Week 20 at an Unbootcamp

Students JavaScript and web application development at Learners Guild in Oakland begin by creating pieces of applications, and after a few weeks entire make-believe applications. After about 20 weeks, however, they may begin participating in the creation, repair, and improvement of real software that is in current use. I’m about to make that transition.

Getting real

Learners Guild in Oakland offers a 40-week program of project-based training in software development, centered around web applications written in JavaScript.

The training functions are distributed, with more advanced Learners helping less-advanced ones, as in the proverbial one-room schoolhouse. There are also ex-Learners serving on the staff as coaches, and professional programmers holding office hours, checking Learners’ code in group sessions, and giving lectures. Most of the time, Learners are figuring out how to build applications, either solo or with a partner, by absorbing documentation, tutorials, and other resources, then writing, testing, and revising code until it works.

I have just completed my 20th week there, and during the week I underwent an exam and a technical interview to establish my readiness to progress from “phase 3” to “phase 4”. The exam took me the 2.5 days allotted, and the interview was tough, resulting in a half-page of recommendations on further study to solidify my fragile competence in certain important pieces of web technology. But the evaluator decided that on the whole I had what it took to proceed to phase 4.

Phase 4 will involve leaving make-believe projects behind, and working on real open-source software, namely the software that powers the instructional system of Learners Guild itself. That software, as is always true, needs to have bugs removed and infelicities remedied. But Learners Guild is reinventing its curriculum, not only in content but also in structure, so the demands on phase-4 Learners include making improvements, often previously unanticipated ones, in the existing code, without introducing new faults into it.

Word on the street is that it is a shock to find oneself in phase 4, because the huge body of code with its many depended-on software libraries is far more difficult to make sense of than the self-contained practice applications we have been building in the earlier phases. I’ll be finding out shortly whether my reaction is the same.

Meanwhile, on Saturday I attended an orientation to another opportunity to contribute to open-source software, the Open Oakland brigade of Code for America. I began to learn which of its projects are still alive and which of those might be able to use my help. If, however, the immersion into phase 4 is as traumatic as rumored, my temptation to engage in such extracurricular volunteering may be postponed.


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