I was born and raised in the Czech Republic. Back in 2001, every young man, once he turned 18, was required to enlist in the military and go through one year of training. Military duty is no longer mandatory there, but, for better or worse, I was born early enough to be in one of the last waves of recruits. Enlisting in the military wasn’t exactly my ideal vision of how I intended to spend a year of my life after graduating from high school. But looking at the experience in hindsight, that year was really formative for me, in shaping who I was to become and what I’m able to do today.
You can do it without a college degree
I frequently hear people say that getting promoted by acquiring a new skill that you’ve learned on your own and at your own pace, is a textbook case of being overly idealistic and even a departure from reality. Their reasoning usually goes along the lines of: Becoming good enough in programming takes many years of hard work; so I can’t get promoted to a well paid programming job unless I have a degree in computer science or spend years of time, effort and cost, learning the craft on my own. While it’s true that having years of experience in software development, even if its just as a hobby, can make the transition to a technical job easier, it surely isn’t the only path to get there. The key to success doesn’t have to necessarily be the possession of a vast and deep knowledge of programming. Instead, it could be something as simple as knowing a little bit of coding that’s relevant to your current job and leveraging that know-how to streamline or optimize some aspect of your daily work.
This is exactly what I did by learning some very basic skills in just a few days, which I was then able to apply to my work in a new way. That little bit of initiative to stretch outside of my comfort zone paid off dramatically, as I was promoted almost the next day to a new position that was much more satisfying than what I had been doing. Here’s how I did it, and you can too:
How it started for me
Just like virtually everyone else, I started my service with classical military training, learning about different weaponry, how to use it, how to dig myself a trench, and so on and so forth. Just imagine any movie where the recruits are sent to basic boot camp and you’ll have some idea of my experience. After three months, training was over and each soldier was appointed to some position that had to do with the day-to-day operations of the barracks. Since I had a background in economics and accounting at the time, I was posted to the Recruits Administration Department. In many ways, the job was more comfortable than what most of my fellow soldiers had to do, since I could enjoy sitting in a warm office and working with a computer and pencil all day long, rather than running around in the cold outside or cooking for thousands of soldiers. But as good as it might sound, all things being equal, I didn’t enjoy it. Accounting and administrative work have just never been my thing, and pretty quickly I was pretty miserable.
How I found the problem I needed to solve
One of the daily tasks I was responsible for was to go online into our internal website and count the number of soldiers who were on active duty that day, how many were on leave, how many were out sick, etc… Then I was supposed to crunch these numbers through some arithmetic and produce a report about the daily personnel count for the entire barracks. This was a very tedious and repetitive process. Doing this each and every day wasn’t for me.
A few years later, after I came to the USA, I ended up pursuing a degree in physics, so I can definitely do math; however, when it comes to tedious, repetitive simple arithmetic, I just start zoning out and end up making silly mistakes. The last thing you want to do on a job, especially one in the military, is to neglect to include some important data in a report, which in my case could have been details about a soldier who was returning from a hospital or on personal leave. My mistakes could have potentially deprived the poor guy from a proper lunch because the daily headcounts were off! I also had to submit a report to the highest ranking officer on site once a week, so making a mistake was a pretty bad thing to do. But I was quite frustrated with the process and kept thinking that there must be a better way to do it.
After some thought and a little learning, I found a solution that completely changed the rest of my time on active duty. Using some basic programming I was able to learn just a few days prior, I significantly streamlined the soldier tally process.
Here’s how I did it
Since the majority of the important data I was meant to analyse came from a data-table on our internal website, I realized that instead of writing that data down by hand on paper each day and going through the tedious bit of basic math myself, just so I could put the final counts into a report by hand, I could instead use a little bit of my free time to learn some Excel Visual Basic to automate the process. I ended up writing an Excel Visual Basic script that would extract the data from the web page automatically, and then put that data into a spreadsheet that had all the relevant cells already filled in with formulas, which would then take care of the basic math that I hated doing myself. The report it produced looked exactly the same as the paper version that I had to submit in person. Luckily, I already knew basic Excel at that time, so filling in the formulas was easy. But if I hadn’t it was something I could have learned as well in just a few days in my spare time.
The tricky part was extracting the relevant data from the website. So I sat down with an Excel book for a few evenings on my own time and set out to learn how to use Excel Visual Basic to read HTML pages and extract data from them. In 2001, online education wasn’t available like it is today.
Once I knew the basics, I created the actual Excel spreadsheet with the data extracting script built into it. Once that was done, all I needed to do to produce my reports was to open the Excel spreadsheet and run the script within it. It took about three seconds for the data to get pulled from the website and a beautiful, error-free report was born, each and every time.
Initially, I was just printing out the report and submitting it by hand the old way, in person. But my boss was really impressed with what I had made and told me that I should go show it to the lieutenant colonel himself, who was in charge of the entire barracks. You can imagine that I was a bit nervous about challenging the status-quo, especially to a high ranking officer, but it was also exciting at the same time.
I came to the colonel’s office, copied the spreadsheet to his desktop computer and explained to him how simple it was to use. “All you need to do to get your report at any time of the day, is to open this spreadsheet and press this button here,” I remember myself saying, with a little bit of a nervous quiver in my voice. Despite my nerves, he loved the work and within a few days I was offered a promotion to become an “information technology specialist.” Since I love being creative, and figuring out how to streamline and optimize processes, I knew this would be a great job for me. Not to mention the other benefits that came with my improved position. I quickly accepted the offer and the same week, I started working on our other software systems.
If I can do it, you can do it, too!
It was during my time in this new role that I learned a critical mass of new skills and technologies, such as PHP, which would later help me to land different jobs at software companies around Prague, including a major Czech bank (Ceska Sporitelna), where I got to work on their Internet banking solution. While it’s true that I had to learn a lot before I got to work on that level of technology, it was the relatively simple task of writing that Excel spreadsheet with a built-in script that was my spring board and a pivotal moment in my career development.
And the best part? It only took about 3 days to learn those skills and how to apply them to the real world! A little bit of learning really can go a long way!
Have you ever looked around your company or organization for similar opportunities to optimize existing processes? Let me know in the comments what you would want to improve in your daily work by leveraging just a little bit of applicable know-how and the drive to put it into practice. I bet you can think of quite a few places where your efforts might get you noticed and let you move up the ranks too! If I have a good idea, I will suggest a programming skill you should learn to tackle your project.