Week 8 at an Unbootcamp

First ordinary week under the new model

As reported in my previous post, Learners Guild in Oakland, California, recently made a major change in its software-development curriculum. The week ending on 23 June was a special week: All 120 Learners got evaluated for “sorting” into 5 “phases”.

I interviewed for phase 3, and was placed, as expected, into phase 2. Results varied greatly among Learners, but the theme was conservatism, with doubts resolved in favor of placement into earlier phases. As a result, phases 1 and 2 are now the largest, accounting for about 70 Learners.

The week ending on 30 June was the first ordinary week of the new model’s implementation. For most of us its main novelty may be its solitary study mode. We work through the curriculum in whatever order we want, at a pace of our choosing, one by one. This affects Learners differently. I think I’m thriving under it, continually absorbing what I need to know, because if I already know something I can skip it or review it briefly to confirm, and I can slow down to master a topic that seems crucial, without needing to reach agreement with a teammate. Some other Learners have voiced deprivation of the social aspect of their work, but most have voted to keep working alone when asked about a more collective interlude.

The other main difference I notice is in the quality and detail of expert support. The old model’s emphasis on near-peer coaching gave us ready access to more advanced Learners for help and reviews of our work. The new model gives us routine access to Software Engineering Practitioners (SEPs), members of the Guild’s staff with years of industry experience. The difference is unmistakable. I have requested and received 2 code reviews, and the comments by the SEP were much more expert than I had received from any prior coach. We can also attend lectures and office hours conducted by SEPs.

While proceeding through the curriculum, we may also easily contribute to it, by proposing editorial changes, ranging from typographic to substantive. I have made several such proposals, which the SEP staff has integrated into the working documentation.

For now I have decided to work through the curriculum in the recommended order, checking off claimed skills as I proceed. I’m reminded every day of phase-2 topics that I had never studied, had only superficial knowledge of, or had forgotten. While some say they want to quickly plug their knowledge holes and interview out of phase 2 in 2 or 3 weeks, I feel no such motivation. This is the fundamental stuff. It seems like a luxury to have time to study it in more depth than I have done before. A couple of examples:

  • One enters hundreds of commands as one works in a terminal. I hadn’t learned that one can find a previous command by typing control-r and then any part of the command. The terminal interfaces (such as bash) are sophisticated programming languages of their own, with many such time-saving features. The curriculum selects some of the most useful and says “learn these”, and some turn out to be techniques that would have been worth learning long ago.
  • Using JavaScript well requires internalizing new models of time, process, event, and agent management. I grew up writing computer-driven, sequential programs. They would do something and wait for the user to do something in response, then react to that. Now I’m learning to conceptualize the interactions differently, to accommodate situations in which multiple computers, multiple users, and multiple natural processes do spontaneous things and respond to one another’s actions. When I started programming, the computer’s and the user’s actions were textual. My programs would not know what a user was doing until and unless the user pressed an enter or return key to “submit” a response. Now I need to learn how to create systems in which actions can also be aural, graphic, and kinetic, and can vary continuously in addition to being discrete. I can, for example, write a program that changes what it does whenever the user slides a mouse in a particular direction or at a particular speed, an action that would have been invisible to my programs of yore. In the old days I thought of my programs as “running” on a “computer” and being “used” in a terminal or browser. Now I need to think of the server and the client as partner agents in implementing my code. I have to decide, step by step, whether it makes more sense for the server to do something or have the client (terminal, browser, mobile phone, etc.) do it.

Such changes in cognitive models of the computing universe are implicit in phase 2, at least for me, and it seems foolish to try to rush such a re-education. I want to keep putting this panoply of new tools and concepts to use until the alien becomes natural. Week by week, the Guild’s curriculum and staff are brainwashing me, it’s working, and it’s good.

One Response to “Week 8 at an Unbootcamp”

  1. Brittany says:

    Hi Jonathan!

    I love reading about your progress and your program feedback. I’m currently doing the prep work (will be starting in the Sept cohort) and have received emails about the curriculum changes. It’s reassuring to see a current students take on the changes. Keep the posts coming!

    Cheers!
    Brittany

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