10 Ways to Keep Your Programming Skills Sharp Between Jobs

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Keeping up to date in the fast-moving world of programming and development is an ever-present issue for developers. That challenge can be even greater if you’re not currently employed, because a job tends to keep you at the coal face and aware of the newest developments in tech.

Woman balancing on tightrope over a chasm

In fact, one could argue that anything tech-related moves at hyperactive speeds, meaning you have more of a responsibility — and more work involved — to stay current.

Things happen fast in this industry, which means you need to remain vigilant. It does you no good to let your skills, knowledge or experience fade away. How can you stay current? What are some things you can do to keep your skills fresh, especially if you’re not practicing or using them in a job?

Believe it or not, there are many opportunities for honing your skills or keeping things fresh, even if you’re not employed. Not all of them are boring, either, meaning you won’t be slogging through thick textbooks or online guides just to stay relevant.

1. Play Some Coding Games

In recent years, online courses and teaching applications have cropped up — one of which incorporates video games and software development or coding. If that sounds fun, it is!

While some of the games and opportunities were designed with beginners in mind, that doesn’t mean the content doesn’t eventually touch on more experienced concepts. Platforms like CodeCombat, CodeMonkey, CheckIO, CodeWars and many others allow you to play a game, all while being exposed to coding and programming references.

Never underestimate having fun and learning as a collaborative experience. You’d be surprised how much more information and ideas you retain.

2. Listen to Audio Books, Anywhere

OK, here’s the dilemma. It’s no fun reading expansive textbooks and online resources, especially when they’re filled to the brim with programming and coding references. No matter how much you like software development, or development of any kind, there’s not much to spruce up these resources. They are downright boring at times.

Unfortunately, many of those resources — including official documentation — are a must-read. They detail important elements and concepts that can be used when working with a particular language, IDE or toolset.

That’s where audio books or text-to-voice tools come into play. Instead of reading a boring book in your free time, you can listen to audio books, anywhere. Some examples include during your morning commute, in the shower, during your workout or while you’re making dinner. Any downtime is an opportunity to listen to some audio books.

3. Volunteer or Offer Discounted Work

No one likes to work for free, and that’s especially true of any creative — programmers and developers included. But if you’re unemployed and you want to keep your skills fresh, you might need to compromise in some way, especially if you’re having a tough time finding work.

You can volunteer your services for ongoing projects, or if you’re not OK with going pro bono, you can offer discounted or cheaper services. This method isn’t ideal for everyone, and that’s OK.

It’s best to get involved with movements or projects you’re passionate about, as they will provide more than just monetary rewards. If you love games, for example, you could help a friend or colleague with their game development project.

Also, try to stick with the type of work and content — like the same language — you’ll be working with in a more professional environment. This helps you work on your current skills and keep everything relevant.

4. Take an Online Coding Course or Two

Want to refresh your knowledge or become a little more experienced with a topic or language? Take one of the hundreds — or thousands — of available online coding classes. The best part is that not all of them are designed in the same way. If you’re more of a visual learner, there are plenty of platforms that offer visual demonstrations. Conversely, if you’re more of a hands-on person, there are plenty of courses that get you into the actual development and programming work you’re used to. That’s what makes online coding courses such a viable choice.

Check out platforms like Lynda, Treehouse, CodeSchool and SitePoint Premium. Almost all of them offer a free or trial period where you can sample the courses offered. If you don’t like the material on one platform, simply move to another.

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5. Head to YouTube

YouTube offers an endless stream of entertainment and educational content, and when you’re learning development or programming, it’s no different. The same is true if you just want a refresher, or want to keep your skills relevant.

The YouTube community offers thousands of videos in pretty much any topics and genres you can think of. Not all of them are tutorial or guide-based either, so there are plenty of opportunities to brush up on your knowledge.

6. Online Forums or Discussion Boards

What better way to learn or brush up on your skills than from fellow industry influencers and developers? Having trouble with a particular subject or topic? Why not ask an expert? That’s the idea behind participating in online discussions, forums and chats.

You can reach out directly to experienced professionals who work with programming and development daily. You don’t just have to talk about coding, either. Forums always have an off-topic section where you can share thoughts or experiences with like-minded folks.

7. Augment Some Gadgets

Smart home tech and IoT are big disruptors these days, as the devices around us become more aware and more efficient. One problem with these platforms, however, is that support can be severely lacking on the development side of things.

A smart home hub, for example, is designed to interface with similar devices around the home like smart thermostats, smart locks, security cameras and more. But the abundance of products and brands makes it tough for companies to keep up with the market. This means you end up with devices that are incompatible or can’t work with one another when they should be able to.

That’s where you come in as a software developer and programmer. You can boost support for these products for others or just yourself. It’s a great way to get your hands dirty and do some problem-solving and practical coding work.

8. Be the Hero Your Community Needs

Many of the tips in this article suggest getting help from other developers, when honestly, you could be that help as well. Through communities like Quora, Stack Overflow and XDA Developers, you can offer support and advice to fellow developers. In fact, it’s entirely possible you’ll find your next project or work opportunity when networking with the community.

Some great ideas for helping others include sharing and discussing your favorite development tools others might not know about. For instance, you can use a front-end tool to prevent problems from happening in the first place, and sharing this information with other developers has benefits. Who knows — you may even offer the advice a team needs to finish a project, giving them the incentive to hire you for future work.

9. Maintain or Update Existing Projects

You’re a developer at heart. Chances are you’ve worked on projects or opportunities in your own time, even if you kept them to yourself. Developers often update and maintain a piece of software until they’re ready to move on. Maybe you had other responsibilities, or felt that particular project was as good as it was ever going to be.

Whatever the case, you can return or revisit existing projects to work on new updates, new features and even bug fixes. It’s a great way to dive back into your work, particularly something you were passionate about.

10. Meetups or Local Events

You’re working with software, digital tools and programming languages, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking all your opportunities are in the digital space. That’s not entirely true. In fact, you could attend local events or meetups for like-minded developers, where you just have the opportunity to mingle and interact with others.

If you don’t know where to start, don’t fret. There are plenty of platforms and tools out there to help you find a community or group of folks you’ll resonate with. Programming Meetup is a great example.

Hackathons are also great events to check out, where a community of developers participate in marathon programming sessions either jointly or separately.

Bonus: Take a Little Time Off

Obviously, if you’ve already spent some time away from the programming and development community and you need to brush up on your skills and knowledge, this isn’t going to apply to you. However, sometimes we get so involved and so ingrained with our work that we forget to enjoy some fresh air.

If that’s you — and we’re willing to bet it probably is — why not just take a little time off? Why not spend some time away from languages, computers and complex problems? Why not give your brain, body and fingers a little rest?

You can return to your work feeling refreshed and renewed. Who knows — you may even have an entirely different perspective on things when you return.


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