How to Learn About Technology

By Justin Kerr
January 15, 2013

The quickly changing arena of Web applications means that site implementers, stakeholders, managers and users often need to learn a new technology or platform. Following a couple simple principles makes this learning process much more effective.

Throughout my career, I've often had to rapidly learn about new computer technologies, from desktop software packages to Web applications. This learning has been provoked both by analytical needs — for instance, qualifying the suitability of a Web application platform — and by practical needs, like learning about the latest filters in Photoshop so I can remove the complex background from the photo of the frizzy-haired model. As I've taught myself more about technology, I've discovered a couple simple principles which really aid learning.

RTFM

"RTFM" is the response you'll sometimes receive if you ask a newbie question in a technology forum without bothering to first dig around and discover some basics on your own. It stands for "Read The (Freakin') Manual," and it's often an apt, if rude, response. Documentation is one of your best friends when learning about technology, and plowing through the official docs is a great way to get a perspective on the capabilities and structure of your new subject.

When reading the docs, don't worry about memorizing anything, understanding every nook and cranny, or re-reading things you already understand. Also, don't fret if the documentation is incomplete or confusing (as is some community-developed docs for open-source platforms). Just slurp in as much general information and perspective as you can get while applying the Golden Rule of technology learning ...

The Golden Rule

The most important rule in learning about new technology is to focus on the technology's capabilities, not its specific processes. In other words, when reading documentation or other learning materials, try to remember what the technology itself can do, rather than memorizing an interface schema or the step-by-step actions required to accomplish a specific task. It's always possible to go back and refer to documentation, ask a question through a support channel, or get help from an expert, however, you first have to know which questions to ask. Once you know what's possible, you can in dig further and discover the best way to accomplish your goals.

Learn By Doing

Cognitive experts note that nothing is more effective for learning that actually working with a new subject, whether process, tool, platform or product. It's essential to have a chance to play around with your new technology subject, which should be pretty easy, as this is all computer software that can easily support user training, from a sandbox installation of a Web application to some new files spawned from from desktop software.

Don't be afraid to try things or experiment: You can't really break anything. Even if you're poking around in a live production environment powered by, say, a content management system, just about everything these days is idiot-proof enough to prevent a user from accidentally causing a catastrophe. You may also want to give yourself a homework assignment, just to kick things in motion and provide a discrete output for your training process.

Peel the Onion

Computer and Internet technology is like an onion, with layers of deeper complexity providing structure for more effective tools and better interfaces. The outermost layer is easy to access and use, like a WYSIWYG editor in a content management system. Digging a little deeper reveals HTML and CSS code for styling in-page content elements; within a deeper layer resides the structural HTML template and systemic process for supporting the overall page design.

Technology builds itself upon preceding technologies, protocols and platforms, especially computer technology that quite literally uses the code and systems of deeper layers to support itself. As you cut into these deeper layers, you might cry a little bit at the extra work and training required to master more complex subjects. But your control and overall understanding of the deeper layer means supporting even greater skills and capabilities in the more accessible areas of your technology.