My awesome new job at The Pixel Shop

I promised I would post updates on my career situation, and I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve started work as a UX Designer / Interface Developer at The Pixel Shop. What exactly does that fancy title mean? Well, I’m going to be taking on a variety of roles on various projects. Some of it will be front end development, but I’ll also be doing some information architecture, usability testing, and more.

I was first introduced to Vince and Tim from The Pixel Shop a few weeks ago, at Hiring Week for Bitmaker’s 5th cohort. Of course, I was a student in cohort 4, but when the following cohort’s Hiring Week rolled around and I still wasn’t employed, the Bitmaker staff invited me to join in. From there, things moved quickly: our initial chat at Bitmaker was on a Wednesday, then they invited me for a follow up at the office the following Monday, they made me an offer the day after that, and I started work that Wednesday.

I’m really enjoying the experience. I work with a great team, on projects for a variety of clients ranging from small non-profits to big corporations. Every day it’s something new, whether I’m updating existing code or coming up with a new structure for a site that’s being completed overhauled, so there’s never a dull moment. Plus, the location is fantastic, and my commute is about 25 minutes by bike.

Life is good!

Why you should check out Startup Weekend Toronto EDU: Library Edition

Originally posted at http://toronto.startupweekend.org/2014/03/07/why-you-should-check-out-startup-weekend-toronto-edu-library-edition/

Are you a librarian, a developer, or a designer? Can you spend the weekend of March 28 – 30 in Toronto? If so, you should absolutely check out Startup Weekend Toronto EDU: Library Edition. Read on to find out why.

First things first: what is SWTOLib all about? Developers may already be familiar with the Startup Weekend concept: people from diverse backgrounds come together and form teams to take innovative ideas from the concept stage to lay the groundwork for startup businesses. If this sounds intimidating, it shouldn’t; you’ll be surrounded by like-minded individuals who are all working toward the goal of improving libraries through technology. If you’re a librarian, you don’t need any technical experience, and developers and designers don’t need to know much about libraries. You can find all the details on the SWTOLib event page and on Twitter: @SWTOLib, but I’m here to tell you why you should join in. There are a ton of good reasons; here are 5 of the best:

  1. You’ll meet some amazing people. (Aside to librarians: developers aren’t so bad, if you give them a chance; aside to developers: same goes for librarians). You might meet your future business partner, and even if you don’t, the bonds you form here are sure to have a lasting impact on your professional network.
  2. Everyone loves libraries (except, perhaps, the mayor and his brother). Even if you haven’t been to a library in years, you can surely imagine the possibilities when free access to information meets bleeding-edge technology. Help build the future for citizens of the world.
  3. You’ll have the chance to work on cool ideas you might not have the opportunity to try out at work. Even if you work somewhere as awesome as Google, you can’t spend *all* your time doing whatever tickles your fancy, so come try out some wild ideas.
  4. You’ll be part of something massive. Over 45,000 people have participated in Startup Weekend, in countries all around the world. Or, if you’re more into exclusivity, consider that you’ll be among the very first to harness the power of Startup Weekend and aim it at libraries.
  5. No matter how many good ideas you have coming in, you’ll have even more when you’re finished. Even if you don’t actually launch a new business venture, the ideas you’ve worked on will continue to percolate in your mind for the weeks and months following the event, so make sure you connect on LinkedIn (or trade business cards, if you’re old school like that) with all the amazing people you meet, because your project may very well take on a life of its own.

So go sign up now! I’ll be there as a mentor, which means I’ll be floating around and helping groups however I can. I hope to see you there!

On the job hunt

As I’ve mentioned before, when I was researching the web development program at Bitmaker Labs, I learned a lot by reading the blogs of previous students. Unfortunately, many of them stopped blogging when they finished the course, which I found to be terribly frustrating because I wanted to know what they ended up doing with their newly acquired skills.

