No ordinary week
“Cycle 47” was a special week in my career makeover at Learners Guild. The old Guild is no more; enter the new Guild.
First, the week was abbreviated, for me, by a day and a half of jury duty. I was confident I would never survive the peremptory challenges in any jury selection: I’m too iconoclastic and steeped in litigation. This was a residential eviction case, where the defendant was claiming retaliation. I myself had just moved out of a co-op in anticipation that its members would perpetrate retaliatory eviction against me. How could the landlord’s attorney let me onto that jury? But she did. The tenant’s attorney asked whether, despite my involvement in numerous prior eviction cases, I could be unbiased in this case, and I said no, I could not be unbiased. But he still didn’t challenge me! Both attorneys exhausted their challenge allotments on persons who, in my lay judgment, were less risky for their clients, but not on me. So I actually got onto the jury. We heard our instructions and witnessed a couple of hours of botched testimony by a landlord witness, who said his firm normally complies with the law on evictions but admitted he didn’t know whether it had complied in this case. Why this case ever reached trial was a mystery to me. And the next morning we were informed that the case had settled, so we were let loose. Before leaving the courtroom, I asked the landlord’s attorney whether her client couldn’t have prepared better for this trial, and she agreed.
Back at Learners Guild, I resumed work on my Goal on Wednesday. “My”, because the Algorithm had assigned me to my second-choice (solo) Goal rather than my first-choice (team) Goal. Had I been on a team, I would have asked to have my jury duty rescheduled, in fairness to my teammate.
The nitty gritty
The Goal required solving 8 logical problems, called “coding exercises”:
- Scrabble tally: Given a list of tiles already used, return a tally of all letters, grouped by the counts of their remaining tiles. I chose to implement it generically, so it would work for any language’s version of Scrabble, or any other structurally identical situation.
- Word lookup in a string: Given a string (i.e. a line of text) and a number, return the word that is at the number’s position in the string, where the first position is zero. I chose to implement it with the XRegExp library, so it would work for any language, not just English. Whether for English or generically, one must define “word”. For this exercise, I defined the words of a string as what are left when we treat any sequence of characters matching the regular expression “[^\pL\pN]*\pZ[^\pL\pN]*” as a delimiter. That means any sequence of 0 or more characters other than letters and/or numbers, provided that it includes at least 1 separator character (using Unicode’s definitions of letters, numbers, and separators). There is no universally satisfactory rule defining “word” in all languages, or even in English. Mine was a quick-and-dirty rule. It classifies “M&M.” as a word in “He ate an M&M.”, and “Mr” as a word in “Mr. Smith”.
- Translator between (ordinary) decimal numbers and binary numbers with the Fibonacci sequence as the base. (We who love to solve problems don’t ask, “What am I ever going to need this for?”.)
- Function that removes vowels, defined as “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, “u”, and all non-a-to-z characters (even A-to-Z), from a string. Defined naïvely and Anglocentrically, so I couldn’t try to universalize it. Lucky for me; that could have taken a lifetime.
- A search tool to find a value inside a JSON string. JSON seems to have taken over supremacy from XML as a format for exchanging complex bodies of information. Its advocates say it’s “much simpler”.
- Date reformatter: Converts from any of 6 formats to the ISO 8601 standard format, like “2017-06-16”.
- Music player: A web page that, as soon as you open it, plays the notes of an octave and, optionally, a chord. Why was this included here? Sure, it’s coding, but it also involves researching how to generate and play sound. That’s what took the most time for me.
- Parenthetical redundancy eliminator: Given a string, return the same string, with any redundant pairs of parentheses removed. Not as simple as it may seem. For example, “ak⁾vo (（(water [[(H₂O)]])）)” contains no redundant pairs of parentheses, because brackets and full-width parentheses are not (in my solution) classified as parentheses.
That, then, is a taste of the kind of thinking we learn to practice at the Guild.
Would the detour hurt my grade?
Given the interruption, I doubted I could complete the 1-week Goal’s requirements by Friday afternoon. My coach reassured me that my completion score on this Goal would not suffer from my jury-duty absence, because scores were adjusted for time off. In any case, I managed to finish the 8 problems on Thursday, so I used the remaining time to start some of the Goal’s optional work.
Anyway, grades didn’t exist at the Guild. Statistics and levels did, though, and it’s hard to avoid assimilating any quantitative indicator into one’s mental model of grading at school. Even without grades, I have been seeing a considerable amount of grade anxiety among Learners, attached to what are the closest approximations to grades.
Revolution from above
Little did my coach or I know that the week’s work was not going to be scored for completion at all. We did get a hint of this on Monday, when the staff advised us not to worry about completion scores that week and to focus only on learning as much as we could. But the deeper reason for this advice was revealed only on Friday.
Learners Guild solicits comments from its Learners, and it gets many unsolicited comments as well. Its staff makes changes in the process in response to those comments.
On Friday afternoon, when I normally would have been composing this blog entry (well, a blog entry, since the content would have differed), we spent 3 hours learning of, asking questions about, and discussing a new batch of changes to the system. This one was no set of incremental adjustments. It was fundamental.
