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Aspiring techie. Where do I find the skills, the tools, the work?

As a child I grew up on legos and K'nex, and I wish my first computer had come earlier in life. I want to pursue more things like programming, robotics, working on cars and lighting the neighborhood with massive LED Beacons of custom-PC goodness. I've tried some researching of certain topics on my own, but I usually run into some difficult roadbumps. Particularly, there often runs a gap between beginner and advanced knowledge I find hard to bridge. I started off great with some programming classes at college, but their department is lacking. The other significant obstacle that comes to mind is cost. It's hard to shell out for new tools and parts for every project. Do you have any advice? Where could I find an entry-level job at an electronics re-saler, or something like that? I don't really have the skills for a mechanic, but what might be a first step? Or, something pre-programming that I could learn from- particularly for game or software development? Which schools in the Midwest have more hands-on training?

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First step is to focus on something. You seem to be a little all over the place. Since you seem most interested in game programming, I'll suggest you focus on that, but really you can pick anything. Step two is to hunt for information and other people who do it. Look for forums and blogs dedicated to the craft you wish to persue. Sign up and be ready to ask polite, detailed questions (and pay attention to questions that others ask). Step three is to start small and work your way up. I write a lot of PHP code nowadays, but it started with a very simple 2-line script that governed a minor feature of my website (an include from a variable). Through years of tweaking and rewriting that website, I learned enough PHP to design much more complicated programs. Everything I learned was learned in a quest to add new features or improve existing parts of my website. A note on tools... depending on the field you chose. Tools can be very expensive or very cheap. They can be simple enough that you could make your own or complex enough to put NASA to shame. Some tools provide a worthwhile investment and years of frequent use, and others will be used once for a specific task and then sit in a box for a few decades. Still, you'll need the right tools for the job. Check with other people who are experienced in whatever you're trying to master and see which tools they most use, and look at their techniques to avoid the purchase of unnessecary tools. Best of luck!
I agree that you need to focus on something. I think a part of that, however, might be trying some things to find out what you like. If you have never programmed I would recommend C By Dissection. Also, since it has some errors I would recommend either K&R or C Pocket Reference as a supplement. C may not be the easiest language, but most real games are written in C based languages and C By Dissection is a really easy book to read if you have no clue what programming is and want a simple introduction. (Make sure to actually do some of the problems. You'll learn by doing.)
Very good recomendations.
drumagon (author)  DELETED_GuardianFox8 years ago
Yes, that is the story of my life. I either don blinders, over-focusing nearing the point of obsession- or, more often, lack focus entirely. You bring up an excellent point. I need to find some direction and balance. However, I also feel I need to try some different things. I guess without being farther along, it's difficult to know if any given field is the one for me.
Just keep at it. I find the best way to master something is to be persistant. Well, it works for me at least. You did have a good idea in your question, looking for a job related to something that you want to learn about. I've learned a lot of things in that way. I've held these jobs (in no particular order)... all with zero prior experience. -Town Maintainence Worker: Digging holes, taking care of green space, painting things, and a whole bunch of other hands-on activities. This job taught me how to drive nearly any vehicle, properly install chain-link fences, and hundreds of other skills I've probably forgotten by now. -Building Supplies Salesperson: I learned basic warehousing and an awful lot about "right tools" and "right methods" mixed with a healthy dose of "common mistakes." In less than two years just selling all the parts needed to build a home, I am now quite confident that I learned enough to be able to build a home myself in the future. It's a job that gives you a lot of one-on-one time with contractors who will be full of advice. BIG Tip here: Ask for a contractors rate when you buy building supplies or tools. This won't work at big box stores, but if you head to a "real" hardware store or building supplies center, you'll get a discount on nearly anything. -Typesetter: I got a job with a small print shop as a typesetter (the person who designs documents for printing). I learned a lot about the print industry and since it was a small shop I got to try my hands at nearly everything. I never ran the press (I know the basics though), but there were plenty of times where I did everything but the actual printing. Even more important, I learned a lot about common design practices, copyright law, and office work. After less than a year, I am 100% confident I could do any job in a print shop and do it well. -Gas station attendant: (Note; our gas stations are all self-serve and usually also sell beer and cigarettes). This job taught me how to be a salesperson and how to deal with people (hundreds of customers each day). It also gave me some insider knowledge on the business of fuels which would be very useful to me in the future. I even got to do some sociological studies there while I was working (I was studying sociology at the time). -Audio Technician: I knew a little about the gear before I started this job, but the very first gig showed me a lot of new things. I'm still doing this, and learning every day.
sciguy777 years ago
I recommend you simply learn by doing. <a href="https://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-Vivus-the-Robot/">Complete a kit or two</a>, and slowly move up from there, starting with simple motor and sensor control.
Use the forums, there is a category for internships. I believe craigslist has a feature like this too. IMHO, the best way to get work like this is to put yourself out there, I mailed all these companies, national and local, and met people, learned welding, woodworking, and soldering. Using this method, I secured an internship at a science museum. I am also working part time as a sound mixer at my church. And a sheet metal fab company is looking at me as well. There is no substitute for hands on training. So meet some people, make some calls, send some mail, learn some skills, and make some money.
I have posted a website for inventors, hobby builders, robotisist and am now seeking "blue boy's" to fill the little niches in the business I myself do custom aluminum casting of parts as well as machining and manufacture of plastic parts, specialty circuits and any void I can fill but at the same time there is room for others and all are welcome to join share and learn and even contribute. the aspiration and open midedness you show with this post is what I am looking for, come to the website http://denteddisk.com/
or email me or even PM here for discussion.. that goes for anyone in the same position..

