10 Easy Ways to Get Hard Skills

Higher education fails in one major way: they don’t train students in 21st century job-ready hard skills. Here’s how to fix that.

There are 5 Hard Skills the mastery of which will set you up to get a job and succeed in almost any business context. In this post, I’ll outline those skills, and then share how to begin to gain mastery in each one.

  1. Project Management—setting goals, due dates, running meetings, driving consensus, and overall managing people, leading people, and helping teams of people be a success.
  2. Software Engineering—Almost everything has a tech component these days. Building your own software is a critical skill in any business (Software Engineer).
  3. Data Analysis—Whether it is building a financial model, making sense of marketing web traffic data, designing a survey, or analyzing the efficiency of a supply chain, every business needs its workers to know the fundamentals (and expertise) in data analysis.
  4. Design & User Experience—Every business has a visual or human-interaction component. From visual ads and the brand, to how the product or factory is designed, to how the website looks and works, the skill of design and user experience is critical.
  5. Marketing & Sales—Every business has to sell itself to people, so the hard skill of building a sales pipeline and handling objections or creating a marketing funnel and tracking and optimizing for conversions is critical.

You don’t have to master all of these, but they literally make up every business that exists. Universities do a crummy job of training anyone on any of these. The nearest they get is some people in the business department might learn some of them. But if your goal is to have job-ready skills, these are what to focus on.

While looking for projects to practice these skills, be creative and try all sorts of things. Use social media. Shoot a few YouTube videos. Make a podcast. Plan a conference or throw a party. Help people for free. Help nonprofits. Help your friends and family. Be open to things and volunteer.

Find mentors.

Here’s how to get started and master each one:

Project Management

I wouldn’t recommend signing up for a PM Udemy course—it will probably be pretty dry. Instead I recommend just deciding on a team project to do and then do it. Projects anyone can do include:

  • Throw an event for a community, business, or school. Could be a volunteer day, a party, or a musical event.
  • Make a mini conference like an unconference or a hackathon

Events are good for getting started with PMing because they usually involve lots of people and it is easy to get volunteers to help you. Young PMs can gain a lot of insights by just using PM tools:

  1. Airtable—to track things and make sign up forms and surveys
  2. Google Docs—to make shared documents and spreadsheets
  3. Trello—to track tasks as “Todo”, “Doing”, and “Done”

Finally you can read some management classics to get more context and confidence in your PMing.

  1. Radical Candor
  2. First Break All The Rules
  3. First Time Manager
  4. The Coaching Habit
  5. How to Make Friends and Influence People

Software Engineering

Software engineers, web devs, code monkeys, pixel pushers, whatever you want to call them, they are critical to almost every business these days. But where to start?

Start with designing front ends of websites with HTML & CSS, General Assembly’s Dash Tutorial is a great place to start.

From there you can go down the Wordpress/Shopify/Squarespace sort of route where you are mainly dragging and dropping things together. Or you can become a more serious software engineer by learning a programming language: JavaScript (via Code Academy), or Python (via learnpython.org) are good places to start.

If you want to become a serious software engineer it is important to do some immersive training and build out a portfolio of projects. You can do this quickest by attending a 12 week bootcamp like HackReactor or General Assembly, or more thoroughly by attending a longer program like Make School’s 2 year program.

Data Analysis

Data analysis is a newer but ever more critical super skill found in almost every business context these days.

The best place to start with Data Analysis is Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. Use YouTube videos or a Udemy course to learn some of the basics of these insanely powerful tools. Then start by making your own personal budget. Next build a model for how to pay off your student loans or your car. Next take a Udemy course on building financial models and then make a financial model for an imaginary company or a real company or nonprofit. If it is a real one, give them your model after you are done!

Now start applying your skills in a real context, apply for a marketing job or an operations job at any company and tout your mad spreadsheet skills. From there you will be able to build models for all sorts of things.

If you want to really go deep in data analysis, you’ll want to take a 12 week Data Science bootcamp or for a more thorough preparation Make School’s 2 year program has a Data Science track.

Design & User Interaction

To get started on design all you need is a pen and paper.

Pick a website or an app and redesign it. Or imagine a real or imaginary or funny product and design what it looks like and how it works. Pick an advertisement that you think is not great, and sketch an alternative. Try rendering a digital wireframe of it using Google Draw inside of Google Docs.

Next you need to get some skills using one of the major design softwares out there. Sketch is easier to get started with, or you can dive into the Adobe products: illustrator and photoshop. You can use YouTube or Udemy to get better at these tools and their power will give you more you can do.

If you want a real challenge, offer your skills for free to people, businesses, and non profits. Make the poster for a concert or a party or an event.

You could also go on fivver.com or UpWork.com and offer your skills for cheap.

Be ambitious and hold yourself to a high standard and do as many projects as you can with as many different types of organizations as you can.

There is also creating videos and print materials that goes along with design, and designing products.

Marketing & Sales

How do you become a great marketer or sales person?

Well a good place to start is to just start trying to grow something, anything! Write a blog post and try to get as many clicks as you can to it. Pick a nonprofit and try to get as many donations as you can. Throw an event and try to get people to come. Make a YouTube video about anything and try to get people to view it. Try to get 50,000 instagram followers. Build a newsletter and try to get 10,000 email signups.

The important thing for marketing and sales these days is to measure everything and then optimize.

If you want to get more serious about marketing and sales, after doing a few growth projects yourself, apply for a sales or marketing associate or internship and help a company grow. It doesn’t matter what company as long as you are getting the opportunity to learn and be mentored.

Some great books to read about sales and marketing are by Seth Godin.

The best way to learn sales is to start selling something. Pick a product you like and offer to sell it for commission, you get to keep 20% of the revenue you generate. Most businesses will go for this. Then just start selling.

Industry Contacts & Mentors

In all cases, as you get involved in these hard skills it is a great strategy to reach out to people who know more than you do and get coffee or have a brief phone call. Ask them about how they got started and what they’d recommend you do. Ask them what are the best and worst parts about their jobs and career. Let them do most of the talking!