Claudiu Persoiu

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Building a new generation of programmers in a consumers society

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Motivated by Rober Martin’s article, Hoards Of Novices, I’ve decided to write an article on a similar subject.

I do not want to write about the need for employers to hire juniors, but about why these juniors are not up to the expectations and, in the end, what can be done to be better prepared.

The software market is continuously expanding. Software is the way we command a computer what to do. Today, devices around us have processors, software and applications, from phones, watches, TVs and up to washing machines and refrigerators. All these devices need programms and programmers to develop applications for them.

With this premises, we reach the Software crisis. It was concluded that we need to build software faster in order to solve this crisis. This was a popular subject in the ’60s, but in time it has become less important.

To solve this problem, high level languages and frameworks were built. High level languages made development and maintenance of an application much easier. This way, programmers are getting very far from the “metal” of the actual hardware, working with concepts much easier to deal with.

In a world of high level languages (Java, C#, PHP, Python, JavaScript etc.) it is much easier and faster to create an application.

Yet, although developing an application is becoming easier, the quality of the developers is falling.

A consumer society

We need school for a better job.

Because the need for studies is a general need, the school itself is diluting. The educational principles haven’t had significant changes since education became available to everybody. The result of the learning process is the exam, in order to determine the level of knowledge. And even more, a mediocre result allows us to move forward, without prove that the required base is present.

Moving to the next level is done with a partial evaluation, you don’t have to know 100% of the information, just 50-60%. It is not exactly clear if there are important notions in the remaining 40-50%.

This educational problem is more or less a general problem and there are few those who try different approaches.

In general, I don’t consider school a defining system for determining the knowledge, especially today, when we have access to such a large volume of alternatives for it.

When students finish school, they don’t have all the required knowledge to actually work in the industry, which is not abnormal. School must offer a general basis. For instance, during my higher education I can remember at least 8-9 programming languages that we studied. There were actually more, but I didn’t keep a detailed evidence of them. It is clear that you can’t possibly know all these programming languages in order to become productive using them. On the other hand, you have an idea on how to approach them, which may help you to find the one you’ll like to study in thoroughness.

That’s the key, to study in thoroughness! For this we each have our approach, here you can find your own way, either courses, books, practical projects or all of them. By thoroughly studying a subject, the employers will not only accept you, but they will hunt you!

Often, the passion will totally replace the studies from school. I’ve met a lot of people which, even though they haven’t studied informatics in school, they are now professionals in it.

The good part is that a lot of people are studying from pleasure and I advise anyone who is reading these lines to search for pleasure in what they do. This is the best motivation.

Alternative education in a consumer society

Because the traditional learning techniques are no exactly sufficient, let’s talk about a few alternative methods:

  • books
  • courses
  • tutorials
  • articles/blogs

Books

Traditionally books are the best source of information (at least until the Internet became available). But there is no guaranty for the quality!

About 8-9 years ago I was trying to buy a JavaScript book. The selection wasn’t very big and so I tried to analyze each one.

In the end I was disappointed with my choice, because instead of teaching me JavaScript, the book was teaching how to make special effects on the page (very popular in that period).

In my particular case, I found the answer much later in a presentation by Douglas Crockford. He said that most JavaScript books are like that and he was recommending a single book, beside the book written by him, JavaScript: The Definitive Guide.

The reason is very simple, people tend to be more drawn by books that promise to teach a language or technology in a limited number of lessons or days. We want everything now, but studying takes time, you must understand the notions, not just a fast overview.

Generally, to determine the quality of a book you should look for reviews. These days it is very easy, I prefer Amazon.com and not only. This way you can determine if it is what you are looking for.

Sometimes a faster approach is useful, especially if you don’t have any previous experience on the subject, but generally this doesn’t offer a general perspective, only a gentile introduction.

Courses

There are a lot of courses, both in-class and on-line. Just like for the books, it is hard to determine the quality of the course.

Courses promise a lot, but a lot of the times they don’t treat the subjects in detail and in the end, even though you have the impression that you have learned a lot, when it comes to practice you realize that any variation from the course material is very difficult.

Just like for books, references are very important! Unfortunately, there aren’t as many reviews for course as there are for books.

Try to see what subjects the course is teaching and the detail of the approach. Sometimes, you can find more easily a reference for the teacher than for the course.

Tutorials

Especially on the Internet, there are a lot of tutorials that promise to teach a certain domain, but they only teach you how to create their example. In the end you can only create small variations of the initial example. Often, the creator of the tutorial has the best intentions, but it is hard to transfer information like this.

For the free ones it is very easy to determine if the approach is the right one for you and for your needs. Try to watch a few episodes and in the end see how much you’ve understood on how that particular component is working. If you can only replicate, maybe you need to search a little more.

The good part is that there are generally a lot of them to choose from. For instance, for a programming language you can first check the official reference to see what you should learn about, then in the tutorial you can see how many of the points from the reference were approached.

For the commercial ones it is a bit harder, because often you just have a small introspective preview, insufficient to form an opinion. For those particular cases you should search for reviews.

Blogs and articles

The good part here is that the time investment is relatively small. It is simpler to get a general idea.

The disadvantage is that some of the articles don’t update with time. You must make sure that the examples work on the version that you are using. From my own experience I can say that keeping an article up to date is hard an takes a lot of time. For instance some of the articles on this blog that still attract visitors are written a few years back and if I don’t use that particular technology anymore, I’m tempted not to keep them up to date.

How to learn better

Search for references and reviews for the materials that will require an investment in time and/or money: books, courses or tutorials.

When you’ve settled on a subject, try to see what materials others recommend. The Internet is full of materials of different levels of difficulty.

When you fell that you’ve mastered a subject, test your knowledge. Build an app, follow the subject on Q/A platforms or even write a tutorial for the others. You tend to understand much better a subject when you have to describe it to others.

Practice! It is very important to practice what you learn or you’ll forget much easier than you think. Contribute to open-source projects, try to do personal projects or try to adapt projects created by somebody else to your needs. Github is a very good tool for finding and publishing projects.

It is a bit harder at the beginning to understand somebody else’s code, but in the industry it is mandatory in order to be able to collaborate with others.

Learn new things all the time. Technology is changing, and so is the perspective over it. For instance, AJAX appeared in the late “90’s, but the perspective over it and how it can be used changed dramatically over the next few years, even though the technology itself didn’t change a lot during that time. The same for JavaScript, even though it appeared in the “90’s, only after 2000 it began to be considered an useful tool, previously it was mainly used for special effects on the page.

For a while, PHP was considered useful only for small projects. Today it is the language of choice for giants of the internet, like Facebook and Yahoo!. Along with the popularity, the best practices on the language itself changed for a better scalability and performance.

Conclusion

The educational system doesn’t offer the performance that employers are looking for. This creates a discrepancy between the expectations of the employers and those of the graduates, and this not restricted to informatics.

Unfortunately, the alternative materials sometimes also promise unrealistic things. Some study technologies and programming languages for months, while others promise results after only days or even hours.

Fortunately, we are living in an era dominated by information, and we can find not only materials, but also opinions about them.

Through better training, the changes of finding a job are rising considerably, resulting in satisfaction on both sides.

Written by Claudiu Persoiu

17 December 2013 at 11:18 PM

Posted in Diverse

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