A Pending Promise or Already Functional?

This post was written 15 days 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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Diary week c/ 27 March 2017 also known as Let's start the Brexshit week but this post is not about that

This post was written 1 year ago.
Thu, 30 Mar 2017
This first entry of my new 'diary streak' is brought to you from a hole. - Although come to think of it, I might already be crawling out of it again.

I just remembered this poem: Autobiography in 5 chapters. I think I might be at chapter 3 now. Let's hope so! And onwards and upwards!

So let me write about coding. This is a vast topic. Technology, programming, is big, and is the single most influential thing that is changing how we work, socialise, and do about everything else. Automation of jobs is already happening, and there's going to be more of it. Like Thanh at Desklodge said recently, at some point the prefix "tech" won't make sense anymore, because everything will involve tech somewhere. It will be the default, so there will be no point in calling it "tech something" anymore.

The tech industry is amazing, daunting, enabling and illness-promoting at the same time. I am absolutely fascinated by it, I by now definitely feel I'm part of it, and it is massive. It has changed my life profoundly and has or is going to, change everybody else's, too.

If you work in tech, especially if you work as a software programmer or web developer, you live precariously. Your mental health is under constant attack (physical health, too, but I think that's easier to mitigate), that is how I see it now. Sitting at a desk for hours, looking at a screen, typing into a keyboard, is not that well suited to human nature for one thing. But a lot of jobs entail that. Programming, if you are not very confident and fast at it, makes you feel like a complete idiot a lot of the time. There is a lot of time pressure, and there will be periods where you get stuck and you will not see much progress for a while. Estimating how long things are going to take is notoriously difficult. Also, you need to keep many things in your head concurrently, and you need to be able to understand code that people have written in gung-ho ways, not thinking of their successors very much (just make the thing work..)

Now, in my own life, I have a really really difficult relationship with coding. For one thing, I think I have not learned it in the best way. I for a long time applied a very unstructured trial-and-error way to get things working, pulling thousands of levers here and there, till I might get a combination where things work. And I sometimes still take that approach, till I realise I must isolate things and start from really small. Build something really small that is working. My confidence is not very good at all, and if that is met with people having low expectations of me, a perfect match is made and I go down, down, down very quickly. The trouble is that the low confidence then often prevents you from getting better, it's absolutely a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, I have progressed over 10 years or so (!) very slowly. But I do know that I can program now, which is a massive relief. Still, there are enough ways left to beat yourself up if you choose to, and I have to fight a constant battle over not choosing to do that. Ms K S Durrani. Katja Self-sabotage Durrani. Shit, when I read that, why am I still here?? And is it just an excuse I am making there? "Haha, you say you are self-sabotaging, when in fact you just aren't very good." - Well, I have a huge interest in overcoming that part of me, I will keep on trying for as long as I can. I always think when I'll manage to keep it in check, then I can help others to do the same. Not only the self-sabotage thing, low confidence in general. If I manage to learn and build stuff, then I can show that it can be done, that that beast that some past well- and not-so-well-meaning figures in your life have planted inside you, can be tamed. I by now see myself as having a long-term condition. There is no point in even trying to get rid of it. You have to learn to live with it. And here's the thing. I think more and more people are living with this kind of beast these days, and it's not only women. We keep collectively digging ourselves into holes. And there is some people who actually have a vested interest in that. Because it keeps us calm and keeps us from opposing them, taking power from them ("TAKE BACK CONTROOOOOL". Fucking hell)

So, I guess this diary will also be about that. And there is another obstacle. That is my "executive functioning" weakness. Groan. I sometimes don't know what is the worse thing, the sabotage/low-confidence or that. Sometimes I wonder if they are actually two sides of the same coin. Yeah, it feels like there is something deep down in me that wants to prevent me from.. having success?

So, after I have now admitted my failures, I want to make it my expressed goal to show myself and others that I can deal with them. And the best way to start to effect change, is to observe what you are doing at the moment. Some very simple measurements I just came up with:
- Time I turn up to work
- Time I go to bed
- Time spent on coding outside job (Codehub and own projects) - at the moment I demonstrate to myself how bad I am by simply not coding very much at all!
So I'll record these every day (except the work thing, which is Monday, Wednesday, Friday). That will also help work towards improving the above-mentioned executive functioning.

And I am glad I did not mention my particular difficulties at my work place at the moment. But yeah, there's been a downward slide, after for a while things had been going quite well. And I will hang on to that. I have been doing good work. I can do it again. But ultimately I think it might also not the right match. We will see.

In the meantime it fills me with great joy that I managed to write again and I feel it will help me. I might be a bit of a wreck, but I am all in all a happy wreck (strangely enough, with all the B&T, or M&T?, stuff going on - but they can be overcome!)

