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Web Basics: Lessons from the Inaugural Session

Hello. My name is Seth. I am Chief of Operations at Elevate and one of the Co-Founders of Interface: The Web School. I am also a student of the Interface program and I wanted to share with you the recent experience I had in the Web Basics course. What follows are the challenges, compromises, strategies, and takeaways I experienced in taking the course. Let me first begin with a little background on the program to give you some additional insight on why I was interested in experiencing the inaugural session.

We launched Interface in late January 2014 with a vision to help fill the demand for technology talent here in the Midwest. The big idea behind Interface is to build people who build the web and we, the founders, could not be more excited about this venture together. Not only do we believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for people with web-based skills to maintain their competitive edge in today’s unique job market, we believe that Interface can be the platform that helps people build these skill sets in a way that meets their personal and professional goals.

We also believe that people working together is what connects and builds a community, which is exactly why Interface has established itself as a platform for learning and a platform for teaching. We know that it takes talented people to help build the talents of other talented people. Perpetuating this cycle is powerful and benefits those in the community who support building people for their community. That is why Interface has dedicated itself to building people who build the web.

The testing of this vision and hypothesis started with the launch of the Analysis and Management track on March 3, 2014, followed closely by the launch of our Web Development track two weeks later. I was personally curious about how these inaugural courses would greet the students of Interface, so I decided that I was going to enroll.

MY STATUS GOING IN…

Before enrolling at Interface, I had some experience with the very basics of web development. It was an intermittent effort I began in the Fall of 2012 as I took the hobbyist approach to learning code. In early 2013, I began taking the hobby a little more seriously. I continued studying HTML, began reading a couple programming blogs, started listening to developer podcasts, purchased a Raspberry Pi, and then started learning the fundamentals of bash. All of this led me to an even greater curiosity and fascination with web development. I initiated more conversations with a couple of good friends of mine who are professional programmers and mentioned to them that I had chose Python as my first programming language. From those conversations, someone recommended Learn Python the Hard Way by Zed Shaw, so I purchased Zed’s materials online and started immediately. After studying Python for a couple months, I decided that an in-class experience at Interface was going to be my next step to learning code.

Three months before the course began, I started setting aside a little bit of cash to cover the cost. My wife was supportive of this adjustment to our family budget and Elevate – my employer – was supportive of the time commitment. While Elevate was also willing to support the cost of the course, I decided I wanted to take on the financial obligation myself to have the experience of the student footing his or her own bill. I can’t say that paying for it myself had any greater affect on my interest in learning the material, but I can say that it forced me to plan ahead for the investment and gave me the ability to assess whether or not $1,000 was the true value of the course. I’ll tell you now, it was worth every dollar.

March 17 came quickly and the week prior to our start date I learned there would be a total of 14 students in the class. Since I had some experience with the basics of programming, I did not do any additional preparation and none was required for Web Basics. Jerod Santo, Co-Founder & Lead Instructor at Interface, as well as Owner & Software Developer at Object Lateral, was set to kick off instruction of the inaugural Web Basics course. I knew Jerod was a talented web developer and I was looking forward to learning more web skills from him.

CHALLENGES I ENCOUNTERED…

The course began and before I knew it day one had turned into day three. I soon realized that the pace of this course was going to be my greatest challenge. While the first couple of days seemed to go well, given my understanding of the DNS, HTTP, and HTML, I hit a wall on day three’s integration of CSS material. It was day three that I knew my time studying out of class would be necessary to really comprehend all of the material delivered in the day’s lecture.

A second challenge I encountered was balancing my daily work demands with the demands the class was beginning to have on me. I found my mornings at work to be chock-full of tasks, barely finding the time to catch a bite to eat before heading to class in the afternoon. Balancing work, class, and family was a great challenge and the balancing act came with compromises.

COMPROMISES OF THE WEEK…

I can identify three of the major compromises I made to balance the demands of my week. The first item to vanish from my weekly activities list was fitness training. I am by no means a self-proclaimed fitness nut, but I do enjoy a good workout 3-4 times per week. It keeps my mind sane, or perhaps more sane. However, the workouts were first to go. I couldn’t justify the time for them over life’s other demands and so Web Basics became the substitute for my fitness activity.

The second compromise that came during the week was time spent relaxing with my wife after putting our son to bed. I compromised this time at least three nights during that week. This left me with that sense of guilt that I think many husbands get, as though we’re operating on borrowed time. To be clear, she didn’t say anything to make me feel this way. It was our evening routine that I chose to compromise to stay up with life’s other demands, which included necessary time learning material outside of class.

My third compromise during this week was sleep. I compromised one to two hours of sleep on at least three nights. There are few people that know how important a good night’s sleep is to me. I rarely get less than eight hours each night – even with our 11-month-old – and if I can get nine hours, I’ll take it. This isn’t the place for me to share with you how important sleep is, so I’ll spare you the rant. Just know that a week in the Web Basics course succeeded in a rare victory over my eight hours of sleep. Not once, but three times.

MY SUCCESS STRATEGIES…

Looking back on the experience, there were a total of four successful strategies I employed during my time in the course. While a couple of them took me a couple of days to realize and then act on, I can say that my time in the course did get better after doing so; and by better I mean my pace of learning was keeping up with the pace of content delivery.

