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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.

About the Author

Susan Robertson

Susan Robertson is a front end developer working with Fictive Kin who focuses on CSS, style guides, responsive, and accessibility. In the past, she has worked with clients such as FiftyThree, Imprint, Cloud Four, and worked for Editorially, The Nerdery, and Cambia Health. When not actually writing code, she can be found writing about a wide variety of topics on her own site as well as contributing to A List Apart and The Pastry Box. When not staring at a screen, she reads comics and novels, cooks lots of yummy food, and enjoys her Portland neighborhood.

6 Reader Comments

  1. Great post, I definitely agree with the sentiment. If you are genuinely interested you are far more likely to apply yourself, have a real passion for it and ultimately make a much better job of it.

  2. The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lot of great information which can be helpful in some or the other way. Keep updating the blog, looking forward for more contents…Great job, keep it up..

  3. I definitely believe that motivation is one of, if not the most important thing that will help you when learning. I couldn’t agree more with this article. If you’re involved and connected with what you build then you’re far more likely to succeed, and yet it’s a point that so many people seem to miss today.

  4. I also felt the need to create things, so I understand the sense of the post. Creating things is difficult and you have to give everything we have inside. Personally for 3 years I have been taking shape every part of my blog, with the idea to become something special that people want and feel the work I’ve put in. Much remains to be done, but have the time and commitment to do it every day a little better.

    Here I leave the link, sorry for the inconvenience, but part of my life is in cómo hacer un blog

  5. Great article! Other than creating something you are interested in for yourself. I found, it’s a great learning experience to build on different opensource projects (when your up to speed with the basics of course). Seeing the different ways things can be done and solving problems you never had on your own is a great way to learn more than the basics. I’m not a beginner any more but almost every time I work on someones others work I grow as a professional.

  6. This is very recognizable.
    When I started my company, I initially wanted to build my own website, however I had no knowledge whatsoever about coding etc.
    I asked someone to teach me but I never managed to find something I would want to make to practice coding and it just kept feeling very boring.

    So eventually I just hired someone to make it and learn from them how to code.

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