On Being Self-Taught (or How I Saved $10,000)

When it comes to programming, I’m a fair hand at several languages – PHP, MySQL, javascript, several others, and a number of frameworks.  I ended up teaching myself out of what amounted to necessity1  I learned by looking at source code, checking some books out from the library, buying several books, going through several online tutorials, and pestering a friend of mine with questions.

I’ve found there are some very interesting upsides and pitfalls to having been self-taught.  These things are brought to mind by two events of today.  The first is finding out that Kio Stark is coming out with a new book about how to learn anything without going to school called, “Don’t Go Back To School.”  The second thing I saw today was an article on Business Insider called, “The 20 Most Innovative Startups In Tech.”  (Spoiler:  MakerBot made the list!)  The first startup featured is “Codeacademy,” which is a website for teaching people javascript.

Being a self-taught javascript programmer, of course I had to try out Codeacademy’s website.  After all, how great could it be?  The answer is, “pretty great.”  The lessons are very short and presented in a very interactive fashion.  As you complete each little interactive component you’re rewarded with immediate feedback and a nice little green checkmark.  When you reach certain milestones, you get a message saying you’ve gotten a badge for this or that.  The examples are short and whimsical – with the added draw of “leveling up” as you play/learn.  In any case, these lessons really work on a lot of levels.  Some people learn by reading (check), some by watching (check), some by doing (check).  If Codeacademy lessons had a voice reading the material to you, they’d basically be a complete drop-in replacement for a classroom.2

But, back to the upsides and pitfalls of being self-taught.  I think the biggest upside is that I tended to learn a lot of programming tricks, mostly from having taken apart other peoples’ work to find out how it worked. 3  I also ended up writing a lot of tools that would automate the writing of code.  I don’t know if this is common practice for others, but I found it very useful to have developed them.  I also did a lot of things the hard way… like building my own AJAX engine from scratch rather than using a library like jQuery. 4  But, doing things the hard way means you really get to know the how’s and why’s of what makes something work – and what causes problems.

There are two small downsides to having taught myself programming.  First, there are some things I don’t know.  After trying out Codeacademy’s website tutorial I found a pretty basic function that I would have learned the first day or so of a programming class.  This means sometimes I’m doing things the hard way.  Secondly, I am slightly self conscious about my programming skills.  Admittedly, I paid about a bajillion times less for my expertise.

Doing the math here…  I spent about $50 total on about four books.  Other than those books, everything else was free.  I read tutorials online, looked at other people’s code, and talked to some friends.  I learned enough within three months to be able to build a small side business for myself, but it wasn’t for another six months before I was doing things well.  Someone taking programming classes at a college would have had to spend money on tuition and books and would have had to learn at the same pace as all the other students.5

In sum, here’s the two most important things I’ve learned about being self-taught:

  1. By learning on my own, I had the opportunity to learn the most interesting and relevant things first as quickly as I could assimilate them.
  2. Ten years after grad school and being in the work force, I’ve learned that being able to do the job is more important than having a degree or certificate that says you could.

Also, if you get a chance, help fund Kio Stark’s kickstarter page for her upcoming book “Don’t Go Back To School” which will include interviews with self-taught people and step-by-step instructions on how to learn anything.

  1. Read:  unemployment []
  2. Reminds me of the The Diamond Age/Young Ladies Illustrated Primer… []
  3. At the time I was learning, the show Heroes was very popular.  I came to refer to this process of cannibalizing others’ code so I could learn how it worked as “Sylar-ing”.  It would make more sense if you’ve seen the show. []
  4. Now I don’t know how I’d get along without jQuery! []
  5. Since I am a college graduate, I did spend money on tuition, books, and pizza – but for degrees completely unrelated to computers, programming, and technology.  So, by teaching myself how to program it was like getting a third degree for $50.  That’s got to be worth at least $10,000. []

Welcome Emmett!

