Uncharted Waters


February 12, 2014  12:47 PM

An interview with Eliza Brock from Nashville Software School

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Last time I talked a little bit about the differences between a traditional university education and posted some thoughts about why you might want to look into vocational education. This time, I have an interview with Eliza Brock from Nashville Software School to get into some details about their program.

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To get started, can you tell me a little about what Nashville Software School is, and what you do there?

Nashville Software School is a vocational school for adults that are transitioning into tech careers. It is a 6-month immersion program that is broken up into two 3-month class, Web Development Foundations (HTML/CSS/Javascript) and Software Development Foundations (Basic Computer Science, Ruby, SQL, Rails, and a host of web standards and technologies).

I teach the advanced course, Software Development Fundamentals with Rails.

When students graduate, what % of students have a gig one month after graduation – six months? Do you keep up with how many are still working for the same company 12 months after graduation? If the number is low, do they get a better job or what?

I have the luxury of having my only job be teaching, so I don’t personally keep track of those numbers.

I know that with cohort 1, 14 of 16 had jobs within a month or so of completing the course. At least one more student from cohort 1 got a job within a few months.

Cohort 2 (26 students) graduated in July and their initial placement rates weren’t as good. This is at least in part because two of our bigger employer partners weren’t able to make planned hires. You could ask John Wark for more details- I’m sure he has the latest figures.
What makes Nashville Software School different from a university. Are these certificate programs? Are they specialized along the lines that continuing education certificates are? What range of course work is offered.

We don’t offer a certificate or anything like that. The students largely get out of the courses what they put into them, and the best way to demonstrate that is with their skills and the portfolio of projects they build up during the six-month program.

NSS is significantly different from attending a university. My job is to give them the tools to become working junior developers and to grow into solid professional developers. Students aren’t graded (although they are given lots of feedback and classwork) and there is no graduation. At a university, a lot of the job is to help young people grow into well rounded individuals. Our students are expected to be adults already, and most of them have degrees, so that isn’t a component of what we do.
How was the NSS curriculum developed and vetted? How do you know that the material you are teaching and the evaluation methods that are being used are effective?

I can’t speak to the curriculum of the intro course, but the curriculum of the advanced course was developed by me.

I was a teaching assistant in college, and as soon as it was decided that I would be teaching this course, I called up my former professors and asked for their guidance on developing the curriculum. It is largely based on the high points of the 4-year software engineering program at Rose-Hulman. Obviously, you can’t cram 4 years of education into a single 3-month course, but I do my best to expose the students to the depth and breadth of the field. I also consulted with a number of area developers for feedback as I was developing the initial curriculum.

From that point, I’ve iterated based on how each class has reacted to the material. For example, for cohort 3 (my current class), I’ve expanded the databases unit by several weeks, so that they have a firmer foundation in what’s happening behind the scenes. The feedback I’ve gotten from cohorts 1 and 2 (and their employers) post-graduation has been quite positive.

If you’d like more details on the curriculum and how it’s evolved, you can view the full syllabus and course materials from the first 3 cohorts on my github profile (https://github.com/elizabrock). The README for the current cohort (https://github.com/elizabrock/NSS-Syllabus-Cohort-3) will be of particular interest.

Now, it’s your time to shine! Tell me a little about yourself and what you do outside of teaching.

I run a software consultancy (Eliza Brock Software) that specializes in test driven development of web applications.

My background is in software engineering, with a degree in software engineering and computer science from Rose-Hulman (which I’m compelled to mention has been Newsweek’s #1 undergraduate engineering school for the last 14 years).

It’s actually quite a challenge to teach an immersion class (mornings) while also running a consultancy (the rest of my waking hours), so I don’t do too much outside of that.

February 5, 2014  10:48 AM

Tech education: Or how to get a job quick!

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Education paths for tech workers has been pretty cut and dry for the past few decades. Get through high school and ideally be good at math, then move on to a university and major in computer science, or computer engineering, or some type of mathematics. Alternately, go to university and major in the humanities and spend a lot of time with learning on your own after graduation while working your day job.

There are a few problems with this model though. Most software jobs don’t require a deep understanding of pointer arithmetic and data structures. After graduation, most of us will spend your days writing web-apps that help with some business process. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, at all, there is a lot of value there which is why this is such a big part of the programming world. So, you spend 4 or 5 years learning the most intimate details of software development and may rarely have an opportunity to use that knowledge.

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(I have a hard time learning in this environment, do you?)

Expense was a big problem for me, I bet others have shared this experience. A university diploma isn’t cheap and it is growing more and more difficult to justify for a lot of people. I spent about 10 years on my undergrad working full time as a way to offset the cost. Each semester I took one or two classes and paid in cash. While taking one class per semester, the industry work experience I was gaining quickly became more valuable than the degree I was working on. I knew something was up, but there that nasty rumor that you will never advance without a degree kept looking my way.

There are quite a few non-traditional school options around that are probably worth exploring if you find yourself questioning the university route. Job specific schooling can be a great alternative for people who don’t fit well into a university system, or people that are already in the workforce but are looking for a change.

