Learning quickly as a consultant: Efficient learning strategies

Image by @jamesponddotco / Unsplash.com

In my role as an architect, I’m often faced with limited time, scarce resources and considerable expectations on how I deliver my services. It isn’t uncommon that within a single day working with a customer we work through

  • Microsoft Teams implementation
  • Azure AD security settings
  • Office ProPlus rollout strategies
  • Fixing a legacy script

Perhaps this is also my handicap – I refuse to say “No, that’s somebody else who works on that” when I have a customer in need. Admittedly I’m also very transparent and open about things I don’t know enough to justify charging for my services – Dynamics 365 CRM comes to mind, as an example. Sure, I can do creative googling but it’s haphazard and only results in novice and hacky solutions that a real Business Apps professional would laugh at.

I feel it’s about bringing balance into what you know, what you know enough about, and what you can learn quickly with enough confidence to deliver a service on.

I’m also often pressed for time. On Monday I might deliver a full-day workshop on Azure strategies and security. This results in additional homework and tasks to complete by Wednesday – but on Tuesday I’ve already sold to another customer. As these tasks often entail additional research it means I need to be swift and efficient in finding solutions, as time is limited to only a few hours Monday or Tuesday evening.

Some colleagues I know are masters in planning their weeks. Instead of selling Monday and Tuesday, they sell Monday and reserve Tuesday for said tasks and deliverables. Then they sell Friday for another customer, in the case, Wednesday brings in additional work for Thursday. Perhaps I will get there someday.

As I’ve had this modus operandi for as long as I can remember, I’m very used to it. People sometimes ask me how I go about learning things – especially when pressed for time.

Here are the three things I follow routinely and they work very, very well.

Use fresh training material and content

I have a paid subscription to Pluralsight and Linkedin Learning. I rarely have time to sit down and focus on training for hours. In situations when I know I need to know as much as I can about a given topic – say Azure Data Lake Services (ADLS) – I search for all fresh content from Pluralsight and Linkedin Learning. Linkedin lists 53 and Pluralsight lists about 10 courses on ADLS. I dedicate about 30 minutes to skim through them – skip through author intros, and get to the essence of it. I often speed up replay speed to 1.5X just to save an additional 10 minutes.

Next, I check Microsoft Docs on the topic and start with Overview. A fantastic feature of this service is ‘Download PDF’ that generates a PDF file for all content of a selected topic. For ADLS, this produces a massive 1111 page document, which I’m not going too read – too busy, I tell myself.

Instead, I push the PDF to my Kindle device (conveniently through email, which I’ve automatized with Microsoft Flow). This is for future reference, more on that in a bit. I still skim through the Overview and try to form a mental understanding of the landscape – how much depth is there to this service? What seems like a challenging topic? How can I quickly get started? Often I get a sense of how things might be when working with a service in a customer project. Microsoft Docs reveals a lot about the maturity of the service also.

Finally, I do a quick Google search with creative keywords, such as “Azure Data Lake” +Gen2 and then I filter for results from the past month. This approach intelligently gives me great blog posts and highlights that are recent, fresh and often very relevant. I don’t read them all but open 10-15 tabs and eye them through. Quickly, of course.

Build it rapidly

Next, it’s time to get building something! There is no substitute for actually building something yourself as you’ll inevitably hit all sorts of problems and challenges, and it’s best to face these on your own time, and not on customer’s dime.

In the case of ADLS, I already have a vague idea of how I can provision the service because I haphazardly read the getting started guidance on Microsoft Docs. There is often a Quick Start hands-on section that I try to reproduce in my own Azure subscription. This usually takes only 10 to 20 minutes. I try to read what the intention is and to avoid the extraneous effort that isn’t relevant – such as copy-pasting dozens of lines of HTML to produce a sample page. A simple

Hello, world

will do.

In Azure, I always create a new Resource Group with a “-deleteme” as a suffix. This is my simplistic way of removing assets I no longer need and it’s easy to perform automated cleanups every Sunday night. The purpose of building something that sort of works is that I have something to show for the next time I meet with my customer. “Okay, here’s how it works” style and it’s a great workbench for prototyping customer asks and wishes.

When provisioning services I try to be creative and come up with a new way of using a service or technology. In the case of ADLS I pushed my health data from the Oura smart-ring to Azure and analyzed that. It also gives a nice, personal twist should I perform a demo as part of a project meeting or training. And as I deviate just a little bit from the Quick Start I inevitably hit problems, questions, and challenges – and learn continuously how to solve those.

Check the slides and demos

Last, but certainly not least, I need to have more theory in my head. By now I know enough about a given service – such as ADLS – and I’ve built something that maybe works, and is useful as a testbed. But I lack severely on theory and in my deeper understanding.

For this, I rely heavily on Microsoft Ignite and Build content. I don’t use other people’s slides – as that would be unprofessional – but I read through them.

Here’s how it works — I download the latest Ignite and Build slides to my Dropbox. I don’t bother with recordings, just the PowerPoint files. Currently, I’m sitting with 1,500 slide decks. It’s trivial now to research what I need to learn by doing old-school search:

C:\Dropbox\Conf>dir "*Data Lake*" /b
BRK3326 - Azure Data Lake Storage Gen 2- Enhancing big data analytics on Azure.pptx

C:\Dropbox\Conf>dir "*Analytics*" /b
BRK1038 - MyAnalytics- Help employees thrive with AI and productivity insights in Office 365.pptx
BRK1084 - Data Science for Good- Tackling homelessness in London with analytics.pptx
BRK2015 - Get the most value for your IT investment with Microsoft 365 usage analytics.pptx
BRK2077 - Workplace Analytics & MyAnalytics- A review of data privacy and GDPR compliance.pptx
BRK2107 - Workplace Analytics and MyAnalytics- Transform productivity with collaboration insights from Office 365.pptx
BRK2371 - Gaining deeper insights from big data using open source analytics on Azure HDInsight.pptx
BRK2417 - What’s new in Windows Analytics- An introduction to Desktop Analytics.pptx

And if this isn’t enough I use Search in Windows 10 to search file contents as well – keyword being ADLS or “Data Lake” in this instance.

BRK3326 in the above listing is the most relevant for me – so I quickly check through that, and there’s often a massive trove of additional treasures to continue to.

In summary

I live by this method and I’ve found it helps me to withstand the insatiable voice in my head telling me to fear the things I don’t know enough about, or I’ve yet to learn more about. By no means do I spend every evening studying and learning like this, but during the busiest weeks, it tends to be like that. And I find it’s comforting to rapidly learn about new and exciting things without needing to worry if you know enough.