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J. A.  Ginsburg

The End of the Beginning: The Starter League and Beyond

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No one wanted to leave on Friday night. The Starter League Class of Winter 2013 clustered near the entrance of Chicago tech hub 1871 for a long time after the "Starter Night" festivities wound down. We were a herd of newly minted proto-developers in black hoodies, not quite ready to be history. After 11 weeks of having our brains bruised and battered by the quirks and complexities of computer code, we were just starting to get the hang of it, starting to get good at working together, starting to see the potential. 

Which, of course, was the point. It is a "Starter" League after all, designed to get students "from zero to one." Personally, I only made it to 0.5, but many of my classmates became remarkably adept—indistinguishable from the more accomplished entrepreneurial geeks glued to their laptops, draped over every surface at 1871.

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For the first time in my life, I found myself on the wrong side of a learning curve, a feeling that was alternately horrific, humbling and weirdly wonderful. Trying to figure out HTML/CSS  felt like learning how to knit in the dark. Knit one HTML, purl two CSS, then jump over to a browser to see if it worked. 

I am not a terribly good knitter even with the lights on. Yet, despite my striking lack of natural gifts, I am not done with the digital yarn. The logic of the code's illogic somehow osmosed its way into my fingertips—enough that I think I can do this. I may never be great, but then my objective was always about communicating better with front end developers, not displacing them. 

Still, it has been profoundly unsettling to realize that the codes that run our lives are such a tangle. It turns out that behind the sleek curtain of tech, there are legions of nerdy wizards scrambling to come up with fix after fix after fix. The code for CSS (cascading style sheets), for example, is such a mess, we were taught to cut and paste a "reset" at the top: a long patch of code designed to clear out decades of accumulated cyber plaque. 

Likewise, we learned to include parallel commands to accommodate a variety of browsers because Firefox, Safari and Chrome all "hear" things a little differently. At the same time, there can be several ways to code the same command—some considerably more convoluted than others—which creates the equivalent of digital dialects. Things can—and do—get lost in translation. 

There is a very good reason that the questions on the Starter League's application focus so heavily on persistence. You will tear your hair out and mutter obscenities at the screen. You will struggle to figure out how to explain the problems you're having. And when the least little thing goes right, you will feel like the master of a (very small) universe. 

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The Starter League's ethos is everything you could hope for. There is a genuine culture of support. But the optimism that everyone can become proficient at coding is a little rosy. It really is beyond most of us to get even moderately good at this.

HTML / CSS. Python. Ruby. Rails. Javascript. PHP. Codes woven together. Nested into one another. Syphoning data from API's. Dancing a Github polka two-step waltz. 

For all the attention to website user experience (UX), precious little seems to have been aimed at improving the UX of progamming itself. Where was the visionary, I wondered, the Steve Jobs of developers, who would banish "clear fixes" and other such tortures to usher in an era of intuitive user-friendly coding?"

It could be a long wait, so I will continue to knit badly until I knit better. The "weirdly wonderful" part of being so inept in class was the realization that everyone, including the teachers, still struggles. The ones who succeed just don't let the potholes stop them. 

So I have started to open doors that, prior to TSL, I would have left shut. The recent Chicago Women Developers get together at Google for International Women's Day was a revelation. What a remarkable group! I can practice HTML/CSS at "XX hack nights," and, once I am a little more confident, perhaps take class in javascript or python. 

I also plan to check out the Tuesday evening OpenGov hack nights at 1871. I came across this group during an HTML class break and, gracious, it's another pod of brilliance. You don't have to be a great coder to be a part of it, either, just willing to parse through data and figure out ways to be helpful.

Finally, I will lobby Shay, Rhagu, Arvin, Neal and Mike for a Starter League HTML/CSS weekend boot camp for those of us still struggling to get to "one."

I know I can do this...

APPINESS

A major part of TSL experience involves joining a team, ideally made up students from across the range of classes—HTML/CSS, Web Dev, UX and Design—to collaborate on building a real live app. 

Imagine the first day of band practice in third grade and you'll have a pretty good picture of how things start out. None of us really knows what we're doing, and now we're doing it together.

Amazingly, this works. Eighteen teams presented Friday night. Several of the apps were quite good, among them Operation Overlord, a second screen reference app inspired by the WWII HBO series, Band of BrothersNugHub, a GrubHub clone for dispensary marijuana that might one day make a fortune; and the delightfully designed Sinkup, an app for scuba diving in Lake Michigan. 

I joined the Parent Leader Toolbox team. The group was already pretty far along with design and programming when I came on board, but needed help developing content—a comfort zone for me. 

The inspiration came from a book called How to Walk to School, detailing the efforts of a group of East Lakeview moms to improve Nettlehorst, their neighborhood elementary school. The app was designed to pick up where the book left off, providing case studies, templates, tips and resources to help parents groups at other schools. 

For Starter Night, the app was a handsome rough sketch. But it may grow to be much more than that. In April, several team members will meet with some of the moms to figure out next steps. Should this be a website? Should this be a digital book? Both? The format will need to be mapped out, a production strategy developed and funding options brainstormed.

It really is remarkable to think that a group of people who didn't know each other three months ago could pull this off. There is still a long way to go, but we have made a start. 

Onward!

—J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews (orginally posted on TrackerNews Dot to Dot)

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