Beyond Learning to Code: Many Paths to Become Tech Amazing

In recent years, the mainstream has largely gotten the message that learning to code is an essential 21st Century skill. The many great free online courses that teach you to code make it easier than ever to build marketable skills in the computer language of your choice. However, there are many paths to developing valuable skills that will be relevant in the digital economy that don’t require you to touch code. I have achieved success in technology without ever learning to code (though I dabble in JavaScript and PHP when I have to). This post will discuss running your own server, blogging, learning professional software titles, integrating technology into your hobbies and work habits, and learning to communicate technology ideas to lay people.

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path path path (Photo credit: hockadilly)

Learn to Run a Server and Blogging Software

Dave Winer argues that Learning to code will not make you rich (or particularly powerful), arguing that you would be better served in learning to run your own server and take up blogging. He says that coding is a specialized activity for people of a certain mental temperament, but it is not an instant golden ticket to Steve Jobs-ian fame and fortune. Getting your own server space and seeing all the free software you can install is a cheap and easy way to develop several valuable skills in system administration.

My own experience bears this out — getting my own web server at ReclaimHosting was instantly empowering, helping me to understand how cloud-based software runs behind the scenes and giving me the power to install my own web tools instead of paying others for them. Installing open source WordPress on that server let me see what modern Web 2.0 software looks like from the inside, and led me gently from my consumer-level skills to start dabbling in CSS, HTML, PHP, and Javascript.

Additionally, just getting comfortable administering my own blogging software from the admin panel led me gently into the skills I needed to now administer Learning Management Systems like Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas. In fact, Reclaim’s Installatron allows me to quickly effortlessly install my own instances of Moodle LMS, social networking software, email, photo management, and more so I can see what’s involved in running these applications in the cloud. Having the freedom to be able to install and explore these software titles has been (A) easy, (B) economical, and (C) educational for me as an education technology expert. It’s also opened up a whole world of great free software like ThinkUp, Cozy Cloud, and Commons in a Box that free you to run powerful apps on your own server for free.

The Domain of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington gives all students, staff, and faculty their own domain name and web server space to administer as they wish. The idea is that all members of the university will experience a similar journey of discovery that I went through when I got my first server space to administer.

This goes to show that anyone with even basic web skills can manage their own cloud hosting. A good hosting provider does all the hard work of managing your server uptime, troubleshooting problems, and doing all the geeky stuff that requires a computer science degree. My new favorite hosting provider is Reclaim Hosting, and their customer support has been great in helping me figure out what’s going on with my server, undo my mistakes, and show me how to have a good experience running my own personal cloud. In the meantime, though, I have gained invaluable experience in understanding how cloud software works and how to manage it effectively. These skills have helped me grow into an experienced Instructional Designer, Web Designer, and System Admin, just by running my own tools.

Pick a Pro-Level Software Bundle and Master It

In every industry nowadays, there is a powerful, industry-specific software bundle that all the pros use. Digital artists and designers have Adobe Creative Cloud, musicians use ProTools, video editors use FinalCut, and bloggers use WordPress. Even in professions you wouldn’t instantly think of, there is a proliferation of industry-specific software packages that help workers streamline their everyday tasks into a central workspace. Marketers use social analytics and email marketing tools, salespeople use customer relationship management (CRM) software, project managers use project management software, data scientists… you get the picture. If you have a clear idea which industry you’d like to work in, check out job ads in that field to find out which software bundles are most in demand for your desired profession and get comfortable using them. Many of these tools have free, cheap, or open source alternatives that you can use to build marketable skills in industry-standard software. By exploring these software bundles, you’re really exploring the nuances and issues that professionals in those fields experience day to day.

My first career after college was working in the television industry in Hollywood. I came in as an entry-level “gopher”, and quickly saw that the video editors were the true royalty of the production company. In the late ’90s, an AVID certified digital video editor was a highly specialized career, and those who had it were paid very well. I enrolled in an AVID editing class at a local community college and was certified in only a few months. From there I was able to move into more responsibility and higher pay right after the course ended.

Since then, I have made a hobby of building my skills in graphic and web design by playing with free and open source tools. For fun, I would do little design projects as part of my work projects, adding a little design flair to lecture slides, handouts, and my classroom blog. These skills paid off when I was laid off from my teaching job in 2009 and had to rely on freelance design projects while I searched for my next career.

