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Building to Learn

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I’ve spent my fair share of the last 10 years in the web world learning new things. We all have; it’s the one constant in this industry: things will change and you will need to change with them.

And for people just starting out on the web, building and learning is pretty much continual. This summer, as a friend learns to build things on the web for the first time, I’ve thought more about how I learned, how I got started in this webbish world in which I find myself day in and day out.

If you’re just getting started on the web the biggest piece of advice I have for you is: build something that interests you. That may not sound that radical, but it’s truly one of the best ways I’ve found to learn something new, whether that’s here on the web or elsewhere in life. Many online code courses have you building something they’ve chosen, but if you don’t care about building their to-do list or whatever, you aren’t going to be as excited about the project. If you aren’t excited about it, you aren’t going to learn as much.

When I was first learning HTML, CSS, and ColdFusion (yes, I learned ColdFusion as my first dynamic language to interact with a database), I made a small site about art. I went back to school to learn about the web because it was more marketable than the art degree I got in college, but art was something I was still very interested in and familiar with—plus, I had resources sitting around in my personal library for data and information. I remembered a small book on artwork through history I had on my shelf and used it as the basis for a small site. It was perfect because it gave me the database fields easily (such as the title, artist, date, and genre). The structure of the book made some of those decisions for me, so I could focus on the code. It was thrilling when I was done, when I could click around a site and pull up various art works. It wasn’t perfect, but I learned a lot about how to pull information from a database that’s still relevant in my work today.

In addition to creating something that’s interesting to you, many folks suggest making something you would actually use in your day-to-day life. One thing I’ve seen is a meal planning application that someone made for themself and was able to use with their partner regularly. Maybe you’re interested in history and want to link publicly available photos to places in your city. What you make isn’t as important as the fact that you’re excited to make it. You want the finished product, so hopefully you’ll persevere through the tough parts.

Of course, having to do something is also a great motivator for learning how to get it done. When I was on a project and we had to get a password meter working with JavaScript, a colleague coached me through it and I learned. When I was passed a new design to lay out and it seemed like flexbox would be a great solution, I learned flexbox as I got the site working in the browser.

I’ve found when I start doing an online tutorial, if I’m not interested in what they’re having me build, I don’t learn as much. It’s not that I don’t understand what’s going on, but the concepts don’t stick with me. When I need to figure something out on the job or I’m building something that I want to use in my own life, though, I learn so much more. And when I need to use those same coding concepts that I learned to make that password meter in JavaScript, they come back to me more easily.

I’ve already written about how learning new things in our industry can be overwhelming with all the options out there and all the change that is constantly happening. But when you slow down and focus on something you find useful or something you need to know how to do, you flip the equation. Instead of trying to get through a tutorial or lesson, you’re making something you want, which keeps you motivated as you figure out how to get there. When you need to remember those concepts down the road, it’s so much easier to retrace how you built a project you’re excited about and proud of instead of a cookie-cutter tutorial you can’t quite remember.

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