I can’t recommend attending the Starter League.

I’ve found myself being asked the relative value of attending the Starter League ever since I graduated from the program, back when it was called Code Academy, and I’ve never been able to recommend it wholeheartedly. It came up again recently, so I’ve decided to scale up my answer in the form of a blog post. But the short story is that I cannot recommend attending the Starter League if you’re a beginner who wants to be a developer. Starter League is not for you. And even if you have other reasons for wanting to apply, think hard about it. There are significant caveats.

Let me qualify this by saying that it’s a great experience. It’s a good time, and you meet some awesome people – they do a great job of selecting enthusiastic, motivated people. TSL provides a really fun, perhaps once in a lifetime experience where you set aside everything else in life in order to focus on learning web development with Ruby on Rails.

Let me also say that these are views I’ve developed via my own experiences as a student and as a mentor, the course itself may have changed, your mileage may vary. Disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer, this should be taken as an anecdote and not a longitudinal study.

With that out of the way, even shortly after graduating, I was not able to recommend attending without qualifications. I hesitated, and it’s not until today that I’ve put voice to this hesitation. What it comes down to is value. We’re talking about money.

Even at the $6,000 I paid, the return on investment from attending the web development course for the average beginner is dubious at best. And now, at $8,000, I simply cannot recommend it unless some significant changes to the curriculum happen or have already happened.

There are really two kinds of dreams that are being sold here: The first dream is going from zero experience to being a developer in 11 weeks. The second is becoming a tech savvy entrepreneur. I have less to say about the second, except that you should know what kind of investment you’re making and have the wherewithal to accept an $8,000 debit from your account. Unfortunately, many fail to account for it. I have much more to say about those who wish to be developers.

My class was split about 50/50 between those who wanted to be developers and those who wanted to be entrepreneurs. By the end of the course, having lost out on 11 weeks of potential productivity and being out an additional $6,000, it was split more along the lines of 75/25, developers to entrepreneurs, if not more heavily skewed toward developers. And what happened afterward? We did not have stunning successes in employment. We found ourselves struggling in interviews. Enthusiasm and motivation only go so far.

But aren’t I a web developer working in the industry now? Didn’t the program succeed?

Unfortunately, the story is not that simple. I have been technical all my life, having learned HTML from a book in 6th grade and attended electrical engineering courses in college that introduced me to computing concepts at a (painfully) low level. Many of my classmates were not that lucky. How many of us went on to even junior software engineering positions immediately after graduating? From my graduating class of around 80 students, I can probably count them on a single hand. And the few who did, like myself, had prior experience. Most were left with an expensive debt and no real option to pursue a career in development.

Hence, I cannot recommend attending The Starter League’s web development course.

Why? There are a few problems, starting with the definition of “intensive learning.” While 11 weeks may be enough to go from beginner to junior developer, the likelihood that it can be done in a mere 10 hours a week of classroom style lectures is slim to none. Meanwhile, the emphasis on Rails skims over many fundamental computer science and even plain Ruby concepts in favor of getting an app up and running. And if you’re left behind because you’re a beginner, well, that sucks. You might say that it depends on the student to put in the time and effort, and while that is true to an extent, and it is inspiring to see students put in over 40 hours of their own time into learning, I wonder what the point of paying all that tuition money is if you’re just going to learn on your own, anyway.

And, at $8,000, a student could pay a personal tutor over $70/hr for the same amount of instruction time (110 hours), which I have no doubt would result in a much greater understanding of the material, improved skillset and marketability, and therefore higher financial return on investment. Not to mention that the scheduling almost requires a student to quit their job, handing students a double whammy of being out almost ten grand, but potentially also being out 11 weeks of pay. Meanwhile, for those who do manage hold down a job during the course, or even just commute, the concepts tend not to stick. A forty hour work week tends to squash the learning done in a mostly hands-off lecture.