This is just a quick post to assure you, my dear readers, that I will keep you up to date as to my post-Bitmaker career-relevant activities. At the moment, I’m treating finding a job as a full-time job, which means networking (e.g., meeting people for coffee and attending tech-related social events, which are two things I enjoy doing anyway), checking job boards, and keeping my skills sharp (e.g., through Code School). I’ve also started a personal project I’m not quite ready to announce on here yet. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Code School vs. Codecademy: Where are the best coding tutorials?

More than a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about my experience using Codecademy, and to this day it’s one of the most popular posts on my blog. Since then, I’ve tried several different online tutorials for learning to code, so today I want to talk about one of my new favourites, Code School. Let’s see how it stacks up against Codecademy.

You may be wondering why I’m spending time on tutorials now that I’ve completed the program at Bitmaker Labs, but any expert will tell you that learning to code is a lifelong pursuit. There are always new techniques to master and new tools to discover. Both of the sites I’m discussing here have a lot to offer intermediate and even senior developers.

Code School covers a variety of coding topics. Most of these topics are grouped under paths (Ruby, JavaScript, HTML/CSS, and iOS), while a few are classified as electives (including Git and Chrome DevTools). In addition to these “courses,” there is an extensive list of screencasts available on related subjects, but so far I’ve stuck to the courses, so I won’t be discussing the screencasts.

Each course is broken down into 5 or 6 lessons (or “levels,” to use Code School’s gamified language), and each of these sections features a video lecture followed by several exercises (“challenges”). The quality of the lectures is quite good; the instructor is usually shown in a corner of the screen, while the code takes up most of the window, with slick but non-distracting animations, notes, and highlights indicating relevant portions. The videos tend to be 10-20 minutes in length, which is of course much shorter than a traditional lecture. I sometimes find my attention wandering a bit by the end of a video, though, and I feel they could improve the experience by breaking them up into even shorter segments. Having said that, there’s nothing stopping you from hitting pause if you need a break to soak in what you’ve just learned.

The challenges following the lectures use the same general format as Codecademy’s exercises. The site presents you with a customized coding environment in the browser and asks you to solve a problem using the techniques you’ve just learned. One thing I particularly like about the challenges is that you have the option to view the lecture you just watched in PDF slide format, which makes it easy to remind yourself of the most important points of the lecture without having to sit through the entire video again. Each challenge comes with a set of (usually 3) progressively more revealing hints, so if you’re struggling you can get some help without having the whole answer given to you. If you still can’t figure it out, you have the option of accessing the answer, though this will cause you to earn fewer points on that particular challenge.

As I’ve mentioned, Code School makes use of gamification: you earn points for each challenge and badges for each level. Codecademy takes a similar approach, but I found Code School’s implementation to be less obtrusive. Codecademy seemed to be always reminding me of my “achievements,” while in Code School I found it easier to ignore this aspect of the experience. To be fair, though, I think Codecademy has toned it down a bit since I first wrote about them; there is now more of an emphasis on progressing through a track (equivalent to a Code School path) and less on accumulating brightly coloured badges.

So how do these two options compare?

  • I haven’t counted up the topics covered, but at this point in time both sites have an impressive array of choices, so there’s no clear winner based on variety. If you’re looking to learn a particular tool, though, this may influence your choice; for example, Python is only available on Codecademy, while you can only learn about iOS on Code School.
  • In terms of lecture quality, I definitely prefer Code School’s videos over Codecademy’s purely text-based approach. The videos are engaging, and I find they help me visualize what my code is doing behind the scenes. There’s a cheesy jingle at the beginning of each course, but you can skip ahead in the video if they bug you as much as they bug me. I also prefer Code School’s exercises, but there’s a less significant difference here.
  • Codecademy has more of a community feel to it. From the beginning, they have encouraged users to create their own courses for others to learn from (which of course wouldn’t be realistic for Code School’s video-based approach), and there is an active forum where students help each other learn.
  • Hmmm, I guess I haven’t mentioned this part yet: Codecademy is free, while Code School costs $29 per month (or a bit less if you pay per year).

