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CodeGrades

Saturday, 5th January 2019 (3:30PM)

Lots of people want to learn how to program computers.

The success of code "boot camps" and devices aimed at the education sector (Raspberry Pi and the BBC's micro:bit spring to mind) is evidence of this desire for folks to learn "coding".

At a time when technology is finding its way into every aspect of our lives many folks appear to want to be more than just passive consumers of technology. They feel a desire to become creators of technology. They want to take control of their digital world. They want the skills to make their technology reflect their own needs.

Recently I've been experimenting with how I could use my background and expertise in music education in a way that helps folks address this desire for learning to program. The first experiment took place over the autumn and involved a group of complete beginners preparing for a "code grade".

CodeGrades are a programming version of time-proven techniques like music grades, belts in martial arts or lifeguard certification. Learners level up by applying the knowledge and skills needed for each grade to their own fun, interesting and challenging coding projects. Learners present their projects to professional software developers who assess the projects against the criteria for the grade being taken and provide a set of marks and written feedback so the learner can see where they're doing well, what needs to improve and what their next steps may be.

The autumnal experiment proved this concept worked. The initial group of learners were able to learn enough to create a "grade 1" level project in the Python programming language in about ten weeks. Furthermore, after completing their grading the vast majority asked when they can take their next grade. This outcome was far better than I had ever imagined.

Like music grades, code grades are eight cumulative steps for learning how to write code. The first grade (as taken by our "test subjects") is easy enough for most people to take as a first step into programming. The eighth grade is of equivalent standard to the skills and knowledge needed to be an effective junior professional software developer. The middle grades bridge the way so the skill gaps between each of the grades is achievable. They're like stepping stones into coding, or perhaps a modern day "Gradus ad Parnassum". ;-)

Perhaps the most important aspect of CodeGrades is how it is different to other educational offerings.

Code boot-camps will charge you north of £10k for a three month course and a guaranteed "job" as a junior developer. This is, frankly, a terrible idea. Not only are people throwing huge sums of money over a cliff edge before they make the jump themselves, but learning to code requires a long term investment of time. You cannot learn how to write effective code in just three months. What the boot-camps have realised is that you can learn enough information in just three months to appear as if you can code. It has been my unhappy experience to interview graduates of such schemes and have them answer my questions about the niceties of some aspect of coding with text-book answers; yet most have been unable to apply such "text book answers" in any useful or even credible way. Those who did create something made what can only be described as "spaghetti code". This is the equivalent of claiming that it's possible to train musicians to a professional level in just three months. Can you imagine how an orchestra would sound with musicians trained in this way? Would you want to hire such musicians to play for your wedding party?

Other educational efforts are mostly aimed at beginner developers. As a result, all their educational resources are at the beginner end of the scale and there is hardly any guidance for how to move onto more challenging programming. Put another way, it's like getting a piano with lots of beginner level music to learn, but nothing which will stretch you after you've got the basics in place. There is simply no continuity nor access to the fun "advanced" stuff.

The syllabus for CodeGrades is written by professional software developers. The grades reflect current best practice found in the software industry. They offer a framework for sustained and structured long term learning to write code. All the resources associated with CodeGrades are free, learners only pay to take the grading. CodeGrades will be priced in a way equivalent to music and ballet grades or martial arts belts.

CodeGrades help you learn to code with the confidence you need to make the stuff you want.

The upshot is that it's the start of the year, and I've decided that the outcomes from the experiment in the autumn have been so positive that I want to invest some of my own time into developing the concept further.

So, here's to an interesting 2019... I hope to work with friends (old and new) in making something that helps people learn and grow while also providing employment for developers who feel they're at a stage in their career where they want to acquire and practice the skills needed to be effective and inspiring mentors.

Happy new year.


Compassion.py

Monday, 22nd October 2018 (1:00PM)

I write from a place of love and respect for the UK Python programming community. Some of what follows may make painful reading (sorry). But I want to be clear: if you misconstrue my words as aggressive, nasty or hurtful, then you have completely misunderstood my intent. I will never knowingly be a source of vindictive pain.

I'm going to shine a light on the (usually hidden) problems I have encountered in the UK Python community over the ten years that I've been volunteering.

