10 External Skills Development Strategies Outside Your Work Environment

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There are common questions and statements we hear, and have heard in the last several months. Many technologists want to continually develop their skills with newer technologies, gain more expertise, position themselves as subject matter experts, give back to their communities, and/or increase their "employment marketability." But what are all the options for potentially doing these things? What are the best avenues to grow your skills outside of the office and your day job?

Have you heard these questions and statements?

  • "How do I continue to build my knowledge and skills?"
  • "How do I gain experience with the newer tools and technologies I want to be working with?"
  • "How do I ensure I'm keeping my skills fresh so that I'm not becoming obsolete?"
  • "I'm transitioning careers, and I don't have much experience. How do I gain experience so I'm employable?"
  • "I'm interested in giving back through my technical skills, but what virtual opportunities are there?
  • "I've been looking for a job for months with no success."
  • "I want to expand my leadership skills and position myself for a more senior role."

When we hear something similar to statements above, from someone who isn't working and has been looking for a job for a while with little success, one of our first questions back is "What have you been doing to upskill or keep your skills current and strong?" Continuously learning and applying that knowledge in personal projects will not only help you stay "interview ready," but it'll look good to Recruiters and Managers.

Here are our top recommendations for external skills development:

1 - Online training courses

You already know that MSSQLTips is a great online training resource, but there is an abundance of additional free, and some that are reasonably priced, online training providers. From Udemy to Udacity to Coursera to Pluralsight to Harvard Online Learning, you can access quick videos, course material, lectures and webinars, and other educational content. I recently downloaded the Khan Academy after hearing about it and I've been liking it so far! A lot of training providers are offering free or deeply discounted memberships, especially around times like Black Friday/Cyber Monday and other holidays, where there are a lot of great opportunities to snag popular courses for low rates.

2 - Associations/Meetups

Most associations/Meetups are now doing virtual meetings, where there's either no cost to attend or minimal cost, and they are great options for learning, networking and hearing about other community events. What Meetups/user groups are in your area? What other events or groups are there around you that focus on topics of interest or skills you want to learn? There are Meetups for just about everything, so this is an avenue you want to pursue!

3 - Conferences

One of the plusses of many people being remote, is that you have access to conferences around the world! We always recommend seeking out local conferences (when they're back in session) as well as virtual conferences, especially in areas / technologies you're hoping to become skilled in. A lot of conferences were accessible for free this year, so check out recordings on YouTube or those hosted on sites like Pluralsight. This is a great time to take advantage of content that can normally be quite pricey to obtain!

4 - Mentoring

Mentoring is truly an underrated career and skills development strategy. There are so many advantages! If you're someone looking to move into a more senior or leadership role, and you've mentored multiple people that have gone on to be successful, that looks fantastic from an outside perspective that you're ready to lead and coach a group of people. If you're someone that's just getting started, or looking to gain experience in a new area, and you seek out a mentor and work with them over time to hone your skills, what does that show about your overall initiative? The biggest takeaway I want you to know about mentoring, is that it doesn't need to be formal or a part of an official mentorship program. If you're looking to achieve new skills and you know someone with those skills, ask them if they would spend some time with you!

5 - Writing

Writing is a funny topic for me, and probably for Erica, because I don't think either of us expected that we would be writers! We stumbled into writing simply because we were passionate about all things career-services related and we realized there was a lack of content out there that truly addressed people's questions and concerns. What are you passionate about? What interests you? Have you noticed a gap in a certain area of content? Do you typically give the same advice out over and over? Answering these questions is a great place to start. Being passionate/interested in a topic really helps with your overall confidence and storytelling ability. Are you nervous and panicked about the thought of putting content out there? Well, that's normal too. We'd recommend starting in a safe place – like a LinkedIn post or a Tip for MSSQLTips.com! On LinkedIn, create a post around a webinar you watched, a virtual conference you attended, an interesting tech article you read, or a recap of advice you commonly find yourself giving. Highlight your key takeaways or what you found most interesting in the content. However you chose to start, writing and sharing content is a great way to develop a new skill and distinguish yourself in the marketplace as a thought leader and technology enthusiast!

6 - Presenting

For some people, presenting may be easier than writing! As with writing, not sure where to start? We always recommend, like above, starting in a safe place. Is there a local coding school you could present at? An opportunity to speak to a child's, nephew's, or niece's class or STEM program like TechGirlz? A college or university where you could talk about your career path and recommendations for those graduating? What about a meetup or local user group you're a member of? User groups are always looking for speakers! I actually got my start speaking through Toastmasters! A colleague of mine had some communication issues and I suggested we attend together. What a wonderful and safe environment to practice your craft and perfect your presentation skills! Another really cool thing about being virtual, is that there are so many opportunities to present outside of your local market. Erica and I have presented to a global community this year, as well as to multiple new markets in the US that we normally wouldn't have had an opportunity to (as normally they require in-person attendance). My recommendation stands the same as above, and make sure you're selecting topics that you are passionate about. If you find something uninteresting, I guarantee your audience will too! Presenting is a great way to share your knowledge and gain access to a new network that may otherwise go untapped.

