Mash's Musings

More technical is better than less.

Published Aug. 9, 2021

More technical is better than less. Master the tools you use everyday.

For most people, the idea of developing technical skills fills them with a sense of dread. As a new grad with no practical hard skills, I honestly had no sense of what value I could offer. Up until a few years ago, the thought of a terminal would immediately fill me with a sense of panic that I'd break something, terminals were for "hackers" and I certainly was not a 1337 h4x0r. But having dispelled a lot of those fears, my advice now is to lean into developing technical skills when possible. After all, if you're using a tool for 8 hours or more a day, you want to make sure you get the most out of it. In today's age, there is almost no upper limit to how many times more effective you can be by developing these skills.

Start by diving deeper into the tools you use everyday. If you're in consulting, learn everything you can about PowerPoint, understand how a pro would use the tool. If you're in finance, become a true expert in Excel. How does a pivot table really work? How should you be structuring your data knowing that? You might already be able to accomplish what you need to do day-to-day but after you finish some task, at least mentally challenge yourself to do it in half the time, or at least half the keystrokes. Learning new skills like how to train a neural net for the sake of it can be fun and temporarily motivating but the skills quickly disappear without a good use. Gaining mastery of your existing tools on the other hand turns you into an everyday superhero and lays the foundation for future learnings[0]. You'll know you're on the right track if you find yourself cringing at your past work.

When trying to learn more typical coding skills, apply a similar pattern: start by automating things you are already doing to make things less of a grind. If you're on macOS, open up Terminal and start learning the basics of Unix/bash, if you're on Windows, start with PowerShell. While moving files, creating directories, and renaming things doesn't sound sexy, these are the basics that you will actually benefit from while learning.

At some point, you may realize that getting more technical stops being interesting and feels like a bad use of time; perhaps you want to go into management or more business-focused. Just be aware that there is an asymmetry: it will be a lot easier to go less technical than it will be to go more technical, a fact which I can personally attest to. Having a bias, however small, towards going more technical will help you avoid getting the point where you can no longer really "do" and can only manage. As long as you focus on what's useful to you, the investment will pay off long into the future. "Computers are the bicycle of the mind," as Steve Jobs famously said, so time to get riding.

[0] I still attribute PowerPoint's Slide Master to shaping my understanding of abstractions and inheritance in Object Oriented Programming.