Learn to Communicate Effectively about Technology

Here’s a little secret– most highly technical people are terrible communicators. They often use language that is full of opaque technical jargon, alienating people who do not yet have technical training. Worse, they often give off the not-so-subtle impression that you’re stupid if you don’t know what they’re talking about. This creates negative effects in organizations and society because it inhibits the community’s ability to have a real critical conversation about technology issues that affect everyone. It intimidates non-technical people from pursuing greater tech skills by creating the illusion that certain people are “just techies” and everyone else isn’t. It also leads administrators and managers into making poorly-advised (and expensive) choices about technology because nobody explained the real-world ramifications of the tech decisions at hand. You can make a very successful career bringing good technology information to lay people who need it.

Much of my success in the workforce has come from my ability to understand technical information and communicate it clearly to non-technical people. I don’t have as deep of technology technique as someone trained in computer science, but I know enough to facilitate conversations between team members. My undergraduate major was Interpersonal Communication, so I am a communicator first and a self-taught tech enthusiast second. Developing your listening, speaking, and social skills while constantly exploring your techie interests will give you the ability to translate technical information into real-world language that anyone can understand. This makes you extremely valuable in bringing high-tech skills to the many communities that (A) recognize that they need technology, and (B) have no idea what steps they should take to get started.

In my experience, that central theme of communicating technical information to normal people has taken many shapes. My major successes at SMU have involved listening to various stakeholders’ needs and recommending technology tools that meet those needs. My three-year term as the university Technology Committee chair has been characterized by a democratization of technology information to lay staff and faculty, and a more active role for the community in technology decisions. My career in education has focused on training non-technical users in technical topics like digital design, web design, and blogging. My blog itself is a means to help teachers and instructional designers benefit from the lessons I’ve learned, and has led to interesting opportunities for consulting and publishing of my ideas. I also work with small business owners who want a professional looking website that’s easy to maintain but don’t know how to do it. All of these pursuits make me very valuable at the companies I work for because they help democratize technology among the community, and empower everyone to make better decisions with the technology that affects us all.

Find the Techie ‘Maker’ Fringe of Your Favorite Hobby

Everyone’s got a special interest or hobby that they love thinking about and spending time working on. Whether you’re into sports, art, music, dance, collecting, cooking, gardening, or whatever your thing is, there is probably a nerdy fringe group of hobbyists bringing crazy technical skills to your favorite pursuit. For me, it’s music. I started playing guitar at age 12, which led me to start collecting effects pedals for shaping my sound. This led me to start experimenting with digital effects, then digital recording, then electronic music creation software and digital DJing. Each new tool was another step forward in my passion for music, but each also taught me a lot about digital sound design, UI interfaces, and digital tools in general. The ability to get deeply technical in a field I cared about was the first step– the gateway drug– to becoming deeply technical in general.

If you’re a dancer, see what people are doing with wearable computers and dance, or with motion analysis and dance. If you’re into cooking, check out Cooking for Geeks to learn the physics and chemistry behind your favorite dishes. If you like gardening, check out what people are doing with arduinos to automate their gardening. If you like surfing, see what’s involved in 3D printing your own surfboard. Anything you can do to unite your favorite pastimes with technology will make the process of learning new technologies feel like a hobby, not a job.

Integrate New Tech into the Way You Work

The #1 reason busy professionals don’t explore new technology is because they “don’t have time”. Rather than try new technology tools, they rely on their tried-and-true methods for getting their work done. While this is understandable, it’s also a false dichotomy. Putting a little energy and focus– say one hour out of your 40 hour work week– into trying new ways of getting your work done is a great way to boost your productivity and save yourself time. If you’re used to Microsoft Word, see what you can do with a Google Doc or a new paradigm writing tool like Draft. If you always use your trusty paper calendar, see what happens when you use a digital calendar for a week. What problems does it solve for you? What new problems does it present (and how do you solve those?)

No matter what your workflow is, there has already been someone who has already experienced your same frustrations and created a tool to solve them. Your job is to find out how and see if that works for you.

Before too long, you will have worked several kinks out of your own workflows that keep you from being as effective as you can be. You will have also learned a handful of useful new tools that you (and your colleagues) can use to solve common problems you experience as you work. Communicating about these new productivity boosts (via, say, your blog?) can make you an authority on solving problems in your field.

 Find your Own Path

As you can see, learning to code is only one way to master the technology skills you will need in the 21st Century. There are many ways towards success in the new digital landscape, and they all involve pursuing your passions, pushing your own learning forward, and sharing with your community. How you do that is as unique as you are.

Happy Exploring!

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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