7 - Open Source Projects

Have you spent time looking through open source projects on GitHub where you could contribute? Looked for opportunities through organizations like Code for America? Contributing to open source projects is a great way to improve your existing skills as it can give you a better understanding of the applicable technology and help fine tune your programming skills. It's a great and easy way to gain recognition, it can be really rewarding, and give you more content for your resume, LinkedIn profile, etc. We know of many hiring managers that ask candidates what open source projects they've contributed to and favor those who are contributing to their community in this way.

8 - Pet projects

How else can you use your target technology in your home environment? Or to support an organization/nonprofit you are involved with? A former Consultant of ours was very active with a local animal rescue who was relying on old school tracking of their animals via Excel, so he built them a small database. In one of our favorite tech social pet projects of the year, one of our Data Science Consultants built a device called Litterbug, a raspberry pi hardware device with a high resolution webcam that uses machine learning to do "object recognition." He trained the model to recognize trash as the object, and with a GPA antenna, it creates maps to show the major concentrations or areas that have trash. He provided the device to an environmental organization so they could have more targeted locations that need organized cleanups. There is likely a pet project or two you could come up with if you take the time to really reflect on what you could do, and would be a great action to take to get experience with a new skill/technology you want to learn!

9 - Hackathons

Hackathons are typically day or weekend long events where Programmers and some other skill sets create an application or other solution. They are hosted by either companies, colleges, coding schools, Meetup groups, or civic or city organizations. Many hackathons have a philanthropic twist and may be helping nonprofits or for civic good projects. Most major cities will host at least one hackathon throughout the year, and you can typically find them via a quick online search or asking Organizer/s of a local Programming Meetup! They are great events for getting real project experience that you can add to your resume, LinkedIn profile, and/or GitHub profile, and also speak to in interviews. Many of the attendees are typically in hiring roles, and most hackathons have sponsors which are typically hiring as well.

10 - Participate in challenges or other organized events

For most technology professionals, and in most areas, there is no shortage of events you can participate in to grow your skills, test and validate your skills (and maybe show off a bit!), and network with like-minded people. For information or cyber security professionals, there are Capture the Flag contests and events, either at conferences or hosted by InfoSec groups/associations. For data science professionals, Booz Allen hosts an annual Data Science Bowl. Many PMI Chapters (Project Management Institute) host annual PM Days of Service to help nonprofits with strategy. For Programmers, there are sites like HackerRank and events like Code Katas that are white board coding challenges, put on by coding schools and/or Programming Meetup group/s.

Next Steps
  • How do you continuously develop your knowledge and grow your skills now?
  • Which 2-3 ideas of the 10 listed above are the most appealing?
  • Invest 30-60 minutes and flush out a SMART plan for the next year, where you try different ideas.

Here's an example 'Skills Development Plan:'

  • Quarter One – Attend a virtual Code Camp and identify one open source project to contribute to. Invest 4-8 hours on that project.
  • Quarter Two – Find an active Code for America brigade in my state/region and attend a meetup, and take online courses on DevOps.
  • Quarter Three – Participate in the annual city hackathon.
  • Quarter Four – Write an article on my journey into a programming career, with key advice I learned along the way, and volunteer at my daughter's school to give a presentation on different STEM/STEAM careers to her middle school class.

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About the author
MSSQLTips author Cate Murray Cate Murray is responsible for managing the nationally-based talent acquisition strategies of the Apex Systems PMO and Business Analysis Practice and holds her PMP certification from PMI.

This author pledges the content of this article is based on professional experience and not AI generated.

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Comments For This Article

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 - 3:29:42 PM - Cate Murray Back To Top (88282)
We canít believe we forgot that tip, Jeff. Thank you so much for sharing it! We frequently encourage individuals to get connected to the most relevant message forums/communities, and to become an active contributor. Itís a great source of knowledge, ideas for additional potential pet projects, and to your point, a way for you to offer knowledge to others.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 - 2:00:39 PM - Jeff Moden Back To Top (88280)
You've missed one of the greatest ways to increase your skills... answering questions on forums. There is no other source that can rival forums for the kind of real world problems that exist out there. Even if you don't want to post an answer, working on an answer and seeing the solution(s) that others come up with will do wonders for your career. It did for mine and led me to experts in the field in my early days and continues to be a major learning tool for me even after 20 years on forums.

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