Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I am science dog.

I'm taking the cs253 web development course on udacity.  Coincidentally, the lectures are being delivered by Steve Huffman, one of the founders of reddit!  He's really flying through the content, I'm struggling to keep up with a lot of the discussion.  Steve tends to glaze over details that I get hung up on -- it's like following a kid through a narrow corridor.  He keeps pausing, beckoning at you to follow, but the space gets ever narrower.  Case in point, google app engine's request handlers, lambda functions, template variables, and more.  My brain gets snagged on these and I have to take the time to research each one of them in turn, making sure I understand just to keep up with the exploding lexicon.

I am Science Dog.
As discouraging as my pace has been, it's been motivating to hear from one of the people who shaped the internet into what it is today.  One thing I really appreciate is Steve uses examples of things he learned while building his many web applications as lessons of what to do and what not to do.  And I'm sure that at one point, he was just as clueless as I am.  I hope.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Toes in the Water!

Here's my first progress update.

I've been following the CS101 - Introduction to Computer Science course on udacity.com.  I've just started Unit 6.  Thus far, we've learned so much about many new concepts that I haven't encountered in  any of the "Intro to Language X" tutorials out there.  I've come to the realization that just getting a program to perform the desired function is really only the tip of the iceberg.  Writing efficient, scalable, optimized, and understandable code is really going to be the hallmark of a pro vs. someone who's still fiddling with the basics.

These concepts are rumbling around in my head like sneakers in a dryer:
  • Architecture of data structures
  • Indexes & Hash Tables
  • Fibonacci Sequences
  • Recursion
We spent most of Unit 5 developing our own hash table from scratch, with create, update, and lookup functions based on a "bucket" system.  The idea behind it was to return a hash value that could be used to narrow down an index search.  When we finally got the thing up and running, the python data type dict was introduced and I'm sure I wasn't the only person having a "oh c'mon... I could have used this from the get-go" moment.

After implementing the dict in my index instead of a nested list, I really appreciated how fast it was to retrieve a value given a key.... and the fact that we built our own version of a dictionary is what allowed me to appreciate that.  I'm not completely sure what kind of algorithm Python is using to make searching easier, I just know there is one.  +1 Understanding!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enter The Matrix

So there's this thing on the web called the Programmer Competency Matrix.  It's a skills rubric written by an experienced developer used to gauge one's mastery in certain programming competencies.  It's exciting to see all the skills I have to learn, but at the same time, quite scary that many of them might as well have been written in an alien language.

The Architect was the coolest guy in the Matrix.
A fitting continuum.  Noob on the left.

It's as good a test as any to gauge my starting abilities.  I'm happy to report that I'm not 2^n in every category.  I consider myself the highest level, log(n), in the area of Knowledge > Blogs :)  I have done some basic programming tutorials in a few different languages, i.e., html/css, php, javascript, mysql, python.  I have even taken what I consider a bit more in-depth look at Python, although my inexperience doesn't allow a good comparison.

Feel free to follow along, but this is mostly an indicator for myself.  Here is a chart of where I stand:

These squares won't mean much if you didn't follow the link.  There are some areas where I felt I didn't even deserve level 0, but others where I was a little between 0 and 1.  I erred on the side of conservatism.  Obviously, I was going to have 0 for Experience.  I did rather well in the 'meat' of Programming skills... probably because a lot of those categories have looser correlations with the actual art of developing software than others, like code organization.

There are a couple of reasons why I like this chart.  It shows me where my skills/knowledge/experience gaps are, thus providing an unsorted map of specific things I should try to dive into.  It's also a way to periodically check my own progress.  Perhaps I'll make it a habit to re-evaluate using this rubric every month or two.  Further, I think it's a great visual way to address the fact that I don't have a related degree to a potential employer.  I can't wait to fill this thing up... it's like a real-life video game!

On that note, I found this awesome blog post about Levelling Up As A Developer.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  It's time to hit the e-books.

Love at First Byte

Monday morning I turned twenty-eight years old.  Bleh, I'm not ready to be twenty-eight.  Granted, twenty-seven wasn't as great as twenty-six, but it sure as heck beats twenty-eight!.  That leaves me only one year and three hundred sixty-three days between now and the "Event Horizon", aka My Thirtieth Birthday.  Why am I not ready for it?  Well, the problem with thirty is you're supposed to have your act together.

In 1998, I was starting 7th grade and I began playing a sci-fi computer strategy game called Starcraft.  SC has since exploded into a hugely popular e-sport with millions of players and fans around the world.  But back then, it was a relatively new thing, and I spent a lot of time developing stratagems and studying the game's intricacies.  It wasn't long until I formed a star wars-themed "clan" (club of gaming nerds) on Blizzard's multiplayer network battle.net.  As the clan administrator, I felt it was necessary to have some place outside of the game to post rules and have group discussions.  So, I started my very first website, hosted on geocities.com, the path to which I've long forgotten.  This is where my story begins.

My website was a hideous thing by today's standards, but I was very proud that I didn't use a page editing program to do it.  I used plain ol' Windows Notepad and a tutorial on HTML to write that sucker.  It had nested frames, a hit counter, and a guestbook.  It even had a watermarked image of a galaxy that I was particularly proud of.  I literally felt like I knew what it was to be a hacker (sad, but true) the first time I looked at my page in source code.  I thought I was going to be the next Bill Gates.  How lofty are a 14-year-old's delusions of grandeur!

Well, sometimes life takes a more meandering route than we'd like.  Here I am today.  The deadline for becoming a billionaire genius-super-coder is long past.  I'm not a hacker, I'm not a coder, I'm not even an IT professional.  But still my interest persists.  I read programming tutorials and watch lectures on algorithms even though I don't have a clue what they're saying.  I'll read a particularly clever-seeming blog post and think, yeah, that could have been me.  

The fact is, that was true then and it's true now.  I'm giving myself two years to learn the skills necessary to get me into a career working with what interests me the most: computers.  I'm going to learn on my own as much as possible.  For me, writing helps me wrap my head around difficult topics.  This blog will be maintained as an open notebook for interesting things I come across, epiphanies, "doh" moments, and for posting snippets of code.  I am prepared to write a million "I don't get it" posts.  Hopefully, there'll be as many "Aha!" posts to go along with them.  And, I think people can profit from seeing my mistakes, as I have from so many others.

This is it.  The Event Horizon.  I'm probably going to feel dumber than I ever have in my life, but I've used up enough time feeling stupid.  Now, all I have left is serious.  It's time to get busy.