How Do You Develop Your Skills?

During the early days of my career, I relied on training classes as a way to learn new skills or brush up on older skills that I haven’t used in a while. The advantage of taking a training class is that it forces you to step out of work and focus on the topic for a predefined length of time. However, even with a number of exercises during the class, you don’t get enough practice time to really master a skill. You have to be ready to use what you’ve learned and apply it to a real project if you want to get biggest benefit out of that training. Additionally, as a freelancer, any time that I take off work for a training class is time that I’m not billing clients or developing my business.

Developing a work skill isn’t that different from training for a sport. If you want to perform well during the game (or client project), you need to spend time practicing in between games (or client projects). It isn’t just the new skills that need to be practiced and applied, you also have to practice those skills that you’ve already mastered if you want to maintain your expertise over longer periods of time. I’ve been working with online communities for years, and I spent a significant amount of my time doing hands-on community management and community building. However, most of my recent consulting has been primarily strategic in nature, so I spend the bulk of my time working with clients to develop online community strategies. As a result, I spend less time doing and more time advising. This doesn’t mean that I neglect my skills development. There are a few good ways to make sure that you keep those skills up to date.

Client projects. I try to occasionally take on client projects that give me more hands-on and tactical responsibilities that pull me out of a strictly advisory role and into a more of the day-to-day work. The reality is that I can charge more for the strategic work than the tactical assignments, but this option allows me to make some money while also keeping my skills sharp. This is one of the best ways to make sure that you don’t lose those hard-earned skills without sacrificing too much income.

Side projects. I’ve spent time talking about my love / hate relationship with my side projects and the time that they consume, but side projects do have a purpose. They allow me to practice my skills while building something that I find fun and interesting. While client projects are limited to the needs of any particular client, side projects are meant to serve your needs and are only limited by your imagination. In the past, these side projects have taken a variety of forms with everything from helping to start a small location-based web startup to a variety of blogs with user contributed content that I’ve used to practice community skills like recruiting participants, community evangelism and promotion, and more. I started my latest side project over Thanksgiving (focused on getting people to contribute pictures of their crazy neighbors). The most important thing is to make sure that these side projects feel more like fun than like work — do something interesting.

Volunteer work. I also spend quite a bit of time volunteering for a non-profit organization here in Portland that organizes free events for the technology community. This gives me a chance to practice those skills that involve getting real people from online communities to interact in the real world. Volunteer work is a great way to give something to a cause that you support while also helping make sure that you don’t let your skills languish.

How do you practice your skills and keep them up to date?

Photo by Flickr user Javi Motomachi used under Creative Commons.