Applying Essentialism to certifications and skills development in the Tech Industry

We often compare ourselves to others around us. We are impressed with the skills others possess, the content others produce, the appearances others maintain, the successes others have achieved, the feats others have conquered. This constant comparison can lead to melancholic states of ambivalence, and sometimes depression due to the artificial expectations of who we think we should be. Society celebrates particular definitions of success, revolving around money, status, and work ethic. We could argue what is or is not wrong with such a desire for this prescribed success – but we’d be wasting our time. What is important to discuss are the essential components of success, measured by an individual and not others. What is essential in your life, in your work, in your short existence here on this planet? What may seem like a simple question can lead to a revelation.
Matt D’Avella, director of Minimalism, recently interviewed Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Greg cuts straight into the heart of a problem people are dealing with in a society of constant comparison and artificially high tenets of success. “We’re busy because other people are busy,” he proclaims. He’s absolutely right. When asked how you’re doing, most people respond with “busy.” It’s my knee-jerk response as well, because it’s true. As a worker in the tech industry, expectations are high. I find myself sacrificing my nights and weekends to sharpen my skills or learn new ones, preparing content for the following week’s meetings, wittling away at project tasks with approaching deadlines, conceptualizing ideas for future client work, supporting after-hour deployments, and memorizing insignificant bits of information that I hope will be enough to pass another certification exam.

I am busy not entirely of my own volition but because of my promise to other busy people, my comparison to other busy people, and the artificial expectations of the busy world we live in. We are bombarded with media, highlighting in 5-minute videos, blurbs on Twitter, glimpses on Instagram, the lives of everyone else doing everything else. Naturally, we desire to achieve the status of others, to be that voice, that face, that talent, that person that others look up to and follow. If they can do it, why can’t we? The problem is we think we can do the things that thousands of others are doing in their individual lives, yet in the time of our one life, squeezed into tiny amounts of precious personal hours we have between work and sleep. One aspect of my life that adds to the “burden of busy” is my persistent self-education and pursuit of certifications. 

In the tech industry, certifications are highly respected. They’re so respected in fact that most companies will not hire you without certifications, and will likely hire you without a college degree as long as you are certified in the skill they desire. Certs are marketed in such a way that they’ve become highly sought after by individuals and organizations – like trophies in some lame professional IT game. When we see colleagues and influencers on the Internet pass certification exams, we get the itch to do the same. I mean, if they can do it, I certainly can! However, there are too many to obtain, each requiring anywhere from a few months or studying, to a few years. There are thousands of certifications programs out there, each with numerous certifications paths and certification levels. To obtain every certification from a single vendor – say Cisco – it would take you a lifetime. 
While it is important to learn new skills and get certified in something, it’s important not to take on too much. Training websites like ACloudGuru, Coursera, LinuxAcademy, Udemy, and INE, are fantastic learning platforms, chock full of outstanding learning material. However, they’re ripe with marketed distraction, with the intent of keeping you hooked as a paying subscriber. As Arcade Fire put it – “Infinite content, infinitely content.” 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of converting ephemeral interests into unintentional commitments. For example, say you see a brand new certification training for some topic you hear lots of buzz about but which you know of little more than the basic concepts. However, you are already studying for something else, your current job doesn’t use that new buzz-worthy solution, and you don’t know yet if it is truly something you would need to be certified in. Do you just start learning it anyways, abandoning the other track you were on, realistically thinking you’ll be able to get certified right after the “short” 60-hour training? As Greg McKeown put it – 

“Success, if allowed to be undisciplined, would become catalyst for failure”

