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Tips for Independent Learning? 56

Austin asks: "As an undergraduate seeking a degree in Computer Science, I am very interested in expanding my programming skills and tools. Much of the platform specific knowledge, such as the usage of unique languages and APIs such as .NET and Cocoa, are rarely taught on an academic level, and independent projects are looking very appealing as a way to broaden my abilities. I find it difficult to maintain motivation developing software that there are already excellent alternatives to, and contributing to mainstream open source projects is an intimidating endeavor due to their size and complexity. What have many Slashdot readers done to gain experience with tools not taught inside the classroom?"
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Tips for Independent Learning?

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  • by PylonHead ( 61401 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @06:41PM (#15062416) Homepage Journal
    When I want to learn a new programming environment, I pick out a simple project that I have already written in a known environment and port it to the new system.

    This lets you focus completely on the new environment and not get bogged down in (high level) design decisions. It also gives you an apples to apples comparison in possible strengths and weaknesses of the two systems. (although any first project is likely to miss out on some possible advantages.)
    • When I want to learn a new programming environment, I pick out a simple project that I have already written in a known environment and port it to the new system.

      Funny, that made me remember that without meaning to do that I did that everytime I learnt a new language. Everytime I tried porting a simple message encrypting program that I did in BASIC on a children portable computer (those with a B&W screen of 20x2) when I was 13-14.

      It's actually a pretty good way to compare and understand the differences

      • A simple game can also be a good thing to write. My choice was "Master Mind". No matter what language you write it in, you need to construct a user interface and behind-the-scenes functionality. You will learn most of what you need to write anything else in that language. Over the years I wrote my chosen game program in "Color BASIC" (Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer), GWBASIC for MS-DOS, Clipper (DOS), C (DOS), Delphi (Windows), C (Windows), and JavaScript. Today I work full-time programming in Delph
      • Everytime I tried porting a simple message encrypting program that I did in BASIC on a children portable computer (those with a B&W screen of 20x2) when I was 13-14.

        Was it a VTech PreComputer [1|2|x]000? I wonder how many geeks had one and were encouraged by it, and how many parents said "That doesn't look like a fun toy, we'll get him a Nintendo" whose children _could_ have been geeks?

        I wonder what ever happened to mine...I'm going to assume that I got tired of mine after we got the Applie ][gs, and pr

        • lol it was VTech Genius LEADER 2000. They didn't even get it for me but for my little sister. Not what made me a geek tho. And I would have been delighted to have been offered a Nintendo instead. Actually a NES with Family BASIC coulda done it I guess.
    • I pick out a simple project that I have already written in a known environment and port it to the new system.
      For example, port your HelloWorld application.
  • by techno-vampire ( 666512 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @06:44PM (#15062434) Homepage
    Come up with a small project. If nothing else, a program that does something you want or need done, even if nobody else wants it. Write it, debug it, get it working and add as many or few features as you need. Don't worry if anybody else will ever use it because that's not what it's for. You'd be surprised how much you can learn, just trying to get it right.

    Next, put the code aside; use the program, but don't look at the code for about six months or so, while doing other things. Then, come back, look it over and see if you can improve it. You'll have forgotten how you did things, so this will be similar to maintaining sobody else's code. By the time you're done, it will be better written, easier to understand and probably working better, and you'll have learned quite a bit more.

    • Come up with a small project. If nothing else, a program that does something you want or need done, even if nobody else wants it.

      This is very important. If you don't pick a project that serves a purpose for you in some way, you'll probably lose interest very quickly (especially if you're not getting paid). One of the important points with software development is to eat your own dogfood [wikipedia.org].
  • Practical Experience (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MyLongNickName ( 822545 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @06:45PM (#15062444) Journal
    I find the best way to learn is to have a real life project you are working on. Their are too many people in the world with "paper certifications". That is, they can pass a test, but could not do anything with that knowledge in a practical way.

    I am in the process of studying for certifications. Three tests I was ale to pass with mostly work experience. One, I really needed to study... I found excuses to introduce some of the topics into my work. It helped a lot.

