A Pending Promise or Already Functional?

This post was written 2 months ago.
Sun, 03 Jun 2018

Turning a Meetup group into a platform for independent learning


"..and I don't really know what's going to happen with the institutions, but I do know that this wild learning is happening and that some people are becoming more expert at it." Howard Rheingold in the foreword to Peeragogy (https://peeragogy.github.io/)
 

If you have been a web developer for a while, the concept of independent learning is nothing new to you. You do it all the time. Quite a few developers started that way, too. They built a site for themselves in HTML, then got commisssions from friends and small businesses, and before they knew it they were working for big business and in teams. Their knowledge grew alongside the industry, they helped each other out, in real life and online.

This might be idealising a bit, but it did happen (and still does I suppose, but less). I witnessed the early years of the web, not as a developer, but longing to be one.

And a bit later I went on that journey too, for me it was a very longwinded one, a career in slow motion, full of doubts and setbacks. I was already in my 30s and had two kids. I created a website for a children's playgroup, then through a friend did work experience at a Uni department, building an unspeakably ugly website on their Plone system. Next I met two developers "off Twitter" who both helped me a lot, through teaching me some 'tricks of the trade' and passing on work to me.

I was not a natural developer, I did not take to it like a fish to water. At school things had come easy to me, this did not. Looking back I wonder how I managed to stick with it when it was so difficult, the anxiety running high, and the comparison with the 'accomplished' people who were bantering on Twitter reducing me to a fearful mess. It must have been the ongoing fascination with the web, the pleasure of eventually getting things to work, and the desire to belong to this world and the community around it.

I was working all on my own, managing my own clients, "learning on the job" but without senior colleagues at hand. This too seems crazy to me now. My debugging methods consisted of very crude trial-and-error. At one point I considered putting out a Tweet "Can somebody form a support group for web dev mums working from home?" I knew Gicela at that point, and a few years later we set up a group. It was not exclusively for mums, but in its first incarnation it was for people working from home. We were going to meet up so we could learn from each other.

The gist of the above is, I went a strange way, even in web dev terms where people come from all kinds of backgrounds. And I'm 'off' - old, female, foreign.. For a long time I found it difficult to know where I stand, and to a certain degree that's still true. There's no doubt anymore that I am a professional web developer. I know a lot and take my work seriously. But does that make me a good one? Volumewise I have done less compared to those working fulltime, and only in recent years have I worked on a team (and that did make a difference!)

So.. this was a bit of a long intro, and one I hadn't planned. But I guess it is useful to understand my growing interest in independent education.

I know it can be done, and I'd like to know how far it can be taken. As Kio Stark observes in her brilliant book "Don't go back to school", there's a few professions where you can't get round official credentials (healthcare, law, teaching at schools, architecture), some others seem "culturally closed", that is, difficult to get into without a degree, for example fine arts and sciences. But it is not impossible. It is just very hard.

With coding, there is a certain distinction between software development (backend, and at scale) and web development, where the former still recruits its workers from university graduates mainly — in engineering, computer science and so on —, while web development is more flexible. Funnily some software programmers think web development is harder (especially JavaScript!).

Setting up a peer learning group


When Gicela and I set up CodeHub we were inspired by the New York HackerSchool which has since been renamed to Recurse Center. Our group was very different (Recurse center do 3 months coding residencies!), but the idea that you could learn a lot with and from your peers was the same. A bit later I found out about OpenTechSchool that had a similar approach and we became a chapter.

The peer learning was there from the start, as well as the idea that it should all be free. We soon started to create little workshops for each other in our morning sessions, and organised longer ones with invited speakers in the evenings. We also ran a few JavaScript one-day events. You can find some information on all of them on our Github Pages.

The evening workshops were very irregular and although they were great and mostly well-attended, I never quite felt at ease organising them, and I kept stopping for long periods. For one thing, it felt strange asking people to create workshops for free. I know from many of the speakers though that they totally enjoyed it and one of them said "the person getting the most out of a workshop is the one giving it". I can fully subscribe to that. As I kept asking people for free workshops, I thought I should at least give one myself to offset that a bit. The workshop on Git ended up being a bit chaotic, but I learned so much from it! And I know others got something out of it too, despite its shortcomings.

From 2014 there's been fortnightly hack nights, and our first study group, JavaScript101, started in 2015. It has been morphed into WebDev101 this year. Since autumn last year, there's also a Haskell study group. (The Haskell group meets in the evenings, WebDev101 during the day)


The map is not the territory


It's five years since we set up CodeHub, and it's grown into something really nice. People are friendly and helpful, and there's expertise in lots of different areas. Members have learned new technologies through the group and found jobs, companies have found the right employees.