True, there is the value of the network of Starter League students, who, by now, are all over the world. Simply sharing this experience is an instantly binding thing, and it’s quite exciting just to know entrepreneurs. But the value of networking is both highly dependent on the individual and extremely difficult to quantify, and therefore not something I can base a recommendation on.

Any number of things could change my mind – if it was a full-time program, I feel like it would make it more valuable to both developers and entrepreneurs by valuing time taken off from more profitable pursuits. If it actually succeeded in teaching foundational Computer Science or Ruby concepts and it was structured toward helping students land development jobs.

But as it is, I cannot recommend attending Starter League. It’s almost a shame that they select such awesome students, because it’s hard to watch them get handed such a bad deal.

Edit – In response to “what alternatives are there?”

There’s been multiple mentions of alternatives, and yes, there are both free and paid alternatives that, in my opinion, have better bang for the buck. 

Udacity’s Intro to CS and Web Development courses lay a great foundation for getting to the point where you can teach yourself. If you prefer instruction, there’s App Academy, which is an intensive (read: 40 hours a week) beginner’s Ruby on Rails program in San Francisco that is free to attendees. They only make money through recruitment fees, which, if you want to be a developer, aligns their interests with yours. Meanwhile, DevBootcamp, while expensive at $12,000 for the course, has a 95%+ placement rate for its grads right out of the program. Again, interests in alignment.

Finally, if I were to do it all over again, I’d probably just apply to work at ThoughtWorks. They hire straight out of college from just about any major as long as you can complete the code challenges, and they train you to be, from my experiences working with them, world class developers. Their training program, ThoughtWorks University, is 6 weeks of full-time instruction in Bangalore, India, learning development and the dev process (Agile). That’s 240 hours of instruction. And they pay you. And it’s a job.

Top 3 Business Books for Mental and Financial Independence

I’ve read over 100 business books, courtesy of ignoring homework and summers uninterrupted by school. Most business books begin to blur together after a while, because the concepts which they rely upon are, for the most part, the same. Theoretically, by reading any combination of business or self-help books with a discerning eye, you can pick up the key ideas for our generation. This series of posts will cover the books I’ve found most clearly illuminate those key ideas.

Photo by Kamil Porembiński, Click for Flickr

I’ve arranged the most useful books into a framework similar to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which distinguishes between habits of Independence and habits of Interdependence. It is exactly what it seems: Habits of Independence involve self-mastery, while habits of Interdependence involve success within an organization.

Stephen Covey’s classic is missing one element, though – being so focused on habits of individuals, it forgoes a bigger picture view that I found in other resources. So, to paraphrase Mr. Covey’s imperatives and add one of my own, I divided these resources into three categories, each of which I’ll cover in its own post:

  • Individual
  • Organizational
  • Universal

Make sure to sign up for updates at the end of the post to get the series as they come.

These are the three books I found the most helpful for developing a mindset of changing the world for the better, whether it’s your personal life, your business or organization, or literally tackling a world problem.

Disclosure: The links provided are Amazon Affiliate links. If you do decide to purchase through them, I receive a percentage of the revenue.

Top 3 Books for Individual Independence

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This is a classic, and for good reason. As advertised, it goes over seven simple, yet profound habits that will change your life for the better, if applied. Again, while they are simple concepts, it’s remarkable how easy it is to forget those steps when starting any new venture. I found Habits 4 and 5 the most shocking and useful:

  • Habit 4: Win Win Solutions (or nothing at all)
  • Habit 5: Seek first to Understand, Then to be Understood

A quick rundown of the 7 Habits can be found on Wikipedia for those who don’t want to buy the book or can’t afford it. Even so, you can find a copy at your local library or bookstore and leaf through it. It is worth writing the habits down on a piece of paper and carrying it with you until they are ingrained in your mind.

