Along the same lines, I suggest creating a set of small projects that you typically implement after you go through the basic samples associated with a given language's tutorials.
For example, here are a few that I try my hand at before I claim I'm proficient in a new language:
A Report Disk Status appropriate for the OS you're working on. For example, I do a "list all storage resources, including their status, drive type, total space, space available," and so on. In GUI environments, this gets thrown into a summary grid. In console windows (or STDOUT-style outputs), it's dumped as a report.
A simple port of the Yahtzee game from Parker Brothers. Again, this is appropriate for the available interface (e.g. GUI vs console/STDOUT).
A simple port of the card game known as "Red Dog" or "Acey-Deucy." (There's a story behind this, but I won't tell it here. Suffice it to say that the game helped pay for my first laser printer.)
If the environment provides Internet services and related-interfaces like POP3, I do a quick-and-dirty polling device to report any new messages on my primary email server.
A simple address book suitable for an unknown amount of telephone numbers, addresses, and/or email addresses. (This usually gets me into the available database tools pretty quickly, not to mention the reporting skills appropriate for the development environment.)
A contact management application designed to track contacts (e.g. phone calls, email messages, etc) from the people listed in the above address book. (Multi-table techniques, queries, etc.)
A Phone Message tracking system like the little pre-printed slips of paper. It also taps into the Address Book.
An Employeer Roster/Callboard, e.g. "Who works here and are they in the office?" This was first written to support a consultancy I worked at, where everyone was in and out of the office on an irregular basis and we never knew how to respond to their phone calls, except by adding a new message to the previous application.
A Personal Task Manager, e.g. "What do I need to do today and what did I forget to do last week?" (First created to help me submit accurate status reports when I was a project manager several years back.)
A data import and analysis project based on one of my first "real-world" programming projects: a dBASE III (not Plus) system that imported telephone use logs, removed invalid phone numbers, and then summarized phone useage by department. It was considered a one-shot by my employer at the time, to help determine how much of the phone bill to bill back to the various departments, but it generated a lot of interesting data. I kept the original data files over the years and have gotten a lot of use out of them.
Again, this is generally for use with database oriented environments, but I've also used with native structures in in a given language, e.g. C's structs or Pascal-style record types.
A lot depends, of course, on the target language and why I'm learning it. However, I've found that by implementing these (and several other) projects that I already understand and have implemented multiple times, I find I learn the skills I really need far more quickly than I would by tackling solely through assigned tasks, e.g. employer tasks or client projects.
I wonder if anyone else does something similar. If so, care to share the pet projects you use to help make sure you're learning what you need from a new programming language or development tool?
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