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Hackernoon logoWhat Nobody Tells You about Building a Technical Skill Set: The Struggle by@daniel-chae

What Nobody Tells You about Building a Technical Skill Set: The Struggle

Chances are, if you’re here, you’re excited about tech. You read startup stories on Medium, LinkedIn, or Hacker Noon. The idea of creating a product, launching it, and then raising a Series A is enthralling to read about. You may be an “increasingly technical” analyst or young professional with no technical experience at all. All things aside, you are hungry to learn, develop, and grow your technical skills and you can’t get enough.

However, an enormous gap lies before you. You’re not where you want to be and you desperately want to add technical value. You want to know which software and technologies to pick up so you can add maximum value because, for you, the more technical value you can add, the closer you’ll be to the action. Then there’s the money part. Tech companies want top technical talent and they’re willing to pay top dollar for it. Recent grads are making six figures coming out of college-that alone could be a motivator.

But acquiring any technical skill can seem like an arduous path-it’s intimidating for a number of reasons. For starters, there are countless free courses, tutorials, and learning paths out there. The number of options can be confusing and overwhelming. Then there’s the question of how you’ll learn. Are you willing to get a four year degree? Will you learn best by completing an interesting project? Enroll in a bootcamp? Finally, there’s the matter of applying what you’ve learned. How do you take that DataCamp Python course and Udemy Scraper project and turn them into the next step in your career?

It’s a lot, I get it. Technical skill acquisition can feel intimidating and, most of all, uncertain. When I first started acquiring technical skills, I wish I had someone who could help show me the way. I needed to know I was headed in the right direction. Given such, I want to provide a few tips that will help give you the confidence you need to learn and apply your skills effectively.

Solve Problems Outside of Your Learning Context

You just finished a beginner Python course on Codeacademy (amazing!). You created several variables and wrote for loops and functions. You’re feeling great and your eyes are on the intermediate Python course that Codeacademy’s just made available to you.

While you move on to the next course, I want you to know something you probably already know. The journey is just beginning-it doesn’t stop at the expert level Python course Codeacademy will eventually offer you.

What I mean is, even if you completed multiple courses or tutorials, you should focus on your ability to solve related problems outside of your learning context.

Let’s use the Python example. If an interviewer gave you 25 random numbers, would you be able to order them from greatest to least? How about if that interviewer gave you the numbers 1–50, could you print every third number? Rest assured, these aren’t must-know interview-type questions. But they are litmus tests of how well you might know Python. Many online courses want you to be excited as you complete each of their modules and, frankly, you should. Just remember that the real learning takes place when you can apply the course material outside of the classroom.

If you’re looking for problems to solve, check out Google’s hub of coding problems here.

Understand How You Solved the Problem

So let’s say you’ve made some progress on a coding course and watched a few online SQL tutorials. You even took my advice and solved a few problems from the Google link I referenced. Amazing.

This may surprise you, but this is where many people stop making progress and ultimately fail to find a job. Many people have a preconceived end destination in mind.

“If I devote 25 hours a week to Python, I’ll be able to write Python.”

“If I get this SQL certificate, I’ll be well on my way to being a database developer.”

Mindsets like these are true, but they’re not the whole truth. The reality is that most people do not understand what they are learning. Many learning resources overemphasize results. Write this, delete that. Manipulate this, produce that. Reach this checkpoint and you’ll be okay.

If you want to see if you understand what you’re learning, try explaining it in the simplest of terms, as if you were talking to a five year old. As an example, Y Combinator challenges founders to explain their startup idea in one sentence. This exercise not only forces founders to simplify their idea, but proves they understand what they are trying to build. The same applies to the technical skill you’re learning.

This tip is especially important for the interview process, particularly for your resume and in-person interviews. I’d like to share a personal story that illustrates this point.

I landed my first job out of college with very little experience. Interestingly enough, that job offer came from a cold application. Meaning, I didn’t have a referral and I applied directly through the company’s website. I was probably one of a couple hundred resumes and I didn’t load my resume with key words. How did I get chosen? My resume conveyed that I understood what my skills could do. I used phrases such as “built custom web scrapers that pulled data from a URL and stored it in a file”. This phrase conveys a few things:

The ability to build web scrapers for different websitesI understand web scrapers are meant to pull data from websites via URL and subsequently organize that data in a file or database

When the hiring manager interviewed me, he listed a few of the projects he wanted to work on, specifically web scraping, reporting, and predictive analytics for music-related metrics. While I was unfamiliar with music data, I understood what my web scraping skills could do and that those skills could be applied to any music data displayed on a public website. Knowing this, I conveyed exactly that. Based on what I understood about web scraping and data, I explained how my web scraping and analytical skills could help his team complete those projects. I received a job offer a few weeks later.

As you solve problems, make sure you can explain your solution in the simplest of terms. All this being said, I want to make sure I make something clear. You still need to be able to produce results, don’t just talk your way through an interview!

Acknowledge Impostor Syndrome, Then Beat It

As you develop your technical skills, you may feel a couple of emotions, namely uncertainty and intimidation. You may feel you don’t belong because other people are more technical than you. There’s this voice in your head that says you’ll never be proficient enough, that you’ll always need a tutorial or outside help with your technical skills.

That’s called impostor syndrome. The reality is that everyone has room to grow and most definitely requires help. I’ve heard time and time again that even the most established software engineers still use technical help forums like StackOverflow and GitHub.

The most important thing for you to know is that your proficiency will be measured by your understanding and results, relative to what you’ve already accomplished.

Keep Pushing. Keep solving problems. Never stop learning.

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