A Tested* Approach to Leveling Up

*Unscientifically, by a person from the internet.

If you’re a LITA member, then you’re probably very skilled in a few technical areas, and know just enough to be dangerous in several other areas. The later can be a liability if you’ve just been volunteered to implement the Great New Tech Thing at your library. Do it right, and you just might be recognized for your ingenuity and hard work (finally!). Do it wrong, and you’ll end up in the pillory (again!).

pilloryMaybe the Great New Tech Thing requires you to learn a new programming or markup language. Perhaps you’re looking to expand on your skills–and resume–by adding a language. For many years, the library associations and schools have emphasized tech skills as an essential component of librarianship. The reasons are plentiful, and the means are easier that you might think. With a library card, a few free, open source software tools, and some time, you can level up your tech skills by learning a new language.

I humbly suggest the following approach to leveling up, which has worked for me.

What you’ll need

A computer. A Windows, OS X, or Linux laptop or desktop computer will suffice.

Resources. Online programming “schools”, such as Codeacademy and Code School are a great concept and work for some people, but I’ve personally found them to provide an incomplete education. The UI demands brevity, and therefore many of the explanations and instructions require a certain level of knowledge about coding in general that most beginners lack. I have found good ol’ fashioned books to be a better resource. Find titles that have exercises, and you’ll learn by doing. Actually building something practical makes the process enjoyable. The Visual Quickstart Guide series by Peachpit Press and the Head First series by O’Reilly usually teach through practical examples.

Books are a great source of knowledge, but so are your fellow coders. Most languages have a community with an online presence, and it would be a good idea to find those forums and bookmark them. But if you were to bookmark only one forum, it should be the Stack Overflow forum for the language you’re learning.

Some languages also have official documentation online, for example, php.net and python.org.

Time. Carve out time wherever you can. If you take public transportation to work, use that time (if you can find a seat). Learn during your lunch break. Give up a season of your favorite TV show (you can always catch up later in a weekend binge-watch when the DVDs hit your library shelves).

Where to start

Here and now. Maybe you’re reading this because you’ve just been tapped to implement the Great New Tech Thing at your library. Or maybe you’re considering adding a skill to your resume. Whatever the reason, there’s no time like the present.

Leveling up for professional development affords you greater flexibility. Start with a language your friends know–they will be an invaluable resource if you get stuck along the way. Also, consider starting with a simple language that you can build upon. If you already know HTML, then PHP and JavaScript are natural progressions, and they open the door to object-oriented languages like C++, Java, or Python. Finally, make sure there’s a viable–if not growing–community around the language you want to learn. Not only does this give a sense of the language’s future and staying-power, the community can also provide support through online forums, conferences and meetups, etc.

If you’re new to programming languages, I hope this approach helps. If you’re a veteran coder, please share your learning approach in the comments.

3 thoughts on “A Tested* Approach to Leveling Up

  1. I’d add W3 Schools and Lynda.com.

    The first is a great resource that gives you the opportunity to manipulate the code and see the changes in real time. While it isn’t as fancy as code academy, I do like how it provides an index to each section/function. I think of it as a manual like php.net. I don’t come to it looking for a specific example like Code Academy but I do bring it up to find out the syntax and to browse the reference section for advanced functions. Understanding how and why you use a particular function is vital for my learning process. Sure I can copy/paste every voted up solution in Overflow but since most responders only provide the code with very little context it tends to only help me with the current problem. I dig through the code and look up the functions on W3 to see why they used it and why it worked.

    Meanwhile Lynda.com is a paid resource that does a great job of mixing in visuals and (at a cost) project files for a variety of languages and programs. Each tutorial is broken down into several chapters that makes it easy to pick up where you left off, a huge plus for those of covering circ/ref desks. If I am working with a particular platform, say Drupal, I really need visuals to point out what the instructor is clicking on and to grasp the terminology. The price wall is pretty high, entry level membership is $25/month, but I am lucky enough that my both my MLIS school and workplace provide full access. It is worth inquiring if is a service that your university or human resource department supplies.

    • Thanks for the comments, Marlon. I’ve been wanting to give Lynda.com a try, but neither my workplace nor my local public library has it… but hopefully soon.

  2. I just started using Treehouse. It reminds me a lot of Duolingo in that it feels like a game and gets me excited when I get the right answer. It’s also nice to hear you say that books are a good resource for learning techie things, I couldn’t agree more!

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