For the moment, I’ve decided Code School’s polished interface and engaging videos are worth paying for. It especially makes sense for me right now because I’m spending a lot of time honing my skills, so I use the site often enough to feel that I’m getting my money’s worth. However, I think both options are great ways to build your skills, whether you’re totally new to coding or have been doing it for a while. Code School offers a number of basic courses for free, so I would highly recommend giving them a try, and go ahead and check out Codecademy while you’re at it.

If you’re looking for more resources, Michelle Glauser has compiled an excellent list (the table is a bit awkward to read on that page, so I recommend clicking through to the full Google spreadsheet).

Hiring Week at Bitmaker Labs

Jan 13 – 17, 2014 was Hiring Week for the 4th cohort of students at Bitmaker Labs. What’s Hiring Week all about? I’m glad you asked.

As you may have guessed, Hiring Week is when students have the opportunity to interview with a number of different organizations, most of which are Toronto-based tech companies. In total, 16 organizations participated (including 3 talent agencies and one individual representing a handful of startups):

The Bitmaker staff had put together an online Hiring Board, where each student created a profile, highlighting our social media presence and uploading our resumes, and each organization posted some information about what they do and what types of positions they were hiring for. In some cases, companies had specific job postings they were looking to fill, while others were scoping out talent to keep in mind for the next time they hire.

Each organization indicated which morning or afternoon they would be coming to Bitmaker. Then, students could request interviews with whichever companies interested them, and the companies could also send requests to students whose profiles had caught their eye. Some organizations were more selective than others when deciding how many interview requests to accept, but most were happy to talk to as many interested students as possible. Finally, Lidia (Director of Community & Student Experience at Bitmaker) went through all the accepted requests and fit them into 20-minute time slots.

Naturally, 20 minutes is not very long for a job interview, so most of the conversations focused on how well the students would fit the company’s work culture, and what non-coding skills we would bring. Some organizations asked a few technical questions, but in most cases they saved those for a second round of interviews.

As you can imagine, it was an intense week (I had 13 interviews), and the hiring process isn’t over yet. Like many of my classmates, I’m still scheduling follow up interviews with some employers and waiting to hear back from others. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

I’m finished Bitmaker Labs – well, sort of

Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope you didn’t lose power after the ice storm (as I did), and if you did, I hope you had family or friends nearby who would take you in (as I did – thanks, Mom & Dad!).

So I’ve completed the program at Bitmaker Labs. Sort of. On Friday, Dec 20th, I presented my final project with my two teammates. The lectures are over. The assignments are over. I’ve survived all 9 weeks of the 9 week boot camp. This might seem like a natural point to do a final write up of my experience, and my self proclaimed “fans” have suggested as much.

However, I don’t feel I’m really *finished* just yet because I’m now preparing for Hiring Week, which I consider to be an important part of the Bitmaker program. The week of January 13th, my classmates and I will have the opportunity to interview with a whole bunch of companies looking to hire junior developers. In previous cohorts, Hiring Week was the week immediately following the last week of classes, so I feel fortunate to have a few weeks to fine tune my resume, tidy up my projects on Github, and have a quick refresher of the things I learned in the early weeks of the program (so I’ll feel confident when talking about them in an interview).

I will write a more detailed post when I have a job (hopefully in a few weeks), but in the meantime I will say that I believe I’ve learned much more at Bitmaker than I ever could have through 9 weeks of a traditional university program or self paced learning. Being surrounded all day, every day by the instructors and students kept me motivated and focused, and I’ve certainly never enjoyed myself so much while learning.

If you’re curious, you can check out what I’ve posted on the Bitmaker Labs blog, including this interview:

If anyone asks for me, tell them I’ll be on the Bitmaker blog

Check out my posts on the Bitmaker Labs blog

This is just a quick note to let you know I’ll be involved with the Bitmaker Labs blog. Here are my first two appearances:

My first week at Bitmaker Labs

It’s been a whirlwind of a first week for the 40 of us in the October 2013 cohort of Bitmaker Labs! Allow me to record the highlights here before I forget:

Day 1

We were told to arrive around 9:30 to start our day at 10, and when I entered the room at the suggested time it was already nearly full and buzzing with excitement.  We each stood up to give a brief introduction, and I was impressed by the variety of different backgrounds the other students come from. Although the group predictably skews young and male, there are at least a few students over 40 and a total of 6 women. Some of my classmates are entrepreneurs looking for the technical skills to take their businesses to the next level, while others are recent university grads looking to start a career for the first time, and at least a couple are former Apple Store employees. They’ve come from across Canada and overseas, and quite a number aren’t sure what country they’re “from,” after living in so many different places.