    You, likely, are not working in the industry yet. Find a way to work on a real project. It might be one you dream up. It might be working cheap at a local company. I don't really know enough specifics to advise. I'll just say that dreaming up your own project requires a lot of motivation to continue to work on.

    But bottom line, you need to be applying, or it is just book knowledge.
    • I concur with your statements completely. Find something you need, find code you can use, adapt it, post changes back to open source project, get huge ego boost from the gratitude and fuel for further development and self improvement. You are absolutely right, you must find an application or you will not be motivated. You must take an interest to really learn.
  • me too (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bblazer ( 757395 ) * on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @06:45PM (#15062445) Homepage Journal
    I too am an independent learner. Although I have taken several language courses at my local college, I have found them to be limited at best. One thing you might consider is starting a project on sourceforge for something simple. Do you find yourself doing an repetitive tasks that you could write something to automate? Do you have anyone that needs some web development that you could use Ruby on Rails for? There is also TopCoder [topcoder.com]. They have a lot of coding competitions that you can participate in - many have cash prizes. Although I don't have the links handy, there are also some sites that have student programming project suggestions that you could look at.
  • I would suggest getting a school project that you enjoyed working on and do the exact same thing with an API that you want to learn. By doing this you can easily compare your new work to your school project to make sure everything is working as expected. You will also quickly learn the advantages and disadvantages of the tools you are using because you will have a 'control on your experiment' so to speak. You will be able to have a more informed opinion on which tool is better for certain situations.
    • There is always some lab or professor who needs some software design and coding to do something -- to automate a lab, to analyze data, to conduct an experiment, to produce a software package to share with other universities. You may even advertise interest/skills in something off the main track -- Cocoa for example -- there may be some faculty member who needs the app done for OS X.

      Go around and talk to people. Express interest in what they are doing. Explain your level of skills/need to acquire skills

  • by Zepalesque ( 468881 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:02PM (#15062531)
    There are thousands of them. Find one that uses the APIs/Languages/etc. that you are interested in and then get it source code. Spend time perusing that for a while. Next, look at the open bug list for the project and see if you can delve in an sumbit a patch.

    You will increase your skills and you will be contributing to a project that other will benefit from. Every one wins.
  • Motivation (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mieckowski ( 741243 ) <mieckowski@@@berkeley...edu> on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:07PM (#15062557)
    I've made lots of small Cocoa applications on my own, and the two things that have helped me stay motivated on individual projects are:

    1) Keeping them short (1-2 weeks to finish)
    2) Having people to show them to

    So if there is a group on your campus related to Cocoa or .NET programming I would join it. Also, it can be easy to sign up for 1-2 units of individual study credit with a professor if you have a project idea (this is a great excuse to come talk to them during office hours).
  • You're going to get told this by everyone commenting: do. Just do. You'll pick up on it very fast.

    Second, you have to have some ideas. Don't go out there with the mind set that you have to make something everyone will use. If it can make your life easier or amuse you, that's enough reason to start working on it. Even if software already exists that does what you want, chances are it won't do it specifically enough or it doesn't do it exactly how you want.

    Third, re-write it. If you get something finished, I
  • Apprentice yourself (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Will Sargent ( 2751 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:27PM (#15062646) Homepage
    A couple of other people have suggested going to an open source project. I think you should as well. One of the best things that an OSS project will do is show you the true complexity of a working application, as opposed to the theoretical concepts presented in an education.

    You will also learn far more good practices from a well known / respected OSS project than you will in your average organization. I learnt a ton just reading through the Mozilla source code and following how they broke out interfaces and practiced defensive programming.

    Finally, you will have the chance to work with people who need you for something. Programming is very much a team exercise, and you can learn about teamwork as well as programming through the activity. Apprenticing yourself to a senior mentor is a great way to piggyback through your mentor's experience, as long as you have the necessary humility to have your work ripped to shreds...

    Finally, don't sell yourself short. Alan Cox has a story about a random guy who hung out on the Linux IRC channel until someone told him to make himself useful. He ended up writing most of the IPv6 stack.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:28PM (#15062651)
    It's not the answer you're looking for, but after trying what you're about to try myself and fail at it, I can only give you the advice to learn the basics before trying to do more than tiny projects. Anything else leads to frustration.