Give it a try.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Getting Things Done is another classic, though I found it to be more of an actual toolkit than a mental toolkit. In it, David Allen describes a state of productivity Zen that can be achieved by having everything accounted for and in its proper place, in an exterior, trustworthy system. The most important concepts I got out of GTD were:

  • Commitments, problems, and ideas that are not written down or otherwise recorded negatively affect your energy and thus, your performance.
  • These thoughts must be placed into storage and reminder systems that are utterly reliable and thus not a source of worry in themselves.
  • Every project should have a “Next Action” that is actionable and explicit. “Meet with Mark” becomes “Call Mark to confirm meeting time and location”

David goes on to describe many systems that he uses to remain productive. After trying many of them, I finally heeded his advice to read the book more like a toolkit or a cookbook than a bible, and cherry picked the systems I liked.

This website covers almost everything in a thorough manner, but again, this book is well worth reading through. If we were computers, we could read something once and follow it to the letter, but we’re human. It sometimes takes a few hundred pages to hammer the thought in just right.

The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated

There is one driving thought behind all of Timothy Ferriss’s works, and that is the Pareto Principle:

From Wikipedia:
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

The 4-Hour Workweek applies that to concept to income. How can you best use your limited time on Earth, and how can you create disproportionate cashflow with almost insignificant behavioral changes?

There is such a significant body of tools and methods in this book that it is almost impossible to summarize other than what I have already said. Suffice to say that it is a compelling read.

So now you know how to achieve any goal and why it matters ( 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) as well as what to do at the right time and the right place (Getting Things Done). Furthermore, you should know that almost anything is possible (The 4-Hour Workweek).

In the next post, I’ll cover books I found useful for Organizations.

Questions? Comments? Did I leave out a book, or should I take one off the list? Comments are love, so leave a comment! And don’t forget to sign up for updates by email.

Movie Review: Inception

I just saw Inception, which was an excellent movie, but at the same time, I didn’t like it.

…what?

The acting is great.  The action is inventive.  The plot is a bit contrived. The cinematography is good as well, but beside all of these details, what makes Inception a good movie is the fact that it makes the viewer think.  In fact, the entire point of the movie is contained in the last scene.

I won’t give it away, but it is intended to make you think.

Let’s start with the acting.  I really don’t know how to detect bad acting.  Let’s skip acting.

The action…what’s funny about the action is that it’s incidental to the movie.  There is action in this movie, but it is not an action movie.  It’s strange how the characters avoid getting shot…even a bit more so than most other movies.  This can be forgiven, however.

The plot could have been more or less surreal without really affecting the quality of the movie because of the very nature of the plot itself, but the existence of the technology is not explained, nor are the motivations of the experts corralled into helping the main character.  It’s populated by shady extra governmental militant corporations and unlikely characters.  In fact, most of this movie seems to exist in the main character’s head.  And they even mention the unreality of it all at one point.

Suspicious.

Now for the cinematography.  I also don’t know how to evaluate that.  There were some pretty scenes.  I liked them.  But let’s skip cinematography, because I’m an uneducated boor.

REALLY, though, the best part of this movie is that it makes you think, constantly.  It’s about a technology that allows you to infiltrate other peoples’ dreams and steal information.  But the dream reality is just as convincing as real life…it has to be, or the dream will start to implode as the dreamer realizes it’s a dream, and his or her subconscious will begin to eliminate any intruders.  And you wake from a dream most easily when you die.

I guess the best way to reframe this movie as a philosophical exercise is exactly that, actually.  What if life was a dream, and the only way to wake from it were to die?  Would you ever know during your life?

That said, I didn’t like the movie, primarily because I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, and the movie turned out to be Shutter Island II.  My subconscious immediately abstracted it out to the problem above, and I no longer cared about the movie or any of the multiple dreams the characters inhabited…

But there’s still something missing.  Something I’m not seeing, or something that I glossed over.  I just can’t think of it…

What I’m looking for is some positive message in this.  Truth, Love, Hope, all that jazz.  Someone help me out?