for Linux talent with Software-Defined Networking (SDN) skills."
  • "Linux-certified professionals will be especially well positioned in the job market this year, with 44 percent of hiring managers saying they’re more likely to hire a candidate with Linux certification, and 54 percent expecting either certification or formal training of their Systems Administrators (SysAdmins) candidates."

Notice that the key findings say skills, not expertise. If you've got the Linux chops, but aren't interested in becoming an OpenStack engineer, that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about picking up OpenStack skills, for example. The OpenStack job board lists lots of engineering positions, but employers are also looking for sys admins, managers, marketers, recruiters, and consultants with OpenStack skills, for example.

If you're not thinking, "OpenStack skills will be easy to learn on my own on weekends," consider talking to your manager about other options. According to the Linux Foundation jobs report, "The majority of hiring managers (70 percent) say their companies have increased incentives to retain Linux talent, with 37 percent offering more flexible work hours and telecommuting, and 36 percent increasing salaries for Linux pros more than in other parts of the company."

If you're an employer and the thought of helping your employees pick up new, in-demand skills makes you nervous about their new job prospects, think again. Employees who want to add onto their skill set will find a way to do so. The jobs report points out that "most Linux pros keep their skills up-to-date with free resources like online tutorials (92 percent)," in addition to learning from peers (45 percent), and at events (43 percent). Only about 28 percent pick up the skills from formal Linux training. If they're going to pick up the skills anyway, maybe offering the training as a job perk is a good incentive for them to think twice when they hear from recruiters, or a way to retain the employee and move them into new roles within your organization.

The same goes for certification. "This year, as more employers seek highly skilled IT professionals, Linux certification will become an increasingly important attribute on a well-rounded candidate’s resume," the report says. For job seekers, the edge certification can give you over the competition is a good reason to think about paying out of your own pocket. If you're already employed, but want to increase your skills and add certified professional to your resume, talk to your employer. The 2015 Linux Jobs Report says that 38 percent of employers are willing to help employees with the cost of obtaining Linux certification.

Savvy employers know that learning new skills and earning certification doesn't translate to "my employee is unhappy and planning to leave." Instead, it could translate to "I plan on being here a long time, and I don't want to get bored." That's the translation that fits for me, and I'm fortunate to work for a company that offers education and certification opportunities. Next on my agenda, adding "certified professional" to my resume.

Rikki Endsley is the Developer Program managing editor at Red Hat, and a former community architect and editor for


I love your article. It's the key to success in all of life. "Keeping it green" is one of my axioms along with a Zen proverb, "When you get to the top keep climbing," and that's what you're writing about here. One of the things I'd like to learn more about is containers and Docker. I'm learning a lot about writing and interviewing here at and that a new skill too. I'm learning what it's like to work in an open organization too.

Don, I completely agree about "keeping it green" and the idea to keep climbing after you reach the top. I finished Stephen King's book "On Writing" this week, and my new personal challenges are to get back to writing fiction and to read fiction MUCH more. Fiction writing/reading was my childhood passion, and I strayed away from it during my tech journalism career. Now to start exercising my imagination muscles and write.

Very good article, Rikki!

I think that the LAYG (learn as you go) is the better preparation for LOD (learn on demand).

Living in continuously learning, prepares you to learn on the pressure, or on demand, that is required by the major situations in the job market.

I agree with you: Keep your brain in action. This is always very good for you.

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