Book review: The power in a link: open doors, close deals, and change the way you do business using LinkedIn

I love LinkedIn. Some see it as just a social network for businesspeople (or, as the author of the book I’m about to discuss puts it, “Facebook in a suit”), but it is a powerful tool for anyone who takes their career seriously. When I was working as a librarian at McGill I was invited to give a workshop to business students on how to make the most out of this tool (and invited to repeat my presentation for a different group the following year), and I believe I gave these students tips that will make a significant contribution to their career development. Unfortunately, many librarians not only do not consider themselves businesspeople but actually avoid resources that appear to be business-oriented. Dismissing this tool is a serious missed opportunity, so I’m putting together a LinkedIn workshop for librarians and other information professionals. In my research for this workshop, I came across the following book:

The power in a link : open doors, close deals, and change the way you do business using LinkedIn by David Gowel

What caught my attention about this book is that, unlike most of the LinkedIn books that have been published, it does not take a primarily “how to” approach. Rather than starting with tips for building a strong profile and then moving through the features of the site, Gowel opens with a discussion of social capital and touches on the philosophy behind LinkedIn. And even when he covers the more technical aspects he takes a storytelling approach, drawing from his own experience, instead of relying on screenshots of the site (though there are a few of those as well).

The book is divided into 3 parts:

  • Part 1: Why Wake Up?
    • The first part focuses on what makes LinkedIn such a revolutionary tool (with a healthy serving of hyperbole). The title of the section makes reference to the author’s belief that people are seriously missing out by not joining the party and that these people need to wake up to a new way to do business before their competitors do.
  • Part 2: From Army Ranger to LinkedIn Jedi
    • The second part tells the story of how the author used LinkedIn to kickstart his new career after leaving the military (though he makes liberal use of personal stories throughout the book).
  • Part 3: Getting Technical
    • The third part covers specific tips for making the most of the site, with a chapter on each aspect of the author’s “4P” approach:
      • Privacy and security protection
      • Profile improvement
      • Proper network growth
      • Proactive business tool usage

From the start it’s clear that Gowel thinks quite highly of himself, and while I certainly appreciate the value of confidence (read my post on calling yourself an expert if you haven’t already), his cocky attitude left a sour taste in my mouth early on. Throughout the book he quotes the glowing things others have said about him, and he makes reference no fewer than ten times (I counted) to the fact that a journalist once called him a “LinkedIn Jedi.”

Once I came to terms with the author’s self congratulatory style, I found that he is actually a good storyteller, and the stories make for an engaging read. I can imagine that someone who had been on the fence about LinkedIn might be brought over to Gowel’s point of view by reading Part 1.

Unfortunately, Part 2 covers little new territory, instead allowing the author five chapters of text to tell stories that exemplify the ideas he outlined in Part 1 (which were already sufficiently illustrated with stories, thanks very much). To be fair, there are some suggestions for readers here, such as tips for job seekers, but these are mainly common sense bullet points.

Part 3 contains tips that people may find useful. I found one (but only one) nugget that I had not considered before and immediately put into use in my own profile: when listing the URL of your blog or other website, always choose “Other” from the dropdown menu because this will allow you to customize the text that appears. The chapter about building your network is worth reading (for those who are not already LinkedIn Jedis), and the section on performing company research is interesting but brief.

So, would I recommend this book? That’s a difficult question. Gowel clearly knows a lot about LinkedIn (his career revolves around teaching others to use it), and I like his storytelling style (up to a certain point) and his approach of considering why and not just how to use the tool. On the other hand, he spends a significant amount of the book patting himself on the back and complimenting the people who have said nice things about him. I think the book would be most valuable to someone who isn’t quite convinced that LinkedIn is for them – but of course, this type of person probably wouldn’t be motivated to pick up the book in the first place. For anyone already on board, the third part would be useful, but be aware this section is only 60 pages long. So here’s my advice. Pick up a copy at the library and do the following:

  1. Read the preface and introduction
  2. Start reading Part 1, and stop when you’re convinced that putting some time and effort into LinkedIn is a good idea
  3. Skip Part 2 altogether (or, if you must, read the summary at the end of each chapter)
  4. Read Part 3

Have you read this book? Is there another source of LinkedIn tips you would recommend? Let me know in the comments.

