Succeeding as an autodidact

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Succeeding as an autodidact

Posted on September 16th 2009

It completely forked my life in all its aspect. I don’t know of any people of my age nearly similar to me. For many reasons, I think learning by yourself is the best way to finding and achieving your true passion. Let me tell you my story and a bit of my view on autodidactic people.

How I came about

Up to 13 years of age, I was going through life as normally as anyone would, it’s around that time something happened that would changed my life: I discovered the web and the possibilities it offers cheaply and easily. In only a few weeks, I had built my first site in Flash (never to touch it again), a few weeks after that, I built a basic website positioned with tables. Less than 2 years later, I had my own web hosting company using a small reseller hosting account, it was profitable, but way too much work and somewhat out of my league for my age and skills. This goes on for a while, I kept building better websites in every way: standards, seo, css positioning, javascript, typography, grid design, etc. and then at 19, I got a job in this field and it made me realize there are some aspects I liked better, which in turn made me decide to specialize in designing user interfaces. Put together, these trained talents make it possible to build a project from the ground up, which requires a combination of my passion for the web and my entrepreneurship desires.

A short story of a 15-years-old entrepreneur

What made me different? Why did I bother trying to be an entrepreneur so young? I was extremely curious and I acted on that curiosity. Trying is key in teaching yourself anything and everything. Even though I was venturing in the unknown, I couldn’t resist experimenting. This small success, which made my father proud when I told him about it a few months later, created a comforting idea of experimentation, of understanding the unknown better through trying it out. Falling in a good pattern of trial and success is essential to building confidence in further pushing the self-teachings.

At first my family was a bit reluctant to lending me some money in order to start my small hosting business, the 24$ needed for the first month of hosting was one of my first request of such. I have my mother to thank in understanding how important this adventure was for me. It was relatively low risk, I guess I was lucky, at the time the market was much less saturated with hosting providers and made it possible to get a few clients by advertising on the forum Web Hosting Talk. Named SyncHosting, it was profitable the next month and I would never inject money in it after the initial investment. It was a one-man show, I did the support, the sales, dealt with server problems, it was fun, but stressful for my age, and after a year I decided to let it go.

What an experience it was! The stepping stone into a world of knowledge. A success! I got to start a mini unregistered business on my own with no other guidance than what I learned on the spot and from reading online, if I had persisted, maybe it could have been big. Though that same wonderful experience led me to understand I wasn’t cut out for sales or for support, a useful lesson for 24$ (which in the end grossed over 1500$ in the year it existed). I’m glad I tried it out, I came out better.

Eventually, it’ll pay off

Being autodidactic doesn’t come without risks, starting young is a good way to almost eliminate that risk. Through the years, I practiced my skills creating websites for various clients. My work was pretty decent and I wouldn’t engage in anything I knew I couldn’t complete. My clients were satisfied and… oh boy, I didn’t ask for much of a pay! During this time I did learn a lot about web design and doing business, but I learned even more about learning itself. Invaluable. I became master of my education, I became self-motivated in my job and in learning the very latest about it. It’s not so bad to accept less-paying projects if the work experience you’re getting out of it brings value too.

While freelancing, I doubt my real passion had been discovered. I think at the time, it was much more about learning than web design (it probably still is). At 19, I partially left school and got a job at iWeb Technologies Inc. where I was their first “web designer”. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting that job in my life. My boss and everyone over there was great to work with, I learned a lot and it led me to specializing in usability, then in information architecture and then honing all of these skills in the all encompassing user experience design discipline.

I’m not going in details about the salary, but I started low and as they understood (and I did too) my value as a proactive employee and web developer in general, they raised my salary in an appropriate manner. The accumulation of knowledge I had gained from self-teachings gave me a unique perspective on web development and on life and business in general, they valued it greatly. I helped shape their current design team, I helped with a few business decisions here and there too, but my best contribution was probably in terms of design. I created their current design (at the time of this writing), rethought and revamped their ordering system and I even acted as an agile project manager for a few months.

In return, I was paid enough to survive in this world and they helped me discover and grow my passion for great user experience and great web sites in general. The edge provided by my background made me a special employee there, or so I believe.

