Street Smart Chicago

Untangling the Web: Learning to Speak Geek

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By David Wicik

As a millennial and the holder of an upper-five-figure student-loan debt, unemployment is no casual matter.  Coming out of school during what has widely been touted as the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression, competition for the kind of career-track positions that the college-grad has been taught to expect is fierce.

So what is a young, would-be urban professional to do if they ever want to move out of their parent’s house?  As a man once said, if you can’t beat them, join them; and right now, they are all online. Web design and web development are not just the growth areas of the last decade, but also major growth areas for the foreseeable future.

Opportunities abound for the technologically literate as mobile computing and social media continue to integrate into the everyday experience of the American consumer. Whether it’s a tech startup, or a local business looking to foster a relationship with its market, a capability to work with the programming languages that underwrite online interchanges makes an individual more attractive to a broad array of potential employers.

I contacted Abby Hunt, head of public relations at GrubHub to get some more information about how a novice could best go about acquiring these skills and what specific areas of expertise the tech sector is seeking.

So where do I start?
Hunt offers a number of excellent recommendations for where you might look to get a start. To begin with, codecademy.com is a free online tutorial resource which can quick-start your web-development ambitions.  You might not even need a computer-science degree since, as Hunt avers, “a place like Codecademy has such a good reputation, that you can put down [on a resume] that you’ve had so many classes and people will understand exactly what kind of education you’ve had.”

Other suggestions of this ilk include teamtreehouse.com, which structures its learning of computer coding in discrete projects, lynda.com and Starter League, which offers eleven-week courses online. Hunt also suggests Chicagoans check out Built in Chicago, a startup incubator which hosts a robust lineup of workshops—a great place to learn and network.

Are there any specific areas of web development I should look into?
Definitely!  According to Hunt, learning to work with languages like Java, Python and especially SQL are really valuable right now as data analysis is such a big part of tech companies’ work loads. As Hunt explains, “at many companies, there are a lot of disjointed data sets and you’re going to need some kind of coding language background to compare these data sets and offer insights to the company. That’s an extremely hard skill set to find.”

Another area Hunt highlights is user experience and user interface (abbreviated UX and UI), designing and evaluating the user’s online experience.  According to Hunt, UX and UI “is going to continue to play an incredibly important role for companies who are developing technology. Understanding what users or consumers are looking for, and how to do that back-end research and how to then communicate that to the tech team is a very valuable tool to have.”

But I’m an English major; I don’t want to analyze data sets. Why should I care about programming for the internet?
If you’re a creative individual looking for a job in corporate America, chances are you’re going to be put to work (if you’re lucky) designing content which is intended to help sell a product or brand. And since this is 2013 and not 1963, chances are good that that content will be distributed on the internet. So knowing something about the basic structure of that distribution venue can be very valuable to employers.  Even with “PR and communications,” adds Hunt, “I think, a lot of social-media blogging requires base-level HTML knowledge or knowing a little bit about CSS, cascading style sheets, to help develop these content tools that companies are using to share their brand stories.”

And if you are a Chicagoan, now is an excellent time to learn these technologies because, Hunt concludes, “the number of tech companies that have open positions in Chicago is growing at an exponential rate.”

So for your next job interview, wouldn’t it be great if you could speak a little geek?

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