The last two summers I've had an intern working with me. He got to follow me as I did the day-to-day work of technical support, he assisted with a large documentation project, and he got to listen to me ramble on about about the IT industry, college, and whatever else popped in my head.
I did my best to turn him loose as much as possible, giving him tickets to resolve and assignments to complete -- making myself available for questions or if things go wrong, but not hovering over him and second-guessing his every action. I also provided advice on best practices and general wisdom (I hope) when the opportunity presented itself. Some of what I told him I've collected here, in a series of posts I've inventively titled, "Stuff I Tell my Intern".
You work hard. You study, you take exams, you graduate with a degree in an IT-related field. Congratulations, you're finished! Right?
Hardly. You've just begun.
No matter how hard you work in school, no matter how prestigious your alma mater or comprehensive your degree program, you will always need to be learning more. The IT world is constantly changing -- new technology, new techniques, new problems, and new solutions. If you don't keep abreast of the industry, you'll quickly find yourself standing still while everyone around you is racing ahead. Or, depending on your frame of reference, you'll be moving backwards.
Keeping ahead involves several things. First, you should be aware of the news in the industry. I once got a job in part because when the interviewer asked me how I kept up to date on tech news, I could talk about reading Slashdot, Ars Technica, LWN, and other tech blogs -- many of the same sites that the interviewer herself read. Podcasts such as This Week in Tech are also great -- I listen to several tech podcasts during my commute, which both passes the time driving and helps me stay up to date on the latest news in security, enterprise IT, and the Apple ecosystem.
Certifications are also a good way to increase your knowledge and improve your skill set. Some employers are extremely keen on certifications -- I once had to cram two certification exams into a single weekend to be hired, since they were requirements for the position -- but others don't place as much emphasis on them. Even if your current job doesn't require a given certification, they look good on your resume, and studying for the exams will either help you learn new skills or keep the rust off the knowledge you already have. Many employers will cover the cost of study materials and exam fees -- if you work for an organization willing to pay for you to get better at your job, take them up on it. Otherwise, you're leaving money on the table. Sites such as ITProTV allow you to study for certification exams online, and there are many other books, online resources, and in-classroom courses to help you prepare for these exams.
There are less formal ways to hone your skills, as well. Anyone with a computer (or even a smartphone) can learn programming and software development. You can get involved in an open source project, or create a new extension for Firefox. You can work on a video game mod, or hack on hardware to open a drawer with a secret knock. Create a home security system you can monitor from your smartphone. Start running your own Web server. Build an IRC chat bot. Create an iOS app. Learn Python or Ruby. Study interface design. My intern's background was completely within Windows -- but there's no reason why he can't fire up an Ubuntu live CD and learn about Linux. IT is an industry that provides any number of opportunities to explore and learn at little or no cost. Small pet projects will expose you to new technologies and allow you to speak knowledgeably and with real-world experiences about topics and tools you may not be exposed to in your current job or course work. Find something that excites you, and dive in.
Never stop learning. Never stop pushing yourself, because there's always more out there. Don't be afraid to dive into new areas, new subjects, new ideas. As Steve Jobs said so well, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."