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How students can gain IT skills in their spare time

Extracurricular activities that will develop your IT skills

Getting skilled in a way that IT employers like doesn’t have to be a chore. Here's how to make tech your hobby at university and gain valuable experience in the process.
You can start a new activity at any point and in any year of your degree.

Even if you’re studying an IT-related subject, your degree won’t give you all the skills you need to secure a graduate IT job, but the good news is that there are ways to develop the skills in your spare time and in a way that you enjoy. Take a look at the following ideas and remember that you can start these activities at any point in any year of your degree – although the summer holidays or the start of the academic year can be particularly good times to start or join something new.

1. Join a tech community

Tech communities are about meeting other people interested in technology, either online or in person, to share knowledge – usually to do with software development. And where better to learn the skills of a developer than through people who have experience and want to share it?

Examples of tech communities you could join include GitHub (a website for storing your projects and connecting with likeminded individuals), Stack Overflow (a forum for programmers) and you could attend hackathons (events where people come together at a venue to solve technology problems, often in teams).

Many of these groups are actively welcoming to newcomers so don’t be shy about giving something a go. Joining a tech community can give you new knowledge and skills, help you brush up your ability to network and give you confidence at communicating and sharing your ideas.

2. Learn a new programming language

Teaching yourself a skill, such as a programming language, shows that you can motivate yourself and won’t need your boss to do that for you. Not sure which one to learn? You could research the employers you are interested in to find out what languages they expects their graduates to know.

There are loads of free online resources and tutorials as well as open-source software that you can download and play about with. If you are coming from a non-technical background and simply want to learn to code, you could use sites such as Coursera to develop a few skills. Coursera will then allow you to add information about finished courses directly to LinkedIn, enhancing your profile in the eyes of potential employers.

Once you’ve mastered a new programming language, cement your new skills by finding yourself a project to apply it to. See some of the other ideas in this article for inspiration.

Look at sports clubs, groups and societies you already belong to and see if they have any processes or databases you could improve.

3. Volunteer one of two ways

Volunteering can be a great way to practise explaining technical things to people with little or no technical knowledge – something you will need to do with ease in many IT jobs. One way is to volunteer with a tech initiative, which is an organisation or project set up to benefit people through some kind of technology learning. Examples include teaching children to code in schools and schemes that buddy you up with an older person to help them accomplish an IT goal such as sending an email or making a spreadsheet. If your university has a volunteering centre, they may be aware of initiatives you could investigate. Code Club and Coder Dojo are a couple of examples.

If you can’t find a tech initiative, you will develop many of the same transferable skills by volunteering independently. Perhaps you have a ready-made contact, such as a grandparent or elderly neighbour, who you could spend an hour a fortnight with, teaching them how to use their new smartphone, for example.

4. Apply technology to an existing hobby

Think ahead to your final year, when you’ll face application form or interview questions such as ‘Give me an example of a time when you used your initiative to solve a problem’, or ‘Tell us about a situation in which you made improvements to a product or service’. You’ll need a bank of experiences worth talking about and finding a project that allows you to use your technical skills is ideal. You could look at sports clubs, groups and societies you already belong to and see if they have any processes or databases you could improve through creating a new one, or a website that you could revamp to improve user experience.

5. Enter technology competitions

Innovation and problem solving are fundamental to the technology sector, and in recent years we have seen the emergence of a few tech-related competitions that give university students the chance to do just that, as well as developing other technical and soft skills such as teamwork.

The Cisco Switch Up Challenge is a prime example of this. The competition tasks teams of students with devising an innovative mechanism that can tackle a social or environmental issue by using the Internet of Things. In previous years the teams have competed for the prize of a week-long trip to Cisco’s global headquarters in San Jose, California.

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