what to learn - part 2

Sat, 06 Sep 2014

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of thinking carefully about the things we need to learn to succeed in our careers, given that formal qualifications no longer guarantee valuable work opportunities.

In this post, I thought I'd write about some of the skills I would like to invest time in over the next year.  Talking openly about goals is not only a way to hold yourself accountable, but can also lead to helpful advice, so I would be happy to hear any suggestions, either in the comments or in by email.

When looking for new skills to develop, I try to find ones that I can develop and use productively in the short term. Being able to use the skill helps motivate me, and prevents voices in my head telling me that the skill is a waste of time.

In the past year, the main skill I've been investing in is learning Python programming. It has proven valuable in my job, and has allowed me to get close enough to other projects to really understand what was going on (I'm one of those people that learns best by digging in deeply).  It has also given me opportunity to experience useful IT concepts, e.g. databases, architecture, testing and building scalability.

I'm sure the next year will bring further opportunity to improve my Python skills, but I need to practice being more deliberate: thinking about what Python skills would help me most and working to gain those. For example, I know I’d benefit from improving my understanding of simplifying complexity through better software design.

I see the writing I’ve done on this blog as another deliberate skill attempt to improve my skills.  Primarily, it has exercised my ability to think and write clearly about non-trivial topics (a very useful skill for my job!).  I’ve learned how hard it is to think objectively and how easily our logic becomes flawed, and I like to think it has made me slightly more tolerant of other viewpoints (not every point of view is right or wrong).  And I’ve loved reading the books and listening to the many podcasts that have inspired ideas that have fed into the posts.

One big area that I’d like to get better at is visualising and diagramming algorithms, systems and processes.  I know that a clear picture can communicate far better than a page of sentences (and highlight when you don’t understand something), but I struggle to represent my ideas visually.  A friend recommended learning UML and so I’m looking for a good online tutorial (suggestions particularly welcome!).  But beyond that, I’m well aware that I’m going to have to practice drawing up every system and process I come across if I want to get good at it.

Somewhat related to this, I’d love to work on my drawing skills.  I’ve never been any good at drawing (though I used to be a master at colouring in!) and I think even if I never got too good at it, the exercise of engaging another part of my brain and becoming better at going from an idea to a picture would be valuable.  We’ll see how I go.

Finally, I’ve previously taken 3 online courses through Coursera and Udacity and found them an effective way to learn something I need to learn, or to just broaden my interests.  UC San Diego has a course on the future of energy that looks full of content that I should really know in my line of work, so I’m looking forward to starting that in a couple of weeks.

Planning my learning doesn’t mean being too rigid about what I want to learn.  Opportunities to learn things come along all the time, and if I discover there’s something useful that I could learn, I’d certainly make the effort.