Hacking Your Way Into The Workforce

08/04/2012 03:11 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2012

Last month we announced Opportunity: What is Working. It's a partnership with businesses, foundations and education to find real solutions to the problem every American faces: Joblessness. This is not some abstract, hidden or relative problem. The lack of jobs means that we're all one economic crisis away from economic disaster. Even you think you are immune, because of your skills, professional experience or nest egg, you are not. A large number of Americans out of work puts our whole consumer-driven economy at risk. Just look at how listless the stock market has been.

At the Huffington Post, we're not just reporting on the job crisis. We're doing something about it. But if you are looking for work, or in danger of becoming out of work, there are concrete steps you can take to improve your situation. You can learn to hack.

I'm not talking about Hollywood hacking, which is more about looking cool while thieving. I'm not talking about doing anything even slightly illegal. I'm talking about upgrading your computer skills, but not as a user of computers. I'm talking about learning to administer and program computers. True hackers are deeply knowledgeable about computer hardware, operating systems and software. (And they don't use their knowledge for evil.)

You can start today and you don't have to go to school or even spend a dime! (But it helps to have a few bucks to invest in yourself.)

First, start learning about the hardware that you use everyday on your desk and in your pocket. The best way to learn is by doing and undoing. If you're cheap, like me, to go a garage sale or look in your own garage and find an old computer, take it apart and Google each component and chip that you find. If your teardown was not too destructive, see if you can put the computer back together and power it up. If you have a few bucks to spend, order some new parts online and upgrade it. There are dozen of DYI sites on the web to help you out. I like to build gaming computers for my kids and Build-Gaming-Computers is a great resource. Another fun way to learn is to visit LittleBits and buy some kits.

Second, get to know your operating system of choice. I recommend you start with and go deep on UNIX. I know there are still millions of Microsoft Windows machines out there but Mac OS X, iOS, Android and Linux all trace their heritage back to UNIX and new flavors of Windows are heavily influenced by UNIX.

Take that old computer you just rebuilt and install Ubuntu on it. A user-friendly version of Linux, Ubuntu gives you a shiny consumer experience with a hacker's heart. Learn basic UNIX commands using the terminal window. You can start with Learn UNIX in 10 Minutes and graduate to Indiana University's Introduction to UNIX. Create some directories, edit some files, customize your command prompt, and learn how to start, stop and configure a web server.

Third, study web programming using your rebuilt computer and Ubuntu. Web programming is relatively easy to learn and in demand. (There are very few web developers out of work right now.) I recommend that you start with Code Academy. For maximum employability, learn the basics of Javascript, HTML5, CSS, JQuery and Python (or PHP). Once you know the basics, go to the next level: JQuery is a great technology for a web developer to master.

Learning applications like Microsoft Excel or Adobe Photoshop is useful but puts you in competition with tens of millions of other people who are merely users. The demand for web developers continues to out pace the supply of qualified web developers. There are over 5,000 open web developer jobs (in my network in the United States) on LinkedIn right now.

I know this formula for improving your employment options works: I did it myself 30 years ago. I graduated from art school with an open mind and student loan debt. Potential employers laughed at my BA. (Yes, that actually happened.) So I did the pre-Internet equivalent of a DIY computer science education: I invested $60 on the three volumes of Inside Macintosh, bought a Pascal compiler and an original classic Mac computer (on credit). I was just following my curiosity, hacking, and it did not kill this cat -- it created the career I enjoy to this day.