If Scratch Isn’t the Answer, I Think I Know What Is

June 20, 2017 at 5:01 pm in Personal

(Originally posted over at Medium)

In this post, the author, Dominic Pace, argues that we should teach “actual programming” instead of Scratch. I encourage you to read that first because it makes some great points. It’s written by a high school senior who’s hit upon something important: “Learn to code” tools like Scratch and Alice really are somewhat disconnected from software development. They do help with problem-solving, and they do help students work with the very basics of software development, but they create an unrealistic expectation of how we really build software.

This is a problem I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

I spent a few years teaching beginners to code full-time, and the biggest thing I learned about teaching people a new skill is that it’s all about motivation and connections to familiar things. The learners are eager to create things similar to what they already love to use. They’re interested in coding because they know that’s how apps and games they use daily are made.

I can relate to this and I think a lot of people my age can too. When I was a kid, I played text adventure games. And my love for coding came from being able to make the same kinds of games I was playing. It was fantastic. I was even able to find books where I could just type the code and I had the game. Then I could learn from what others did and monkey with it.

This approach is how other disciplines have learned for centuries. Bach learned composition by transcribing music from other composers.

But times have changed. The steps to making a basic text adventure game pale in comparison to building a first person shooter or a mobile game. You have to know a lot more about programming to do either of those things.

This then becomes a motivation problem — telling someone who’s excited make mobile games to type a bunch of statements into a text editor and run or compile a program that prints console output is really only going to attract the nerdiest folks in the group. Most people don’t see the immediate connection, and even the best teachers struggle to make this kind of exercise interesting enough to motivate the students to do it again. And when the student discovers just how far they have to go before they’re building their own VR games, they’ll probably just give up. I’ve seen this a lot.

This is where Scratch comes in. It gives quick wins. It’s easy to make some fun 2D games with Scratch. A “magic 8-ball” in Scratch is a 5 minute project, and most of that is just making the graphics. The problem is that Scratch and other tools abstract things too far away and then makes people really adverse to doing anything in a code editor. It feels like a step backwards to them. This is similar to some folks I’ve met who did Visual Basic programming for a while, liked it, then went to get CS degrees and found out they’d have to do Java and write the GUI in code using Swing.

Both of these approaches result in people losing interest in software development. But I think I’ve found that addresses both the “it’s real programming” and “it’s relatable”:

JavaScript and HTML in the browser.

The first exercise I have people do is navigate to a web page, and pop open the web console in the browser. Then we start tinkering with the DOM using code. It works because they all know what a web page is, they immediately feel empowered, it’s real programming, and they feel like they have superpowers. I’ve seen them show their friends and family the cool programming stuff they can do.

And they can do it right in a browser they already have. They don’t have to install tools, compilers, build systems, linters, or any of that stuff. They can start coding and be motivated. Then I can gently nudge them, slowly, towards better practices.

“Oops, refreshing that page means you lost all your stuff. Programs are just files we write. Let’s write our program in a file and run it. We’ll just open it in the browser now. Look! It runs!”

I’ve gotten resistance to this idea from a few places.

First, there’s a segment of people in the industry who look down at web development because HTL and CSS isn’t “real” programming, and JavaScript is a awful language because many reasons. “Front end developer” has become the new “junior developer”.

That’s just silly. You’re reading this on a platform created by a bunch of talented professional developers, many of them quite well-versed in front-end development. And JavaScript might not be the best language, but a beginning programmer doesn’t run into the kinds of problems that JavaScript can ause them. Because you’re there to guide them.

There’s another segment of people in the industry who insist that programmers have to “eat their broccoli” and do the difficult, hard programming because “that’s how you learn real programming.”

This group is already opposed to Scratch — they’re in the “it’s not real programming” camp. And honestly, I think they’ve either forgotten what programming was like before they knew stuff. (I hope it’s not that they’re just not that interested in making programming accessible to a wider audience.)

Me? I want more people to program. We need more perspectives. We need more ideas. We need more fun.

So I used this approach in my classes. And it worked. I had a lot of new programmers who got hooked on building things in a browser. They found out how fun coding is. Many of them went on to do Java, C, PHP, Ruby, and even Elixir. They learned in the browser, but they learned transferrable skills in a way that was motivating.

Don’t look too hard for the perfect way to teach programming to beginners; you might look right past the one in front of you.

