How to Succeed in an Online Coding Program

on Friday, April 1 @ 4:13pm

Learning online is hard

As online education proliferates (read: online coding programs), its proponents and detractors develop increasingly stronger opinions on its effectiveness. Proponents tout online education’s low cost, accessibility, and flexibility. Students can learn anywhere, according to their schedule, and usually at a reduced expense. Detractors, on the other hand, cite high dropout rates and a lack of effectiveness. While both sides of this debate are correct, there is a strategy for succeeding in an online program.

Create a dedicated home office, and make it awesome

A dedicated home office doesn’t require a large investment. As an online student you’ll work from home most of the time. You must find a space that’s quiet, clean, and allows for ergonomic amenities. 100 square feet should be plenty of space to create an office. You can find high-quality office furniture at IKEA, or buy used from a site like craigslist. Consider using a standing desk, or treat yourself to an ergonomic desk chair. Better yet, you can buy a sitting desk and build a modular standing desk, so you can stand or sit.

After your desk and chair are positioned, build the rest of the office around them. Hang pictures or paintings and buy a small bookshelf to fill with inspirational books. Save your money for perhaps the most expensive things, like a computer and monitor. It’s essential that you have a capable computer, and I recommend splurging on a large monitor. You’ll need to have multiple windows open from time to time, and a large monitor provides the real estate to do this.

Finally, if you live with other people, ask them to respect your office space. A clean, organized, and comfortable office will set you on the right path for succeeding in an online program.

Immerse yourself

When you take an in-person program, immersion in the topic is inherent. You’re physically near your classmates which means that you’re likely to discuss the program and share knowledge. As an online student, immersion is not necessarily inherent – you have to force the issue. Your program will probably have a community – forums, chat rooms and mail lists – and while those are good places to hang out, you shouldn’t stop there. Subscribe to blogs and podcasts and find people to follow on Twitter. Get to know the lingo of your topic of study, and some of its key figures. It doesn’t matter if you understand everything right away, it’s important to become comfortable with the “language” you’re learning.

Study every day

In-person programs impose a routine of study because you have to go to class at specific times. Online programs offer more flexibility, so you have to manufacture a routine. Without a consistent and disciplined routine of study, you will not succeed in an online program. Whether you spend 15 minutes or 8 hours studying, you must study every single day. Create a habit for yourself. How long it takes to form a habit depends on the person, but you’ll know once you develop it because it will feel wrong not to study. Make sure that your study time is scheduled when you are at your mental best, and not when you’re tired or easily distracted. Find a method that helps you get into a relaxed zone, and make sure you schedule your study time around it.

Find meetups

The fact that you don’t have a classroom doesn’t mean you should avoid people and in-person interaction. An online program offers many benefits over an in-person program, but interaction in real life is something it can not offer. Fortunately, there are many options for meeting people in real life for many different areas of interest.

For example, if you’re studying to become a Rails web developer, there is almost certainly a Ruby or Rails meetup in your area. Join the meetup group, discuss your program with others, tell them what you’re working on and what you’re having trouble with. You’ll learn a lot from these experiences, and often in ways that are hard to duplicate virtually.

Rebase iteratively, and celebrate

No matter how great your virtual community is or how many meetups you attend, as an online student you’ll spend most of your time alone. It’s easy to forget how much you’ve learned when nobody is there to remind you. You must make it a habit to remind yourself. At the end of every day, you should rebase. That is, think about what you know, compared to the prior day. Think about the problem you’ve been toiling over, and that you finally solved. Even though these may seem like small wins, celebrate them! Treat yourself to a beer, order a pizza, or do something to spoil yourself for every little win.

Celebrating your wins is as important as embracing your struggles. If you focus too much on either, you’ll derail your progress. Develop a balanced mindset for both, and you’ll create momentum to capitalize on your wins, and grit to push you through struggles.

Will an online program work for you?

It certainly can, but whether it does or not ultimately depends on your commitment, consistency, and discipline. The strategy outlined in this blog will ensure that you succeed in your program, but you have to embrace every part. If you do, an online program will provide you with a quality education, at a reduced cost, and on your own schedule.