Tech schools range from the extremely casual to an intense boot camp type atmosphere (sans push ups I suspect). On the more casual side of things are websites like codeschool.com where a student can register and work through a series of exercises based on the technology they want to learn.

On the more intense side of things are brick-and-mortar schools like Nashville Software School. NSS offers a full time, six month web developer boot camp based on two courses. The first course, web development foundations, covers things such as JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and git. The second course goes a little deeper and introduces students to the Ruby / Rails stack, and also some testing frameworks such as rspec, and the selenium test suite.

cohort2

(Nashville Software School graduating class)

The goal of this program is to teach technologies that there is local market demand for, and to help the students land a gig as soon as they graduate. From what I understand, they are doing a pretty good job at both of these things.

If you want to build software for the space station, or for geological drilling expeditions, sure, go get that university degree. But if you aren’t set on that, you may want to consider some vocational options.

Next time I’ll be talking with a friend and instructor at Nashville Software School to get a closer view of how they do things.


January 22, 2014  2:58 PM

Wozniak (Finally!) Comments on Steve Jobs

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

JOBS PosterSteve Wozniak is the other founder of Apple Computer Corporation, the one who actually built the Apple I and Apple II. Many of us know that ‘Woz’ left Apple quietly in 1987, for several reasons, one being the realization that in their early partnership to create the Atari Game Breakout. (The two were to split the fee. Jobs collected $5000, and gave Woz $350; Woz would not find out for over a decade.)

Despite the breakup, Wozniak has been quiet about his feelings about Jobs. It might have been out of loyalty to Jobs, or to Apple Computer, or, perhaps, Steve Wozniak just isn’t the kind of person to make a mess in public with no clear benefit to anyone.

All that changed with the new movie, Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher. Suddenly there was a new narrative about the founding of Apple, one without Steve Jobs around to make corrections.

It was time for Steve Wozniak to set the record straight, and to do it, of all placed, on a public comment to a Google+ post. Continued »


January 15, 2014  12:55 PM

Is holacracy the third coming of Agile?

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

It looks like Zappos is joined the company wide reorganization bandwagon, but this time it has a new name; holacracy. This new change will mean fewer managers, fewer or no job titles, and small empowered groups working together to solve problems. Gone are the days of working through a red tape to get permission to do work.

When reading about this, I can’t help but think that this is completely in the spirit of the agile manifesto. In the agile world, everyone is a developer. Everyone focuses on the product and what actions can be taken to ship software and ship it faster.

Fred George refers to this phenomenon as programmer anarchy.

Back in the day, I worked at an early stage start up in a previous life that had a fair bit of success with this. We were building a software product, trying to get to market as fast as humanly possible to see if the customer would like it. If the liked it, great! If they didn’t, we would do the same thing but different and see if they liked the new different. Failure was quick and changing directions was no big deal.

Slowly, this little infant of a software project turned into and adolescent. The project had grown quite a bit, the team had grown a little bit, and most importantly we had paying customers. Paying customers that don’t like failing software. Releasing multiple times a day became dissatisfying for customers that like some amount of stability.

We did have managers, titles, and team members self-identified with certain parts of product development that they enjoyed or felt comfortable with.

As far as I can tell the mistakes that lead us to be not holocratic (and not very agile) were having paying customers, and a product that eventually became monolithic. One of those seems to be negotiable though. I mean, Facebook and Google seem to do just fine with monolithic software.

Many times, this structure can lead to customers being used to vet new ideas. Facebook doesn’t exactly have an untarnished record as far as releasing quality software goes. I’m sure you see the complaints and reports of weird behaviors in your feed each time they push a noticeable update. The theme for holacracy seems to be mediocre software as fast as possible, then something different is customers complain loud enough.

I wonder how this will work out for Zappos.


January 8, 2014  12:29 PM

someEstimates

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

If you want to start a fight on my team, bring up estimates. Just the idea of estimates is a “hot button issue”, and I don’t think it’s just my team.

On any given team, the technical staff are likely sensitive about how their estimates will be used. They have reason to be sensitive; there is a system-wide cultural misuse and misunderstanding around the concept. Woody Zuill is trying to reframe the estimates discussion around the idea of starting and completing small pieces of work, and not estimating at all. You can follow that by looking at the #NoEstimates hashtag on twitter. Matt Heusser, the lead contributor to this blog, did some investigation and wrote an article recently for CIO.com about transitioning from traditional planning and estimating to, well … not.

Let’s consider another case: What if the act of estimating tasks actually has value?

If you are willing to grant that, then we can explore ways estimation might be a useful exercise for you.

kanban

(kanban board: how much work goes here sometimes depends on your estimates)

My ideas on estimates:

Estimates can be used for all kinds of things: accounting and billing, planning what can be completed in a sprint, and, yes, as a whip to punish people who can not comple work they have “committed” to complete. I’d be willing to bet you’ve experienced each of those at some point in your tech career. One thing I think we ignore though, is the way group estimates can take the ideas (and variances!) in our head and bring them out to the table where we can talk about them for real. That’s a meaningful benefit. Since estimates aren’t going away anytime soon for most people in software, that’s what I’d like to focus on: The benefits.