You are not alone. I find myself in these same situations. Which is why Greg’s statement is so powerful. As a Solutions Architect, there is a certain level of demand to be the subject-matter expert for an endless pile of technology, languages, protocols, intricacies, and solutions. Whether this is a good thing or bad – I pride myself in knowing enough about enough to develop complex solutions, overcome challenges, and hold my own in conversations about evolving technologies. But what is “enough”? And to what end?
If Greg is right, and I think he is, success must be disciplined. We must be focused, undistracted by noise, and must be intentional in our ambitions. Although we may want to be experts in Networking, Security, Data Center, Wireless, Cloud, NFV, Automation, Containerization, Software Development, Serverless Computing, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Linux, each topic with it’s own tree of topics – it’s not realistic, nor is it essential. To cut through the noise, there are few questions worth asking yourself before boarding a new skill development or certification voyage:
  • How long is the commitment?
  • Is the time right? (i.e., What other commitments have I already made?)
  • What value does it bring?
  • Is it essential?
  • Do I actually want to do the thing I’m spending my personal time learning?
  • How does it relate to my job, project, or career goals?
However long you think it’ll take – triple it. Our minds are programmed for immediacy, our attention spans constantly under attack, and our perception of time completely wrong. Things will get in the way, life will happen, work will overflow, and just because someone says it took them 30 days to learn it doesn’t mean that it will take you the same time. Creating a buffer will keep you from stressing out about meeting some aggressive deadline you arbitrarily set. Always triple the value – whether it’s time or money, you will likely end up spending more of it than you think.
After answering these questions, you will often discover that the best choice is to not bite more than you can chew. Pay special attention to the question of essentialism. Is it essential for your job or your ideal career you learn this new skill or become certified in it? Or do you just need to know the concepts to get by? Think hard – you only have so much time on this planet. How much of it should be spent learning domain-specific languages that you will immediately forget if you never use them in your life? Remember, your time is a limited resource, extremely valuable, and not something to take for granted. 
If after answering the questions, you are confident that the new skill or certification is essential, the time is right, and it’s something you will use in your career or in life – great! Now it’s time to heed another piece of advice from Greg – “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” Your employer may want you to take on a new project, your colleague may want you to learn a new topic, the ads online may want you to see the new content just released by your favorite vendor or training provider, the podcast you listen to may talk about some awesome new technology that is going to change the world. The noise doesn’t stop, this infiltration of insignificant distractions subliminally persuading you, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to take on more that you can handle. For you to be successful in your endeavors, you must take control to prioritize your intentions, otherwise someone else will. 
Still too busy…
Southern California’s rolling hills, desert blooms, picturesque beaches, and undisputedly perfect weather beckons me to accept its invitation for the world outside. I want this too – I desire to escape the cage of screens, the air-conditioned prison, the barbed walls of artificial responsibility. But my mind is elsewhere, concerned about work, about the future, staying on top, the competitive edge, the American dream. I’m too busy to make time for things that don’t bring me closer to success. The thought of spending the day hiking the San Gabriel mountains sounds amazing, it does. But I should be spending those hours studying and honing my expertise ahead of next week’s meetings and project deadlines. People are relying on me. Not only that, I must be the subject-matter expert for anything and everything that comes my way.

If that sounds at all familiar to you, aside from the Cali climate, take a few minutes to write down everything that’s on your plate. When I did this, I discovered that much of my burden was voluntary – I had taken on too much, made too many commitments, and possessed too many personal certification goals without any true direction or prioritization. I listed all of my topics of interests (A LOT). I then scratched out all that I deemed as unessential. With the remaining, I placed a commitment timeframe to each, followed by a brief description of the value it would bring to me. After prioritizing what was left, I built a realistic plan that permitted me to focus deliberately on what mattered, unbounded by the fabricated demands typically placed upon myself. After applying essentialism to this aspect of my life, I felt liberated. These actions are what led me to find clarity from a self-education perspective and focus on AWS, which I felt was most important for me at this point in my career. I kept a modest schedule that required a minimum amount of study time per week on select days, leaving parts of my calendar purposely open for other important non-work avenues in my life, such as cherished time with my wife, much-needed exercise, exploration, travel, and creativity. In fact, I was able to finally bring to life a personal blog unrelated to tech, something I’ve been meaning to do for years. 

Readers of my blog know that I recently became AWS certified, and after a nice break, I’m performing my discovery process over again. There is no silver bullet, no magic pill, just a matter of being real with yourself, finding what is important to you, and most importantly, not being “busy” for the sake of it. 

Cheers from Laguna Beach…

David Varnum


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4 Responses

  1. David Geiger says:

    Great post, David. I was trying to fix a boot from SAN issue with my UCS when I found your site.

    I read Essentialism (well, listened via Audible, because busyness) and I agree and can relate. I feel pretty overwhelmed right now. I knocked down some RHEL training and a VCP earlier this year, and my head is spinning from which cloud cert to go after. On top of all this, my family and I travel full-time in our RV while I work (in Bend, OR right now, from Florida) and between seeing the country, road friends, and working 7-4 ET (4am – 1pm PT) I’m exhausted.

    Thanks for the reminder and the tip to narrow down my pursuits, less I achieve nothing.

    • David Varnum says:

      Wow – that’s an incredible feat! Living on the road sounds so rewarding, and I can imagine the complications with handling that plus working in tech. Tough stuff but you’re doing it and that’s awesome. Cheers mate and best of luck on your pursuits. Remember – it’s not about the pursuit of happiness. Rather, it’s about the happiness of pursuit. And if you’re not happy pursuing, you’re doing it wrong. Sounds like you’re already doing it right. Every now and then we just need a little reminder.

  2. Elmer Deloso says:

    I really like this article, putting the “life” perspective into our super-busy, multitasking IT life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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