Next, the Bitmaker team introduced themselves and told us about the work they’ve done and how they’ve ended up here. They’re a fascinating group, and they all share an enthusiasm both for technology and for raising the next generation of coders.

After lunch we jumped into the first lesson, on Git, GitHub, and using the Terminal, followed by our first two assignments. Although it was review from the prep work we were expected to have completed in the weeks leading up to this point, the assignments were useful in terms of practicing what we’d learned. It was also my first opportunity to work on a project with others through GitHub (it’s not much fun to use the “git pull” command all by yourself!). Around 7:00, having completed our assignments, most of us headed to a pub across the street to continue getting to know each other.

Day 2

On the second day we jumped straight into Ruby, which was also review of the prep work. We also learned some best practices for coding in general, such as DRY: Don’t Repeat Yourself, and I was relieved to discover that developers generally dislike using a mouse or trackpad as much as I do. It’s tough keeping track of all the keyboard shortcuts, but they save a ton of time, and there are tools to help remember them, such as CheatSheet.

Our assignments focused on the basic Ruby concepts, from strings and variables to loops, if statements, and more. One of them involved building a Bitmaker version of the classic fizz buzz program.

Day 3

On Wednesday we continued our tour of Ruby basics, moving on to methods, arrays, and hashes. Our assignments involved manipulating and changing an array of grocery items and a hash of student cohorts with the number of students in each group. At this point I was finding the assignments to be a bit too simple, considering they were similar to what we’d already done in the prep work, but I changed my tune when I looked ahead to Thursday’s sales tax assignment and had no idea where to start. I wisely put that one aside for the next day.

In the evening, a group of us headed to the Distillery District to see Jack Dorsey, founder of Square and co-founder of Twitter, moderate a panel discussion on operating a small business in Toronto. We were a bit disappointed that Jack didn’t do much talking, but I did pick up a free Square reader. I have no idea what I’ll do with it, seeing as I don’t have any need to receive credit card payments from anyone, but it’s a super cool gadget.

Day 4

The next day things went a bit more theoretical and conceptual, as we discussed object oriented programming. We’d learned about classes and objects in the prep work, but now we were diving into the deep end, and I found it fascinating. Fortunately our teacher also got us started on the sales tax problem, and it turned out to be much less scary than I’d found it at first.

Day 5

On Friday we started on a lighter note, by learning about Aaron Patterson, aka tenderlove, a wacky guy who is super important in the Ruby community. He is responsible for the #FridayHug trend, which involves people posting photos of themselves giving an air hug, so of course we had to participate.

In terms of the actual material we learned, we discussed getter and setter methods and tackled our most difficult assignment yet: creating a Customer Relationship Application (basically an electronic rolodex).

I’ve learned a lot, and I’m enjoying myself quite a bit; this kind of work is definitely something I can see doing as a fulfilling career. And speaking of careers, this week was Hiring Week for the cohort that finished just before we started, and I had the opportunity to chat with a number of the students, since they were hanging around Bitmaker for their interviews. As far as I can tell, each student who was interested had multiple job interviews with local tech companies each day this week, and there was a feeling of optimism that they would all end up being offered positions that they found interesting. I can’t wait to hear from them once they’ve actually been hired!

If you have any questions about the program, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment. I’ll post again when I have another chance to catch my breath.

Can’t blog – too busy coding

I promise I’ll write a proper post when I have a minute, but in the meantime I’ve been tweeting more than usual:

https://twitter.com/gslavender

And you can find tweets from my classmates here:

#BLOctober2013

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