At the tail end of last year I was made redundant by Engine Yard. It had been a wonderful three years but the company had some tough financial decisions to make, and a bunch of us got the axe. The family we had built in the Dublin office was already breaking apart, so the timing ended up being pretty good.
Match Audio and open source
I took the opportunity of this new-found free time to hack on a project I’d been thinking about for a while, using technologies I was interested in learning more about. A week later I open-sourced Match Audio, a web app I built using React. This was a lot of fun but it also helped a lot when interviewing for jobs.
When I started interviewing I now had a project to talk about where the interviewer could actually review the code afterwards. I could talk about the challenges I faced, and how I overcame them as well as highlighting the pieces of code I thought were interesting. I could demonstrate that I care about product and UX, as well as engineering, operations and performance. This differed from talking about Hostr, which has a closed codebase.
Udemy showed up pretty late in my job hunt. I was a bit skeptical of joining another company that on the surface seemed so similar to my previous one (the companies’ HQs are both in San Francisco and one block apart). But I was completely charmed by both the hiring manager, and the person who was setting up the Dublin office. It seemed like they were a perfect fit, in terms of engineering, culture and business. I realised I couldn’t turn down the chance to lead a small engineering team in Dublin and help shape the culture there.
Learning and me
I have always had a bad relationship with education. From a very young age I was disruptive to anyone in my immediate vicinity in school, and my parents received regular complaints from my teachers. It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties that I realised I might need help. And it wasn’t until last year that I actually did something about it.
I left school at 18 and decided against university. I didn’t like school and figured it would be more of the same. So I worked in the family pub for a few years. I finally saved up and bought my first computer and assembled it myself. I got a job working at an internet cafe for a year. My original motivation for both of these was Counter-Strike, but it sparked an interest in programming. At 23 I said “fuck it, it’s now or never” and applied to University of Limerick.
As anyone who knew me then could have predicted, I did not enjoy it. The only positive experiences I remember were the open-ended programming projects. Particularly my final year project, which was one of my few A’s and is something I’m still hugely proud of.
So a learning company seems like a weird fit for me.
Two years ago I signed up to Treehouse. Treehouse courses follow the same pattern as Udemy’s. The courses are usually geared towards giving you a practical skill by the end. For me the key is learning at my own pace. I put the videos on 1.5x speed and scoop up as much knowledge as I can, and then try to put that into practice either through the tests or tiny projects they provide. If I struggle I know I lost concentration on the video and rewatch it.
I took a week off from work and completed all of Treehouse’s iOS material. This amounted to about 60 hours of learning over the course of that week. I came out the other side with a fully functional iOS app for Hostr. This was a revelation to me, it was the first time I had done guided learning and enjoyed it.
Contrast this with platforms like Coursera. I signed up for “Algorithms: Design and Analysis, Part 1” recently. The course material was highly compelling, the instructor delivered it well, but at the time I was too busy to keep up. Suddenly it was like being back in University. Credits were being docked for late submission and all that was doing was demoralising me even more. I realised I wasn’t doing it for the accreditation and decided to continue progressing through the material at my own pace, ignoring the lack of credit for assessments. I’m sure others just stop and never return.
Coursera has plusses though. The primary one being the fact that the material comes from the best academics and educators in the world. It’s difficult to overstate how compelling that is. It takes an interesting approach to scaling assessments through a peer to peer model. The problem being that it forces assessment deadlines. Having any deadline in the course means the rest of the course has to communicate that expectation through deadlines at every other level. I feel that this model is better suited to certain kinds of material and certain kinds of learners. It’s easy to see a young adult with no job, kids or mental issues being able make these deadlines. That seems like a really small group of people.
The future of learning
Platforms like Udemy are revolutionary for adult learners. People who have jobs, kids and very little free time in their days. People who are trying to upskill for the job they have, become equipped for a career change or just want to improve themselves for any reason at all. I find it exciting that Udemy has taken the approach it has, turning learning it on its head rather than retrofitting the Internet onto the traditional models.
I’m not saying we’re doing things better, and we’re certainly not without our own problems to solve, but I’m looking forward to being a part of the future of learning.