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Learning to code through Codecademy: a great idea, but not quite perfected

As a librarian with a strong interest in web services, I’ve always wanted to improve my coding skills. I’m comfortable with HTML and basic CSS, and way back in the day my friends and I entertained ourselves by creating text-based adventure games in DOS using some form of BASIC, but to be honest, more advanced programming languages intimidated me a bit. So several months ago I was intrigued to discover Codecademy. The claim on their home page caught my attention:

Codecademy is the easiest way to learn how to code. It’s interactive, fun, and you can do it with your friends.

When I first signed up, lessons were only offered on JavaScript, but they have since added HTML, CSS, and jQuery (which works with JavaScript), and more content is being added on a regular basis. In fact, the site offers a course called Code Year, which was designed for people who wanted to make a New Year’s resolution to learn to code. Each week, starting from the beginning of 2012, there is a designated set of exercises for participants to complete.

Registration is free and only takes a moment (Codecademy states that they reserve the right to charge for premium content in the future, but for the moment the site is entirely free). You can give it a try without registering, but I suggest you set up an account to keep track of which exercises you’ve already completed. Each exercise consists of instructions on the left side of the page, and a window on the right with a command prompt where you can enter code and then run it. In some cases there will already be some code to get you started, and at other times you’ll write all the code from scratch. After you hit the run button, you’ll see the results of your code and a link to the next exercise will appear if you’ve written the code correctly. Otherwise, you’ll receive an error message and you’ll have to change your code to make it work. The system makes use of gamification (also popular in libraries): each time you complete an exercise you receive points, and a running tally will show at the top of the page.  Then, once you’ve finished a section of exercises, you’ll receive an achievement badge (an icon that shows up on your profile with a name representing what you’ve learned, such as “Loops in JavaScript” or “Recursive Functions”). After each new concept you learn through these exercises, there is a “project” – that is, a set of exercises where you put your skills to use building a program (such as a blackjack game or a cash register program).

I think this is a great idea. Coding is something you need to actually do in order to learn it –  I’ve tried to learn from a book and found it frustrating to be always shifting my attention from the printed page to my computer monitor. Considering the service is free, I would recommend that everyone give it a try. However, there are a few aspects that still need some work.

What I like about Codecademy:

  • It’s much less imposing than a heavy textbook.
  • Each lesson is broken down into a series of very short exercises, and as long as you’re logged in to your account, this means it’s easy to work through an exercise or two and pick up later where you left off – even if you only have a few minutes at a time to work on it.
  • When you get stuck, you can always refer to the Q&A, which is a forum where you can post questions about a given exercise and other users can post answers. In my experience, I’ve always been able to fix my issues by reading what others have already posted in the Q&A.
  • It’s web-based, which means there’s no software to install and you can log in from any computer (it even works on my iPad, but let me assure you, having to move the cursor around so much on a touch screen is not a pleasant experience).

What still needs work:

  • There is a bit too much hand holding. Too many exercises provide the vast majority of the code for you, and just prompt you to add a line or two. Although this means you can get through more content more quickly, I feel there should be more opportunities to start from scratch. I understand that programmers usually build on existing code rather than starting from a blank page, but I find I learn better when I have created something from the ground up. Some exercises are also too simple, in the sense that they tell you precisely what to type and on which line. I would rather figure more things out for myself.
  • The “hint” feature isn’t used consistently. Usually, this space is used to point you in the right direction if you’re having trouble, and it is a useful feature. However, there are a few exercises where critical information is located in the hint; in other words, there’s no way you could be expected to complete the exercise without looking at the hint. There are also some instances where the hint provides information that isn’t critical but is interesting and helpful to know, which means that if you were to complete the exercise without looking at the hint you would miss out. Of course, consistency is difficult to achieve when the lessons are created by other users, but perhaps they could have an editor look into this.
  • They take the gamification aspect a bit too far. In the early stages it seemed that I was receiving a new achievement every ten minutes or so, which made each one feel like less of an accomplishment. And you earn points for each exercise, even the ones that don’t require you to do any coding (they provide some text for you to read and then prompt you to hit the run button to move on to the next exercise). I would rather have the feeling that I earned all of my points.
  • There are some small technical issues. On a few occasions, I’ve written my code and seen it run correctly, but the error message says I need to change something. Usually when I check the Q&A someone else has had the same issue, and the answer is that you need to use a very specific variable name or change some spacing; in other words, what I’ve done is correct as far as the programming language is concerned, but the Codecademy system won’t acknowledge it. In other cases, the message tells me I’ve completed the exercise, but when I check back later there’s no green checkmark to indicate I’ve completed it. When this happens, I have to redo the exercise in a different browser.