What do you think? Share your thoughts!

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One Year at DigitalOcean

June 20, 2017 at 11:40 am in Personal

Today marks one year with DigitalOcean, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m so unbelievably lucky to get to do what I do there. I work on the DigitalOcean Tutorials collection, where I help community authors get their articles published. It’s the perfect job for me, as I get to draw from my software development and system administration backgrounds, as well as my writing, editing, and teaching experiences. Writing software is fun, but DigitalOcean gives me the opportunity to help others get better at what they do. I not only get to publish awesome tutorials that people know and love, but I also get to help authors develop their skills so they can be better communicators. I can see the impact I’m having in conversations at conferences, on Twitter, and with the authors themselves.

Flowers from DigitalOcean

DigitalOcean sent me anniversary flowers. Because that’s how they roll.

Here are just a few of the cool things I’ve published this year:

In addition to these articles, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a bunch of other side projects. I helped smooth some process things out, took a slight detour into doing some marketing work, learned a ton about SEO, and participated in a hackfest where I worked with four awesome developers to build something pretty cool.

The best thing about the job is the team I work with. The company is full of amazing and talented people, and the team I’m on is no exception. Everyone on our team has great ideas, is passionate about helping people learn, and is incredibly supportive. I’ve learned so much from my teammates this year and I’m incredibly grateful for their help. There are lots of places you can trade your skills for money. But not every place makes you excited to head to work every Monday.

I’m looking forward to the next year at DO. I’ve got some big plans for year two.

Oh… we’re hiring. If you are a system administrator or software developer with a passion for helping people level up, I’d like to work with you. We should have a talk if you feel you haver the right mix of technical skills, teaching experience, and can edit articles for structure, technical content, tone, and grammar. Here’s what we’re looking for:

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Settling In at the New Gig

August 12, 2016 at 11:28 pm in Personal, Tech, Work

I’m nearly two months into my new job. For those of you that haven’t heard, I am a Technical Editor at DigitalOcean, a fantastic startup based in New York City. I work with a great team of people, and I help open-source enthusiasts share their knowledge through written tutorials. I’m responsible for taking their submitted tutorials and testing them out, looking for inaccuracies, security problems, or other issues a reader might encounter. As I work through them, I look for continuity problems, voice, tone, and style issues, and I often help them improve their writing skills.

This is an amazing opportunity for me because I get to teach people through writing, since our community site gets a ton of traffic, and I get to be part of an organization that has core values that directly align with mine. I also get to bring my experience in writing, editing, publication, and teaching to this organization.

Best of all, I get to work with some super smart and genuine people. There’s always someone around with a positive thing to say or knowledge to share.  In previous places, I’ve always been fortunate enough to have that on my team, but it’s been rare to see that throughout the organization.

By the way, our team is hiring. Do you have strong system administration experience and love to help people improve their writing? Come work with me.  And if that’s not for you, DigitalOcean has a few other opportunities as well.

This current opportunity isn’t a software development position. But don’t worry…. I’ve found ways to continue doing software development.

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Moving On…

May 23, 2016 at 12:26 pm in Personal, Teaching, Work

I’ve had an amazing time teaching aspiring software developers. Over the course of the last four years I’ve had the privilege of teaching over 400 students how to use Linux, how to build their first web sites, and how to write their first software applications. I’ve met some truly incredible people and forged some great relationships which I hope continue on for many years. But today I turned in my letter of resignation and am looking forward to what lies ahead. I’ve accepted a job offer that was too amazing to pass up, but more on that later.

I’ve learned so much from this experience. I’ve learned how to teach a diverse group of people. I’ve become more comfortable than ever dealing with politics, time crunches, leadership changes, disgruntled customers, and of course, the fundamentals of computer programming. In order to teach those things well, I had to go back and relearn things myself. I now have big ideas about teaching software development to adults, and I hope to share those thoughts as time permits through various outlets.

I’m leaving behind an incredibly talented and wonderful team. They’re among the best people I’ve ever known and they’re going to continue to do great work. I will miss them. I will miss the students as well. It’s incredibly rewarding to see someone transition from knowing nothing about programming to a professional software developer who can do great things for others and provide for their families. I have so many stories like that and am fortunate to have been a part of that journey for these four years. I am forever thankful for that.

But it’s time for a change. I’ll announce exactly what that change is when the time is right.

