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Jun 7, 2023

10 essential skills for self-taught developers

Alex Maher

10 Essential Skills for Self-Taught Developers

I’d like to take you on a journey back in time, precisely 15 years ago, when my journey into software development began. As a younger me, armed with nothing but curiosity, I was introduced to the html and css.

In the beginning, it was all about figuring out the basics. HTML websites were my training ground. Then came PHP, followed by JavaScript. Every new language was like a puzzle. This wasn’t a walk in the park — every line of code, every bug was a battle fought and won.

What made this journey bearable, and indeed enjoyable, were the fellow travellers I met along the way — the coding community. I became a frequent visitor to coding forums, a place teeming with others who shared my passion and were always ready to lend a helping hand.

The thrill of it all was in the exploration. Each day brought a new challenge, a new piece of code to try, or an innovative idea that sprang up overnight. I remember particularly enjoying creating game bots when I learned C#.

But remember, it wasn’t just about hard work and perseverance. Fun was an integral part of the journey. After all, when you enjoy what you do, learning becomes not a chore, but a pleasure. So here I am, ready to share the essential skills I’ve picked up along my 15-year journey as a self-taught developer.

Skill 1: Self-Discipline and Motivation

The first skill I’d like to talk about might not sound particularly technical or flashy, but trust me, it’s the bedrock upon which all other skills rest — Self-Discipline and Motivation.

Let’s face it; the path of a self-taught developer is not easy. There are no teachers to guide you, no deadlines to adhere to, and no grades to measure your progress. Your progress is in your own hands, determined solely by the amount of time and effort you’re willing to put in. That’s where self-discipline steps in.

Self-discipline is the ability to buckle down and stay focused on your goal, even when distractions are aplenty, and progress seems slow. It’s about setting a schedule for yourself, sticking to it, and continually pushing yourself to learn and improve, even when things get tough.

Then comes motivation, the fuel that powers your journey. In my case, it was the curiosity and the thrill of creating something from scratch that kept me going. What drives you? Is it the prospect of building something cool, solving complex problems, or perhaps the aspiration to land a job in tech? Identify your motivation, hold onto it, and let it propel you forward on those days when self-doubt creeps in or when the code just won’t cooperate.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Set clear goals: Having clear goals can give your learning direction and make it easier to stay disciplined. These could be short-term goals, like learning a new programming concept each week, or long-term ones, like building a complete web application.
  2. Establish a routine: Make coding a part of your daily routine. This can help turn learning into a habit, making it easier to stay disciplined even when motivation is low.
  3. Break tasks down: Large tasks can seem daunting and may cause procrastination. Breaking them down into smaller, manageable tasks can make it easier to get started and maintain progress.
  4. Reward yourself: Rewarding yourself when you reach your goals can be a great motivator. This could be anything from taking a break to treat yourself to something you enjoy.

Resources for Learning

Ideas to Stay Motivated

  1. Celebrate small wins: Every bit of progress is a step closer to your goal. Celebrating small wins can help maintain motivation throughout your learning journey.
  2. Find a coding buddy: Learning with a friend can make the process more enjoyable and provide mutual motivation.
  3. Keep the big picture in mind: Remember why you started learning coding in the first place. Whether it’s to build your own app, get a better job, or simply for the joy of learning something new — reminding yourself of your ultimate goal can help keep the motivation alive.

Skill 2: Problem Solving

The world of coding is all about problem-solving. Picture this: you’re a detective, and every line of code is a clue. Your mission? Crack the case.

Being a self-taught developer is all about tackling problems head-on, turning the unknown into the known. It’s not just about finding a solution, but the best solution — one that’s not necessarily the quickest or the easiest, but the most effective.

But how do you get there? Practice. Break down complex problems, dig into the details, make mistakes, and learn from them. This is your training ground. Over time, you’ll start to see patterns, develop strategies, and learn to think out of the box.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Understand the problem: It’s essential to fully understand the problem before you start thinking about solutions. Take the time to analyze it and break it down.
  2. Devise a plan: Once you understand the problem, devise a step-by-step plan on how to approach it. This can be as detailed as necessary.
  3. Start small and build up: If the problem is complex, don’t be afraid to solve a smaller, simpler version of it first. This can help you understand the bigger picture.
  4. Debug effectively: Debugging is an essential part of problem-solving. Learn how to use the debugging tools available to you and make them a part of your problem-solving toolkit.

Resources for Learning

  • Coursera — Learning How to Solve Problems: A comprehensive course designed to help you develop your problem-solving skills.
  • CodeSignal: A platform for learning and practicing problem-solving through coding challenges.
  • Project Euler: A series of challenging mathematical/computer programming problems that will require more than just mathematical insights to solve.

