Learning new skills

A wise man once told me and a classroom full of university students that we needed to take responsibility for our own learning.

At the time I thought that it was just his way of encouraging self motivation in our studies. We were all HND students and that bit of advice was preceded by reminding us that as HND students we should all know a little something about failure. He wasn’t trying to be mean, well not malicious, he was trying to remind us that the HND was a second chance and we shouldn’t blow it. He was also trying to be funny in his own very dry zany way.

Over the years I’ve slowly come to realise what he was really trying to tell me.

While working on a particularly challenging project written in a language I’m only still learning, on a platform I know nothing about and using an entirely new set of tools on which I’ve only been very very briefly trained, I came across a comment in a developers forum made by one of the many programming wizards that seem to frequent those forums. After giving his answer he wrote that ‘being a good developer is all about figuring stuff out. You search and experiment and ask questions or you’ll never learn anything.’ I’m summarising because I can’t find the original quote.

After I read this I thought about my time as a developer and exactly how correct this statement was. Not just in development but in working life.

My first year as a student I joined in with the other students in complaining about having been asked to do things about which I hadn’t been taught. It was an infuriating situation to be in, I didn’t feel like I was getting the support that I needed and I didn’t think it was fair. As it happens eventually taught myself what I needed to know anyway and just got on with it but all the frustration was needless and counter-productive. My second year I took a different approach and tried to be more proactive. After all this was obviously a fault with the school/teachers and I couldn’t change it so instead I was going to be more proactive and less whiney about it. Consequently my second went much smoother and I did a lot better, while it wasn’t any less stressful it was easier. My third year presented a whole new set of challenges but my attitude remained the same and I got through it alright in the end.

Now I’m here on placement and I again found myself in the position where I’m being asked to do things that I’ve not been taught and don’t feel ready for. As the work piles on and the pressure builds I was feeling increasingly under qualified and frustrated.

During a conversation with a former teacher of mine I mentioned that I didn’t know what I would have done without his help to which he replied in his uniquely ‘matter of fact’ manner. “You would have gone somewhere else.”

One of the most irritating things I hear people in the professional world says ‘I’ve not been trained on this’. It’s always annoyed me and I’ve only just come to realise why. It’s no different to a bunch of university students complaining to their teachers that they’ve not been taught something.

Taking responsibility for your own learning doesn’t mean that you should be a self starter and a go getter. It means that no one is going to hold your hand in the working world, or any world outside of high school for that matter, nor should they. Sure you might get the occasional single day training packing of questionable quality on certain things but ultimately you’re on your own in most aspects of your job and if you’re not, enjoy it because soon you will be. If you haven’t been trained, or taught, do it yourself. The resources are out there, if you can’t find them ask for help, if no one can help just figure it out yourself. You’d be surprise what you can learn by just taking a stab at it.

I look back at my first year at university and I cringe at the thought of having sat there moaning to the award leader about not having been taught MS access. All that wasted time and negativity could have been put to much better use.

Recently, I’ve been tasked to help with training some of the staff on Python. I don’t know Python or anything about it. So instead of complaining that I’ve not been trained I’m spending a that time learning it. If I need resources, I find them, if I can’t find them I find someone who can. Only a week later and I’m getting on great, I’m learning all sorts things about programming languages, so much so that I’m having a hard time picking which material to cover in my training.

So thank you Dave for your inspirational word, sorry it took so long. And thank you Trev for your help and guidance. I finally get it.

Assignment Technique

I have a habit of diving head first into assignments trying to amaze and astound people by implementing very advanced techniques or the like into my work.

I’ve had several lengthy discussions with many of my lecturers about my attitude toward my work. Nearly all of them keep telling me to, for lack of a better phrase, take it a little less seriously. Generally they tell me to go for easy marks first, then go for the harder stuff. I generally dislike this approach to education as I don’t feel it really encourages students to push themselves. It’s hard to really push yourself when you already know that you’re going to pass. Also, bare pass marks are usually at a very low standard. I want top marks, all the time in everything.

This semester I’m amalgamating all the advice that I’ve had from my lectures and combining them with my usual approach. So far its serving me well.

For example, I have an assignment for concurrency. I’ve attempted this assignment several times and keep coming up against the exact same problem. Basically I have a resource shortage and I just can’t solve it. I’m reluctant to ask my tutor for any more assistance that he’s already provided me. It’s a huge class and I’m so far ahead of everyone else that it’s not really fair to be taking so much time from those who might be struggling.

I pushed onward and found come up with an implementation that solves the problem except for a very minor, but obvious, cosmetic problem. I’ve spent weeks on this assignment and it’s really starting to get to me.

So I’m taking a break, sort of. The assignment is done bar this single problem and I’ve got a lot of other, more difficult work to attend to. So rather than spending the next 4 weeks pulling out my hair trying to figure out I’ve applied my new approach, all be it, in reverse. I took a look at the marking scheme and have implemented each of the, extra marks, items. These are things like pretty graphics and other things that are might be slightly beyond the scope of the module. So counting up the marks I’m easily into the high 90% despite this little problem. The extra marks gained will more than make up for the marks lost. Now, if I don’t manage to get back to this assignment before the hand I’ll still be looking at an A. My assignment may not be perfect but I’m still getting top marks.

I realize that this might be considered contrary to things I’ve said in the past. But those were intended to be general student advice. This is specific to me.

Scraping a Pass

I received the results from one of my modules from last semester. I’ve already had my results from two other modules and I was looking at a possible first if everything else went well, realistically though I was probably looking to get a solid 2:1.

Then I got this grade back. Wow, it really ruined my day, I did a little better than expected on the assignment but bombed the test. Thankfully my assignment marks put me over the pass mark but just barely. I’m not happy at all with this grade.

Part of me wants to rage at the system. This was a level 6 module and a hard one at that. I’m currently taking the level 5 module that’s supposed to build up to this one. This is the result of years of scheduling and re-scheduling the modules until this was the only fit, it’s a major fault of the school, and one that they’re rectifying next year, but I can’t really blame the school. These things happen with teachers and awards coming and going over the years. However having taken these modules out of order I feel has undermined me, and everyone else on the award. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the basics of the subject while being taught about the much, much more advanced applications and techniques. It was very frustrating.

All in all though I had plenty of help. I plagued my tutors during this module and I was just happy to have a working application to submit for my assignment in the end.

My study technique failed me tremendously for the exam. The module covered a lot of very complicated subjects over a a fairly short period of time. I didn’t understand a lot of the basic stuff so I focused on those for my general study and then looked to the past exam papers for my more focused revision. I revised for two days solid and was fairly confident when I sat down to take the exam. However, the tutors went for a complete re-write on the exam this year and virtually nothing that had been on any of the past papers appeared on this exam. So I basically sat the exam almost completely unprepared.

Worst case scenario this bumps my degree down to a third class, which is horrifying. If I get solid firsts this semester I can maybe scrape a 2:1 which would be fine. So far I’m doing extremely well in two modules and not as well in the other two so I’ll just have to wait and see how it goes but I’m optimistic but this is going to be hanging over my head for for the next two months, especially come exam time.