10 Ways to Improve Your Technical Skills

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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) 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 Software 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.

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