How You Can Get The Most In-Demand Job Skills for Free

Can a few free online courses really put you on a solid career path?

Colleges consider making computer science mandatory for graduation.
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Web developers are in high demand, and a host of websites now teach huge audiences some of the profession's most in-demand skills for free. And some in the web development community aren't happy about it.

What's not to like about learning or sharing a free skill set without spending a dime? W3schools, for example, boasts 19 million pageviews per month and calls itself "the largest web developers site on the Internet."

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But all that free coding comes with a caveat. Some of the loudest complaints surrounding the movement argue that it sends a misguided message that web development knowledge is a necessity. In around two months this year, Codeacademy signed up over 400,000 eager pupils for its CodeYear program, one of them being New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"If the mayor of New York City actually needs to sling JavaScript code to do his job, something is deeply, horribly, terribly wrong with politics in the state of New York," wrote software developer Jeff Atwood in a blog post this month titled "Please Don't Learn to Code."

That post was circulated widely, appearing on Gizmodo. "I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing," he wrote.

At w3fools.com, a community of web designers and developers have penned a screed against W3schools, condemning the utility of a w3schools education, not to mention errors in some of its lessons.

"W3Schools offers certifications whose value is highly debateable … No employers recognize or respect W3Schools certificates. Unlike Microsoft's MCP or Cisco's CCC [two certification programs], W3Schools has absolutely no authority over the technologies for which they claim to provide certification," they write.

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So maybe dentists and letter carriers don't need to learn HTML. And if they did, they might learn sloppy methods from certain sites. But without a doubt, one potential motivator for many people visiting the sites is to learn in-demand skills.

According to Wanted Analytics, which analyzes millions of job postings per month from job sites, job boards, and corporate websites, 16 of the 17 most-wanted skills in those postings are computer skills. And while four of those 17 are related to Microsoft Office, a vast majority involve coding and programming languages, like JavaScript, SQL, HTML, and CSS.

Knowing those skills can be a major boon in the job market, says Amanda Steinberg, CEO and founder of DailyWorth, an online community of women who discuss money. Steinberg started teaching herself basic coding late in her college career.

"For me, what it's meant is total and endless job security and income streams as I've kind of ebbed and flowed in various careers," she says. "If there's a qualified developer on the market, chances are that he or she has more work than he or she knows what to do with."

"I got an E-mail from a user this week saying that they got a front-end development job because of the things they learned on Codeacademy," says Zach Sims, cofounder of Codeacademy.

And then there are the uber-success stories. Watching self-taught programmers like Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom get wealthy off of their apps is enough to send any discouraged jobseeker out for an HTML for Dummies book. Sims points out that the current cultural atmosphere is one in which "learning to program and building something that people want can lead to a business that's worth $100 billion. So what I think we're starting to see people's recognition of how powerful it is to be able to program and control the world around you."

But as far as career strategies go, taking a free online course and banking on a multi-million-dollar payoff runs anywhere from unfathomably risky to plain stupid. And the amount that a person can learn in a few online courses pales in comparison to the breadth and depth of knowledge that some of the most in-demand programmers have.

"If you're building the next transaction layer for PayPal, then you need to have a computer science degree," says Steinberg. "If you're putting up a basic blog for your new nursing website, then, no, it doesn't matter."



Corrected on 06/01/12: An earlier version of this article reflected incorrect capitalization in the name of Codeacademy.