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Community Learning in San Francisco

On Top of Nob Hill

On Top of Nob Hill

My process of learning code originally went something like this:

  • Find a book with lots of examples.  Favorites are Kochan & Wood’s Unix Shell Scripting, Head First Java and Kernighan & Ritchie’s C Programming, and I’m finishing up Head First Javascript.
  • Work through as many of the examples as possible.  It might take a year but that’s ok.
  • Make my own crappy stuff.

This strategy went to hell for several reasons when I decided to get more serious about learning web development for the following reasons:
1.  Any half-way useful web-stack has many pieces and a considerable amount of time can be spent just getting those to work together.
2.  The pace of the web typically outstrips any book.
3.  I’ve gotten serious about a novel I’m writing.  Every morning, I spend an hour writing creative fiction.  Between that and working 8 hours a day, when I get home, I am usually D.O.N.E.

But I’m still serious about learning more web development.  Since I work at Pivotal Labs in test and support on Tracker, when fellow Pivot, Sarah Mei mentioned a Railsbridge workshop, my ears perked up.  Railsbridge is an intensive Friday evening installfest plus all-day Saturday learning extravaganza.  Recognizing the opportunity to commit to myself with a date, I signed up and have attended a couple of Railsbridge sessions.  The thoughtful detail put into Railsbridge shows in how they divide people up by skill level, how they make sure you have what you need installed on your computer, how they have a great student:teacher ratio and do a retro at the end of the Saturday.  I honestly wish I’d had the benefit of an experience like Railsbridge in college.

Oh yeah…college
There will always be a debate about whether people should get a CS degree or not.  I have one.  Many successful people I know don’t.  Many places require them for employment, but a lot of places in San Francisco don’t.  While I believe there are benefits to college, specifically, liberal arts degrees, I’m becoming a believer in the community education system I see emerging here in San Francisco.

In the case of Railsbridge, while the program doesn’t cost money, it is a sacrifice of a Friday night and most of a Saturday so there is an opportunity cost and some commitment involved.  It’s true that there are many beginners, but I’ve met plenty of people there who are beginning to get pretty effective at building Rails apps.  In fact, at the last Railsbridge I attended, I was greeted by someone who got a job after attending and learning from Railsbridge.  I’m sure she worked really hard on her skills outside of Railsbridge as well, but she did the work and got results.

One argument I hear about meetups is that they’re full of people who don’t know how to code or who aren’t serious about their programming skills.  While there are plenty of people at these Meetups who are learning on their own schedule and may never work as a programmer or even in tech, there are plenty of people who go to Meetups such as the Javascript one and will spend the better part of 2 hours on a Wednesday night writing some code.  I’m routinely impressed whenever I show up at these events by the focus of my fellow attendees.

If you think that these types of group learning only cover a few “beginner” topics, what about Algorithms or Scala?

Part of what’s fueling this ecosystem is the proliferation and refinement of online learning.  I remember when the M.I.T. open courseware was a bunch of syllabi.  I also remember the agony of pre-millenial online classes.  Those were definitely the dark ages.  Now we have Khan Academy, Code Academy and CourseEra.  Between these and the ease of setting up a gathering with Meetup, the SF tech community is turning into it’s own community college, and I’ve learned a whole lot more about Rails.

What I like about this system is that it’s not just the students who win.  If you’ve ever taught someone how to do something you’ll understand the benefit the instructors are getting out of it too.  As a bonus, I can see that anyone who learns something out of this community system is also likely to turn around and give back.  I dream of the day when I’m good enough at web development to be the one pointing out CSS and Rails typos.

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2 Comments on "Community Learning in San Francisco"

  • Thanks for sharing the post.

    Is there any thing like RailsBridge in India?

  • marlena says

    That’s a great question! I’m not sure if it has spread to India yet, but I know that there are chapters in many cities of the U.S. My guess is that if you search on Meetup.com and don’t find anything now, that will have changed in a year or so.

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