It's hard to do this without appearing as if mud slinging or trying to diminish the considerable public-facing achievements of the UK Python community in doing genuinely wonderful things. I am anxious to avoid a situation that undermines all the good stuff.

But only by highlighting and acknowledging such hidden problems can action be taken to address them. I hope you bear with me as I try to find the words to explain things in a constructive, non-confrontational yet honest way.

The problems of which I speak are many in number and range from the institutional (a woman of limited means put into the humiliating position of having to beg for financial support), and petty (describing the John Pinner awards as "just a popularity contest") to plagiarism (members of the community claiming the work and intellectual property of others as their own) and an exercise of power and control for organisational gain (a sponsor taking steps to exclude others from fully participating in a community event -- they threatened to pull out if they didn't get their way). Sadly, I have a list as long as my arm full of such things.

Above and beyond these problems are personal attacks, slights and snark aimed directly at me (more on this later). Having said that, I want you to know that I bear no ill-will nor grudges.

I'm necessarily vague about the details: I don't believe finger pointing or blame is a useful or constructive way forward. Far better to honestly and constructively highlight such problems in the hope that they are acknowledged and can be avoided in the future.

If you're thinking, "that's not the UK Python community I know", then I am happy for you. You know the joyous, supportive and friendly place that welcomed and sustained me as a new Python programmer in 2007. I wish you good fortune and hope you cherish, advance and grow this aspect of the community.

However, such problems are themselves problematic because they are so often hidden. Furthermore, I've observed that those involved often don't appear to realise they are causing a problem. Upon reflection, I believe such situations are caused by a lack of just one thing: compassion (an awareness of and sympathy for another's feelings and suffering, mixed with a pro-active desire to help).

So my plea to members of the UK Python community is to show more compassion.

If you remain unconvinced of my plea, I want to explain what happens when we lack compassion.

Over the past three years I have grown despondent about the problems I have encountered in the UK's Python community. This past year the feeling became unbearable, to the extent that I sought professional help to deal with mental health problems solely arising from my contact with the UK Python community.

Last weekend a straw broke the camel's back and, after a considerable amount of thought and reflection, I finally decided to publicly reveal how I felt via Twitter. I'd been sitting on a huge amount of pent up frustration and sadness, and there needed to be a controlled release. I came to the realisation that only by "coming clean" and honestly describing my feelings would I be able to heal, move on and allow my life to return to some normality.

To say the reaction has been "interesting" is an understatement.

I'd like to start by thanking the many people who took the time to reach out with kind messages of support. You are the best of us, and the reason why the UK Python community is often an amazing place. Your compassion and thoughtfulness is an example to us all. Thank you.

However, I was reduced to tears of hurt by the initial reaction of one member of our community who went for the jugular (and it saddens me deeply that this reaction was "liked" by a number of other people in the UK Python community). I have been asked to justify my feelings to others (how dare I feel this way about the UK Python community) and I have had my words picked over in public leading to unwanted, unhelpful and upsetting comments.

These latter reactions inadvertently demonstrate why I've been feeling despondent. They show a complete lack of compassion and suppress hoped-for constructive dialogue or catharsis.

My despondency and poor mental health is directly linked to encountering and dealing with an excessive number of such problems: a sort of death by a thousand paper cuts.

"But why didn't you reach out for help?" you may ask.

I did.

I was rebuffed when I tried to find support from several individuals in the UK Python community. This led me to a downward spiral of frustration, self doubt and sadness: "What have I done to deserve this? Am I such an obnoxious person that people would refrain from showing support? Why am I not able to speak of my pain?"

I felt a complete failure, rejected and disempowered by the whole situation.

My only choice has been to step away from the UK Python community. It's not the ending I would have wanted and it makes me feel extraordinarily sad.

But my tweets brought acknowledgement from others in the international Python community. I'm not on my own in encountering such problems or the associated feelings of despondency. This is definitely not only a UK Python issue. My far flung friends highlighted patterns, features and common ground which, in turn, helped me realise, "I am not the only one".

Personally, by speaking of these things I feel I have turned a corner and have felt a great sense of release, although I still carry a huge amount of sadness and pain about how things turned out. For what it's worth, I hope people in the UK Python community never treat one of their own like this ever again.

What will I do next?

