What Casual Learning Can Do For Your Career

It's never too late to teach yourself a new trick and get an edge in your career.

It's not breaking news that programming and design skills are in high demand in the tech industry right now. No matter where you turn these days, it’s hard to avoid the constant drumbeat that’s sounding for more people to learn these skills right away. In fact, at the end of last year, LinkedIn published a list of the 25 hottest skills of the year, and as you can probably imagine, there were a whole lot of technical programming and design skills that took up spots on the list.

The good news for anyone trying to pursue these skills as a career is that college and intimidatingly large reference books aren’t the only ways to get started anymore. Thanks to online learning platforms like Treehouse, Code School, One Month Rails, Codecademy, and lynda.com, anyone who has a desire to take these skills seriously can start to learn them almost immediately.

While a lot of the focus of these platforms has been directed at people who want to use them from beginning to end and make programming or design their career, not enough people are considering the benefits that they can offer in terms of casual learning.

The Advantage Of Learning Outside The Box

Let’s say that you work for a tech company in marketing, sales, operations, or some other nontechnical aspect of the business. It used to be that only focusing on the skills that were directly related to your job was enough, but these days, that approach can be very limiting.

Whether you work for a startup or a more established company, it’s not unusual to have to wear many different hats these days, and for tech companies, the development and design are baked right into the DNA of the entire company whether your job title reflects that or not.

It may not be reasonable for your employers to expect you to fully learn how to program just so you can understand the company and its products better, but it is reasonable for them to expect you to spend 10, 20, or maybe more hours casually learning what goes into designing and developing a product. Not only will it be educational, but it will also help you understand the technical side of your company better, which will certainly improve communication and productivity.

This also isn't to say that programmers and designers are exempt from this casual learning assignment, either. For example, they can use lynda.com to learn more about business skills that are outside of their usual focus. They may not like it at first, but in the end, the additional knowledge will help them to be more well-rounded in the company, too.

Take The Casual Learning Challenge

Truth be told, this is an incredible time to learn new skills. The platforms are constantly getting better, and accessing them is either free or very affordable. No matter what your job is, there’s just no excuse to not have some sort of technical understanding if you work for a tech company.

Not everyone has to become a full-fledged programmer, but it certainly doesn't hurt to be able to talk shop like one of them. Ultimately, the time that you spend dipping in and out of learning platforms to casually understand more about technical skills is some of the most valuable time that you can invest in your career.

If you’re still skeptical, then accept this casual learning challenge: Spend 10 hours or so learning more about development with something like Ruby on Rails for websites or Objective-C for iOS apps, and share some of what you've learned or created with the rest of the team. See if they take you more seriously, and then get back to me in the comments.

--Brandon Watts is the Founder and Principal of Wattsware, which is a PR agency that mainly works with technology companies. He’s worked with brand new startups, well-known companies with hundreds of millions of users, and everything in-between.

[Image: Flickr user Slipp D. Thompson]

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