In the mean time, I’m still hacking on Codecaster and working on a couple of other projects. And I’ll continue to find ways to help people get better at software development.

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MonthOfMusic Retrospective

September 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm in Music, Personal

In August, I embarked on a huge task: I set out to record and release one song a day for an entire month. And I actually did it. The entire playlist is up online.

I thought I'd share some behind-the-scenes facts and some things I learned.

Breaking The Chain Is Devastating

When I write a book, I make sure to set aside time every day. And I keep a little log of the activity. Some people refer to this as a "chain" of activity. If you chart out your progress on a calendar, you see that you've done something 3 days in a row, and you want to get to three days. Then you want to get to 8 days, and so on. It becomes a huge motivation to go forward. The same thing holds true for things you don't want to do, like exercise, or study.

If you break the chain, it's incredibly demotivating and actually quite hard to start up again. I used to run every day, and then some outside events made me break my chain, and I've never been able to get back to an every-day routine.

I had motivation to not break the chain this time though; I was publicly accountable. I shot my mouth off in public about releasing songs every day, and after a little while, people started asking me where the song was if I didn't have it out. There were a couple times when I published the song at 11:30PM, but I didn't miss a day.

I want to get back to running every day, so I'm going to apply what I learned this month to that. I'm going to come up with something that nags the hell out of me every day so it becomes a priority.

Being Forced To Do Something You Love Sucks

I love to write and play music. But there were some days when I really didn't feel like doing anything, and I think those days really show when I listen to the playlist over. There are some days where I'm just really half-assing my way through the writing process or the performing process. A couple songs only took me 15 minutes to do because I just wanted to be done and move on. The fun wasn't there.

I don't think I could do this for a living.

If You Practice, Your Muse Will Come

While I wasn't always happy to do this recording every day, I'm glad I did, because a few of the things I did are some of the best songs I've ever made. And I wouldn't have made those songs if I wasn't writing songs every day.

I think this holds true in other places. If you love to write, or take pictures, or paint, or do anything else creative, make a little time for yourself to do that every day. That inspiration may come out of nowhere.

Noodling Helps!

I have a tiny 25-key Korg Nanokey sitting on my desk and my software is almost always running in the background. When I'm working on a lesson plan or writing some code, I occasionally get stumped on a thought and start playing something on the keyboard just to focus my mind somewhere else.

This process produced several melodies that ended up in songs.

Nobody's Listening

Well, not nobody, but based on the statistics, despite doing this for 31 days, I have a really low listen count, and almost all of the listens are repeat listens from the same core group of people: friends and family.

It's incredibly hard to promote yourself. One of the lessons I learned this month was how useless social media really is if you're just an individual. The average person has too many things going on in their stream, and unless you happen to post when they're looking, they're not going to see your stuff in the stream of information.

And if you post too often, people tune out because they don't want to see repeats. Twitter even stops you from posting the same tweet twice.

But this goes hand in hand with the idea of self-publishing. Many aspiring authors believe they can just make it on their own, without a publisher. But in my observations, that's just as likely as me starting something that overtakes Facebook the way Facebook overtook Twitter. It's a remote possibility, but not likely. Sure, you can find successful self-published authors. But for every successful one, there are thousands of unknown ones out there. Just look at Leanpub.

The Internet gives us the freedom to publish things. Anyone can get their ideas out there for the world to see. But getting people to pay attention is an uphill battle.

Based on this, I have a much better picture of what it takes to do real promotion on the Internet.

Ship It, Even If It's Not Great

In order to make sure I could make this project a priority, I had to "timebox" my music sessions. I gave myself an hour a day, and I vowed to ship whatever came out of that session. Most of the time I just didn't have any more than an hour to spare.

A couple of the songs I did are really rough as a result. But they're out there and I got feedback on them from people. And now I can refine them and either remix or re-record them.

If nobody sees it, nobody can tell you it's great.

What's Next?

I'm looking forward to doing the 2015 RPM Challenge this year. I'll have a month to produce an album, and I already have an idea of what it's going to contain.

I'm also planning to take a few of my favorite songs from this project, polish them up, and put them up for sale in a few places, just to see what happens. So stay tuned for that.

But most of all, I'm taking what I learned from this and putting it to good use.

So now it's your turn. Produce something every day for a month. Let's see the results of your creative endeavors! I'll bet it'll be amazing.

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