But I had to go on my way

iWeb was great with me and I think both parties benefited from one another. Though the time came after a year and 3 months to leave, I had learned much. In order to incept even more I believed I had to go on my separate way. At which point I turned back to freelancing, but only as a mean of survival since I do not especially like dealing with clients. My true goal was to learn more and that’s where my efforts were concentrated. For 9 months now, I’ve been on my own as a freelancer, as a self-taught web developer and I would never look back an instant. I worked on countless projects for myself, for clients and in partnership with a nice coder/entrepreneur, creating those also brought me lots of experience in all fields of web development. I became much more skilled at coding Ruby (on Rails and with Sinatra), HTML/CSS became second nature to me and my design got much better too. All this in turn gave an edge to my user experience skills as I got to also be the one to integrate the UX strategy.

The prerequisites to achieve all this are self-motivation and rigor. I read many books, subscribed to many more feeds than before and discovered more efficient ways of learning. It isn’t easy, it can be quite depressing at times when you hear about your friends attending university while you’re on your own with a computer, I wish I had a use for university. Socially it probably would’ve been much funnier for me to attend university, but the cost and the time required to do so was too important to even consider it as a possibility. Besides, I simpler learn better on my own, with a hands-on approach and by reading about general web development and techniques to solve problems.

Passion-driven learning

Some people go to school to learn how to do a job that’ll ultimately provide them with a living and advantages. Others go to university because it seems like the next logical step in their education and that’s just how it is in life, or so they were told. I’m not motivated by extremely high salaries, although I require a decent one for my responsibility and accountability, I’m solely motivated by the ultimate life goal in my view: being happy. I wouldn’t be happy to go through 4 years of classes, most of which offered material I already incepted as “working knowledge” and would probably have bored me to death with their sometimes incapable teachers. The incentive which really worked for me was to learn what I loved to do by cycles of success and failures. Something any schooling I received failed to provide me: passion in learning for passion’s sake.

Get stuff done

Maybe it’s not the most paying project, maybe it’s not the most useful one and perhaps it’s never going to make it past a certain stage… but please, just do it. Learning was, above all, most successful with a hands-on approach. As much as a book or a teacher may bring to your knowledge, it’s nowhere near as useful as the working knowledge of experimentation. You probably noticed it too when you got your first job in the field you studied. Thinking about it, you might find that the best knowledge you gain was while you exercised your studies.

So I say: Get stuff done! You’ll fall in tough situations requiring solutions only attained by thinking hard and doing research. Afterwards, you’ll feel truly invincible, being able to solve all the problems you encounter. We’re lucky, the supreme resource was invented a few years ago, the Internet brings ever-growing knowledge of everything. There you have it, try to do stuff, increasingly harder, you’ll learn so much.

Finding great knowledge sources

On the web, there are countless possible ways of finding knowledge. Among the best sources are blog articles written by knowledgeable people, recognized twitter users who share links, a well chosen network on delicious, sites with content generated by a savvy community (such as Hacker News). It was overwhelming at first, I receive a truck load of content daily and constantly, most of which is noise. Tools like Google Reader enables for easy/fast scanning of the “good stuff”. Speaking of signal vs. noise, I have a few twitter searches about user experience design, in which I specifically state “filter:links”, because that’s the most important, it’s hard to say something meaningful in 140 characters, the best stuff comes from the links.

Manage those sources. At some point you may discover a source or another isn’t as good as you thought it was or it has become less consistent in relevant content. It’s time to get rid of it, reducing the noise is important, it leads to a more efficient information inception process. This process evolves over time, you’ll keep finding better sources, you might even want to build something custom to receive this information in a more efficient way (maybe that’s only for people who’s passion is in creating great interfaces though!).

Books work too, they are not to be underestimated. Even though most technical ones will be outdated, buying a recent book will teach you well enough what you’re trying to learn. It’s not all about technicalities either, more philosophical books about life, focusing, learning and almost anything will help with your development. The brain records a lot of information, it also remembers patterns later to be recognized and applied. You may learn something about web design in an unrelated subject book.

