Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bit by Bit: A Young Woman's Guide to Entering and Succeeding in High Tech Careers

A new book all about high tech careers for women has finally found its way onto Amazon! I was interviewed for this book (Bit by Bit: A Young Woman's Guide to Entering and Succeeding in High Tech Careers), along with many other awesome women (some of whom I know).

I haven't had the chance to read my copy yet, but I will post a review when I do.  In the meantime, if you or someone you know has even considered getting into high tech, I recommend picking it up yourself.  In addition to the interviews, the book explains a few of the various job roles that are out there.  It will also give you the top ten reason you should consider a career in tech, and what skills you need to get there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Startup Weekend... In Book Form!

I've wondered before if I'd like being an entrepreneur.  I've come up with a few ideas that could get me started.  I have even entered a social-good version of a business case competition (and walked away a finalist).  But I want to know more before making the plunge.  So I got a copy of the book Startup Weekend: How to Take a Company from Concept to Creation in 54 Hours.

What's in the Book

The book's introduction walks the reader through the history of Startup Weekend, emphasizing the need for trust among peers.  Without trust, a startup is impossible, given the risks involved.

The first real chapter discusses action-based networking, and why traditional networking events (complete with standing around sipping wine) aren't terribly useful.  You need to work together with people you don't normally meet to get the most useful contacts.

Next, the book covers how to effectively pitch your idea and recruit your team members.  In 60 seconds, you need to say who you are, the problem you want to solve, your proposed solution, and what help you will need.

The third chapter is about experiential education, and is where the bulk of what you actually do at a Startup Weekend is described.  The emphasis on "learning by doing" really entices the reader to want to attend the event in person.

The last two chapters are about the startup business model and the startup ecosystem.  They briefly touch on some of the key mistakes that entrepreneurs make, and the steps an entrepreneur can take from deciding to make the startup leap to getting funding to, if they're lucky, IPO and Fortune 500.

My Take

Looking back at what the book actually covers, I have to think I must have got a lot out of it.  But, to be honest, I didn't get what I was hoping for.

The book's prose had a style that said a lot of general things without details.  Part of the reason for this is the inclusion of the many little stories woven throughout.  I do like that the stories give specific examples of the kinds of startups people were working on, and they did help build excitement about attending the weekend event.  But they also caused what specific advice there was to get lost easily in the text.

Something the book would have greatly benefited from is a concrete summary list of the information contained in each chapter.  Something that the reader could easily refer back to as they attempted their own startup.

In the end, the book is not terribly useful as a reference guide on startups.  It does drum up excitement about attending a Startup Weekend, and it does touch on some of the elements of entrepreneurship without going into detail.

Maybe that was its purpose, in which case it succeeds in its mission.  But still, I leave wishing for more.  I am not sure I am any closer to my answer of whether I want to be an entrepreneur.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Promise Behind Khan's Computer Science Offerings

I haven't tried them yet.  I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the latest addition to Khan Academy before I actually did the tutorials, and then see how my opinion differed afterwards.  If the write-up by John Resig, the guy who lead the initiative, is any indication, I am guessing I will like the new computer science content very much. Which is good, because I haven't been all that impressed with Khan Academy thus far.

Based on Resig's description, here is what I'm excited about...

Easy to get going.  Everything works in the browser, so there's nothing to download or install.

Side-by-side coding and output.  You write code on one side of the screen, and you see the results immediately on the right.  This reminds me of languages like Scratch and Blockly.

Live updating.  When you make changes, the program doesn't start again from the beginning; the changes are reflected in the output right away.  This also reminds me of Scratch, and has been something I tried to take advantage of in my programming workshops.

Visual output.  The JavaScript Processing library, Processing.js, makes this happen.  Visual output is way more fun than text printed out at a command line.

Helpful error messages.  "We build off of the existing linting that we do to try and provide extra levels of hinting. We do spelling correction, provide argument suggestions, and try to make suggestions for common beginner mistakes." And the errors are apparently shown with a cute cartoon character, making them less intimidating.