Overall, I am certainly impressed with Codecademy, but it might not hurt for them to slap up a big “beta” sticker while they iron the kinks out. To their credit, each exercise gives you the option to give it thumbs up or thumbs down, so I’m sure they are collecting data as to what works and what doesn’t. I would suggest they take this one step further and put a comment box next to the thumb icons, since there has been more than one exercise I’ve found frustrating enough to want to write down a sentence or two in addition to clicking on thumbs down.

Have you tried Codecademy? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment below.

Reflections on being an Inspired Library School Student

Back in my student days.

Before my blog’s former life as The Inspired Library School Student fades into a distant memory, I would like to share my thoughts on being a student blogger.

As you may know, I started my blog in February 2008, during the second semester of my MLIS, after seeing a presentation by John Dupuis. I have always enjoyed writing (having a writer as a father and a teacher as a mother probably helps with that), and I had already started reading library blogs on a regular basis, but the thought of becoming a blogger had not crossed my mind until I watched that presentation.

My plan was to write about topics that other students would find exciting, especially the things they don’t teach you in school. And boy, did I ever write. I posted 20 times in my first full calendar month of blogging, which honestly blows my mind now. Of course, many of those posts were quite brief, but I think it still reflects the fun I was having with my new toy.

It wasn’t long before I began receiving comments on my posts from well respected and established bloggers. This usually happened after I had left comments on their blogs and included my URL in my signature, but it was exciting to get a positive response. I quickly developed a sense of how welcoming and encouraging the library blogger community could be.

When I attended the IFLA conference in Quebec City that year, I printed up business cards for the first time (at moo.com, which I still use to this day). As a student, making business cards is a bit awkward because you don’t have a job title or an institutional logo, but I found that including the URL for my blog was a great conversation starter. Shortly after that, Jessamyn West linked to my post-IFLA write-up and sent my stats through the roof, which is pretty much the most exciting thing in the world for a new blogger.

Soon I began receiving emails about my blog from around the world. Many were from the proprietors of websites of dubious integrity who wanted me to link to them, in some cases even offering to write guest posts in exchange for links; naturally, I turned these offers down. Some were from people who had enjoyed my posts and wanted me to write more on a certain subject, such as Zotero or why I decided to go to library school; I did my best to accommodate these requests, though sometimes I felt I had already written as much as I was willing to write on a topic. And some were from prospective students, asking whether I would recommend McGill, and current students in other parts of the world, thanking me for sharing my experiences in a Canadian MLIS program; these emails really made me feel that I was helping people, and I always responded with any advice I could give.

I began encouraging other students to become bloggers and join the community. I wrote a short article for my program’s newsletter describing the benefits of being a student blogger, and later, as a librarian, I presented on more than one occasion to students and recommended starting a blog. I strongly believe that blogging is a fantastic opportunity for students to put their thoughts into writing, connect with the online community, and develop a reputation for being thoughtful and insightful. Of course, this goes for professionals as well, but students in particular are often looking for ways to take their experience beyond the classroom, and blogging can be a constructive form of self-directed learning.

Although I sometimes struggled to stay motivated, I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. Blogging was a valuable part of my education (indeed, more useful than many of the courses I took), and I feel it made a positive contribution to shaping the professional I am today.