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The toolbox of meta-skills I acquired as a jack-of-all-trades

Sam Tanoak Sycamore
✍️ Freelance web developer, technical writer, dev advocate ☀️ Solar-powered off-grid mountain dweller
Updated on ・11 min read

In late 2014, I decided once and for all that it was time to put my money where my mouth was and begin acquiring the skills I'd need to build my own house and grow my own food.

I had become fascinated with the idea of self-reliance a few years earlier in college. I'd stumbled upon a book called The Good Life by Scott and Helen Nearing, intrepid pioneers of the back-to-the-land movement from the Depression Era who convinced me that their way of life must be preferable to the suburban malaise of middle-America that I'd inherited.

I gave myself a few months to do research and weigh my options while pulling doubles at the BBQ joint where I'd been working for awhile. The disciplines that immediately called to me the most were carpentry and farming, but I knew that I'd want to become a jack-of-all-trades over time.

I briefly considered enrolling in trade school for carpentry, but as I began to explore the job market I realized that I really didn't need any qualifications or training to get in with mom 'n' pop contractors as a helper or apprentice.

I discovered that I could learn the skills on the job -- get paid to learn, essentially -- so I dove headfirst into the industry, despite the fact that I barely knew how to operate a hammer at the time.

In the spring of 2015 I became a cabinetmaker's apprentice, building laminated cabinets and shelves for gas stations. Over the next five years I would be variously employed and self-employed as a window installer, exterior carpenter, landscaper, tile setter, handyman, organic farmer, fine gardener, and auto mechanic.

It was a wild ride, and I wouldn't trade my experiences for the world. Though I did eventually conclude that I did not want to pursue a lifelong career in trades, the time that I invested in the industry was incredibly valuable to me. And not just for the hard skills that I acquired.

Now that I am transitioning to a new career in tech, it feels a bit like immigrating to a new country: I can't bring most of my old furniture and stuff with me, but I do have some carry-on luggage crammed full of things I couldn't bear to part with.

These are the meta-skills I've honed in my career in trades; skills that enable me to better acquire and apply new skills. They are tools that I will continue to sharpen for the rest of my life, no matter what kind of work I might pursue.

I understand why a conventional team of computer science-oriented engineers would be reluctant to hire a self-taught career-changer like me. But I believe that the toolbox of meta-skills I've acquired in my previous career is a strong and unique asset that make me stand out from the crowd of code newbies.

If you'll indulge me, I'd love to show off and describe a few of these to you.

How to Learn

Everyone learns best by doing. Full stop.

OK, there are plenty of ways to acquire knowledge about a skill. But the only way -- I'm telling you, the only way -- to improve your skills is to practice them.

I don't think I've ever watched a tutorial video on a power tool I've never used before. Plug it in, fire it up, hand me that piece of scrap wood and let's see what this thing does!

I could watch my foreman operate that reciprocating saw all day, but the only way I'm going to master it is if I pick it up and do it myself.

Get Paid to Learn

There's a time and a place to pay for resources to learn. Ideally, that time is when you are already employed or self-employed and can write off your continuing education as an expense on your taxes.

Catch my drift?

If you're clever, you can find ways to get paid to learn, or at least to offset the cost of educational resources.

My first few gigs in construction paid $10/hr. That's almost nothing -- but it's not literally nothing, and I was learning a ton on the job every day, so I was OK with "getting paid in experience," so to speak, at least in the beginning.

When I jumped to freelance web development years later, I started searching for website clients pretty early on, even though I know I still have a long way to go before I will be employable as a front-end developer at an established company.

That's because I knew that I would learn faster and more efficiently if I had real projects to work on. And I could continue to learn what I would need to know as I progressed.

Now that I have a little bit of money coming in from development work, I can afford to invest some of those funds back into my self-education. And now that I have real projects, I also have concrete learning goals that I can focus on so I'll be able to take on more and bigger projects in the future.

How to Solve Problems

Problem-solving requires systems thinking.

Thinking about things systematically requires perspective.

You need to be able to zoom in or zoom out on a whim; to see how the minor details you've been agonizing over contribute to the je ne sais quoi of the big picture. To take on the viewpoint of the end user who possesses none of your expertise and try to imagine what they would think about it. Sure, it looks fine today, but what about ten years from now?

When I'm working on a team, I tend to be the most detail-oriented, but I love observing the big picture. I often try to play the part of the disruptor, imagining the worst-case scenarios that would require unconventional solutions. What happens to this fence when the storm of the century rolls through?

A strong problem-solver is someone who's skilled in the art of the analogy: observing a novel situation and recognizing familiar elements from prior experiences that are ostensibly unrelated. This is pattern recognition, but abstracted.

How to Communicate Effectively

I worked several retail jobs as a young adult, and these experiences made me allergic to "customer service" and "sales" for many years.

For me, "customer service" meant "endure this disgruntled customer's insults with a smile," and "sales" meant "try to talk these rubes into buying a bunch of junk that we all know they don't need."

As I spent more time working in skilled trades, I began to see that neither customer service nor sales were necessarily awful. In fact, I came to really enjoy the customer service aspects of home remodeling and farming -- both of which I would eventually pursue as self-employed ventures.

I learned that there is, indeed, a way to honestly and ethically sell people goods and services that they will benefit from.

It turns out that it actually feels really good to deliver an excellent product that you're proud of to a grateful client who appreciates your work!

Shocker, I know!

I was surprised, too. ;)

Communicating with Clients

It's a cliché that the best communicators are the strongest listeners, and this bears out quite directly when communicating with clients.

What is the client telling you they need? How might their actual needs differ from what they think they need?

How can you communicate what you offer in a way that this individual will understand and resonate with?

How do you center your client in the story that you tell about the value of your product?

