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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The App Academy Student Journey

*Note: It's been a long time since I wrote this and it's been a surprisingly popular post. Since then, I've founded the Viking Code School, an online software engineering program that takes exceptional aspiring developers and makes them job-ready. Our mission is meant to bring this level of education to people who cannot uproot their lives to attend an in-person program and I encourage you to check it out if this path interests you.*

I got into App Academy in late December and it's pretty much consumed my life ever since. The San Francisco-based program is a 9-week intensive dive into Ruby and Ruby on Rails designed to take people with little or no experience in computer programming and turn them into junior web developers. They are an offshoot of the original Dev Bootcamp, which began offering a similar style of classes about a year ago and has enjoyed great success.


Startup Advice from Michael Hartl

Friday at App Academy we had a surprise visit from Michael Hartl, author of the now-famous Ruby on Rails Tutorial. Interestingly, the conversation tracked a wide range of topics that leaned more to the entrepreneurial than the development side of things. Michael himself admitted that he's probably not the right person to ask many beginner questions to, since he has very little personal experience being a beginner or dealing directly with their issues.

Instead, we tried to get a better sense of the steps that led to the tutorial's creation and his advice for the day when we might put our newfound skills to use in startups of our own. Michael, after a narrow miss with a lifetime in academia, got into programming and landed in Y Combinator working on an open-source social network called Insoshi. As he put it, they just kind of pulled it together at the last minute to get something ready for Demo Day and it was surprisingly well received before the financial world ground to a halt in fall of 2008 and they couldn't secure funding to continue.


How Harvard's CS50 Renewed My Hope for Online Education

This fall I took CS50: Intro to Computer Science at Harvard and it was refreshingly, thankfully good. I didn't take the course *at* Harvard per se, but rather via the edX online platform, which is a collaboration between MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and other major universities to put their courseware online. It's one of the primary vehicles through which top tier institutions are at last surging into the online education space in a kind of academic land grab like we've never seen before.

edX, Coursera, VentureLab, Khan Academy and a veritable cornucopia of other platforms have popped up over just the last few years to try and solve the need for high quality distance education. That need was previously underserved by a combination of insufficient technologies and the unwillingness of top tier institutions to wade into a space that was otherwise dominated by shady, low-quality offerings like the University of Phoenix.


The Problem with Being M-Shaped

There's a lot of noise these days about being "T-shaped." It's possessing that great blend of depth in a particular skill area with the ability to see the bigger picture and to work cross-disciplinarily. It's much better than being "lower-case-l-shaped", with depth but little versatility, or perhaps "apostrophe-shaped"... okay we're stretching it too far.

I am M-shaped. I see people all around me who have discovered their love for a particular field, be it database engineering or social media advertising or User Happiness Management, and they've spent years immersing themselves in the joy of it. I tried that in energy trading but never found my nirvana and left to build something real. I now find myself at a feast of 1000 dishes and, perhaps ill-advisedly, I've launched into it like a starving man possessed. Of the three major startup skills categories ["business", design, and development], I'm actively learning them all.


The Apathy Implosion and Lessons in Leadership

I recently had a team implode around me. As is often the case, it wasn't some external stress that did the job so much as a lack of passion and strong leadership. It was a slow death but it almost seemed inevitable.

To rewind a bit, I've been taking the Tech Entrepreneurship course through the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLab) online platform. It's a semester-based course where the students form small teams and build a plausible business plan, which is presented at the end of the course in January.

The first couple weeks were a frenzy of virtual team building, where the 30,000+ students that began networked and facebooked themselves into groups of 3-5. That was a fascinating experience in and of itself -- which approaches were destined to be successful? I saw cases of future founders championing their idea, seeking to rally some free labor to develop it. Then there were groups who bonded across continents because they shared a passion for solving a particular problem. Often, the easiest way to begin chunking the enormous initial set of students was by geography. The San Francisco locals Facebook group eventually swelled to over 30 people.