And yet for a long time I had this urge to do much more. I felt there was a potential that hadn't been realised. And that we promised too much in what we were saying about the group. Recently somebody was interested in teaching. All we can say at the moment is "come to the hack night or webdev101" (and see if somebody needs your help).

Mark has started a spreadsheet now, where potential mentors can enter their names and areas of expertise. We had a brief discussion on how to go from here, and I just had some more ideas. We'll work something out.

A lot is happening, just slowly. And that's okay. I think this has been a key challenge for me: Wanting too much in too short a time (and often this got stuck at the wanting). I am grateful to my co-organisers, first Gicela, and now Mark and Audrey, for conveying the same message again and again in different ways: It is already good the way it is. You don't need to force yourself to do stuff.

Still, I want to collect here some thoughts on what CodeHub is and can be, and who I believe it is for:

In a few words, it's:
1, a support group for the self-learner
2, a platform for developers to pass on their knowledge, including in person, and practicing mentoring and teaching
(A member can, but doesn't have to, fall into both categories; for me, the second one doesn't come easy I've noticed)

Much depends on the initiative of individual people, especially those wanting to learn. There is at the moment no traditional teaching. It is also worth noting that in many cases the informal learning (with this group and alone) will be in addition to a job or formal education (Uni or a coding bootcamp). We have links to Bristol and Bath coding boothcamps: DevelopMe are a sponsor, and teachers from both DevelopMe and Mayden Academy are happy to act as mentors to our members. This makes me glad.

How best to facilitate this type of learning then, is an ongoing question, and it's good just to experiment with different things. I've written something about the study groups below, and here is some ideas for other formats I've had:

  • Talks or workshops where a relative novice to the topic does most the work, but is guided by somebody experienced
  • Online collaboration: A study group could just exist online, collect some resources and discuss progress, questions etc. on a slack channel; or use an online classroom tool like piazza.com
  • Establishing a reading list for a topic, and members can share books
  • Working on projects together (perhaps for non-profits as Free Code Camp intended)

When you start something, you have to be prepared that it might fail. Because learning outside a traditional context is hard, and so is organising a group of people doing it together. But the potential rewards are high.

There is so much more that I could write (and I have written more! then consigned to the virtual dustbin), and you could go off in many directions.

To me, it has all been a great adventure, though not all plain sailing! I've been close to giving up more than once. In fact, I tried to hand the group off once, but nobody came forward! Recently, I have not been doing that much, and I seriously want to work towards being just a member. Not that I was that much of a leader, but I've been invested in the group more than anybody else. Also, nobody has benefited from it more than me!

In the end, what I've learned most about in the past five years is probably — people. Including myself. And I'll spare you the things I've learned. I might write about them some day. Some can be hard to accept (both with regards to others and yourself), but ultimately it's helpful to see more clearly.

I hope to write more about CodeHub and also independent learning in the future. For now, here are a few resources I found quite interesting:


Appendix: A few observations on study groups


A pattern I have observed in the study groups: There is a high drop-out rate soon after the start, and after a while the group converges on a few regulars. It is nice when that happens, you can rely on people being there, and in all likelihood they get something out of it. That can be advice from mentors, collaboration, or even just socialising with people that have common interests.

A nice thing about JS101 was that the group converged towards 50:50 female:male and stayed that way throughout the three years ot its existence - we dissolved it when many of the regulars found jobs or moved away, and we did not feel like starting again from scratch.

There would be much to say about the different study groups. I've loved being part of all three. But they don't come without their challenges. JS101 was hard to navigate once we stopped working through Eloquent JavaScript, due to the vastness of the topic. I mostly ran the group, and my lack of JS programming experience did not help. Luckily experienced people did turn up, and even co-ran the group for a while. We started working on projects together and giving little presentations. It was a really nice group with a good atmosphere. A lot was decided from session to session. Again, this could be a bit chaotic, and again, I learned loads. I'd not say my JS is great, but it's improved massively.

WebDev101 originally had the aim that we would each set out some goals and hold each other accountable in mini-standups. I soon noticed that I kept doing completely differen things from what my stated intentions had been. I suppose that in itself taught me something. In general, the original concept was hard to keep up. It could also be that the topics were just too diverse. But then, it did kick something off that was really good, as the group is now as described above: A place to ask for and share advice, meet and collaborate. A bit like a hack night during the day.

