How online communities and #tidytuesday took my R skills to the next level

Recently, I’ve been making a more concerted effort in learning R. One of the major hurdles I’ve had to overcome in order to do this was to move from tutorials and to doing more independent work. This can be quite a difficult thing to do, particularly if it isn’t immediately obvious how using R or another programming language can be relevant or beneficial to your work. As a current student who has had very limited coding experience in my current courses and has had to learn coding almost exclusively through self-study, this has been particularly the case.

Once I came across the #tidytuesday hashtag on Twitter and the associated community that participates in this event, doing visualisations without directly following a tutorial become much easier. Having a helpful community as well as a pre-selected source of data to work with each week helped to establish a routine, another key element of establishing a coding practice. As well as having a routine, being able to see experienced R users’ graphs and code and being able to reach out to them for tips has been invaluable in breaking through plateaus I had previously been stuck in.

To date, I’ve only done a couple of visualisations, and relatively simple ones at that. While functional and readable, they’re not overly attractive and appealing. However, having some legible pieces of independent work to show off as the beginning of a portfolio is satisfying as well as a confidence-booster. It’s an indication that I’m going in the right direction and the effort I’ve put into practicing R is yielding results.

There are, of course, many different online communities for all manner of programming languages that one may be interested in learning. With social media and online communities becoming ever more important and ubiquitous for professional development and networking, finding a like-minded community such as that associated with #tidytuesday or #rstats on Twitter may be the step for you to go beyond tutorials and to start working on independent coding tasks and projects.

For those interested, the code to my graph for the Kansas City Chiefs’ total attendance can be found at my GitHub profile.

The Importance of Mentorship

Starting over this year in an entirely new program of study has been a daunting challenge. One of the reasons I have been able to make this unlikely move work so far has been the guidance I’ve received from a variety of mentors, particularly in a professional setting. The support and guidance I’ve received from subject tutors and lecturers have of course been important, as well as having a supportive group of peers to work alongside. The support I have received from professional mentors from a number of organisations as well as within UniSA has been one of the main reasons for my relative success in the transition so far.

Through these opportunities, I have had the chance to experience, however briefly, what life is like in a workplace within my chosen field. Going from freelance writing and tutoring, and before that working retail to these environments is a significant change. Having even a glimpse of these workplaces and being able to discuss with current employees there what is expected of them and how their workday goes has been an invaluable insight. Building a professional network, especially as a student who has no real connections within the IT industry is another important benefit that mentoring confers. Building the first few connections within an industry is very difficult as an outsider, and mentoring is an ideal way of beginning this process and makes building subsequent connections much easier.

In an ideal world, everyone who undertakes tertiary study would receive this level of mentorship. However, scaling this support to accommodate every single student would not be feasible — there are simply too many students and not enough potential mentors to go around. Still, the benefits of 1 on 1 guidance and instruction are invaluable and should be more widely available to students, should they want this.

Mentorship and apprenticeships, or any arrangements which can close the gap between students and the industries that they seek to work in are important. Even informal meetings can be greatly beneficial, as a way to orient a prospective graduate to their target industry and help them identify where their skills and experience stand to the reality of what they need to bring to a job. There are often calls from employers that recent graduates are not equipped with the skills needed to immediately make a positive contribution to their workplaces. Often, the skills taught in university course curricula do not quite match with the reality of what is needed by employers within a particular industry.

Even with the relatively brief period of contact time with industry mentors that I’ve had so far this year, I’ve already been able to identify skill gaps such as particular software programs and coding languages that I need to develop an understanding of before graduating at the end of next year. With plenty of time before then, I’m able to organize my time now and develop these skills well before applying for graduate jobs and potentially gain an advantage in a competitive field of graduates. Being able to do this has also put my mind at ease in terms of where I’m at and that I am on the right path in terms of being adequately prepared to enter full-time work when I graduate in just over a year.

Working Hard, or Working Smart?

In this blog series so far, I’ve talked a lot about transitioning from studying education to IT and some of the challenges and difficulties that have arisen. Much of what I’ve spoken about has been the hard work it has taken to learn new skills and acclimatize to a new way of doing things.
However, there was something I encountered recently on Twitter that gave me pause as to how I approach challenges in my life such as my studies.

Chenoe makes a valid and important point in her tweet. While hard work is important to achieving goals, it is not always the most important factor in achievement and getting ahead. In fact, it can be counter-productive after a point. At several points this year, I have worked to the point of feeling burnt out and being completely unproductive for days at a time as a result of ‘doubling down’ and trying to work beyond a reasonable point. As a person who derives a lot of my self-esteem from professional and intellectual success, coming to terms with this fact of life has been very tough and is an ongoing process.

Networking, especially in white-collar professions is increasingly critical to career success. We’ve all heard the adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. With tertiary degrees becoming more commonplace in the workforce, it takes something extra to stand out. This is particularly difficult for a shy and introverted person such as myself to come to terms with. In an ideal world, the hours and hours I put into my studies, my blogging, extra-curricular work on online courses such as DataCamp polishing my coding skills would be sufficient. However, while this is entirely necessary to do, it’s not quite enough.

On the other hand, it’s also a liberating thing to hear, in a way. With more emphasis being placed on networking and socializing, it’s not always necessary to know every little thing about a topic before applying for a job, an internship or other professional opportunities. Hearing stories of other peoples’ professional struggles and triumphs and realizing domain knowledge is not the be-all-end-all is relieving to know.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve faced this year has been to put myself in uncomfortable situations related to professional networking and mentorship. Entering a room of strangers and striking up a conversation on topics related to information technology, as a newcomer surrounded by experienced professionals, has been a nerve-wracking experience on the occasions I’ve had to do so. However, it’s also been a massively beneficial exercise. Additionally, spending an evening here and there at these events have resulted in a huge gain in terms of experience, confidence and knowledge of the industry. Compared to the many nights spent on assignments, tests and exams of varying relevance and interest, these networking experiences in retrospect look far more favourable and enticing to attend.

All of this is not to dismiss the importance of study and of consistent, mindful and applied effort toward learning. Even the most charismatic and engaging person, without knowledge and ability to back themselves up, will quickly falter in a professional setting. What I am arguing, however, is that being smart and strategic with my time, not just spending every waking hour on IT-related work frantically trying to learn everything as quickly as possible has been the route to my successes thus far this year.