The Best Way to Learn a New Skill on the Job

4 minute read

Week one of my new job I was in a full-scale internal panic. Why? I was a Web Producer who only knew the very basics of coding.

Yeah, the justified kind of panic.

I certainly didn’t misrepresent my skills in what was a very short interview for a temporary position. I had online marketing experience, graphic design experience, Photoshop, Illustrator, WordPress, yes. But Dreamweaver? No. Experience designing web pages from the ground up? No. Big no.

But as they needed someone ASAP and I believe my boss was told by a previous boss that I’m a fast learner, I was hired as a 30-hour-a-week temp for four months. Now two and a half months into the job, and while I’m certainly not designing templates from scratch, I can look at a page of HTML/CSS, read it as the language it is, make adjustments and additions, and even put together a few responsive web pages of my own.

Here’s how I got through those first few weeks and kickstarted my coding skills.

Step 1: Codecademy

Before you start a job that involves coding, actually complete the Codecademy courses (instead of just starting the first class every few months because you’re like, “Hm, maybe I should learn to code.”) This is an amazing primer for all the basics.

Step 2: Stay Calm

Day 1: “How’s your coding?” asked my co-worker.

“Uhh… very basic.”

“Well I’m going to send you something just take a look and see if you can do it.”

PANIC MODE. There were definitely a couple of times in those first few weeks when I was trying to work on something and felt like I was about to cry. I needed to, say, redesign one of our site pages. Even if I had a mental image of what I wanted to do, I felt so frozen in trying to actually code that into reality. I just had to stay calm, Google, and figure out as much as I could on my own, until I reached a dead end and had a specific question to ask. Which brings me to step three…

(MORE: It’s Time To Plug In: How Non-Techies Can Get In On Coding)

Step 3: Ask A Million Questions

Try everything you can on your own, but if you’ve reached an impasse, just suck it up and ask someone. At a certain point if you’re continuing to struggle with one thing, you’re wasting both your and your employer’s time. Once a colleague showed me how to do something once, I would learn it, remember, and never have to ask again.

Step 4: Write It Down

The only reason I was able to remember—especially with small tricks or shortcuts I watched my colleague do—is that I wrote everything down. There are so many different ways to do things that if you learn a particularly helpful trick, write it down. Keep a running notebook so that you never have to ask the same question twice.

Step 5: Spend Spare Seconds Learning

Like I said, start with Codecademy–it’s easy and free, and it doesn’t get better than that. But there are plenty of other resources that you need to continue to use. Keep a reference guide at your desk, sign up for in-person coding classes in your city (Girl Develop It and Skillcrush are great resources), watch training videos, etc. etc. I haven’t been able to treat this job as a 9-5, because I had a steep learning curve that I had to race to catch up with every night. Do the same.

Even though I still have a long way to go, as long I’m constantly learning, improving, and expanding my skill set, I’m also confident. Have any of you had a similar job experience? What are your best tips for learning to code on the job?

(MORE: Confessions of a Girl Who Loves to Code)

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