My process of learning code originally went something like this:
- 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.
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.
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.