Oh, here is a book about how machines will change the world (again): The second machine age It's excellent, but the authors managed to preface each of the 15 chapters with a quote by A MAN. Because women either do not say stuff, it is not quotable what they say, or they have no authority and therefore there is no point quoting them. Thanks very much, gentlemen!

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Mini post about sudden frustrating realisation

This post was written 2 years ago.
Thu, 08 Dec 2016
Today things don't fit. And for once I am not talking about the world at large.

It had not hit me like this for a while, but now it's back. Hello feelings of inquadecy, pointlessness, and (relative) professional uselessness. (I do not doubt my value as a human, as wife and as a mother to my kids - in that I am actually a very fortunate person; I am not depressed at the moment)

So, there are these plans in my head, about CodeHub, and while I find myself forever in a weird 'active state of inactivity' where I am planning and thinking about things without actually taking much real-world action, my plans did get clearer over time. I have action points even, deliverables. But, as my friend araja put it, there is a "No". And I think this is what it's about: For the things I'd really like to achieve, I am not a good enough coder, and I don't have enough influence. Those two things go hand in hand.

This has nothing to do with impostor syndrome. You only have impostor syndrome if, through your job, or the respect shown to you by others, you are in a certain position that you feel you don't deserve to be in. I am exactly where I belong with my job, and I am happy there. I don't feel an impostor. Outside the job, as part of the tech community, I feel I don't count very much though. I do not have authority. I could still organise things, for sure. But it will not be as good as it could be. In short: I feel I am not the right person for it.

There is the possibility I could become what I envisage this magical organiser-mentor-person to be. But at the moment I don't see the way there.

I am also today extremely frustrated with the massive misogyny, both open and tacit, that has become apparent this year.

And that's where I'm at. I give myself till Tuesday, to get moving on my plans for next year. If I have not taken any proper steps by then, I hope I can just leave it. I might even step down as the organiser of the group.

Close but no cigar.

(Something in me riles against me saying all this. Come on rebellious me, find the weak spot in the lines above, and turn it all around!)

[edit 10 min later]
Ha, now I just remembered a thought I had recently (and I've had similar ones before): I am not an accomplished coder, but I am not a beginner either. I mean, not at all! I am in the murky middle, and things by its very nature get messy there. All I have to do is accept that. And this group is exactly about that stage. Still, today I just don't feel entitled to run it.

[Many hours later, at 1.24 am]
"Nobody else cares about my plans, the email I want to write to everybody, my ideas". And I know I am blowing things out of proportion. It is just such a shame, because I am sure it could be good if I only got started. Ha, but isn't that exactly the reason why you don't get started? As long as it is just in your imagination, you can say it would be good? No, no, I have seen it work before! It's just nobody cares. I feel so alone.

I just read this about Tim Ferriss and had tears streaming down my face. https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/12/08/tim-ferriss-tools-of-titans-depression/ The thwarted contribution. Always so powerful. Not fulfilling your potential hurts so fucking much, and can consume all your thoughts. Possibly more than bad things happening to you. You made something not happen. You are a failure. It's not that you failed, you are a failure, that is what your mind is telling you.

A tweet I saw today:
"Women are not going to forget or forgive this year." YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES. And not even the men I love most understand how much it hurts. I don't think they do. Not a single one. That's this year's big lesson for me.

Tags: coding / programming / codehub /
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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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Accidental Javascript programming

This post was written 7 years ago.
Wed, 31 Aug 2011

After doing some programming, starting a book about how to think like a Computer Scientist, and reading Javascript the Good Parts, 1.5 times so far (more iterations will follow), I now have a far better understanding of Javascript than say a year ago. Still, there is much more to learn.

I have had a go at programming something in Javascript though (not jQuery). This was for a w3c course in mobile web development - blog post on that to follow. Javascript had not really been the focus, but rather making things work on desktop and mobile. Anyway, it is a little hangman app - there's simply not enough of them yet ;) . I know I could have found code for this on the web, but I just tried myself. Better not to look at the source code!

I'd quite like to make some changes, allow to choose words from different languages for example. But I think the most important would probably be to improve the user experience of the main interaction in this game: Entering and checking a lettter. Another thing that is bugging me is that the SVG does not work on most phones. There should be a fallback if SVG cannot be displayed.

Anyway, it works reasonably well on a desktop environment - including local storage which means you can close and open the browser and pick up from where you left the game. The list of words is at a sub-teen child's level at the moment, and my children actually like playing it! So here's the little Hangman game.

 

This post was written 7 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 :)
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