Skill 3: Technical Proficiency

We’ve talked about self-discipline, motivation, and problem-solving. Now, let’s get to the meat of the matter: Technical Proficiency.

When you hear “self-taught developer”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably writing code, right? That’s where technical proficiency comes into play. This is the skill that translates your creative ideas into a working piece of software.

Technical proficiency is about mastering the languages, tools, and technologies that are at the core of web development. This starts with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, the fundamental building blocks of any website. But it doesn’t stop there. You’ve got backend languages like PHP, Python or Ruby to consider, database technologies like SQL and MongoDB, and don’t forget about version control systems like Git!

Becoming technically proficient is a continual process. The tech landscape is ever-changing, with new languages, frameworks, and tools popping up all the time. As a self-taught developer, it’s crucial to keep your finger on the pulse of these changes and continually update and upgrade your skills.

Remember, technical proficiency isn’t just about learning the syntax of a language or how to use a tool. It’s about understanding the principles that underlie them, so you can apply your knowledge to new technologies as they emerge. It’s about becoming versatile and adaptable, ready to take on whatever new challenge comes your way.

Tips and Tricks

  • Start with basics: For beginners, it’s usually best to start with a fundamental language like Python or JavaScript. They are relatively easier to grasp and have a broad scope of use.
  • Practical learning: The best way to learn a new language or tool is by doing. Work on mini-projects or tasks that require you to use and understand the new language or tool.
  • Stay updated: The tech world evolves rapidly. It’s important to keep up with the latest trends, languages, and tools. Regularly visit tech blogs, forums, and websites.

Resources for Learning

  • Codecademy: A popular platform that offers interactive coding lessons in various languages and tools.
  • FreeCodeCamp: A nonprofit community that helps you learn to code by building projects.
  • Mozilla Developer Network (MDN): An invaluable resource for documentation on web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Skill 4: Ability to Learn Quickly

Picture this: you’re in a race, not against other developers, but against time and change.

New programming languages are born, innovative tools emerge, and before you know it, yesterday’s breakthroughs are today’s basics. In such a whirlwind, the ability to quickly absorb, understand, and apply new information is a lifeline.

But learning quickly isn’t a mad dash. It’s strategic. It’s about knowing your learning style — do you prefer reading, video tutorials, or hands-on projects? Then it’s about active learning — applying what you learn, diving into the code, debugging, and learning from each line.

Being a self-taught developer means you are your own teacher, making this skill all the more crucial. You pick up a new language, explore a new tool, grasp a new concept. And you do it quickly and efficiently.

Remember, learning quickly doesn’t mean cramming. It’s about focus and depth. Understand one thing thoroughly before moving to the next. In the tech world, quick learning is your superpower. It keeps you ahead, sharp, and ready for whatever comes next.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Active Learning: Don’t just read or watch tutorials. Get hands-on, build projects, and apply what you’re learning. Active learning is one of the best ways to grasp concepts quickly and deeply.
  2. Break it down: When learning a new concept, break it down into smaller, manageable parts. It makes the learning process less overwhelming and promotes better understanding.
  3. Teach What You Learn: This is an effective way to consolidate your knowledge. By teaching what you’ve learned, you’re reinforcing the concepts in your mind.
  4. Take Breaks: Studies have shown that taking regular breaks can improve productivity and boost your ability to focus, helping you learn faster.

Resources for Learning

Skill 5: Communication Skills

Let’s move on to an often overlooked, yet incredibly crucial skill in the world of self-taught development — Communication Skills.

If you’re picturing a developer as a lone wolf, silently crafting code in a dimly lit room, think again. In reality, developers are part of a larger ecosystem. They collaborate with other developers, liaise with clients, report to managers, and sometimes even interact with users.

Effective communication is key in each of these interactions. It’s about being able to articulate your ideas clearly, explain complex technical concepts in a straightforward manner, and understand what others are communicating. It also involves active listening, being open to feedback, and showing empathy.

Good communication skills are especially important for self-taught developers. When you’re learning on your own, you rely heavily on the online community for help and support. Being able to clearly articulate your queries, problems, or ideas can make the difference between getting the help you need and getting lost in the crowd.

But it’s not just about verbal or written communication. As a developer, a significant portion of your communication happens through your code. Writing clean, readable code with proper comments and documentation is a form of communication in itself, and it’s a skill that’s highly valued in the industry.

