How I Develop New Skills

The mid-2010s have led to an age of enlightenment for me. I left the web agency I had helped found, started freelancing on the side, and have been employed by two different companies as a full-time front-end engineer. In all of these positions, I’ve experienced what is now becoming an apparent skill curve.

The curve is not good.

The curve shows how my desire to acquire skills ramps up during times of change (i.e. getting a new job) and declines into a sad plateau of comfort (i.e. happily employed for more than a year).

Why is this curve bad? It’s bad because skill development should be an ongoing adventure. But I get lazy and stop learning. Why bother learning a new JavaScript framework if my company isn’t using it? These are the types of arguments that enter my mind. I focus instead on churning through work with the same skillset, thinking way too highly of myself and my abilities.

Understand your skills gap

Having a full understanding of the job market is important in uncovering your skill gaps. I regularly scour job postings to identify the skills employers are seeking. While job postings can be wildly outrageous in their requirements, I still like to cherry pick certain skills and focus in on them.

For example, most front-end developer postings have knowledge of either ReactJS, Angular, or Vue (or some combination of these) as a baseline requirement. I know JavaScript, but I’m not very well practiced when it comes to the newer frameworks. This is a skill gap. And it’s a gap I need to fill if I want to continue to remain relevant in the marketplace.

Many people (myself included) fall into depression when reading over job postings. I’ve read some that are essentially demanding a modern age genius—someone who can code multiple languages, design with any tool, manage any project. These requirements are of course ridiculous. Job postings always identify every top quality and then some, but that doesn’t mean you have to fulfill each one. Most employers want to see candidates who are at a certain level and possess a willingness to learn other skills necessary for the job.

Reviewing job postings is an opportunity. It highlights where you’re weak—and where you’re strong. By knowing these areas of your skillset, you can develop a plan to exercise your weaker muscles while maintaining the strong ones. 

Keep a pulse on the industry

The industry itself is often transparent in what skills matter. And knowing what’s happening in your industry is a great way to stay on top of what other people are learning. The best part: this isn’t hard work.

Most industries—especially technology and software—have various channels for keeping up on the latest. These include conferences, blogs, meetups, and newsletters. Accessing this content will give you insight into what companies and people are doing, what technologies they’re using, and where the industry is headed next.

With industry insight, you can keep your skills in alignment. The software industry, for instance, has been screaming “machine learning” for a while now (#18 on this skill demand list), so you can bet this is a skill that more and more employers will be seeking. And knowing that a particular skill is trending will help you in deciding whether or not it’s worth learning.

Finally, being invested in your industry can lead you to a more connected path. You have the opportunity to network with people smarter than you, and those people can help you learn—or better yet, they can become invaluable mentors. Likewise, the workplace is another setting from which you have access to talented and smart individuals. Share your knowledge, and in turn, benefit from the knowledge others can bestow upon you.

Learn through online courses 

I’ve never been fully confident in my JavaScript abilities. It’s a crazy language that can be morphed into doing some incredible things. And I find it hard to wrap my head around.

Online courses, like those offered at Udemy and Code Academy, have helped me establish fundamental JavaScript knowledge. In order to effectively use JavaScript, you need to know its entities, structure, and best practices. These fundamentals can be taught effectively through videos and exercises.

Most skills are best seeded at the theory stage. Spend a little time understanding the structure, application, methods, and basics of the skill. Having a little background information gives more context when you start to become immersed in learning your new skill, and that context will help break down some of the confusion barriers that come with every learning endeavor.

Educational mediums like online courses are meant to get you started. They’re great springboards from which you can accelerate skill development. For example, knowing how promises work in JavaScript doesn’t mean I know how to use them. For that, I must employ a different learning strategy.

Build skills by doing

Online courses, schooling, coding bootcamps—these are great first steps toward learning a new skill. However, immersing yourself in the “theory” of skill will only get your so far.

This is where personal projects play a huge role.

By devoting time to a small personal project, you can actively put skill theory into practice. Practice helps skill cultivation—you learn how to use newfound knowledge in a real world setting, turning theory into application. And once you understand how stuff works in the wild, you gain better comprehension.

Skill practice also provides proof. It creates a project that you can showcase, demonstrating that you can create things with this skill, that your knowledge extends to a practical level that can be immediately applied. Employers and prospects want to see this, and they want to feel confident that you—the person they’re hiring—is competent in the areas that matter to the job.

I often build skills by focusing on a specific project. For example, when I wanted to learn more about the Bedrock WordPress framework, I started a website that aggregates news in the Northern Virginia area. This became NoVA Scanner—and it was a fun project that had me implementing newly learned skills that I still use today.

Building skills by working on projects goes beyond professional development. As an amateur woodworker, I’ve only gotten better with each table, bench, and spice rack I’ve built. Practice is essential, and it’s the only way new skills can develop into assets.

Putting it together

To tie everything together, I created a chart that shows each stage of skill development. Start by identifying what you want to (and need to) learn, get the basics of that skill down, and then put that skill into practice with a personal project.

My process for developing new skills.

Never stop

Skill development should never stop. I always encourage learning—it’s what keeps us fresh, motivated, and invested. More so, it opens us to new opportunities, whether that’s a job, a personal feat, or a valuable life lesson.

Whenever I feel bored, sluggish, or unmotivated, I try to capitalize on that time to learn something. It doesn’t have to be a complicated programming language. Sometimes I just read a few blog posts or research a topic that’s had me intrigued.

Stay engaged with your new skills and brush up on old ones.

Just don’t stop.

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