As an origami nerd, I’m always so happy to hear about other origami-inclined people.  I was surprised, though I suppose I should not have been, that Emmett is a fellow folder!  I’m really glad to welcome Emmett to this blog as a contributing author and look forward to seeing more of his work.  So, check out Emmett’s post describing some of his work!

November 8, 2011 | Comments Closed

A Fellow Origamist

Hi there, this is Emmett, and when Makerblock found out I was a fellow origamist, he invited me to post some of what I've folded.  I like modular origami, so that's mostly what's here.  I didn't invent any of these designs, but I honestly can't remember any more where I found the instructions.
This buckyball is made of 90 pieces of paper, 5 each of 12 colors plus 30 white.
A cube made of six pieces.
A Kawasaki Rose.  One of the only things I know how to fold out a single piece of paper, and probably one of the most difficult (for me at least).
I don't remember what this is called.  It has 30 pieces, 5 each of 6 colors.
Five intersecting tetrahedra.  It's sort of cheating because each piece starts as a 1x3 rectangle instead of a square.  If you look closely you can see the dodecahedron and icosahedron formed by the tetrahedra.

It’s a valid question…

My mother in law was over recently and saw part of a “Dora the Explorer” as my daughter was watching it.  There was significantly less Spanish spoken in the show than I realized.  In any case, there was a part where a talking treasure map was speaking to the audience.  It repeated the three-step directions no less than four times.  Then there was a little song where it was all repeated again.

My mother in law then asks if this is a show for English learners.  No, it’s to teach kids some basic skills as well as a little Spanish.  Her second question was, “Well, then why are they repeating the English phrases so many times?”

November 6, 2011 | Comments Closed

What kind of CNC cutter would you recommend?

I’m only vaguely aware of craft/robo/CNC cutters that aren’t laser cutters.  I don’t want one of those has to use cartridges to give it different preprogrammed cutting patterns – I want to be able to design my own shapes for cutting.  So, I ask you now for your help…

  • Is there a difference between robocutters, craft cutters, hobby cutters, and CNC cutters?
  • What brands are there?
  • How reliable are the various brands?
  • Besides just paper and cardstock, what kinds of materials should they be able to cut?
  • How easy are they to use, program, etc?
  • What kinds of reuseable supplies do they require?  (Blades?)
  • What should I watch out for?
  • What questions should I be asking?
  • What do you use your cutter for?

The one who smelt it, dealt it

This morning I came in late to work, mostly because I had stayed up late working on work.  One of the staff made a joke that I was sneaking into the office like one of my co-workers. 1  I responded thusly:

I don’t sneak in or out.  I arrive just like I leave, with a clap of thunder and the smell of sulfur.

It’s only mildly true.  When I walk in late or leave early, I do so without apology.  We all have things we have to do, so why pretend otherwise?  Not being able to leave work at the office is a gift and a curse.  If you start working before you put on pants and eat breakfast, but then walk in a little later, who’s stay this way is any worse or better than another? 234567

Oh, and the sulfur?  It’s a glandular thing.

  1. He tends to sneak in, and then sneak out []
  2. Well, I suppose an efficiency expert. []
  3. Then again, I’m pretty sure you’d find my peak efficiency somewhere after a good night’s sleep, a quick jog, a long shower, a short nap, two cups of coffee, and one slice of cold pizza. []
  4. What do you mean it’s noon? []
  5. When studying for exams in grad school I essentially became nocturnal.  It’s too bad everything’s closed at night. []
  6. One late evening/early morning my girlfriend and I decided to sew a parafoil kite, but the nearest place to get fabric at 3am was a Wal-Mart 45 minutes away.  Amusingly, at that time of day/night/day I was a lot more cheerful than the greeter. []
  7. See, it’s not that I’m surly in the morning.  It’s that I’m surly at night and I’m just more advanced than most people. []
November 4, 2011 | Comments Closed


There are some movies that, having seen them once, I think back on.  Usually I think of such movies as mediocre at first.  Among this list would be Paycheck, The Prestige, and Inception.  Having watched Inception once, I recently felt like re-watching it.  And, upon reflection, I think I like the movie a lot more now than I did at first.