The Haskell group is modelled on this document on how to start a Haskell study group and is mainly about working through the Haskell book. There again, we've abandoned the original schedule, people are on different chapters now or working on own projects (it's just what happens). I'd never have started learning Haskell without this group. When Jack asked if I'd like to join, I thought I'd give it a try, and so far I've stuck with it. I also really like it though it is quite challenging. We will see what comes of it!

 

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JavaScript and other plans

This post was written 2 years ago.
Fri, 28 Oct 2016
It is very late now, but I suddenly feel this urge to write down those plans I have (carrying on from previous longwinded post which was all about just getting ready to make plans). I just want to make it very brief!

So basically, for let's say the next year, I have these two objectives:
1, Organise at least 5 events/workshops in the coming year, where the unifying principles are:
- The format: Probably 2.5 hours in the evening as a default, but could also be a whole Saturday 9 - 5 or something like that
- The topic: It should in some way help newcomers, and it could be something that you don't necessarily find in every tutorial; for example how to use the unix commandline, dev tools etc. It could also be 'soft' topics like how to organise yourself when you freelance, or how to keep physically and emotionally well; I actually have a list of topics in my head (have had that for a long time). Need to start asking people!

2, Improve full-stack web dev and in particular JavaScript as well as I can. I will measure this by hours, i.e. I will set myself a target of how many hours I'll learn. But I will measure the outcome by other objectives. There will be certain endpoints: a, Can I contribute to open source projects? b, Do I feel comfortable teaching others (formally or informally) and c, Can I build stuff without this being a massive and time-consuming pain? (Relatedly, do I manage to stick to a project and finish it off before I start a new one) I am aware that these goals don't look measurable, still to me they are hard endpoints, because I know how I feel when I've grasped something, and I know how it feels when you need just the right effort for something.
So either I will manage to achieve one or more of these endpoints, or I won't. It's an experiment. If I succeed that would be fab, because then I could really teach and could properly help people - and possibly build cool stuff! . But I am a bit skeptic whether that will be the case. The important thing is that I'll allow myself any possible outcome. As long as I stick to my plan of doing a certain number of hours a week, there will always be an outcome worth talking/writing about. And hopefully there will be some improvement. And I have to say that from when we starte our JS group a bit less than two years ago, my JavaScript has really got so much better!

If I only could always see it like that! Right, I just will from now on. - The 'full stack' aim is also interesting. I sometimes think I need to make a certain switch in my mind if I really want to succeed there. I guess the main thing is to actually believe that I can learn certain things. I took one significant step years ago, which was switching to Linux as my OS and running my own server to host things. I cannot say how glad I am that I did that. But when things become a bit more proper devopsy, that still feels like a bit of a barrier. It is difficult to say what makes sense there, should I not specialise on the front-end and PHP programming? But then, it does all interest me, and people used to do it all, and the way things are set up at work makes it possible to learn at least the basics of the different technologies you need to have a server up and running, keep it secure and sites performing well. I think I (and others) perceive it a bit as a 'guys' thing. I wonder if it's something of a cultural thing where as a woman you have been conditioned to be more careful with everything, not break things ladida. (My fear of breaking things has in the past years gone down quite a bit already though ;) )

Don't know. But as we are on this topic, here's another thing I am going to stop doing. Looking out for, or thinking too much about whether something someone said or ways in which they behaved is sexist (or agist, anti-foreigner? haha, how unusual can I get - and still, I am the urban 'cosmopolitan' middle-class and the people around me are, too, this is so far probably still the one decisive factor to make me compatible, but maybe shouldn't be?). It is such a fine line, and in the end, it is mostly history and people's habits that can lead to situations where you might feel treated differently as a woman. It is not directly anybody's fault. I do think it can become toxic, it depends very much on where you are. But it seems to me that currently, in my personal life, any subtle thing that might happen in this regard, is far outweighed by the opportunities I've been given, the super-flexible work contract, knowing so many great people in Bristol's tech community, being able to learn from others and so on. Besides that, in some regards, when it comes to the gender topic, there are things that have been problematic from my side. This has only gradually become clear to me, and it pains me somewhat, because I fear it has been a bit destructive. But that again, it is a historical thing why I behaved in certain ways, and there is no point in beating myself up about it. Main thing is, I am aware of it now.