More advice on changing careers

What Companies Look for in Software Developers

Software developer positions are highly desired. Just as astronauts, Supreme Court justices, and Hogwarts professors must have a variety of skills and knowledge, software developers have a combination of technical knowledge and soft skills. This post explores the skills that many companies look for.

Familiarity With Multiple Languages

While many software developers find themselves working primarily in only one language, it’s helpful to have experience in others. Fluency in multiple languages exposes developers to different design patterns and allows them to work on a wider variety of projects. Software developers working in web development may want experience in a backend language like Ruby or Python and a frontend language like JavaScript or CoffeeScript. In iOS app development, developers should know Objective-C and Swift. A person who knows multiple languages is called a polyglot, and this skill set is highly desired.

Knowledge of Modern Software Development Tools

To be effective, software developers need to know how to use modern tools:

– version control software (like Git) – issue trackers (like Jira and Pivotal Tracker) – web computing services (like Amazon AWS and Heroku) – database programming software (like SQLite and PostgreSQL)

The knowledge of these is critical to the duties of a developer. Without knowing the tools that modern teams use, it may be difficult to collaborate with team members, organize source code, or prioritize tasks.

Strong Negotiation Skills

Software developers are responsible for implementing new features. As part of this process, they’ll need to work with developers and engineers on their team to select a specific approach. Debate, disagreement, and discussion are common, so negotiation, conflict management, and compromise skills are very important. While the computer programming part of the job is critical, software developers are expected to be team players who contribute more than simply churning out code.

Understanding of Algorithms, Data Structures, and Complexity

Great code should be understandable and maintainable, but it should also perform efficiently. To write performant code, software developers need to understand how data structures, algorithms, and complexity relate. Different structures for storing data (like queues, graphs, trees, hash tables, etc.) can improve the way data is organized. Algorithms can provide different ways to search or sort this data, and different algorithms are preferred for different use cases. Complexity measurement, analysis, and optimization allows us to describe, measure, and improve the performance of a solution for a given problem.

Combined, these skills allow software engineers to write code that runs faster or takes up less space. Everybody hates to wait, so this work can vastly improve a user’s enjoyment of a product. Great performance can also help a product survive longer because it has a good foundation.

Task Organization and Management

Software engineers are given a wide variety of tasks from small but critical bug fixes to architecting a major project. While issue trackers like Jira and Pivotal Tracker can help organize these tasks, engineers must comprehend the tasks and their relative priority, consider co-workers and customers whose work depends on these tasks, and organize their workflow accordingly. Critical thinking about task and workflow management is an important part of software development.

Practice

Whether it’s previous jobs, open-source software contributions, or your own personal projects, software engineers are expected to have practice working with large and complex code bases. This helps them understand how different parts of a program work together, which enables them to effectively add features and understand the cause of bugs.

What Companies Look for in Software Developers
Why Apprenticeships Are on the Rise

Ask any VP of Engineering or CTO, and they’ll tell you hiring talented developers is getting harder. Meanwhile, ask one of the millions of underemployed millennials, and they’ll say they are willing to learn, but can’t get their foot in the door. Apprenticeship was once a commonplace feature of the American economy, but for the last 30 years it has been in decline. Apprenticeships are the critical link to closing the skills gap for employers and reducing unemployment for millennials.

To understand why apprenticeships can bridge the gap, let’s take a look at the marketplace for technical talent.

Traditional Universities are Failing Us

traditional-uni

First, the gap between supply and demand for technical talent is widening. On the supply side of the marketplace for technical talent, we have universities. According to the Department of Labor, 400,000 new CS grads will enter the workforce between 2010 and 2020. In that same period, nearly 1.4 million new tech jobs will be created. That’s a shortage – a skills gap of – 1 million more jobs than graduates.

Second, even those students graduating in computer science, aren’t prepared for careers in software engineering. Universities care about helping students become job-ready. But that isn’t their singular goal. Many also seek to teach a liberal arts education and to publish ground-breaking research. Because of this, there is no singular focus on one goal. As a result, students graduate ill-prepared for industry. According to Brad Neese, director of Apprenticeship Carolina, employers are seeing “a real lack of applicability in terms of skill level” from college graduates.