Remember, your technical skills might get you the job, but your communication skills will determine how far you go in it.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Be Clear and Concise: When communicating, especially in a technical setting, ensure your message is easy to understand. Avoid unnecessary jargon and provide sufficient context.
  2. Active Listening: Effective communication is not just about speaking but also about listening. Understanding others’ perspectives and acknowledging their ideas encourages a more productive conversation.
  3. Written Communication: Be it documentation, emails, or chat messages, clear written communication is vital. Ensure your writing is structured, precise, and free of errors.
  4. Practice Public Speaking: Presenting your ideas confidently in meetings or conferences is a valuable skill. Practice public speaking to enhance your presentation skills and boost your confidence.

Resources for Learning

Skill 6: Creativity and Innovation

Coding isn’t just about understanding syntax or memorizing commands. At its core, it’s about problem-solving, designing solutions, and innovating. This is where creativity shines. It’s about seeing beyond the conventional, thinking outside the box, and bringing fresh, innovative ideas to the table.

Self-taught developers often find themselves working on personal projects or tackling real-world problems. These scenarios require more than just technical knowledge. They require creativity and innovation — the ability to come up with unique solutions, design user-friendly interfaces, or create compelling user experiences.

Furthermore, being creative also means being adaptable. In the ever-changing landscape of technology, new tools and techniques are constantly emerging. A creative developer is open to these changes, ready to learn and adapt, and able to integrate new ideas into their work.

Remember, as a self-taught developer, your creativity sets you apart. It’s what makes your code more than just a set of instructions. It makes it a work of art, a testament to your ability to innovate and think differently.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Challenge Conventions: The best innovators aren’t afraid to question the status quo. If a traditional method doesn’t seem efficient, dare to find a better way.
  2. Stay Curious: Cultivate a natural curiosity about technology. Explore different fields, read about the latest trends, and always keep asking “what if”.
  3. Embrace Failure: Not every idea will work, and that’s okay. Every failure is a learning opportunity that can lead to even better innovations.
  4. Collaborate: Creativity often thrives in a collaborative environment. Brainstorm with your peers, share ideas, and get diverse perspectives.

Resources for Learning

Skill 7: Project Management

Shifting gears a bit, our next essential skill brings us to the business side of things: Project Management.

Project management isn’t just for managers or team leads. As a self-taught developer, you’ll often find yourself working on personal projects or freelance gigs. In such scenarios, you’re not just the developer; you’re also the project manager.

Project management is about planning, organizing, and overseeing projects to ensure they are completed in a timely fashion and within budget. It involves setting goals, defining scope, allocating resources, managing risks, and monitoring progress.

This skill is particularly important when you’re working on larger projects or collaborating with others. Good project management can mean the difference between a project that’s delivered on time and one that spirals out of control.

How can you build this skill? Start small. Use project management techniques in your personal projects. Set clear objectives, break down tasks, estimate timelines, and monitor your progress. There are plenty of project management tools available that can help you with this.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Plan and Organize: Before diving into a project, take time to plan. Define goals, break down tasks, and set timelines. An organized approach helps avoid roadblocks down the line.
  2. Manage Time Effectively: Effective time management is crucial for a successful project. Prioritize tasks based on their importance and deadlines.
  3. Communicate Regularly: Regular updates and open communication foster a collaborative and productive environment.
  4. Handle Risk: Every project comes with risks. The key is to identify potential issues early and develop strategies to mitigate them.

Resources for Learning

Skill 8: Debugging Skills

As a self-taught developer, you’ve probably had your fair share of encounters with bugs. An elusive syntax error, a logical mishap, or a mysterious performance issue can turn a straightforward coding task into a time-consuming challenge. That’s where debugging skills come into play.

Debugging is the process of identifying, diagnosing, and resolving issues in your code. It’s an integral part of the coding process. In fact, a lot of a developer’s time is spent debugging code rather than writing it.

But why is debugging considered a separate skill? Isn’t it just part of coding? Well, debugging requires a distinct set of skills. It involves analytical thinking, patience, and a keen eye for detail. It’s about understanding the flow of your code, predicting its behavior, and identifying where things go wrong.

Good debugging skills are particularly important for self-taught developers. Without a mentor or a teacher to turn to, you’re often on your own when it comes to fixing bugs. You need to be able to read error messages, use debugging tools, and understand the inner workings of your code to resolve issues.

Remember, a bug-free code isn’t just about a flawless product. It’s about a smoother user experience, a more maintainable codebase, and a more reliable application. So, don’t let the bugs get you down. Embrace them. Learn from them. And use your debugging skills to squash them and move forward.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Understand the Problem: Before you can fix an error, you need to understand what’s going wrong. Take the time to reproduce the bug and study its behavior.
  2. Break it Down: If you’re faced with a complex problem, break it down into smaller parts. It’s easier to handle one small issue at a time.
  3. Use Debugging Tools: Most programming environments come with debugging tools. Use them to step through your code and examine the state of your program.
  4. Keep Calm: Debugging can be frustrating. Take breaks, stay patient, and approach the problem with a clear mind.