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Midlife, books and watching Adam Curtis films

This post was written 2 years ago.
Thu, 20 Oct 2016
Right. I am going to do a kind of review now. Review in the "Getting things done" sense. I have to admit, my efforts to implement GTD in my life have to date not been that successful. My brain always seems to want to take over the collecting and scheduling etc. again. My suspicion is, this is because my tasks and appointments are just about managable without resorting to a system that needs quite some energy to set up and keep going. I am still looking for the sweet spot where I can benefit from some of its aspects while keeping it lowfi enough as to not cost too much enery to follow through with it. I will keep on trying!

But let me start not so much with all my projects, "next actions" or any such thing.

I want to look at what is causing me (and perhaps others, especially women?) this thing that almost feels like a pain. This tension, which by now contains the realisation that you probably won't become anymore what you possibly could have, less than you'd been capable of. When I last went out for a meal with close friends in Germany, all women, I said at some point "I still want to achieve something". As if having a lovely family and a pretty specialised job in an area you basically self-trained yourself in, didn't count. And yet, if I'm honest with myself, I still feel the same. It must have sounded overly ambitious, competitive, as if I was after outer success, but I don't think that's what I meant.

I think it has to do with competence and an urge to be creative, while feeling you don't have the means for it; also, not feeling competent at anything in general - on the contrary, feeling pretty inadequate.

When I was a teen, I had an anthology of pieces by women writers. There was an extract from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It started something like "I started adding up all the things I couldn't do" and in the end, she comes to this conclusion: "The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end". I later bought the Bell Jar, it must have been one of the first books I read in the original English version. The similarities between how Plath was experiencing things and myself was so striking it blew me away. It was comforting, too, that I was not the only one feeling that way. In particular what she describes in that quote, that feeling that you cannot really do anything properly, has remained with me up till now; it is not always present, and occasionally I manage to convince myself that I know some stuff, but yes, it is still very strong.

By now, this is also coupled with a feeling of powerlessness on the political level. That I cannot stop nasty things from happening, not even when acting in a group. Is that true? I am not sure. It looks like we are still on a downward path, economy-wise. And then there is the poisoned public discourse which I hope has reached peak shrillness and meaninglessness now.

Returning to the above, what is interesting here, is to make a distinction between the perceived lack of competence and the real one. And while it happens with the best intentions, telling me I've got impostor syndrome does not help me that much. Yes, I might have that, because almost everybody has it, especially in tech. But that does not mean I'm not dissatisfied with where I'm at and would like to know more. Of course, I have reached a certain level of competence, I can do my work (sometimes I get a bit stuck, but by and large I can do it). If I think about it - hm, I had actually not been so clear about that, so writing does help! - in this particular area, the level I'd like to reach is where I can a, contribute to Open Source b, teach c, create own projects/use my skills in projects that are meaningful to me.

There is something else, this is again political, I am jumping back an forth. So, there is the actual competence, but then there is the entitlement, for lack of a better word. That does not really match it actually, what I mean is perhaps, being effective out of habit. Being used to being in power, used to being able to do things. I wonder if that is one of the things pupils learn at a private school. You can do things! It could also be that, for whatever reason, this message was just quite weak in my own youth (although a class-mate once actually said to me "You can do anything you want" - meaning my good grades). Knowing something, but then also using it. And by using it you get better at it..

Two more things regarding perceived vs actual competence. Another significant book in my life has been Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read it in my early 20ies and then again in my early 40ies! I believe Robert Pirsig is the grandfather of all geeks and his style of writing must have influenced many tech blogs. If you read the book now, his way of writing would probably not seem that unusual but that is because it has become mainstream. One central philosophical idea of the book is that we are capable of recognising quality even if we can't define the criteria for it. We recognise good writing style, good design ect. At the ReasonsTo conference in Brighton, Stefan Sagmeister gave a good example when he showed the audience a work of art by Mondrian and a fake one, side by side. Asked to say which was the real one, by show of hands, a vast majority went for the correct one.

Then there is this about the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which David Moody pointed me to at the hack night. I once started reading "The Pragmatic Programmer" and really liked it, and the book this chapter is taken from is by the same people. I like the idea of these distinct stages, and I like the idea that people on a team can be at different stages, not everybody has to be an expert.

I want to make a somewhat structured effort to move along this scale, and document it as well. Again, I have to make sure that the documenting does not take up too much energy, I will just record some things that I find significant steps, things where I improved beyond what I'd have thought.

But really, if some of the above sounds a bit negative, in reality I am not unhappy at all (with my learning, world politics is a different thing!). If I look back to 5 years ago, I have already got much further than I thought I would. It took me longer than young people nowadays who decide to become a web developer (and have grown up with computers). Many times I didn't learn in a very effective way. But I'm glad I persisted, because I really do love working in this area.