    It might seem pointless to do the projects you're now doing in class. But those are the tools that give you later the ability to pick up anything coming your way. Technology changes fast. And people make the mistake to dig into the tech without learning the basics. 10 years ago it was RAD tools. 5 years ago everyone went crazy about Corba. Now it's .net. What is it going to be in 5 years? Nobody knows.

    But when you have the ability to understand new technology quickly, you're already ahead of those that only learned a certain technology and don't understand the wiring under the board. Learn to understand that instead of hunting some specific implementation that's most likely outdated before you understand it if you don't have the foundation to learn it quickly.
  • by EMIce ( 30092 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:29PM (#15062660) Homepage
    Yada yada yada.. And I'm not talking about your balls. You will need creativity.

    And for that...

    http://www.gapingvoid.com/Moveable_Type/archives/0 00932.html [gapingvoid.com]

    Easier said than done though.
  • Just do it. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by linguae ( 763922 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:40PM (#15062710)

    I am a freshman computer science student. Here is my advice.

    Remember that a computer science curriculum teaches the theoretical foundations of computer science. You start with basic programming (C, Java, or [if you're really lucky] a functional programming language like Scheme), and then learn about data structures, algorithms, software engineering, architecture, systems programming, OSes, compilers, and theoretical computer science, as well as some CS topics of your choosing (numerical analysis, graphics, more software engineering, AI, etc.). Discrete mathematics is also very important; you can't do much in computer science without it. And don't forget your EE courses like digital design (designing circuits using Boolean logic) and assembly programming; you'll get to know about computers from an electrical engineering standpoint (different, but cool, IMO). As much as I like mathematics and theoretical CS, sometimes you need to get close to and examine the metal. I personally liken computer science, mathematics, and electrical engineering to be the holy trinity of computing, but I might be out there....

    Computer science departments typically do not teach the ins and outs of APIs and industry programming languages unless it ties into learning about the fundamental concepts explained above (Java's usage in CS courses, for example). However, this doesn't stop you from learning these APIs independently. My suggestion are the following:

    1. Research APIs. What platforms are they used for? What are the strengths-weaknesses of the APIs? What languages do they support?
    2. Start with some basic tutorials to get a grasp for the language and/or API.
    3. Start writing programs. You'll have to start small at first, such as older projects. For example, if you wrote a payroll application in C back in CS 101, why don't you reimplement it using Objective-C and Cocoa, along with a slick, shiny, plastic Mac interface? (Any other implementation would do; that is an example)
    4. As your skills get better (and as you start taking more specialized computer science courses), try working on a bigger project. Writing a C compiler for a 16-bit microprocessor that you'll learn in an EE course will surely keep you busy (I haven't written a compiler yet, so I don't know how difficult this is, although this sounds very intersting). Perhaps coding a web browser in C# and .NET is more interesting.
    5. Helpful hint: You might want to focus the skills you want to learn on a project that you would like to build someday. For example, if your dream is to build a small operating system, you will need to learn some assembly language, C (or some other "close to the metal" language), and the architecture that you plan on coding the OS for. Good OS books (like Tanenbaum's book) are also nice to own. Once you figure out learning the basic tools, theories, and practices, then you can start coding a small OS. Once your program is finished and running, then you can add all of the complex features that you like.

    Enjoy your life as a computer science major. It is truly rewarding and interesting. Now I have to return to my own programming assignment....

    • > Research APIs. What platforms are they used for? What are the strengths-weaknesses of the APIs?

      better still, implement an API. pick an RFC and hack away. reading the RFC as a spec and implementing it in full is a decent challenge. when you're done, release it to the world and take the comments people send you seriously.

      k.

  • by An Onerous Coward ( 222037 ) on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:43PM (#15062723) Homepage
    If you find it hard to keep yourself motivated on a project, one solution is to pair up with someone who shares your interest in the project. Admittedly, it's not always easy to find someone with similar interests and complementary skills. But if you do, having another person to bat around ideas with can be a wonderful experience.
  • The work experience itself is worth several years' worth of graduate school.
  • by MBCook ( 132727 ) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Tuesday April 04, 2006 @07:57PM (#15062790) Homepage
    ... everything looks like a nail.