Personal Advice

  • Keep practicing. The more you debug, the better you’ll get at it. Make it a habit to thoroughly test your code and hunt down bugs regularly.
  • Don’t shy away from difficult bugs. They might take time to solve, but they offer valuable learning experiences.
  • Learn to read and understand error messages. They often point you in the right direction.

Resources for Learning

Skill 9: Understanding Version Control

Version control, in simple terms, is a system that records changes to a file or set of files over time so that you can recall specific versions later. In the world of programming, it’s an absolute necessity.

Why so? Imagine you’re working on a complex project. You make changes, add features, fix bugs, and then — whoops! You realize that a recent change has broken something. Without version control, you’d be stuck trying to remember what you changed or, worse, redoing your entire work. With version control, you can simply revert to a previous version.

And it’s not just about avoiding disaster. Version control systems like Git allow for collaboration, making it possible for multiple developers to work on a project simultaneously without stepping on each other’s toes. It keeps your codebase organized, your changes tracked, and your sanity intact.

For a self-taught developer, understanding version control is crucial. It allows you to learn from your mistakes, keep track of your progress, and collaborate with others. It also happens to be a skill highly valued by employers.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Consistent Commits: Commit your changes regularly and write clear, informative commit messages. It helps you and others understand the development process.
  2. Branching and Merging: Utilize branches for developing new features or testing. Merge them back into the main branch once you’re done.
  3. Backup: Version control is also your safety net. Make sure to push your changes to a remote repository for backup.
  4. Learn Git: Git is the most widely used version control system. Understanding Git will be beneficial for any programming project.

Resources for Learning

Skill 10: Networking

Networking is the act of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts. It might seem unrelated to coding, but networking is crucial in the journey of a self-taught developer.

Why, you ask? First off, networking can be an invaluable source of knowledge and inspiration. Interacting with other developers, participating in online forums, or joining coding groups can expose you to new ideas, different perspectives, and helpful advice.

Second, networking can provide support. Being a self-taught developer can sometimes feel like a lonely journey. Having a network of like-minded individuals can provide encouragement, answer queries, and give you a sense of community.

Finally, networking can open doors. It can lead to job opportunities, collaborations, or freelance gigs. In a competitive field like development, having the right connections can make a big difference.

So how can you start networking? Participate in online coding forums, attend tech meetups or webinars, contribute to open-source projects, or simply start a coding project with a friend.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Attend Events: Participate in meetups, conferences, and hackathons. They are fantastic places to meet like-minded individuals.
  2. Join Online Communities: There are numerous online communities where you can ask questions, share your knowledge, and connect with other developers.
  3. Follow Influencers: Follow industry leaders on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. It’s a great way to stay updated on trends and gain insights from experts.
  4. Connect and Collaborate: Don’t just network for the sake of networking. Aim to build meaningful connections and collaborate on projects or learning.

Resources for Networking

  • Meetup: A platform where you can find and join groups of people with similar interests, including programming and tech meetups.
  • Stack Overflow: An online community for developers to learn, share their knowledge, and build their careers.
  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn is an excellent platform for professional networking. You can connect with fellow developers, join groups, and participate in discussions.


  1. What is the first language a self-taught developer should learn? It depends on what you’re aiming for. Python and JavaScript are popular choices for beginners due to their simplicity and versatility.
  2. How long does it take to become a self-taught developer? It varies depending on the individual’s dedication, time commitment, and the complexity of the skillset they’re aiming for.
  3. Do self-taught developers need a degree in Computer Science? Not necessarily. While a degree can be beneficial, many successful developers are self-taught and do not have a Computer Science degree.
  4. How to stay motivated as a self-taught developer? Set small, achievable goals, celebrate your wins, participate in coding challenges, and be a part of developer communities.
  5. Can a self-taught developer get a job? Absolutely. Many companies value skills, portfolio, and problem-solving abilities over formal education.

As we draw to a close, it’s worth emphasizing that these essential skills for self-taught developers are not simply acquired and then left to gather dust. They are continually honed, refined, and adapted to the ever-evolving landscape of technology and programming.

My journey of self-learning, which began 15 years ago, is a testament to the fact that this process is both challenging and immensely rewarding. The obstacles you face, the bugs you debug, the code you write, and the networks you build all contribute to shaping you into a well-rounded developer.

Remember, becoming a self-taught developer isn’t about a sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s about having a constant appetite for knowledge, the drive to solve problems, and the audacity to continue learning. Each of these ten skills, from self-discipline to networking, serves as a pillar to support and guide you on this incredible journey.

• • •

Thank you for reading!

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