The Best Way To Keep Your Skills Fresh

...Is to keep learning. Simple, right? But with the rise in digital e-learning platforms, self-help blogs, video tutorials and everything in between, we wanted to find out what people are actually finding useful in the pursuit of self improvement.

A few months ago we focused on the benefits of attending events such as conferences, meet-ups or talks. Whilst these are definitely great avenues for knowledge gain, different people have different levels of access to these resources. Living outside of major urban centres significantly reduces the options available but, even in the busiest of cities, you may struggle to find events on a regular basis that are targeted at your interests or industry.

Luckily, the realm of digital learning is exploding right now, meaning world-class lectures, courses and educational tools are available to anyone with an internet connection. These can help you keep your skills sharp and ensure you're staying abreast of market trends which, in turn, makes them great interview fodder. Being able to discuss the latest online course you completed or problem that you solved can help set you apart from the crowd.

Every single customer we work with looks for team members who have a passion to learn – it's probably the single most requested ability across the London tech sector.

Tech is in a state of constant flux – you may be a Ruby Developer now, but it's almost certain you'll have changed what you work with or your seniority within the next 18 months. As a result, you'll need to learn. After all, if you're good at learning, you'll be a good employee in tech; if you love learning, you'll be a fantastic employee in tech!

To better understand how the applicants that we represent learn, I set up a survey asking every job-seeker we spoke to over a two-week period how they improve their technical knowledge and what resources they use. Here are my findings, along with some choice applicant quotes:

Graph showing spread of applicant responses and ordered by how common they were
Distribution of Job-Seeker Responses
[click to expand]

#1 The Options Are Truly Endless

"I use Java at work but wanted to branch out and push my boundaries, so I actually taught myself Python from scratch in my spare time, mainly using YouTube. There's a lot of really interesting tutorials that helped massively."

Asking about job-seeker's hobbies and interests is a common talking point when analysing their potential job fit, so I hear about PluralSight, CodeWars, Udemy and similar services on a frequent basis. These discussions have even led me to consider using CodeAcademy myself, whilst others, notably StackOverflow, are used routinely as part of my job.

As such, I felt like I knew most of the big, popular e-learning and skills improvement websites out there but, as the results from the survey flowed in, I was pleasantly surprised by how many were entirely new to me. Even more surprising were the websites and services I know well but had never considered as pillars of education. Even my Gran has heard of YouTube, so it's fantastic to see it place as the most popular named service for skills acquisition!*

On the flipside, some well known websites, such as the aforementioned CodeAcademy never came up at all! Now that's partly just a reflection of the market sample that we gathered; after all, whilst we talked with quite a lot of people, our survey isn't guaranteed to be proportionally representative. But I think it also speaks to how many options there are out there, meaning that a lot of people are finding what they need away from the big market leaders.

*Whilst "Online Tutorials & Blogs" had more responses, this is more of a category than a singular service; of those, YouTube was the clear winner.

#2 Skills Growth Doesn't Have to Cost

"StackOverflow is my best friend!"

Probably a key factor in YouTube's surprising dominance is the price point: nothing, zip, nada, free! When you start digging beneath the surface, YouTube's educational videos cover everything from system architecture to learning Python to growing your own food – there's very little that someone hasn't at least tried to explain. Whilst the quality isn't always the best, when the information is available to anyone, anytime, at no cost, it's pretty hard to complain.

And YouTube is just the tip of iceberg when it comes to crowd-sourced, open source information! StackOverflow wasn't far behind in response rate, another service that has cemented a position as a cornerstone of the tech community and, whilst we had less direct acknowledgement, the value of GitHub (particularly for developers) is hard to undersell – both offer fantastic communities to get involved with.

But above and away the most popular response was simply freely available online tutorials and blogs. That isn't a huge surprise as the tech community is pretty fantastic at sharing their knowledge, whether through centralised locations like Medium and Twitter, or through personal websites, resulting in a huge amount of freely available information.

On top of that, most languages and software have accessible documentation, often including dedicated training resources like W3Schools and Microsoft Learning. Related tutorials or exercise prompts offer a great way to test your new skills and really cement them in your mind, so it's no wonder that these would form a bulk of people's self-learning focus.

Donut chart showing applicant answers grouped into resource categories. Crowd-source at 50%; e-learning at 20.7%; Offline at 8.6%, traditional at 15.5%; and None at 5.2%.
Responses Grouped by Common Theme or Category

#3 In With the New, In With the Old

"I'm engaged in all sorts of groups outside of work that hold meetups. I love the atmosphere and collaboration and am currently involved with groups looking at Java, Kubernetes and ElasticSearch, whilst looking for others."

Whilst crowd-sourced information through the likes of StackOverflow, GitHub, YouTube and Quora comprised half of people's primary resources with dedicated e-learning websites coming in a close second, more traditional methods still accounted for ~24% of people's responses.

That means that almost a quarter of those surveyed primarily look to documentation, books, meetups, higher-education resources (lectures, courses, mature learning, libraries) and academic papers to boost their knowledge and skill-set.

Whilst many of these methods are now augmented by digital services and technology – and have certainly become more accessible as a result – they all remain fundamentally pre-digital learning resources. Even without the internet or a smartphone, you could easily make use of any (or all) of these channels, which is kind of comforting to know.

#4 If You Aren't Self-Learning, You're Falling Behind the Curve

"I love what I do and that passion doesn't end when I leave [work]. I used to read books in my spare time, watch YouTube videos and keep up to date with documentation. Recently I've started on a Java course with Udemy which has been great so far!"

As you might tell from the article's introduction, this conclusion isn't a huge surprise – but it's still absolutely worth highlighting. Put simply, if you're interested in working in tech then you should probably be doing some kind of learning or self-improvement in your free time.

Even if your employer (or prospective employer) doesn't require it, the chances are pretty high that everyone else around you will be engaging with skills development in some way. Whether you're thinking about internal progression or actively looking for a new job, not being able to talk about the current project or course you're working on will likely see you fall behind the competition.

Of everyone we spoke with, only 5.2% claimed they weren't engaging with self-development in some meaningful way, so that means over 90% of the market will be! Drilling down a little bit further shows that most of that 5% were (at the time of discussion) working in non-technical roles, meaning that amongst developers, engineers, QA, DevOps etc. the number of people self-learning is likely even closer to 100%.

So Where Do You Want to Start?

Hopefully some of the above points or services were new to you – several were to me – and will inspire you to either start learning or increase the breadth of your current activity.

Self-learning definitely shouldn't be a chore and it was reassuring to see this come across from our survey. Almost everyone we questioned spoke positively about their experience with, and interest in, e-learning and skills improvement. As one job-seeker put it:

"I absolutely love to keep learning, particularly with online courses through the likes of Udemy; I'm currently working through courses on both the Spring framework and Spring Boot!"

So if you've tried it in the past and it hasn't stuck, perhaps it's time to give it another go. With so many resources available, from dedicated learning platforms to distributed, crowd-sourced information, there's never been a better (or easier) time to take your development into your own hands!

There's definitely more to explore on the subject of self-learning. For example, it might sound like a no-brainer, but it's not just employees that benefit from their own improvement: employers do too!

Whilst it's common for tech companies to look for self-learning as a positive (or even required!) trait during the interview process, there's definitely more that can be done. We're already starting to look into why a drive to keep learning is important for prospective employees, and how prevalent it is across the sector at the moment.

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