For me, this boils down to a positive assertion, through deeds and words, of humanity, honesty, compassion, patience, love and respect. What that entails depends on all sorts of complicated variables: who, what, where, when and how a situation is. Ironically for a conversation about a programming community, it's not a case of following an algorithm -- I'll have to exercise that unique and precious spark which means I'm not an unfeeling machine: my humanity.


(Anti)Social Media

Sunday, 17th December 2017 (9:30PM)

At the start of 2018 I will delete my account and all associated content from Facebook.

I joined Facebook to work with their public API as part of my work at Fluidinfo. After a while people started to find me (with a surname like "Tollervey" I'm easy to find online). As a result, I've reconnected with many friends. This has been a lovely and positive experience: anything that brings people together in friendship is to be applauded.

Unfortunately, Facebook makes me uncomfortable: it makes it easy to bring people together, yet drives a wedge between friends.

Posts and responses may appear like conversations between people, but they introduce a layer of indirection -- they are always done via Facebook rather than directly between friends. To analogise, it would be like going to a bar where all interactions between the patrons were made via the bar tender. Facebook acts like a really efficient and multi-media aware version of the bar tender from my analogy.

This is problematic for several reasons.

Our socialising on Facebook is reduced to interactions that standardise, process and normalise our lives into a digital production line of uniform social outputs ("like" something, post a picture, reply with a comment, set your mood). The messy, complicated and raw aspects of life, which I would argue are the most valuable, fun and interesting are lost or have no way to manifest themselves. We commoditize ourselves into a dribble of systematized digital assets (photos, posts, likes etc...).

Once commoditized, Facebook insinuates itself into our friendships. For example, after chatting with a particular friend (let's call them "X") you appear to see more "X likes Y" content interleved into your timeline. Facebook even tries to guess things about your background (where did you go to school? X attended Y university). Our commoditzation makes it easy to be measured and analysed which, in turn, allows Facebook to work out who we are from the way we behave on the website. Remember, the bar tender in my analogy knows the content of all the conversations between the customers as well as everyone's drink and snack preferences, favourite seat and usual arrival time.

To be fair, Facebook are up front about how they make money: they sell access to our accounts to the highest bidder who wants to advertise at us. As their website explains: "Find people easily; you can choose your audience based on demographics, behaviours or contact information. Get their attention; our advert formats are eye-catching, flexible and work on every device and connection speed. See the results; our advert reporting tools show you how your adverts have impacted your business in visual, easy-to-read reports." It's obvious that their customers find this a valuable service (note: as users, we are not their customers, but, as is often pointed out, the product on offer): "We can target adverts to people based on how and when they engaged, and create an experience that is relevant to where they are in the process of investigating our products."

So, here's why I'm leaving Facebook: I don't want my friendships reduced to pre-canned types of interaction. I want to look my friends in the eye, smile at them, make music, laugh and give them a hug or shoulder to cry on. I want to welcome them to my home, make them a meal, share a drink and get lost in conversation. I want to shake their hands, listen to their tone of voice, raise my eyebrow at a silly comment or make a joke so we laugh together. Put simply, I want to spend quality time with my friends in real life, rather than watch a stream of mediated content in a sterilised digital life.

Furthermore, I don't want to be measured, analysed, prodded and poked for the purpose of brand engagement. I don't want my friendships interrupted for the sake of a commercial break in my timeline. It's troubling to be reduced to a means to an end by virtue of simply being me (my friendships make me a way for Facebook to make money). Put simply, I find Facebook's openly Orwellian platform troubling.

Many people, including maybe even you, don't have a problem with such a state of affairs. I completely respect that, as I hope you respect my discomfort with Facebook and my decision to leave. Facebook is, after all, an opt-in personal choice.

So, what will I do post-Facebook?

I'll concentrate on fostering friendships unmediated by Facebook. That will take time as I try to stay in touch via email, phone calls or face-to-face, but I'm confident such efforts will be worth it.

Finally, if we are friends on Facebook and Facebook is the only way we interact, please don't lose touch. Drop me an email and never doubt that I'll be pleased to hear from you. If you find yourself wondering if you should get in touch with me, the answer is always, "yes, you should definitely get in touch".

I look forward to hearing from you soon... :-)

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