Critical job skills people forget to tell you about

All of us constantly get asked for advice. You may not notice it every time it happens, but our social interactions very often revolve around this very basic conversational pattern.

One thing I get asked about relatively frequently is the topic of “what should you learn in school in order to be successful in the tech industry”. Usually the people asking me expect advice along the lines of “should I learn Python or Go” or “Java or OjectiveC” or something like that. And sometimes it’s a middle school teacher looking for more generic answers. And most of them are surprised when I explain what I think kids (and students) really should focus on learning:

  • Learn to write well
    And by that I mean that you should be able to make a concise, convincing, written argument. In a way, just like I’m trying to do right now. Yes, that includes being able to spell and follow basic grammar rules (which I don’t always do — hey, English is my third language), but more importantly it means that you should care about what you write. Proof-read. Edit. Pay attention. It needs a logical flow, a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to tell the reader what it is that you want and why. Something that takes practice to get better at it.
  • Learn to analyze arguments, learn critical thinking
    That’s the other half of that same topic. When other make their arguments, when others try to convince you, learn to understand what they are saying, to ask questions, to understand more about what they are telling you and almost more importantly why they are telling you this thing.
  • Learn to be a comfortable public speaker
    Yes, presentations are fun (and no, people do not prefer death to the idea of public speaking) and for some people they may be part of what they will do. But more importantly, in most every meeting you’ll ever go to you’ll be expected to be able to address a group. That could be a hand full of people, it could be a few dozen, or it could be a few thousand in a conference presentation. Practice doing that. As much as you possibly can. And then some more. Yes, that might mean going joining a drama class. Or a debate club. Something that actually makes you go out and speak in front of people. Trust me, it’s good for you.
  • Learn to be persistent
    In most professions there are no prices for showing up. The expectation is that you don’t give up, don’t get discouraged, don’t walk away because the first attempt didn’t go the way you thought it might. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his often misunderstood 10,000 hour rule — basically it takes a while, a very long while, to get really good at things. And while simply doing the same thing for a long time won’t all by itself make you a genius at that very thing, it certainly will make you better. And it appears that this is one of the common denominators of those who are truly successful. They work on something, and they keep working on it. And they keep trying to get better and better. They are persistent in their attempts to master that skill.

“So wait, no computer science classes, no AP math, none of that? Just language arts, drama club, and “don’t give up so easily”? That’s all you got?”

Yeah, nothing wrong with a solid CS education, or becoming a double-E or studying material science. But remember what we started out with. The critical job skills so many others don’t tell you about. So go, talk to your language arts teacher, read a good book, go find an excuse to give a presentation to a group of people.

You’ll thank me later.

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