The Guild has now jettisoned its entire apparatus of statistical progress (and regress) indicators, which had been refined for months and was about to be re-refined. By one staffer’s own testimony, the repeated attempts to make that system satisfactory had led to a conviction that doing so was hopeless, so, in mid-tweak, the system was trashed.
The set of “levels” through which Learners moved on the basis of their statistical indicators has likewise been thrown overboard. This vertical (higher and lower) metaphor has been replaced by a horizontal one: “phases”.
Phases might seem like a mere renaming of levels, but they are not:
- The phases differ in their content. Phases 1 and 2 are self-paced individual work devoted to mastery of prescribed fundamentals. In those phases, no more do Learners vote on preferred projects; instead, there is a fixed set of skills to be acquired. Phase 3 is team-based small projects with choice, like what I have been mostly doing up to now. Phase 4 is collaborative work on real (not just realistic) open-source projects. Those two project phases, 3 and 4, are not rigidly tied to a 1-week cycle. And Phase 5 is preparation for the reality of the external market for the Guild’s product, web application developers.
- Admission into the next phase depends on a 1-week testing and interviewing filter. We should expect on average to be ready for that after about 5 weeks in a phase, but we must get into the next phase in no later than 8 weeks; otherwise, our progress is not satisfactory. If we don’t get admitted on our first attempt, we get an additional opportunity to try. Phase 5 is not subject to that limit if it would eject us before our 40 weeks at the Guild has come to an end.
- Learner-to-learner coaching is no longer a formal element of the system. Instead, we are supported by “Software Engineering Practitioners”, who are Guild employees. To see the qualifications of an SEP, look at the current hiring announcement. If you yourself are qualified, please apply and mention my blog as your referral source. While coaches are no more, the Guild hopes that its abandonment of microstatistical indicators will make Learners more relaxed about taking time from their work to help other Learners. Thus, if it works, coaching will become culturally pervasive, instead of being an assigned temporary role.
The path from here to there
The Guild seems to have defined a reasonably smooth transition for existing Learners into the new order. This week we are on a pre-scheduled 1-week break. Next week we all undergo a “sorting” process. To prepare, each of us has notified the Guild which phase he or she asks to be evaluated for. Starting Monday morning, we work individually on projects constituting take-home tests for the phases we have chosen. Starting Wednesday afternoon, we get interviewed by SEPs on the solutions we produced, to evaluate our (in)ability to explain and reason about our own solutions and possible alternatives. At the end of the week we learn whether we have been admitted to the phases we selected; if not, we are admitted to the preceding phases.
The Guild program lasts, nominally, 40 weeks (plus 1 or 2 break weeks). If the transition places a Learner into a phase that makes the program longer, then it is extended for that Learner.
I have been at the Guild for 6 weeks now. That should qualify me to get into Phase 2. But the Guild advises us to try to get into the most advanced phase we “think” we “can” get admitted to. I have probed for clarity about that, and I believe the intended meaning is the most advanced phase we believe the SEPs have a nontrivial probability of letting us into. So, if my subjective probability of success in getting into Phase 3 is 30%, I should try for Phase 3. That’s close to my subjective reality, so I have asked to be tested for Phase 3. If I were to succeed, I would feel a need to backfill my fundamentals, and I’d be doing so under pressure to complete current projects, but that’s probably typical of the real software-development world.
Who’s the guinea pig?
Abrupt change can be exhilarating or frightening, and the changes can benefit some while harming others. The Learner population is diverse in many ways, so the personal impacts of this redesign will vary.
At least one Learner has said that the Guild feels like a laboratory in which she is one of the subjects in an experiment.
There is a basis for that impression. The Guild exists only in Oakland but aspires to replicate itself. We are testing each iteration of its design and helping the Guild decide what to keep and what to change. The system must work for us before it can be scaled up and out.
While acknowledging the validity and empirical basis for the sense that the Guild is experimenting on us, I have a different feeling. For me, yes, there is an experiment going on, but in that experiment I am the experimenter and the Guild is the subject.
I am conducting an experiment (or, perhaps better, pilot study) testing the hypothesis that there is no chronological limit to professional rejuvenation, even in information technology. I invited the Guild to join that experiment, and it agreed. As time passes, I keep providing stimuli to the Guild, and it keeps responding. Step by step, I’m discovering what makes it tick and how to get my needs satisfied by this subject, who is simultaneously a subject in 120 other engineers’ experiments, testing similar but not identical hypotheses. In this interaction, I perceive more autonomy in myself than in the Guild.
I have also heard the suggestion that the Guild may be breaking its contract with Learners when it changes its system. I have my doubts about that, and in fact I would probably entertain such a notion if the Guild refused to change its system, because, arguably, that would be negligence.
But these are subjective matters. If you are considering applying to the Guild, considering the testimony of other Learners and me may help you predict what your own interpretations would be. If you are risk- and change-acceptant, I believe that’s a good sign of compatibility. Perhaps only such persons are a good fit for contemporary software development work anyway.