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

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
7 Traits of Effective Software Engineers

If you’re considering a career as a software engineer, then you may have heard how difficult it is to learn. But the right mindset can give you a significant advantage when learning and working in the industry. Software engineers who embody these seven character traits are valuable employees and productive contributors.

Curiosity

It’s what killed the cat, apparently, but that cat was a rock-solid engineer. Great engineers take responsibility for learning and exploration. They do not depend on their superiors to give them explicit direction for a new challenge – their curiosity guides them to reach their own conclusions.

At my first job as an engineer, I worked on an Android game. In the middle of working on a new feature, I noticed that some background tasks consumed an inordinate amount of time. After some investigation, I discovered that we relied on an Android API that took 50% longer on average to complete when compared to a simpler Java counterpart. I reported my findings and as a result, we swapped one for the other in all cases.

An engineer who seeks out new information and investigates the product may discover something new in the process. More importantly, the more versatile an engineer, the more valuable they become. Learn to serve your curiosities and feed them with research and experimentation.

Grit

All engineers require mental stamina. As a new engineer, you won’t solve the most challenging problems during your first attempts. In fact, you may have to spend days, weeks, or longer looking for a solution before finding one that meets both business and product requirements.

If you give up readily, you may not find yourself working on anything interesting, or anything at all. Engineers love solving problems and most refuse to give up until they work them out. Grit is what keeps engineers from throwing in the towel.

In 2014, the popular blogging platform, Medium, encountered a problem rendering underlines in Chrome. The author, Marcin Wichary, states that what was thought to be a one-night project turned into a month-long effort. After brainstorming seven approaches, the team settled on one and Marcin implemented it. Fixing something as seemingly trivial as a proper underline required incredible tenacity and the product is better for it.

Communication

This one is a no-brainer, but if you want to be a part of a functional team, you must communicate. If you’re shy or quiet, that’s fine. You can make up for shyness by communicating effectively in writing.

At Bloc, we rely on asynchronous communication – one out of every six employees works remotely. We use email, Slack, and GitHub to facilitate feedback and discussion. In these messages, we try to use as few words as possible and get to the point fast. This keeps our co-workers focused and eager to read and respond.

Your team needs to know what you’re working on and if they frequently ask for clarification, they may stop asking altogether. By communicating frequently and in brief but descriptive messages, your team will look forward to speaking with, and hearing from you.

Attention to Detail

Despite being another predictable member of this collection, attention to detail is vital for engineers and thus worthy of mention. If an employee at McDonalds applies two ounces of special sauce to your Big Mac instead of two and a half, will you notice?

As a software engineer, if you mistype even one line of code, it can crash an entire application. Details comprise software, and companies hire engineers to craft those details well. If you are someone that looks solely at the big picture, you have to learn to zoom in.

At Bloc, our students rely on our custom curriculum to learn the software trade. If we mistype a line of code or introduce a grammatical error, the student’s ability to learn the subject is significantly affected. We use grammar tools like spell check, linters, and Grammarly to draw attention to pain points.

Divergent Thinking

Some call this, “thinking outside of the box,” but saying that would be yet another cliché and this post has reached its limit of those. When solving challenging engineering problems, the best solutions often come from adopting a new perspective.

If everyone took a crack at a problem from the same angle, they would ultimately arrive at a similar solution. But a diverse team whose approach varies among its members will generate more ideas and non-conventional solutions. You and your team will benefit if you broaden your ability to see things that others overlook.

To allow team members to share new ideas and solutions, we occasionally hold hack day events at Bloc. These hack days, like hackathons at Facebook, permit anyone in the company to work on anything. Thus, people who rarely interact with an aspect of the Bloc product can build new features or solutions that the dedicated team had not yet thought of. For example, our hack days helped us design a new payment flow, student portfolios, a student glossary for recruiters, and so much more.

Modesty

Engineers collaborate, even when managers assign a task to just one engineer on the team. Team members review each other’s code before deploying it to production, and during these reviews, they may criticize or recommend significant changes to code written by their colleagues.

Engineers open to receiving critiques and feedback receive more support from their teammates, and the engineers that receive more support make bigger contributions to the product. More importantly, the product suffers if an engineer deploys code without revising it to meet the expectations of their peers. A good engineer is modest and willing to consider a different approach suggested by their team.

At Bloc, we have a thorough review process both on the engineering and curriculum side. Before we published this blog post, it received editing passes from two individuals that looked for quality content and prose. I was responsible for accepting modifications and including content suggested by my peers; the post is better for it.

Wolf Pack Membership

It’s common for some engineers to isolate themselves and work without consulting their teammates. The industry refers to this proclivity as Lone Wolf Syndrome. Lone Wolves, much like the animals after which we’ve named them, do not survive for long. Wolves hunt in packs, and engineers must collaborate.

To be a productive engineer: seek help when needed, express yourself when overwhelmed, offer to help when you see peers struggle, and in general, engage with the group. No one on your team is excited when one person goes off and returns with unwanted or otherwise broken code. Acting as part of the team builds better relationships and trust among your co-workers.

If you believe that your personality is set in stone or that you’ve grown fixed in your ways, we recommend you read this article from Psychology Today. Those who study the mind believe that personality is flexible and with concerted effort, anyone can alter their disposition.

7 Traits of Effective Software Engineers