I won't write so much about the Curtis films anymore, but wanted to mention them, because they do always have quite some effect on me. So, I watched Hypernormalisation on IPlayer - I then also started to watch Bitter Lake which was made about two years ago and which I had missed. But I stopped for now, as it is becoming a bit too much (I normally don't watch any telly). It is scary to think, with the many things mentioned in those films that I had not known about, how many more scary stuff is out there. But mostly, Hypernormalisation reinforced an uncomfortable feeling I (and others, I am sure) had already. We are not really ruled by politicians anymore but by corporates, the potential of technology for evil goes much further as we want to admit to ourselves, and what is presented to us as political discourse is just a spectacle that is put on to distract us. I don't really watch it anymore, just what I hear about it is enough to make me turn away in disgust. Will we ever get to some place of normality again without there being a huge catastrophe first? But really a lot that is happening is already catastrophical, that is the sad thing.

In the credits, the Massive Attack musician Robert del Naja was one of the first people - or the first? - Adam Curtis thanked. I found that intriguing and googled the two names together. I found this article in Vice about a show they did together in 2013. I think the trend they mention there, to obsess about the past, has only become more pronounced, with the Brexit vote being the culmination. And yes, entertainment these days is probably quite conservative even if it doesn't always look like it, and is capable of exerting control. And this sentence sums it all up for me, and has stuck with me: "If you like yesterday we are going to give you more of yesterday so you never get a tomorrow"

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CodeHub Bristol

This post was written 5 years ago.
Wed, 03 Jul 2013

I cannot exactly remember when the idea to set up CodeHub was born, although it probably happened in several steps. It definitely came out of some conversations I had with my friend Gicela. We thought it would be great for people in a similar situation to us, working from home and just for themselves, to get together and learn from and with each other. When Gicela came across the Hackerschool website, that served as an inspiration, although it is very different from our project in terms of scale and scope. - And so, two days ago (on Tuesday 2 July 2013), a group of five independent web developers met up at The Big Chill in Bristol for a morning of coffee, tea and code. I think we all agreed that it worked very well. It was good to be in this small group to start with, and it was a good group. We almost felt we don't even want it to grow!

But that would of course go against the orginal idea of a place giving developers who work on their own the chance to learn and collaborate with others. In any case, I doubt that we will get a sudden influx of hundreds of people. If we slowly grow that will be good. I could also imagine having a core team and then occasionally setting up bigger events.

So, if you wonder what this is all about, here is a brief outline of ideas we've had:

The format:

  • 30 mins of somebody giving a talk, or discussion about a certain topic
  • The rest of the time (3 to 3.5 hours) spent working on a project involving that day's topic OR other project of own choice
  • We will look for a project or projects that we can collaborate on
  • We would like to invite mentors to give a talk and possibly stay on to give practical help

That's it really. And it is generally quite flexible. For our first meetup (as good web programmers, we also had a 0th meeting that took place at the Mildbunch office, who kindly let us invade their space for a few hours), we thought we'd all get set up with Git and GitHub. If we want to work together, we need to share our code after all. So Rob who had the most experience with Git in our group, talked everybody through the process. Some of us had a bit of experience and already had GitHub accounts, but we still learned new things. And there was clearly a sense of achievement when ssh keys had been generated and copied, and test repositories were pushed to GitHub.

Another topic we all agreed we want to learn more about is JavaScript. This ranges from being able to write own Javascript code to using an MVC framework. I had a look last night at various resources, and have come to the conclusion that I want to learn Javascript properly (finally!) and then using a framework. I am curious how well I will succeed. But one thing is clear, the prospect of being able to share what I am learning with others, has lifted my motivation quite substantially.

There seem to be quite a few initiatives around the world that aim to teach people coding or other technical skills, which is great. I particularly liked this about the Core Values of Open Tech School. They are pretty much what I hope CodeHub to be about.

So, I am glad CodeHub got off to a good start and it will be interesting to see how it develops. We meet up once a month, but plan to be in touch online between meet-ups. Let's see what we can build!

If you are interested in joining us, please get in touch. Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, 6th of August at 10 am, again at the Big Chill. As mentioned before, we will also be looking for mentors. If you would like to try giving a talk about a certain topic, this is the chance to do it in front of a small group, rather than for example, at the Bristol Skillswap. That, I can testify, can be very frightening!



This post was written 5 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: codehub / bristol / learning /
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