In 10 Reasons to Develop Your Technical Skills, I explained why it’s important to develop your technical skills as an integral part of your personal development efforts. Strong technical skills can save you time, increase your income, and enable you to extract the most bang-per-buck from your technology purchases.
I promised you an article on the how, so here are 10 things you can do to improve your technical skills, regardless of your current skill level:
1. Read technical books
One of the best ways to improve your technical skills is by reading books. As a teenager I used to buy computer books at the local bookstore. Today it’s far better to shop online because you can more easily find the true gems and avoid the lemons. Visit Amazon.com, search for a book on a particular topic you wish to learn, and check the reviews and ratings. Look for books with at least 4 out of 5 stars (I usually don’t buy any with less than 4.5 stars). Take advantage of Amazon’s browsing features to quickly find the best books in any field.
Even when you opt to buy technical books locally (such as for an easy return if it doesn’t suit you), you can still check the online reviews to rule out the bad ones. Take your time previewing books in the bookstore or online, especially if cost is a concern. If you can’t understand the first chapter, don’t waste your money.
Although technical books can be expensive and are often padded with lengthy code listings and other fluff, the good ones make up for it with clearly organized, well-edited, well-indexed content. Books in their second edition or later are a great choice because they’ve already been through at least one round of testing in the marketplace.
2. Read online tutorials
The advantage of online tutorials over books is that they’re accessible, timely, and of course free. The disadvantage is that they usually aren’t professionally edited, which can leave them lacking in completeness and/or clarity. However, they often sport other features like abundant interlinking, user comments, and interactive demos. Sometimes the comments are better than the original information, since they can contain lots of additional tips and suggestions. I find this is particularly true of reference sites like php.net (a reference site for PHP).
My favorite way of finding online tutorials is to use Google. If I need a CSS tutorial, I’ll search on CSS tutorial. I usually find something halfway decent in the top 5 results this way. Other variations that work well include how to XXX, XXX reference, and simply XXX, where XXX is whatever you wish to learn.
3. Hang out with geeks
If you spend enough time with technical people, some of their knowledge will rub off on you. Even geeks learn from other geeks, but if you aren’t much of a geek yourself, a great way to accelerate the development of your technical skills is to join a local computer club or users group. Use APCUG (Association of Personal Computer User Groups) and/or WUGNET (Windows Users Group Network) to find a group near you. Such groups usually welcome new members of any skill level. Contact one of them and attend a meeting as a guest to see if you like it.
Once you join a computer club or other geek-ridden association, volunteering is a great way to make fast friends. These nonprofit associations are frequently in need of volunteers for committee and project work; even if your technical skills are weak, they often just need raw manpower. When I decided to become active in the Association of Shareware Professionals during the late 90s, I put a lot of energy into volunteering. I wrote articles for their newsletter and served a year each as vice-president and president of the association. It was a lot of work to be sure, but I learned a great deal from working closely with the other volunteers. Many of those lessons have proven invaluable in running this personal development web site. In fact, writing those articles, which gradually became less technical and more motivational, contributed to my 2004 career switch from software development to personal development.
4. Subscribe to technical magazines
Technical magazines used to be one of my favorite outlets for learning, but I cancelled all my magazine subscriptions years ago. During the early 80s, I spent many long hours typing in BASIC programs from Family Computing and similar magazines (it took me a long time because I hadn’t yet learned to type). While I think print magazines are less useful today — the same info can often be found online for free – they’re an inexpensive way to improve your general technical skills, especially if you’re unlikely to push yourself in other ways. The professional editing and experienced writers are a big plus.
5. Take classes
If group learning is your thing, look for college extension courses and other classroom and workshop offerings in your area. Periodically I get catalogs in the mail from UNLV, and while I lived in Los Angeles, I received them from UCLA, Learning Tree University, Pierce College, Santa Monica College, and others.
A key advantage of classroom learning is the opportunity to interact with an experienced educator. Teachers with decades of experience know plenty of educational distinctions you won’t find in books or online tutorials. And unlike many technical writers, they know how to teach.
If you really want the degree, consider going to college and majoring in a technical subject. I earned Bachelor of Science degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics. But given my path after college, these degrees were unnecessary busywork rather than practical skill building. I started learning to program when I was 10 years old, and while I did pick up some additional distinctions in college, it would have been a better use of my time to skip college altogether and learn the info on my own. In the long run, I found my math and physics classes far more useful than my computer science ones — my knowledge of the former didn’t become obsolete so rapidly.
6. Create your own web site
Long-term readers of this site know I’m a big fan of experiential learning. Setting a goal to create a basic web site is a great way to learn practical skills like HTML and CSS. When you have a compelling reason to learn, your goals will accelerate your learning, and you’ll learn with a focus on practical application.
I learned HTML in 1995 when I wanted to make my first web site. I created the site as I learned the HTML language, gradually evolving it from the basic “Hello, world” example. Later I learned CSS, PHP, MySQL, and RSS, so I could do more interesting things than plain vanilla HTML would allow.
Erin learned web programming in the same manner. She wasn’t a technically adept person when we first met, but attempting to create her first web site got her in motion. Eventually she started a web consulting practice, creating dozens of small business web sites. She also built her own sites including VegFamily.com and ErinPavlina.com and generates most of her income from them. So the simple decision to make some basic web sites eventually led to generating abundant sustainable income from online businesses. We learned by doing.