The best thing about technology disciplines for me is that they are probably easier to learn online than anyone else. In fact, that’s how I built the Computer Science Foundation, which supports my work. Without an Internet full of resources, I would not be where I am today.
Like many who share my path, I initially devoured every online resource I could get my hands on. But as I have invested more years in my career, I am increasingly noticing the shortcomings of the material you are likely to encounter.
I initially found that I needed to re-learn some concepts that I thought I understood. Then, the more I became stronger, the more I discovered that my self-taught peers were also deluded at times.
This led me to explore how misconceptions spread. Of course, not everyone gets everything right all the time. However, it is human to make mistakes. But with such a wealth of knowledge available online, in theory, misinformation should not be widely disseminated.
So where did it come from? In short, the same market forces that make computer-driven fields profitable are those that create fertile ground for suspicious learning materials.
To return to computer science education in a small way, I want to share my observations on determining the quality of learning resources. We hope that those of you who follow this path will learn in an easy way what I have learned in a difficult way.
Initializing our self-development environment
Before I begin, I want to admit that I understand that no one likes to be told that his work is less than stellar. I will definitely not name names. On the one hand, there is so much to name that heuristics are the only pragmatic way.
More importantly, I would rather give you the tools to make judgments about yourself than just tell you where not to go.
Heuristics are also more likely to point in the right direction. If I declare that website X has low content and I am wrong, no one has gained anything. What’s worse is that you may have missed an instructive source of knowledge.
However, if I highlight the signs that suggest that a website may not be right, even though they may still cause you to accidentally refuse a reliable resource, they still need to come to reasonable conclusions in most cases.
The invisible hand on the market leads to a firm handshake
To assess where information of questionable quality comes from, we will need to dust off our Econ 101 notes.
Why do technology jobs pay so much? High demand meets low supply. There is such an urgent need for software developers and trends in software development are evolving fast enough that tons of resources have been produced quickly to train the latest wave.
But market forces are not yet ready. When demand exceeds supply, production feels the pressure. If production is accelerated and the price remains the same, the quality decreases. Of course, prices can simply go up, but the main advantage of technical training is that much of it is free.
So if a site can’t stand the sharp drop in users that comes with switching from free to paid, can you blame it for staying free? Multiply this by even a modest fraction of all free training sites, and the result is generally lower quality training.
In addition, as software development practices are repeated due to innovation, this cycle of deteriorating quality of education is repeated. What happens after the hastily produced learning material is consumed? Over time, the workers who consume it become the new “experts”. After a while, these “experts” produce another generation of resources; and so it goes.
Start your training with your own Bootstraps
It is clear that I will not tell you to regulate this market. What I can however, it is to learn to identify reliable sources yourself. I promised heuristics, so here are a few that I use to make a rough estimate of the value of a particular resource.
Is the site run by a for-profit company? Probably not as solid or at least useful for your particular use case.
Many times these sites sell something to technically illiterate customers. The information is simplified to please the non-technical management of the companies, it is not detailed to deal with technical problems. Even if the site is designed for someone in your area, non-profit organizations try to avoid giving away free crafts.
If the site is for technical thinkers, and distributes company practices freely, their use of a software, tool or language can be completely different from how you do it, want it or need it.
The site was created by a non-profit organization? If you choose the right type, their material can be super valuable.
Before you believe what you read, make sure that the non-profit organization has a reputation. Then confirm how closely the site is related to what you are trying to learn. For example, python.org, which is administered by the same people who make Python, would be a pretty good bet for learning Python.
Is the site focused on training? Be careful if it is profitable.
Clothing like this usually gives priority to hiring trainees, and quickly. The quality of the intern is in second place. Unfortunately, good enough is good, good enough for most employers, especially if it means they can save a dollar on salary.
On the other hand, if the site is a large non-profit organization, you can usually give it more weight. Often, these types of non-profit, training-oriented organizations have a mission to build the field and support their workers – which relies heavily on people being trained in the right way.
More to see
There are some other factors to consider before deciding how seriously to take a resource.
If you are browsing a forum, measure it by its relevance and reputation.
General purpose software development forums are a disappointing time because a lack of specialization means that specialized experts are less likely to hang around.
If the forum is explicitly designed to serve a specific position or software user base, you are more likely to get better mileage, as you are more likely to find an expert there.
For things like blogs and their articles, it all depends on the strength of the author’s background.
Authors who develop or use what you learn are unlikely to lead you astray. You are probably also in good shape with a developer for a large technology company, as these organizations can usually capture first-class talent.
Be skeptical of authors who write from a for-profit company who are also not developers.
If you need to distill this approach into a mantra, you can express it as follows: always think about who writes the advice and why.
Obviously no one ever tries to make a mistake. But they can only deviate from what they know, and there are other tricks that the information sharer may have, in addition to being as accurate as possible.
If you can find the reasons why a knowledge producer may not put the correctness of the textbook first in your mind, you are less at risk of uncritically throwing their work into your own mind.