San Francisco @ t=0

My final week in Houston was hectic. I sold a truck, the motorcycle, and just about everything else that I possibly could in order to extend my personal runway for as long as possible but the high water mark has officially passed and the limit as t approaches infinity of $$$ = 0. I transitioned from road-tripping wanderer into the odd limbo of sleeping on a couch in the city where I used to live while preparing to move to a place where I had no apartment and no job waiting for me.

Compared to the 20,000 miles I recently spent on the motorcycle, our 2,000 mile jaunt to San Francisco in a moving truck was smooth and blissfully air conditioned. The logistics of moving into the new apartment in San Francisco (which we were fortunate to find quickly upon arrival) involved 4 separate and equally awful DIY legs but the job was done and the soreness will fade.


Site News: Disqus for Commenting

Greetings! I've finally done away with the bare-bones commenting interface I had out there before and replaced it with Disqus, something you've probably already seen in a hundred places across the web. The integration was very straightforward, basically just copy-pasting some javascript and tweaking some options. I hope you enjoy the added functionality and we really get the discussion going in the next few weeks.



Beyond Version 1.0

Despite all the forward progress I've made so far, there are plenty of other items on my to-do list. One of the hardest parts of this blog project was actually to say, "screw it, just launch" despite all the little things I hate and immediately want to change about it. I assume much of the site will look pretty different as the weeks progress and I begin adding features and tweaking design elements.

The next steps will involve things both on the front end and behind the scenes. What you won't see are my attempts to improve security and search engine optimization or to provide RSS compatibility. I'll also be deploying Google Analytics and looking into other options to try and regain some of the valuable analytics information that Wordpress had been providing.

On the front end, my next project is to put together a way of tracking progress during my trip (I'm in the midst of a 12,000 mile motorcycle journey through the CONUS). A lot of people have asked me how to follow along and so I will be building the ability to track that and integrate it with the rest of the blog (pictures and posts). I will also set up Disqus to power my comments and will implement various social sharing widgets. Stay tuned.

My next set of explorations into more formal learning will be to dive back into Javascript and the JQuery libraries. I want to learn AJAX fundamentals and build some features with the new HTML5 and CSS3 toolkits. I expect these things to crop up in various ways over the next few months. I am also starting to poke my nose a bit more into mobile development and pull together specs for an app that I'd like to create. And, as always, there is Rails somewhere down the road"¦ is it worth diving into?

The more my toolkit grows, the more cool stuff I want to build and learn. This is fun.


The Blog Has Finally Landed

I built this website myself. To all you designers and developers out there, that's hardly an accomplishment but for someone who had never heard of style sheets until a few months ago and hadn't seen an HTML tag since a high school 101 course, that feels pretty okay. From the day of my initial launch using Wordpress, I knew that I wanted to take control and eventually build the site from the bottom up. Today is version 1.0 of that vision.

I believe it's important to be a details person. When I tackle a problem, I want to know it from the bottom up. I want to know how every link in the chain is put together before I zoom out and start solving the overarching task. It doesn't mean that I need to drown in the minutia of things, but I'd like to be able to picture it in my head before manipulating it. Since I'm interested in putting together web-based products, it was a given that I'd need to build my own site.


It's All About the Little Things

I've spent the past week or so more or less getting back into a coding routine. I've finally managed to bite off a good chunk of my blog project and I feel like I am hitting my stride with PHP and SQL after scratching my head and dealing with stupid errors for a frustrating couple of days. It feels really good to have momentum building again after all the moving and traveling.

The blog project (to produce the production version of this blog) comes both from a desire to have full creative control of my website and as a way to practice building a web application from the ground up. It's a front-to-back journey through creating something from nothing and it has been incredibly useful as a learning tool.

In order to really milk the experience for all the learning I can get, I am doing as much of it from scratch as possible. Often that is a license to take a few hours aside and learn a new skill or function because it came up in a YouTube video I was referencing or was mentioned in a Stack Overflow help article. Yesterday, though, that meant I spent the entire day working only on the code for pagination.