For example, top tier university computer science curricula often include courses in advanced math, physics, compilers, and operating systems. When we surveyed engineers at top companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they told us they used less than 25% of their university education in their career. According to Rob Gonzales, co-founder of Salsify, “many ‘core’ CS courses really aren’t that critical for becoming very productive engineers. I’ve never had to write a compiler or operating system in my career, and the last time I thought about finite automata was 2001 when I was studying them myself.”

Meanwhile, few universities teach essential skills a software engineer will use every day. According to Mo Kudeki, a Software Engineer at Twitter, “Although I went to a top Computer Science program, there are software engineering topics that we never covered that are crucial to being a great engineer, like how to methodically debug something, and how to give and receive a good code review.”

All of these factors combined result in a tremendous mismatch between the skills with which American students graduate and the skills needed by employers.

Employers are Hungry But Ill-Equipped to Train

chalkboard

While employers are hungry to recruit great talent, their appetite for growing that talent themselves has been declining for the past decade. According to Lauren Weber of the WSJ, apprenticeships in the US have declined over 30% from 2003 to 2013.

Furthermore, even those companies that want to provision such training may be unable to do so. Training programs require experienced instructors. According to Gonzales, “you must have someone to manage the program full time, including doing daily coaching, code reviews, design sessions, planning sessions, one-on-ones, communication outside of the group to gather requirements, etc. This person should be respected throughout the organization, as getting the program started and effective is going to be a bumpy road that will draw on company resources even beyond the coach.”

Unfortunately, the shortage of technical talent has left most companies without the bench strength to fill existing headcount and also train a large pool of junior developers. According to Marcy Capron, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based Polymathic: “Companies don’t have an infrastructure for ongoing learning. We really need a guide to mentoring junior devs. Hourly consulting firms can’t afford it because you can’t bill mentoring to the client.

We’re Seeing Renewed Investment and Innovation in Technical Skills Training

pair-programming

So with universities failing us, and employers hungry but unable to grow their own talent, a new breed of apprenticeship-like programs have leveraged technology to deliver better outcomes, more affordably than ever before. Computer science bootcamps put students through compressed programs to prepare them for coding jobs. These bootcamp programs have found traction with employers and graduates alike. The first coding bootcamp was founded just four years ago, but Course Report estimates that over 150 bootcamps graduated more than 16,000 alumni in 2015 – a combined estimated market of $180M, up from $0 in 2011.

According to Western Governors University President Bob Mendenhall in the Washington Post “Neither accreditation nor regulation has caught up with the power of technology to impact both the quality and cost and accessibility of higher education.” And last month, Udacity raised $105 Million bringing their valuation to $1 billion, Dev Bootcamp was acquired by Kaplan, and Bloc recently announced a year-long Software Engineering Track, which includes a three month apprenticeship, before students start the job search. And now a slew of specialized apprenticeship programs are emerging.

Employees are also more open to non-traditional university education than ever before. According to a 2014 survey by Glassdoor, 72 percent of employees said they value specialized training over earning a degree. What’s more, 63 percent of respondents said they believe that nontraditional ways of learning new skills — such as certificate programs, bootcamps, webinars and massive open online courses — could help them earn a bigger paycheck. This growth for nontraditional skills training may be coming at the expense of graduate programs, with more than half (53%) of employees saying a graduate degree is no longer necessary to be offered a high-paying job.

What Should We Expect to See in 2016?

As apprentice-like programs cross the chasm from early adopters to early majority, we may see see savvy millennials foregoing the traditional 4-year campus experience in favor of a leaner hybrid, pairing community college with a technical apprenticeship that gets them into the workforce and learning on the job earlier and with less debt.

With the hype around coding bootcamps reaching it’s zenith, we may see these programs coming full-circle, as they begin adding-back curriculum covering the computer science theory that they once eschewed.

Why Apprenticeships Are on the Rise