    I'm sure you've heard that one before, and you need to be careful of it. That said, you found yourself a hammer (your new knowledge of whatever) so start looking for nails.

    I've run into the same problem many times. I understand not wanting to re-implement things (I thought about making an accounting program for a little bit before deciding to just use Quicken, for example). But you need to be creative.

    When I first learned Python I made a simple little game based on one of my favorite games that I used to play on my TI-85. This also let me learn OpenGL. The game was Blocks [foobarsoft.com].

    Trying to do more, I made a simulation (I'd call it a game but it wasn't interactive) called Itty Bitty City [foobarsoft.com] which also included more OpenGL. It wasn't too complex but was fun to watch (even if I did have Pie-In-The-Sky ideas about what it would do as usual).

    I never updated my website because it was a hassle. I didn't want to do it in DreamWeaver or something like that. I wanted to automate things. Python was my favorite language at the time, so I wrote a little program I called SiteMaker [foobarsoft.com] to do it for me (ironically, that page is quite out of date). Python was rather well suited to that (it was command line, and needed good text processing) so I used it and gained a good knowledge of Python in the process (including the build-in modules you can use to open and send data across FTP connections).

    After that I wanted a program to make it easier to make blog style entries on my website (which would call SiteMaker). I had been wanting to learn Objective-C for use on my Mac so I used that for the project and it was fun, and I learned quite a bit (even if I don't use the program because I didn't add enough features to make it useful). This was SiteBlogger [foobarsoft.com].

    When I wanted to learn Java 5 to get back into it (since it had features that fixed my biggest gripes) I made another simple game (which I took rather far) called Pond Game [foobarsoft.com]. I got to use all sorts of stuff in Java and got a good working knowledge (after quite a bit of time off).

    I was still weak in GUIs in Java (have done no Java GUI programming ever) so I used Java to scratch a major itch I had and made Scheduler [foobarsoft.com] which I am now updating for a Senior Project. I learned how GUIs were done in Java and got an even deeper understanding of Java from this project. It also fixed my problem of hating to figure out a school schedule.

    I had been wanting to learn PHP, so when a project came up at school to build a system for them (not an assignment, I work there part-time) and they asked me if I wanted to do it, I jumped at the chance to make such a system (which I hadn't done and included a large amount of DB programming) and used PHP (which they were perfectly happy with, and were actually going to suggest).

    There are other little ones here and there. The main point of all this is that most of these didn't bug me enough to make them (Scheduler was the only real problem) but I saw them as opportunities to try out a new language or some such. I've learned to do this because of a problem that I would suffer from which I assume you suffered from: I'm curious and would read about a language or some such but not do anything and thus forget it all. I needed the practice, so I found places to do it. Whether these were things I needed for myself (Scheduler, SiteMaker) or just little games that I wanted to make or to use to try something (Blocks which was an OpenGL test, Itty Bitty Citty which was going to be an AI test).

    My last suggestion would be to enter a programming contest. I've been enterin

  • Nearly everything you will need to survive will be learned outside of the classroom. Or at least, many great programmers that I know had to do their most productive learning outside of the classroom.

    It is expected. That's how things work. Pay attention to the O of N stuff in the classroom, but really get down and dirty on your own.

    That having been said, I'd start a few smaller projects that interest you and that have a very limited scale. An end-to-end e-mail system that solves all of the cryptography a
  • Sort of what the first post was saying, but instead of porting source code you have already, try duplicating stuff that you see around already. Browse through a magazine or tucows.com and you'll notice some software ad that make you think: "I could do that" or "How would I do that?".

    This is a really handy soft skill because so many employers are going to tell you what they want without being able to provide anything technical-- learning to analyze features from the outside-in will help develop the mental to

  • There are a number of projects you can do that are easy, have good payoff, and will teach you a lot.

    Consider:
    • Web content management system. Good returns for modest effort, a gradual introduction to problems with a good ability to fix them, and it's a project you might keep working on for a few years so you get that lived-in experience.