Collaboration and community.  Although more inspired by open source communities, the model of remixing and sharing reminds me a lot of what the Scratch community does.  I think this aspect is a large motivator for students to keep on going, and is one reason I have often turned to Scratch over other choices.

Promise of more CS-centric lessons.  Most of the current content is basic programming, but the team is intending to expand into more computer science specific territory over time.  I suppose it remains to be seen how well they do this, but my fingers are crossed.

So, we'll see how well all this works when I actually get down and try the lessons.  In the meantime, I can't help but think that designing the content would be a dream job for me.  Maybe one day I'll have an opportunity to work on something like this.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My Workshop on Programming With Processing is Postponed

Summer is as summer does.  We didn't get enough registrations for my workshop on learning to program using Processing.  Luckily, this wasn't from lack of interest - too many people are just too busy during the last few weekends of summer.

Not to worry, though.  The workshop is being rescheduled for September.  If you're in Ottawa, stay tuned to our Meetup page and be sure to sign up when the new date is announced!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Alan Turing Deserves More Attention From the General Public

Alan Turing was an incredibly important mind from the the twentieth century.  Most computer scientists would recognize his name, but I think more of the general public needs to know about him.

Turing was a mathematician known to many as the father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence.  He helped crack the German Enigma machines.  He formalized the concept of algorithms by defining the Turing Machine, a model of a general-purpose computer that he devised before electronic computers really existed.  Later on, he created one of the first designs for a computer that could store programs and became interested mathematical biology and chemistry.

Sadly, Turing met a tragic end.  He was homosexual during a time that being so was a crime in Britain.  He was prosecuted, and chose chemical castration to avoid jail.  He died shortly thereafter of cyanide poisoning.  Many believe it was a suicide, though some of his family says it was accidental.  No matter the reason he died, it is very sad that such an important and valuable person had to leave us so soon.  One can only imagine what he might have done if he had lived decades longer.

The thing is, not too many people outside the computer science community seem to know who he is.  I personally think that's a tragedy in itself.  I thought it was cool that Tim Berners Lee was honoured at the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics, but I think the organizers missed an opportunity by not honouring Turing somehow.

So, learn more about Turing if you don't know a lot.  Spread the word about how important he was.  Help make him a household name.  Here are some links to help you get started:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Benefits of Being a GHC Community Volunteer

This year's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is drawing nearer and nearer, and our call for Community Volunteers has gone out! I was a volunteer each year that I attended the conference (2008, 2009, and 2010), and I have to say that it's been well worth the effort it takes to contribute.  This year I'm the co-chair for the communities committee, and I want you to consider joining our team!

 Grace Hopper 2010-32 

Here are some of my personal reasons for participating all these years:
  • Provided you contribute three session blog posts or notes on the wiki, you will get a ribbon to wear on your badge.  Ribbons are coveted at the conference, and the more you have the better!
  • You were probably going to blog, tweet, and pin anyway, so why not get recognized for your efforts?
  • You will make some wonderful new contacts.  Some will be very useful professionally, and some will become great friends.  It's quite fun having someone to visit no matter where you travel in North America!
  • You can feel good about bringing the conference to those who can't make the sessions they want to, and those who can't make it to the conference at all.
  • Community involvement is usually just the beginning of getting more involved with the Anita Borg Institute.  Exciting times may be ahead!
So what are you waiting for? Read up on our communities and then sign up to be a community volunteer!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Ottawa Ladies: Learn to Program With Processing in My Upcoming Workshop

I'm hosting a full-day workshop on programming using Processing in a couple of weeks.  It's part of Girl Develop It Ottawa, which was founded to help non-technical women in our community learn new skills in programming in a comfortable and supportive environment.

If you are in the Ottawa area, I hope you'll check it out! I will post about the experience from the instructor's perspective afterwards.