And once I know what my passion is?

It basically is about asking yourself the deep questions of life:

  • How do I achieve making a good living practicing my passion? By finding a profession I’ll like in the field of web development (at a lower level, I love to build things and projects) and making sure it’s my true passion by getting the most information possible on the subject.
  • How can I get hired doing this? Figure out what skills I need, practice them and gain experience doing it. Don’t be shy to reconsider the first question if you end up disliking what you’re practicing.
  • How can I learn more efficiently than the traditional methods universities provide? Go as deep as necessary (but not a bit more) in each of the required competencies of this profession with a hands-on approach.

Practicing is central to my strategy, that’s the best way I have found to learn correctly. Real-world experience by practice and experimentation will lead to failures and eventually a better success rate. It’s invaluable to fail and then ponder why to eventually succeed at the same task. It’s also very important to succeed, but only if you understand why. Becoming master of your domain is through many failures, many successes, more successes will confirm you’ve learned well.

Now, getting that job

It all comes down to jumping from skill to skill in your learning process until you’ve reached a working knowledge and competency in that profession. Still, self-taught people are sometimes thought less of as opposed to a diploma-backed interviewee. Even though you might have accomplished a lot, even though your portfolio speaks for itself and you’re the sense-injected person they’ve encountered in a while, you still lack the expensive and standardized diploma. I can’t be sure about most disciplines, but for the web-related ones, there aren’t many good developers and designers who didn’t pursue honing their skills eventually rendering most of their university lessons obsolete after just a few years.

Rare breed, unique combination

Autodidacts are rare, it’s an ability that any employer should praise and look for. Yes, universities set standards on every competencies by evaluating one’s knowledge in them, but in the currently evolving and still to be defined web, it’s rather hard to do. I have worked and seen developers from colleges and universities, the standards they are thought are often outdated and sometimes blatantly incorrect. Compared to a standard an autodidactic web developer recognizes, set only by trying to do the best and by keeping appraise of the changes on the web, it’s clear which person is more savvy. Furthermore, not only can I do user experience design, I can also code, I can do SEO, I can manage a project and I can build a project from scratch. I’m my own web development micro department, I have a vision of all the aspects of a web project, all because of my autodidacticism.

Convincing an employer of all this in a single interview is difficult. Even before that, convincing them with a resume is even harder. “Where’s your academic formation?”. The best trick, I figured, is to present yourself in a way so unusual/different and so encompassing of your skills that they’ll at least grant you an interview. Once they’ve heard you and you’ve done well at demonstrating your worth as a prospective employee, there comes the salary part, the most difficult. The value of a diploma is too far sculpted in their culture, we can’t blame them and it’s completely normal and understandable… but nonetheless inaccurate. In my opinion, an autodidact will have a much more diverse background, will respond better to change and his skills will continue growing while he’ll be working for you.

A true advantage

There’s a less well considered benefit of being autodidactic: efficiency in all things. Because that’s what’s required to reach a working knowledge of so much, to work your ass off at understanding everything on your own. In doing so, I learned how to take the path of least resistance to gain what was needed. Having done research on all my competencies over the last 8 years (in the last 4-5 more intensively so), I know and understand what kind of information I’m looking for, where I can find it, going about finding it rapidly and applying the gained knowledge to my work, a project or life in general.

The free form nature of learning by self-teaching enables one to explore all possibilities, it’s a harder and longer process at first, but the rewards are definitely worth it. It’s been a long while since I could find any problem that stumped me, in any discipline, even though I’m not exactly expert in any of them. Once you know how to learn and do research efficiently, there’s nothing stopping you from learning even more about whatever you deem necessary. New skills are acquired in a matter of weeks and problems are solved in less than a day.

Conclusion

Hopefully, I’m not only talking about my experience here. I haven’t talked much with other autodidacts, honestly I haven’t given it much thought, it just seems to me that this should be one of the most popular ways for autodidacts to learn. If this article doesn’t encourage people to pick up on self-teaching, then it might just make some employers think more about the value of this kind of learner. Coupled with an open-mind, the autodidact is a machine at learning everything and anything.

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