3 min read
29 May

I think that saying (about old dogs and new tricks) is untrue, at least I hope it is because I’ve got two big learning projects on the go right now, one professional and the other much scarier:

I’ve chosen to explore R and Python as continued professional development (CPD) this year, taking some time out between contracts for an intensive sprint before seeking more paid work. R was only in beta when I started as a trainee analyst and I was in management roles when it was first beginning to be experimented with in agency teams. Python is older, but only more recently (I believe) being used in my field. As new people enter the industry with experience in both it makes sense for their use to become more widespread. As a hands-on contractor I must adapt to these changes or miss out on great opportunities.

Apart from dabbling in a bit of Excel VBA I’ve not done a great deal of coding or programming. But by now I know how I learn best - visually, by doing and with context. Having explored many options I chose to subscribe to DataCamp. Teaching is modular, by video and progress through courses is assessed by correctly completing practice code. To encourage frequent use there is a bit of gamification in the ‘daily streaks’, ‘daily challenges’ and ‘XP.’ As a Candy Crush addict I’m a sucker for these features...but it’s working! There’s a long way to go before it is worth me attempting the practice Projects, but I am finding that because I am familiar with many of the concepts my early progress at least is fairly swift. Except with loops, I’m stuck on (in?!) loops.

I’ve questioned whether I need to broaden my skills in this way because I’ve been contracting for two years now and always got work when I wanted it, despite not being au fait with these relatively new tools (in my industry.) I also like to say ‘I’m old school, I’m not a coder’ so I’ll miss that a little bit - although that day is a long way off yet. So why did I do it?

Now that I am in a position where I can be selective about the engagements I take, I’d hate to have to turn down a really interesting gig just on the grounds of not being familiar with a technology. I believe strongly that it should be the 20 years analytical experience that I have in the industry that is my main selling point, not the tool I use to run an analysis. Nevertheless, countless role advertisements continue to list technologies as ‘required experience’ so I’ll play the tools game if it broadens my horizons. 

I’ve also got the longer term in mind and learning to use freeware like R opens up possibilities for me to work with clients who do not have access to analytical software, without me having to invest in expensive licensing options. Other benefits that I have thought of (aside from the joyful pleasure of simply ‘playing with data’) are: offering data processing as a service; bidding for stand alone data processing gigs; automating my own business processes; or automating someone else’s. I love an efficient process. Can you think of any others I’ve missed?

My last big learning exercise was a Psychology degree that I completed part-time while working full-time between 2007-2013. I’d forgotten how much I value the sense of accomplishment that accompanies learning and it’s great to have that feeling back. Particularly as a freelancer, where I’m employed for my expertise. I’m hired to do something that I already know how to do well, so although the work is very interesting and also challenging - also exercising my brain, it doesn’t produce quite the same kind of satisfaction. I can foresee already that when my paid work starts to incorporate coding, I will probably need to find something else new to learn! I still can’t drive...

But it turns out I can ride a bike, proven today, in fact - when I picked up the first bike that I have ever bought - from Halfords. My husband and I had always talked about getting bikes when we moved to Nottinghamshire. We live in a market town that is surrounded by villages and countryside so it’s a no-brainer really. The problem was my track record wasn’t great, leading to an extreme lack of confidence on my part. You know when you’re a kid and get told not to do something? I was told to never pull both brakes together hard. An analyst from an early age, of course, I did - downhill. The bike stopped suddenly, I didn’t - and went over the handlebars. No serious physical harm, although I spend that school summer holiday with grazed skin from forehead to chin which didn’t help my street cred. And obviously no helmet back in those days.

The only time I ventured on a bike as an adult before today was to cycle to a turtle sanctuary in Mexico in a group. Well, sort of a group, I was at one point so far behind everyone else, I considered leaving the bike and running to catch up. I *hate* running. But it’s amazing what a difference the right advice can make. I’ve got the correct bike for the type of riding we’ll do and have been fitted properly to it, also kitted out with a decent helmet (just in case!) Our first proper spin today was about 8 miles, and I know already that I’m going to be reminded of that by my knees and rear tomorrow, but it feels great. The husband was suitably impressed and even left his supervisory position behind to ride alongside. He needed to change gear to keep up with me at one point. The problem is once I am confident I can be an adrenaline junkie and a little demon for speed. When it’s relatively safe, off-road conditions, of course. I need to keep reminding myself that am 41 and not 14.

So, based on my recent learning experiences, I think that you can teach an old dog new tricks after all. What are you going to (re-)learn to do next? I highly recommend it.

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