I always knew I should have gotten a CS degree. It’s challenging to be a nontechnical person at a technical company. Last month marked my one year anniversary at Google. While I’ve learned a ton over the past year, I’ve realized that the foundations of the skills I’ve picked up could have easily been learned beforehand. I just wish someone had told me what I should focus on and where I should learn it.
I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2011 with a Business degree. While I took many amazing classes (Engineering Entrepreneurship with Jon Burgstone and Perspectives on Entrepreneurship with Jennifer Walske ), my biggest regret is not taking more courses that actually taught me how to build, design and create.
Fortunately, education is being revolutionized and hundreds of people are creating classes about the skills I want to learn. Many of these are available for free online. After spending the past year exploring these classes, here is a list of skills I wish I had learned earlier and my favorite (free) classes/resources to help you get started.
1. Learn How To Mock-Up What You Want To Create (Design)
If you can’t code, then make sure you learn Photoshop (or something similar) so you can at least mock-up what you want to build. You’ll find that this is incredibly more effective than trying to communicate your ideas with words or wireframes.
To learn the basics of Photoshop, I recommend this video tutorial from PSD Tuts+. This course on UX Foundations is another good resource. However, the best way to learn is by doing and PSD FanExtra has written a great blog post featuring step-by-step tutorials on how to create everything from an online portfolio to a corporate website.
It can also be a good idea to review lessons 26-30 of 30 Days to Learn HTML and CSS by Tuts+ which teaches you how to splice a Photoshop file and turn it into a live site.
2. Start Learning How To Code (Build)
Mock-ups are great, but it helps to be able to build what you design. The importance of learning how to code has been discussed at length so I’ll be brief. The one thing I will say is that learning just the basics of HTML and CSS can still be helpful. Even with a rudimentary understanding of these languages, you will be able to create simple websites, landing pages, well-structured emails, and more, all of which will come in handy.
3. Understand How To Gather, Analyze, And Share Data (Track)
The ability to gather data, make sense of it, and present it in a way that is easy to understand is a valuable asset in nearly every position. It’s not the most exciting skill, but it will help you track your project’s performance, understand it’s shortcomings, and resolve any issues.
To gather data I recommend learning Google Analytics. It enables you to track an incredible amount of information about who your visitors/customers are, where they are coming from, what they are doing, and how you can increase conversions. It takes some time to master, but Google’s IQ Lessons are a good place to start.
4. Hone Your Real-World Writing Skills (Write)
Writing in the real world is nothing like writing in school. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a thesis statement or topic sentence. Instead, it’s about being as clear, concise and authentic as possible – whether it’s for a presentation, marketing campaign, or e-mail.
To get started, CopyBlogger has a Copywriting 101 series worth taking a look at. There is also this report on concise writing from Penn, a guide to writing magnetic headlines from CopyBlogger, and a course on effective website copywriting from Smashing Magazine.
Yet with writing (like design), the best way to improve is to practice. Everyone knows a great writer. To improve, write something (an e-mail, report, landing page, etc.), get feedback, revise and repeat.
5. Experiment Running Online Advertising Campaigns (Promote)
Every marketing course will cover online advertising, yet few will teach you how to run campaigns. Understanding how to set-up a campaign, measure performance and optimize to increase conversions will help you spread the word about your projects.
Search Engine Land has a PPC Academy to teach you the basics of search engine advertising (it’s from 2010 but it’s still a good starting point). However, it helps to experiment in real accounts – identifying keywords, testing ad copy, and monitoring landing page performance. If you’re a student, Google has an online marketing challenge that allows you to run real campaigns for a business or non-profit organization and get hands-on experience. Even if you are not a student, it has created a digital marketing course that covers the basics.
A traditional undergraduate business education does a great job of teaching you the concepts. However, it lacks classes that show you how to implement these concepts – by building and creating things. Hence, I strongly recommend you take other non-business courses to pick up these skills. The list above is the starting point I wish I had earlier.
One caveat is that this list is based on my personal experiences. If you have other recommendations for skills/classes, I would love to hear them.