Know What You Don’t Know

This past weekend, I attended No Fluff Just Stuff in Boston. It was, as usual, a great conference. One of the takeaways I’d like to reflect on is something Venkat Subramaniam said during Sunday’s speaker panel. (Update: Venkat was quoting another NFJS speaker, Mark Richards explaining the “Knowledge Pyramid”). I asked the question “how do you keep up with new languages, libraries and the like?”  I was very interested in his answer, because for me, it always seems as if I never have as much time as I’d like to learn and explore what’s out there.

His answer was very revealing to me. Venkat described knowledge as a pyramid: at the top is “What you know.” Below that is “What You Know You Don’t Know.” And finally, at the bottom, the biggest area is “What You Don’t Know.”  He went on to say that what we truly know is, by it’s very nature, small. Also, what we don’t know is (obviously) vast. He said that we should strive to move things from the bottom part of the pyramid, what we don’t know, to the middle – what we know we don’t know. By doing this, we can at least be aware of things we might need or want to know in the future.

As an example: prior to this past NFJS, I didn’t know anything about RDFa (other than perhaps hearing the acronym). I went to a couple of Brian Sletten’s talks on SPARQL and the semantic web where I learned some very interesting things about this area. Of course, after only two 90 minute sessions, I don’t really know all that much about the space, but I now have a sense of “what I don’t know.” If I need or want to dive in, I know (a) it’s out there and (b) where to start looking.

I like to think of this as a “technological situational awareness.” We don’t have time to look into everything. As was also mentioned during the panel: “Your attention is a precious resource. Use it wisely.”  Being aware of other technologies, libraries, products and techniques, even if we don’t understand them at a deep level can make us question our assumptions, and that’s a good thing.

I’m interested to hear how other people keep up with an ever evolving technical landscape.  What are your best tips and tricks to increase your technological “situational awareness?”

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