The Experience Game and Why it Matters in IT
By Doug Paulo
Advancing your career used to be a linear route. You would land an entry-level job based on your qualifications and skills. Then, as you acquired more experience, honed your skills and participated in often employer-provided training, you would progress to increasingly senior positions. However, all of this is changing. You no longer have to rely on a fulltime job to gain experience or depend on an employer to fund your training. There are many free, online resources where IT professionals can learn new skills, test their proficiency levels and gain experience.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
MOOCs are basically large, online libraries of archived courses from colleges, universities, research institutes and other education providers around the world that are openly available to the public at a low cost or no cost at all. The overwhelming majority are undergraduate level, though some graduate-level courses are included. Although some MOOCs offer paid courses that include instruction, exams and certifications, many providers allow you to download all the courseware and supporting materials necessary for self-study without paying a dime. This allows you to complete entire courses on your own time and at your own pace. Note that some providers offer certificates of completion for approximately $100 each, which can be helpful when you are applying for a promotion or new position.
There are several ways to find IT courses on MOOCs. MOOC LIST is global database of MOOCs where you can search for courses based on criteria such as keywords, language, level and provider. Although it includes paid online training such as bootcamps and university distance learning courses, it also lists many free, self-paced courses. Coursera offers several free introductory-level courses, although most of its certificate courses cost between $29 and $99. You can also enroll in Specialization Certificates and even earn degrees. Similarly, edX offers a good selection of computer science courses. Many are free with the option of purchasing a certificate.
Another good place to search is MIT’s list of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Open Courseware, which includes archived courses in numerous IT areas, from Introduction to Computer Science & Programming and Advanced Python Programming to Artificial Intelligence, Machine Vision and Design & Analysis of Algorithms. These courses not only provide written materials, but also lecture videos, assignments and even exams with answers.
Skills Challenges and Rankings
Whereas MOOCs provide solid foundational instruction, sites like CodeChef, HackerRank, Codewars and CodeFights offer IT professionals opportunities to practice their skills, compete with their peers and move in up the rankings in their community. CodeChef, for example, lists challenges for several skills levels. These can be solved in various programming languages, so you can practice what’s most relevant to your career. You can also participate in the monthly challenges and interact with the community. HackerRank offers practice options for three core areas: algorithms, data structures and mathematics. It also allows you to practice specialized skills and programming languages. If you participate in the challenges and do well, you’ll be listed on the leaderboard, along with the other top programmers on the site. Additionally, HackerRank connects employers with top coders, so you can easily gain some experience by working on short-term projects.
Putting It All Together
With these resources at your disposal, you’re in control of your career path. There’s virtually no limit to the amount of available knowledge, and there are numerous ways to hone your skills. Plus, thanks to the active global community of IT professionals, you can compete with peers from around the world to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. And if you take advantage of the growing number of IT gigs to gain practical, demonstrable experience on your own time, you can leapfrog into better positions of your choice much faster.