New Skills, New You: Advice for the Online Learner

After months of studying and working through a Microsoft Professional Data Science program – complete with 9 courses and a final project – I received my certificate yesterday.

A few years ago, I started to feel the desire to change careers. I was about 55 hours into a Master’s degree from a school in Kentucky, but I began to lose interest in what I was doing and found myself drawn to the tech world, specifically to the arena of data science and visualization. Determined to “make it” in this field, I had to make a decision: take out a $60,000 loan to work towards a Master’s degree from a prestige school out of state, or attempt to teach myself the necessary skills at a much, much lower cost.

It’s been about seven months since I set upon this journey, and I have picked up a bit of wisdom along the way. If you are interested in changing your career and find yourself looking to learn new skills, you will hopefully find some of these useful.

1. Code every day. This is one of those “duh” statements, but it’s really not so difficult to go through an entire day of learning and not code one line. When you have six hours of lectures to watch and an exam to take, it’s easy to forget to open up your IDE and force yourself to create something. It’s also much too easy to take off two days during the weekend and come back on Monday feeling rusty. I’ll give you a hint though: with only two to twelve months experience at programming, two days of not touching any code will seem like eons. The most I would suggest taking off is one day (I sometimes don’t do anything on Sundays), but beyond that and you are backsliding. Once you get much more firm foundation, then you can afford to take your weekends off. I’m not saying you need to work hours on intense coding sessions each Saturday, but try to do something. I suggest looking at sites like CodeFights for fun coding exercises.

2. Don’t forget the ‘why’. It’s easy to get disheartened. I’ve been sitting at my desk watching lectures and doing projects every day for the past seven months, and it’s often difficult to will myself to click on the “Next” button and learn about yet another new topic for the day. It’s during these times to remember why exactly you started this journey and where you hope to end up. I physically wrote down a list of reasons why I started my online studies, so when I get frustrated and want to give up for the day (or week), I can remain grounded in the reality of the necessity of my endeavors.

3. Utilize all your resources. For the past year and a half, I have been going to the gym exactly four days a week and doing the same workouts. Monday is back day. Same exercises, same rep scheme, marginally heavier weight each time (mostly). It was going great until a few months ago when I hit a wall. More like slammed into it headfirst. I lost all desire to go to the gym or do anything active at all. So I switched it up. I bought a fancy new pair of shoes and picked up running. What I’m doing now does not look like what I had been doing, but it’s something. And “something” is progress. In the same vein, it’s healthy to change up how (and what) you are studying. It refreshes the senses, resharpening your mind and reinvigorating your motivation.

Since I’ve started my career change process, I have been able to learn from about 15 different people – some professors, some professionals in the field. That’s 15 different valuable perspectives. That’s 15 different teaching styles and 15 different opportunities for me to learn new information. Some people I couldn’t stand listening to for more than a few minutes. They taught me patience. Some of the men and women were hilarious, and they showed me that data can be fun. Some lectures I frankly couldn’t understand, and they made me grateful for subtitles. My point is this: Don’t constrict yourself to just one program, just one person to learn from. She might be great, but she may do things in a way that isn’t industry-standard. How will you know that if you are only watching her? I’m not saying to not stick with one program. I believe it’s vitally important for the sake of the completeness of your education to finish up at least one course from beginning to end. But don’t just do one program. Branch out, learn from others. And don’t just watch online lectures. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Read articles. Look at datasets that have been worked on already (Kaggle will be your best friend). We live in a wonderful world full of diverse information, so please use it!

4. Know yourself. Simple enough, right? While you will never fully know yourself (has anyone else ever been broken up with a girl who said she needed to take time to “find herself”?), you do know your tendencies in the arena of education. For one, I knew that I would not be able to work with children all day (I was a director of an after-school childcare program) then come home and be eager to fire up the PC and plug away at my keyboard. So I saved up enough money to be able to do this full-time, and I have learned more in the past few months than I ever could have hoped to learn in a year of squeezing in lectures in the evenings.

On a more operational level, I have found that I possess much more motivation and work significantly harder after I have been to the gym. So any activities that require less active attention and brain-power tend to get done before the gym, with the harder problems and deeper learning reserved for after my workout. Know your quirks, your strengths, and weaknesses and make them work for you rather than against.

5. Find a friend. About two years ago, I decided to make a change to my diet and exercise, and ended up losing 40 pounds in about three months. When people began to ask how I did it, one of the most common pieces of advice I gave to people was to find someone who wanted to accomplish the same thing and do it together. When I started, I knew that one of my best friends had been consistently losing weight for over a year at that time. So he became my “Fitness Buddy.” We sent each other screenshots of our daily calorie intake, we dissuaded the other from eating that dessert, and we picked up each other when one of us did eat the dessert. This experience showed me yet again that life is easier when you’re in a community of people to help you.

When I started coding, then, I found people that had similar interests and sought guidance from them. Then another one of my friends started his own journey with software design, and I finally found my Coding Buddy. We are in contact almost daily, sharing what we’ve learned or raging at the fact that something isn’t working correctly. Having someone to be accountable to has been invaluable: when he talks about a 10 hour day of lectures and programming, I feel the need to be more productive and work just a little bit longer before calling it quits. It will also help to keep you sane and keep your own expectations realistic. When I feel completely in over my head learning a new topic, I shoot him a text and we commiserate together since he just happens to be experiencing the same thing that day. Then he sends me a screenshot of someone else feeling just like us, and suddenly everything is okay again.

Teaching yourself a new set of skills is not easy. It takes discipline, motivation, and a few tears here and there. I’ve been doing this for more than half a year and I haven’t arrived yet, as I’m still seeking to secure a position. But with the ever-increasing amount of resources at your disposal, it can be done. Take some of this advice. Develop and share your own tips. Find out what works for you and take joy in the ability that we have to learn, adapt, and grow.

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