Consider this:

Pretend you’re in a meeting to plan a some work for the next two weeks. (If you are a scrum-er, this is “grooming the backlog for the next sprint.”) You all talk about a feature for a bit, what this thing should do, how users might benefit from it, and think you understand it pretty well. At least to the extent that you can start to make some guesses about how complex you think the work to build this feature is.

This conversation takes place:

PM: Alright, does everyone think they understand this enough to make an estimate?

Clarie: Sure

Matt: OK

Michael: Yup

PM: OK then, lets do this in t-shirt sizes. 1…2….3….go!

Matt: Large

Clarie: Small

Michael: Large

I think this difference is really important and is something the no estimates community doesn’t talk about enough. Sometimes estimation differences means people have different skills on the technology, the code base, or even a different understanding of the problem to be solves. Sometimes they are a lesson in disguise. As a general rule, if your technical staff have wildly varying opinions on how long something will take, then something might be going on there worth talking about. This might not tell you where to look or immediately solve a problem, but it sure seems like a good start.

This difference in estimates can be a clue that people have different understandings about what they need to work on. Maybe there is a complete misunderstanding about what is being built, maybe someone knows about available libraries or utilities that you don’t know about, or maybe some aspect of this widget has already been written by another group in your company. Without that estimate you may have never had that conversation. The group could have had the story grooming session then gone off happily and started working only to realize later that these misunderstandings existed. What a shame that would be!

What you can do tomorrow:

Don’t stop estimating, rather reframe how you think about this tool. Start thinking of estimates as a tool that can help groups of people reduce ambiguity and gain clarity on a topic. Don’t worry so much about being victimized by a process.

I mean, sure, we could point out the process is broken. But has that ever helped anyone?

Focus on the good, and there’s a chance things might get better.

The choice is yours.


January 1, 2014  8:00 AM

2013 in Review … 2014 Preview!

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

2013 / 2014It’s about that time for people to look back on the year. While it has been a fantastic year for me, this blog isn’t about me as much as it is about you — or, at least, it is about possibilities for you. Every week or two I post an idea, a tip, a lesson, and interview, that I hope will have some value for you.

Today, I’d like to review the five most popular posts I made in 2013, just in case you missed them, and introduce the big new shakeup that is coming in January, 2014.

Continued »


December 23, 2013  4:21 PM

The Nightlife at Agile Testing Days

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

Agile Testing Day LogoGetting to a conference in Europe can be intimidating, so last month I published  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Agile Testing Days. It’s a good post about getting to Germany and things to do outside the conference center.

There is another part of the conference though, something folks rarely talk about: What do you do outside regular conference hours?

At some software conferences the answer is “go to Disney” or “Explore San Francisco.” At Agile Test Days, the conference has events scheduled from 5PM to … well … late. Here’s a few things to expect, and plan for, after hours at Agile Testing Days. Continued »


December 16, 2013  2:03 PM

On Office Politics

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

Cubu Cover Text Last time I introduced Cubu, a game that appeared, on its surface, to be about pattern matching, but actually works on multiple levels.

I find that more than a little bit like office politics.

Even the ‘tag’ line of Cubu – “Where Visual Illusion Leads to Confusion” has a hidden meaning. Yes, the different colored rectangles can “throw you off”, but even worse than the rings is the chance to be focusing on the rings while your opponents are playing the meta-game.

Today I’ll explain the game of office politics — and one way to play. Continued »


December 13, 2013  1:03 PM

A Christmas Stocking Stuffer

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

Picture of Cubu GamePicking Christmas gifts is, for me, not exactly the most pleasant time of the year.

First there is the procrastination, the putting off until tomorrow. Next comes the freak-out that tomorrow is actually here, the mad rush to get something, the vague feeling that it was the wrong thing, which sticks around until Christmas actually come …

Yeah. It’s kind of like that.

If Christmas shopping is for you anything like it is for me, well then, allow me to introduce a little card game you’ve never heard of: Cubu, and why your friends, family, spouse, and significant other are going to like it so much. Continued »


December 11, 2013  12:45 PM

An Estimation Trick

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

An Estimates Photo You know the signs. The project deliverables are vague; no one knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing. The hardware might not be on-site site yet — it might not be ordered. Perhaps there won’t be any hardware at all; instead, vague promises are made that Amazon’s EC2, or some other cloud, will make the hardware needs obsolete.

Somewhere in the back, someone is sighing and nodding their head, saying “This is never gonna work.”

You want to listen to that guy, you really do. Perhaps you are that guy … but the evidence against the status quo boils down to you saying “nu uh!”

Today I’ll introduce a way to move your case from “gut feeling” to reasonable argument that is based on a paper published in, believe it or not, the Harvard Business Review. Continued »


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