How do you convey your expertise in layman's terms? If your service is difficult to describe or quantify, how do you ease your client's fears that they could be buying something they don't need?

How do you keep your client happy and comfortable throughout the process of selling and delivering your product?

And what can you do to really "wow" them so that they will want to hire you again and tell all of their friends about you?

Communicating effectively with clients means listening so well that you can anticipate their needs and assuage their fears before they ever arise. That's how you build trust.

Communicating with Coworkers

When I'm working on a team, I prefer to be like water. I follow the path of least resistance and always aim to find common ground and keep the mood pleasant and easygoing. Relax, and float downstream.

Good communication with coworkers also requires anticipating their needs. If you can make your teammate's task go more smoothly by stepping in at just the right moment to lend a hand, they'll remember that, and they'll be inclined to do the same for you at the next opportunity. A mutual understanding of reciprocity is crucial to a healthy crew culture.

Maintaining a strong company culture means cultivating an ethos that "we're all in this together." I would never ask you to take on a task that I wouldn't be willing to perform myself. If there is some especially unsavory chore that must get done, we all agree that we will share in the burden so nobody feels like they're getting an unfair deal.

We learn how strong our teams really are when conflicts arise. This is how our company culture gets stress-tested. If turnover is high, that's a good indication that crew morale is low. And if morale is low, it's probably because a) the workload is too heavy or unevenly distributed, b) the pay is too low, and/or c) the management is unreasonable.

Communicating with Management

If you asked my girlfriend to describe me in a nutshell, she'd probably say something like "loves being outdoors, hates being told what to do."

I have encountered many different management styles, but my anecdotal experience seems clear enough to me: the jobs where my coworkers and I felt most satisfied were those where the management trusted us enough to delegate tasks to us without feeling the need to micromanage how those tasks got done.

This requires a certain level of proficiency and maturity on the part of the workers, but it also requires a great deal of trust on the part of management. And it demands training as well as clear communication of expectations, goals, and metrics for measuring success.

Micromanagers do what they do because they don't trust their crews enough to get the job done on their own. They may be right to be distrustful -- but if that's the case, then it means they've either hired bad help, or else they haven't done the requisite work to equip their team with the skills they need to solve their own problems.

I've learned the hard way that I work best with managers who respect my skills enough to give me some leeway to solve problems however I see fit, but who are clear about their expectations and who make themselves available for guidance should I need it.

When I'm going through the application process with a new company, one of the most important questions I like to ask at the end of an interview is, "What are the metrics that you use to determine how successful your team has been on a project?"

You will learn just about everything you need to know about their company culture based on how they answer this question.

How to Manage Time and Resources

Construction gigs can be pretty open-ended. Especially when it comes to remodeling, you don't always know what you're getting into before you demolish the wall or tear up the carpet and see what's waiting on the other side.

The scope of the project can change dramatically when unexpected conditions arise. You have to learn how to plan for what can't be anticipated.

Once the more routine tasks are solidified in your skill set, however, it becomes easier to estimate the amount of time and materials you'll need to get the job done.

This is an incredibly valuable meta-skill that I don't think enough laborers in the skilled trades really hone in on.

It is the essence of running a successful business.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks that people face when they're considering starting their own business in any industry is:

"How do I determine my price?"

The simplest formula is this:

Start with the income you'd like to earn, let's say $100,000.

Divide that by the number of hours you intend to work -- if you're a sole proprietor working full-time and you give yourself a two-week vacation every year, that's about 2,000 hours.

$100,000 / 2,000 hours = $50/hour.

When determining your fee for a project, estimate the amount of time it will take, multiply that by your hourly rate, add expenses for materials, and you're good to go. Right?

At least it seems more attainable when framed in those terms, no? Easier said than done, of course, and it's never that straightforward.

What about taxes? That's a solid 30% off the top, at least, so you'll want to bring in more like $130k to be able to pay yourself that same $50/hr. And what about overhead? You're going to have business expenses that should absolutely factor into your rate. What does your profit margin look like after you've paid yourself and the feds, and covered all of your operation costs?

How do you know that you will be fully booked at all times? Maybe your rates need to be higher to buffer the unforeseeable dry spells.

Should you charge hourly for your services? Not necessarily. A day rate or a flat project fee may be preferable.

Ideally, you want your client to be paying for your expertise, not necessarily just your time.

If you are in high demand, then your time is especially valuable. (Not in high demand? This is a perfect avenue to practice faking it til ya make it.) If you can deliver immense value in a short amount of time, that is a reflection of your high expertise, which deserves high compensation.

Furthermore, what is the value of your product to your client? If you're building a beautiful backyard patio where they can enjoy downtime with their family, the price discussion looks a lot different than if you're called in at 2:00 AM for a plumbing emergency.

What your product or service is worth is more about its perceived value than the actual cost of delivering it. But I digress, that is a whole huge topic unto itself...

How to Be Confident in My Skills

As I ventured further down the path of becoming a jack-of-all-trades, I became quite good at selling myself to prospective employers. I discovered that this sales pitch really wasn't so different from a customer-facing pitch. The same basic rules applied.

When it came to selling myself as an awesome employee, I quickly found that the most effective way to win over a hiring manager was to communicate my (genuine) eager desire to learn and be able to offer more value to the team. If you can build a cabinet, you can figure out how to build a fence. If you've ever grown tomatoes, you'll do just fine when it's time to trellis your first cucumber crop.

To acquire anti-fragile self-confidence, you have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone, repeatedly, take on tasks you've never encountered before, and learn to thrive in the liminal state of arriving at a solution.

This is by far the most valuable asset that I picked up as a tradesman:

the confidence to be able to sign on to a new project, knowing that I will encounter novel obstacles, and to trust that even if I've never seen anything like it before --

I will figure it out.

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