Two days into the course I began to recall an old learning style I picked up back in college: Sit at the front of the class! Interestingly enough, it took me two years to learn this about myself back then and only two days to recall it at Interface. On day three, I finally moved to the front of the class and, to no surprise, I found myself more engaged in the lecture material. Admittedly, it helped that I could see the slides with my aging vision. Nevertheless, there are learning styles within all of us that we should use to our advantage. So, incorporate this fact into your preparation if you’re considering enrollment or are already enrolled at Interface.

Two: Ask questions. That’s really all there is to it. Sure, there are such things as stupid questions, but who cares? The course material is intense, the pace is accelerated, and you’re investing your time and your money to be there. So come ready to take away all you can. Asking questions to your instructor and your classmates will provide you with valuable takeaways.

Three: Stop taking notes. This is another one of those learning style things that I recalled from the past and on day three I put it into practice. I realized that once I started sitting up front and asking questions my mind became more deeply engaged in the instructor’s presentation. I absorbed so much more through engaging my senses than frantically taking notes. What’s funny is that I think many of us feel this sense of urgency to get everything jotted down when new or unfamiliar information is presented to us in a classroom lecture setting. Let me ease this sense of urgency by reminding you that today we can all find decent information on nearly every topic on the web. I can also assure you that everything you want to explore more deeply from the course slides provided to you can be found extensively on the web. Imagine that. For the remainder of the lectures, I resorted to jotting down a few items that I wanted to follow-up with online.

The last success strategy I employed was devoting time outside of class lecture to working on the in-class exercises and my class project. Spending two to three hours working through these exercises really helped me absorb the material through application of the information. Everyone will tell you how important it is to write code to learned code. Reading and listening alone won’t cut it. And honestly, that’s what makes it so much fun! The hands on approach to learning has a gratifying effect, much more so than just listening to a lecture and taking a quiz or exam. I will argue that everyone likes to make things, whether it be a pie, a sweater, a workbench, or a computer animated object. Spending the time in the evening making code work was fun, but I had to devote the time. So be prepared to spend at least 10 to 12 hours outside of class applying what you’ve learned in the day’s lecture.

MY TAKEAWAYS…

There were many takeaways for me in this course, but I’m going to roll them up into three. The first is simply the additional knowledge I gained about the basics of the web. The web is ever-changing and there are always new tools and styles being introduced. Additionally, everyone who is building the web today has a unique insight to offer and that’s what makes building the web so interesting. Learning more about CSS targeting tactics and the integration with HTML, along with the syntax and manipulative powers of JavaScript and jQuery were big takeaways for me. The insight on these and the use of the DOM were very valuable for my own skill set and for further peaking my interest in web development.

Another great takeaway for me was the people I met and the new friendships I made in the Omaha community. Check this out. On the first day of class, as we were all briefly introducing ourselves, these were some of the descriptors I noted as people shared their story: male, female, younger, older, employed, unemployed, student, introvert, extrovert, OCD, artist, statistician, mom, stay-at-home mom, dad, Ph.D., poker player, computer science student, designer, working professional, startup, founder, teacher, construction worker, agriculture scientist, Bear Sterns, project manager, insurance, law firm, etc. You can’t tell me that’s not fascinating! People who build the web come from all walks of life.

My last, but certainly not my least, takeaway from this one week experience building the web is the value-added to my role at Elevate. The Elevate culture is very much about people and designing great products for them. This learning experience was not a requirement for me to do my job day-in and day-out, but it will make me better and it will make Elevate better. The experience has enabled me to converse on web development more intelligently and digest more code on my own by simply inspecting the source. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll write a few lines of my own for a project.

SOME RECOMMENDATIONS…

This is where I wrap it up and leave you with a few of my recommendations for those of you taking web development courses at Interface or for those of you who are considering it. I’ll sum it up with four points.

First, and hands-down foremost, know your learning style and quirks and use them to your advantage on day one. Sit wherever you learn best. Do not wait to ask questions. Whatever it is, just do it on day one.

Second, stay ahead. This means that you should, at the very least, read-up on all of the class topics that will be covered prior to each lecture. At best, read up on all of the topics before your first day of class and practice writing some code. Do some exercises on your own. As I mentioned, this stuff is all over the web.

Third, practice your exercises outside of class daily. For Web Basics, I recommend that you set aside two to three after class each night to practice. I promise you that this will help you out tremendously.

Lastly, schedule times to meet up with your classmates. Part of the fun in building the web comes in building it with others. I know this might sound a little bizarre to those of you that haven’t experienced it, but trust me, you’ll appreciate it. When people are learning code together and collaborating on the same outcome there is an increased probability that you will experience more “breakthrough” moments. These are great moments! You cannot know how great they are until you meet up with others to learn code and experience breakthrough moments through collaboration. This aspect of the web culture is something you must experience.

My hope with this post is that it might someday be helpful to just one person that is considering learning more about building the web. We are thrilled to see all that’s already happening at Interface and we are very excited about this idea of building people who build the web pervading throughout the Midwest. We look forward to having you join us on this journey.

Cheers!