      But promise me you won't inflict it on the rest of the world.
    • There are any number of small games you can write in a reasonable amount of time. Don't try to be too or
    • I have pretty much the same issue as Austin (the asker) -- it's very hard to get motivated to write something that already exists and doesn't suck; and it's hard to dig in to a big, scary open source project. I think I remember a similar Ask Slashdot recently, to which I probably posted a message similar to this one; and shortly before that, I spent a couple days drilling down in old Ask Slashdots for this information, too.

      The problem with contributing to an open source project is that they tend of have any
  • Intern! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MrBugSentry ( 963105 )
    Get yourself working for a company for the summer. Accept just enough pay to keep a roof (maybe even your parent's) over your head and to keep you in beer and skittles. In exchange learn how to actually do the job you think you are training for.

    By no means accept just any internship. Even if you like the name on the door, do your research. The best way to do this is to get clear in your own mind what you want to learn before you apply for the internship. Go into the interview with a plan and see if
  • When I was in university I wrote a simple little Risk style game, and eventually I released it as shareware. If you want to get a real idea of a full software lifecycle then releasing a shareware product will definitely show you the full spectrum. (An open source product might also, but there's no fire under your ass like that of paying customers).

    After a few years of updates and improvements (and graduation), it became my full-time job! So I would recommend this to you. Create a real product that you (an

  • This is not so much an answer as a semi-related question.

    What should you do when you've gone through school and NOT done what Austin suggests?

    Here is my story:

    I went to school, having no clue what I wanted to do.
    I figured out I LOVED coding, (yeah, doing it since age 7 kinda makes you like it...) and tried to make it my goal.
    I got distracted by a lot of stuff, (Kicked out of house, working min. wage job because I couldn't network to save my life...) kinda fizzled out in the middle of my education.
    I knew how

    • It is perfectly possible to break into programming later. You are working for an ISP. See if you can move laterally into Sysadmin/Networking. Sysadmin tends to offer more programming opportunities, networking a bit less. These won't be complex programs, but you will be a far better programmer for knowing the admin skills.

      You might find that these jobs suck, but last through them for a year or two. Once you get past the crappy "create user accounts and take backups" part of the job, you will find plenty of
    • I'm a largely self-taught programmer (I have a pure mathematics background - no programming required!) currently working at a top software company. I got here largely because of the initiative I showed working on personal projects. So I think the best thing to do for you would be to pick a project you find interesting, and implement it at home. Having something solid you can point to and say, "I did that," can be pretty persuasive.

      A few links you might be interested in:

      How To Become A Hacker [catb.org]

      Teach [norvig.com]

  • "What have many Slashdot readers done to gain experience with tools not taught inside the classroom?"

    I find money is a good motivation. Find a job that gives you room to learn (or in fact demands that you learn). Most CS, even most of the theory, can be readily learned from textbooks. The professors are just reiterating the textbook to you. The computer and manuals are the only tools you need, and presuming you actually have access to a computer all the other stuff is dirt cheap (compared to physical sc
  • 1. make sure you really understand the fundamentals of computer science. once you get the foundations really captured you will be able to learn a new technology pretty quickly.

    2. don't make the mistake of believing that your technical skills will keep you employeed. as important as they are they are only about 30% of what you need on a daily basis to survive.

    3. instead of doing "toy" problems to learn a language or an api, try doing an "end-to-end" project. write user requirements, do a detailed design, cod
  • I find it difficult to maintain motivation developing software that there are already excellent alternatives to

    Once you get into the "real world", you will find that your statement above is ultimately false.

    I have been programming "out here" for about 15 years now. Not as long as some, but long enough. What I have seen continues to astound me.

    The worst? The number of companies that continue to "reinvent the wheel", and do so each time badly. A big one is "data conversion", the converting of data (in a data

    • If you can come up with a tool or toolset to allow you to set up conversion templates from any format to any format, and sell it cheap, you could make a fortune. [...] It isn't glamorous or anything, but it is something that companies pay for, and would make a good project to enhance your skills.

      Now THAT sounds like a good suggestion. It sounds like something difficult, but not so terribly intimidating that new coders can't do it. While your whole post seems to be about making money, I'd be willing to try s

  • I tried google answers... let's see if it works for slashcode on ubuntu. http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=71 5917 [google.com]

Money is the root of all evil, and man needs roots.

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