Career advice 4 - Knowledge management

Posted by Patrice Neff Tue, 28 Mar 2006

It is my opinion, that knowledge management is very important in the tech sector. For companies it's immediately clear why. But it also makes sense for developers. Being able to look up knowledge and also specific solutions in your personal repository will make you a faster and better developer. My knowledge management includes the following items:
  • Solutions to problems I had. Somehow the same problems/challenges seem to pop up every now and then.
  • Working code for common problems.
  • Documentation, books, standard documents, research papers.
  • My own descriptions of technologies (applying the old trick that you understand stuff better after describing it yourself).
  • Description of applications I have worked with, including solutions to problems.
  • Links.
  • Any other knowledge I want to keep. This is not necessarily tech related. For example I follow a few countries more closely than others (Switzerland, Japan, Peru) and put news of those countries into my repository as well. And my diary is also in the same database.

For most of my knowledge management I now use DEVONthink Pro. Before that I used a Wiki. And as far as I know Roger uses his blog as a knowledge repository. For managing my links I use del.icio.us.

I also put mails into my knowledge database. Before using DEVONthink Pro I just put them into some special folders in my mail program. This mails include mainly good tips from mailing lists.

If your company has some knowledge repository your want to participate in that as well. And if your company doesn't have anything like that yet, lobby for something. At namics it's a Notes database with articles filed under topics, at local.ch we have a Wiki. Both approaches work well.

At first sight it may look like you don't profit from participating in that repository. It looks as if only the company takes value out of it even to the extent that you can be replaced a lot easier if you document your knowledge. Many people I know actually have that opinion. For a variety of reasons I disagree very strongly with that assessment. Most important is that you will never be able to put all your knowledge into that database no matter how hard you try. Most of your value comes from the experience anyway. So while you do spread knowledge and therefore make yourself a bit easier to replace, at the same time you show to your coworkers and bosses how much you really know. There are additional advantages which I will explain below.

Say you document your knowledge about some obscure CSS implementation bug and put it into the database. You will get noticed as a CSS expert. So next time somebody has some CSS bug that needs debugging it's quite likely that he will contact you. We are talking job security here.

Or say you have 300 articles about that content management system that your company uses extensively. Even that personal manager who knows nothing about technology will see that the company won't be able to replace you without problems. Again, it's about job security.

A job is a lot easier to get if you have recommendations by coworkers who already work at the given company. I've also received mails by friends asking me about a person I knew from previous jobs or from school. Positive recommendations are easier to get if people know you from the knowledge repository. For example at namics I often got help requests from people at the German offices even though I didn't know them personally. Reason: they saw my name connected to that topic in the knowledge database. I'm sure that some of those people would put in a word for me should I try to get a job at their new work.

Sometimes your articles may lead to a discussion where other people propose better solutions, other workarounds, other products or whatever. So you learn as well. And to me it happened often that when writing a short note I would research a point for a few additional minutes. And sometimes during that short research I learned a lot of additional things.

The net result of contributing to the company knowledge repository is therefore that you make yourself seen and respected and that you learn more. And you help your colleagues which in itself is a good thing.

Quick action for today: do yourself a favour and think a bit about how you want to manage your knowledge.