mman15067 years ago
that actually reminds me of what im doing now im a 11 and building robots and pc's and for robotics i would recommend the picaxe micro controller linethere very easy to use and very cheap and all boards have built in programmers ,ive already built a robotic car and right now working on a robot blimp. just search it up on google
I'm reminded me of when I was just fresh out of college, back in 1976. Missing direction, way to many possibilities, no real skills. All I knew was I was a hands-on type of guy; meaning everything I touched broke and then I couldn't fix it. I thought no real skills either. Now I have my own very successful business servicing medical and health related equipment. If it would help check out my resume (just won the Burning Question 7 with Write a Resume) to see the path I ended up on. You of course will have your own path ion time. Email me if you like. Here are some ideas to consider - Vow to never discard anything you haven't taken apart, put together and learned how it worked when it did. Also keep any salvage parts still usable. Study and do as many of the Instructables you can, learn a little about the rest. The idea of volunteering for experience is good and I agree. Every junk, used goods, 2nd hand goods stores, Value Village, Neighborhood Services, Thrift shops etc would likely accept volunteer help testing and minor repairing items. Tested electric appliances etc can sell for several times more than "untested As Is" items. They win by increased sales; you win by no-cost education and skills development. Logon and Login to some popular fix-it type forums where there is a world of information wealth. Someone will always have your answers; remember to pass on the knowledge as others have to you. The WWW makes information so easy. Google free tutorials, so far I've found some on electronics, science, physics, pneumatics, and fluid power. Don't forget the manufacturers websites for service and operators manuals as a source of information. Remember the critical part of repairing things is in the simplifying, understanding and figuring out; not in the memorizing how to fix something. If each time you attack a repair you solve the puzzle you will also be able to solve other problems similar to the one you are working on. Those that rely on memory work are often stuck on new problems because they have not seen it before. I've worked with techs like that and often had to go after them to fix what they couldn't because it was a different problem. Soon start your own small business, save taxes, gain some allowed write-offs. Use a 'fair business' idea like mine "If we can't fix it, we don't charge." Sure I do some calls for free, just less often than you'd think. Soon you'll find yourself cruising garbage day for discarded goods. Those you fix can be sold, even at your garage sale, think of it - free money. Our current economy issues illustrate that when the economy slows people will have stuff repaired rather than replaced. For me business is booming these times. People will pay real good money for good repairs (I'm making 5 times the hourly rate I was getting as an employee). You'll see that if you do repairs and really learn the trade, you'll never be out of work. You can loose a job, get laid off etc, but stuff will always break. Also don't get too bogged down with products, remember you don't really have to be a NASA specialist to know how to replace a space shuttle door switch, it's just a door switch after all. You may have to think about that concept for it to really sink in. Although it is hard to grasp, the stuff you see commonly now will likely not exist in its current form 20-30 years from now. Ask any old fart like me, aged about 50. In college we still learned about vacuum tubes, there were no PC's, Ipods, Walkmans, cell phones, Roomba vacuum robots etc. You'll have to fix what doesn't exist now.
paganwonder8 years ago
Work is not bad hands-on training, it's just not fun all the time. I'm thinking of somethings Edison said. Also, read up a little on Tesla. The point is- activity creates opportunity. Work with what you've got- keep your eyes and ears open for ideas and opportunities. Some of my best work was created when I had few tools and mostly imagination. I have since enjoyed some success and now have more tools (both physical and mental) but sometimes I miss that edge I felt when I had to make do with what I had. Also, I've never met anyone who was able to BUY skill and ability with money alone- they had lots of cool tools but could not create magic! Jump in and make do with what you've got.
drumagon (author)  paganwonder8 years ago
I appreciate the encouragement. I'll keep that in mind. You're definitely right, money can't buy creativity. Thanks paganwonder
kelseymh8 years ago
Look out for local homebrew or electronics clubs in your area (check Craigslist, your local independent electronics parts store).

If you actually have an independent electronics shop in your area, talk to the older staff there.

Contact non-profits in your area which do electronic refurbishing; they can always use volunteers, even if they have a learning curve.

Kits. Building from a kit isn't the same as designing your own system, but it's a real advantage to know that what you're building should work, and to have instructions and guidance on what to do. After a few of those, you'll have picked up enough to try doing something from scratch.
drumagon (author)  kelseymh8 years ago
Those are great tips. I wasn't even aware that some volunteering could be out there for refurbishing. I'll do some research on that, could be perfect. Yes, kits sound great too. I've been needing to get out to a hobby shop for some ideas anyway. Thanks kelseymh