Create Interactive Art and More! Learn to Program with Processing

Want to learn programming concepts you can apply to any language while creating fun, visual results? Then come try your hand at Processing in our one-day workshop!

Processing is a free, open-source Java-based language and development environment that is very well suited to learning programming for the first time.  Even better, you can turn your code into visual art and interactions very quickly!

In this workshop, you’ll interactively learn fundamental programming concepts for two hours in the morning.  After a one-hour lunch break, you will have a selection of fun and interesting mini-projects you can choose to work on with the help our your instructor and teaching assistants.  You will be able to work at your own pace to ensure that you walk away with a solid, transferable knowledge of programming that you can then apply elsewhere.

Sign up for the workshop here

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Online Education: Is It All It's Cracked Up To Be?

MOOCs —Massive Open Online Courses — are all the rage these days.  These are systems that allow hundreds of thousands of learners from around the world to take classes complete with video lectures and robo-grading, completely for free.  One of the big names is Coursera.

Daphne Koller recently gave a TED talk about Coursera from her perspective as a co-founder.  She painted a very encouraging picture of the results they were seeing, making the platform look very good.  And in many cases, she had some data to back it up.

For instance, she was able to show a visualization of the kinds of wrong answers students were giving for a particular assignment, and discussed how that helps instructors in discovering and repairing student misconceptions.  The data also points to the effectiveness of interrupting video lectures with questions that student must answer correctly before moving on.

But the glowing review of how well students are learning with Coursera isn't the whole story.  There are still issues, ranging from high drop-out rates to the inability to grade certain kinds of assignments.

Koller does address the latter problem in her talk.  She admits that robo-graders cannot currently grade critical thinking in disciplines like the humanities (Coursera deals with this with peer-grading).  But others have argued that robo-grading doesn't really work all that well even for subjects it is used for, like math.

Math educator and PhD student Dan Meyer doesn't believe math is a subject that can be automatically graded by computers, and is disappointed that ed-tech entrepreneurs don't seem to understand this:
[T]he message from Silicon Valley and the message from our best math classrooms contradict one another more often than they agree. On the one hand, Silicon Valley tells students, "Math is a series of simple, machine-readable tasks you watch someone else explain and then perform yourself." Our best classrooms tell students, "Math is something that requires the best of your senses and reasoning, something that requires you to make meaning of tasks that aren't always clearly defined, something that can make sense whether or not anyone is there to explain it to you."
(I'd argue that the same goes for other subjects that are seemingly easy to grade, like computer science.)

I haven't yet tried any MOOCs personally (though there are a few I'd love to take someday).  I am relying on others' experiences to get the big picture.  For example, Lorraine Hopping Egan shared the following when I posted Koller's talk on Google+:
I took a swing at the Stanford course on game theory. The profs are super well-informed on the topic, of course, but not so great at creating videos that are clear, let alone interesting.

After three weeks or so, I decided I was better off learning the material on my own (which I had done with a Great Courses series on the same topic—far better produced).

The benefit would have been more social interaction, study groups that worked (they fell apart, IME), and some challenges that are more interesting and creative. Not asking to be spoon-fed or entertained. But, given, the audience (tens of thousands) and the hunger for this knowledge, it seems to me there's a high market for well-produced graduate level classes.
(Context: "Mine was one experience—one course from one university— and I'm not a typical student (having graduated a few decades ago).")

Hack Education's Audrey Watters had this to say about her completed Coursera course after failing to finish a similar Udacity offering:
[When writing about Udacity] I said I “wasn’t sure” about the level of difficulty, the forums, or the “robot-grader.”  I am sure about those those latter elements now: robot-graders can be incredibly frustrating, and forums can make for poor learning communities.
But while there's work to do, the goal of making education accessible to everyone around the world is a good one.  As Mark Guzdial points out, these online courses are experiments, and we need to do more of them to figure out what works.  It will be worth it.