Dan Appleman: Kibitzing and Commentary

My personal blog

Learning Edge Skills (it's not necessarily a waste of time)

When we talk about learning technology, the focus is almost always on core skills – keeping up with technology, or becoming competent in a core new technology stack. I talk a lot about this in my various Pluralsight courses like “Learning Technology in the Information Age” and “Keeping up with Technology“.
I also talk about “Just in time” learning – learning things as you need them, but mostly that’s also in the context of core technologies – things you NEED to know to do your job.
But what about things you just want to learn – that are hard to justify?
Now I have a confession. I love creating things. I’d be an artist, except – that I don’t have any particular talent there. And of all of the art I’ve dreamt of creating, nothing is more exciting to me than animation. I’ve tinkered with it. If you’ve watched my courses you’ve seen some of my experiments – mostly PowerPoint animations, and my “So You Want to be a Billionaire” video from “So you Want to be an Entrepreneur“. I’ve experimented with various easy to use programs, but in the back of my mind I’ve always know that what I really needed to learn was Adobe After Effects.
After Effects is the gold standard for the kind of effect animation I wanted to do. But the learning curve intimidated me – how could I justify the time?
But this year I found my excuse. Authors of Professional development courses on Pluralsight are challenged to use video, animation and other approaches in their courses. So in developing my upcoming course on “Building Trust and Commitment on Teams” (coming soon), I decided to bite the bullet and learn After Effects.
But to make it work, I had to learn as efficiently as possible – remember, this is an edge skill for me – it’s not like I’m going to build a business on animation, or even turn it into a major hobby.
Fortunately, I’m not just a Pluralsight author – I’m a user as well. So my first thought was “What might Pluralsight have on the topic”. I ended up starting with Jeff Sengstack’s “After Effects CC Fundamentals“. It covered pretty much everything I saw myself wanting to do, at least starting out, and while I certainly didn’t absorb everything in the course, it left me feeling confident that I could actually accomplish something. I was no longer intimidated by the program. Next I took on Jeff Hurd’s “After Effects CC – Creating Your First Animation“. I took that one slowly, following along with all of the examples. I finished that course feeling ready to tackle some real work. From then on, it was learning “on the job”, and while I made some mistakes, overall I was pretty happy with the results, and look forward to my next challenges.
I use Pluralsight in various ways in my own work, but this really brought home the value – that I could leverage my access to the library to learn the edge skills – skills that I may only use once, or for which I can’t justify a major investment in time or money. Skills that I might pick up just for fun.
If you have a Pluralsight subscription (or even if you pick up a free trial), I encourage you to do the same – take some time to find something that you don’t need to learn, that may have no practical value whatsoever. You never know, you might create something you never expected.
For those interested in getting a free trial on Pluralsight, you can find more information here or from any course.

How do you keep up with technology?

If your first thought on seeing that question is to think of the techniques you use to keep up – books, courses, videos, experimentation and so on, then you’re probably doing it wrong – or at least, could do it better.
Find out why in my new Pluralsight course “Keeping up with Technology“.

New Course: Building Software That Lasts – A Guide to Maintainable Software

Will your software outlast the original developers? Almost certainly yes. But will you be able to maintain it?
That’s one thing about being in the software development business as long as I have – you gain a very healthy respect for the value of maintenance. Sure, the studies all show that maintenance costs 50%-80% of the total life-cycle cost of software, but there’s nothing like living through the entire life-cycle of multiple software projects to really understand that.
You spend a lot of time thinking about what you might have done earlier on to make life easier now.
Which is why my latest Pluralsight course, Building Software That Lasts – A Guide to Maintainable Software, is perhaps the most important course I’ve published. If not the most important, it’s certainly the one with the greatest potential to have a real impact on the cost of software.
This is not a theoretical course full of recommendations that sound great, but never put into practice. This course was born from pain – and the sure knowledge that in many cases, especially in today’s fast paced development world, maintenance and maintainability is the last thing on anyone’s mind, or in anyone’s budget. So while yes, I do discuss best practices, I spend a lot of time focused on processes and practices that are simple and cheap – and that might actually get done even when budgets are tight and speed is of the essence.
So I invite you to check it out and tell your friends. Even if you just pick up a few ideas, they’ll be worth it – that’s the thing about maintenance: a small investment now can save you a fortune in time and effort later on.

A Pluralsight Campfire Tale

As one of the authors who has a course featured as one of the 36 Camp Pluralsight courses, I guess that makes me one of the camp counselors. And since it’s a camp, and this week’s challenge is sharing a story, it seems to me the perfect time for that age old camp tradition – telling stories by the campfire.
So gather up your blanket, grab your S’mores, and listen as I tell you about the terrible incident of the random cubicle, that happened RIGHT HERE AT CAMP.
It was shortly after he finished the course Careers in IT: How to Get Your First Job that he was assigned his first cubicle. He was thrilled to finally have his own stapler, and eagerly spent his first days connecting with his fellow employees using Practical Networking. He quickly became popular, well known for posting pictures of how his coworkers might look years from now using the skills he learned with Age Progression in Photoshop.
He may have lived out his career in happiness, had he not been injured one day during a Docker Deep Dive, shattering his little finger in the process. Swearing vengeance on the world for his painful Introduction to Virtualization, he became a developer.
It was then that workers became to quietly vanish, one by one. Developers who had built their skills taking C# Fundamentals with C# 5.0 were disposed of efficiently with IDisposable Best Practices for C# Developers. Even those who prepared to defend themselves with Tactical Design Patterns in .NET: Managing Responsibilities were quickly gulped into oblivion using JavaScript Build Automation with Gulp.js. Some tried to dodge his attacks using Agile Fundamentals, but they too fell parallel to the others into C# Concurrent Collections in the nearby graveyard.
Finally, nobody was left. Just an empty office, each cubicle silent, with dust building slowly on the desk and stapler within.
And you, here at camp, may think you’re safe sitting around the fire. But don’t be so sure. Not only is it dangerous to light a campfire in an office cubicle, but what you don’t know is that the killer, the one who caused everyone to vanish, started his path of mayhem in THIS VERY CUBICLE!
Run! Run! Your knowledge won’t help you now – it’s already become obsolete. Your only hope is to quickly take Learning Technology in the Information Age and maybe you’ll be able to find a different job in a different office for more money. At least until he, or someone like him, strikes again!

New Course – The Future of Technology Careers

What technologies will you be working on a decade from now? Will you even be working in tech? Do you even think that far ahead?
Most of us don’t. There’s this assumption that because technology changes so quickly, long range career planning in technology is futile. So our careers are driven by the opportunities of the moment and happenstance, rather than by any real long term thought.
But it turns out that long term career planning is possible, even as the pace of technology change increases. Not only is it possible, it’s a crucial part of any technology career, for all that it is neglected.
My new Pluralsight course, “The Future of Technology Careers” can help you to start applying long range planning to your career – to think about the future in new ways.
And if that doesn’t convince you to watch it, allow me to point out that it is the only Pluralsight course to seriously address the potential consequences of a Zombie apocalypse on software development. How can anyone say no to that? Remember – you can sign up for a free trial on their web site, so what are you waiting for?

A Different Kind of Programming Course for Kids: The Back-story

About a year and a half ago, Pluralsight put out a call for programming courses targeted for kids. I couldn’t resist the challenge, and the resulting course “Amazing Things You Can Do With a Web Browser (And a Bit of Code)” is now available for free viewing on Pluralsight.com.
It’s not your usual kid’s programming course.
I know what a beginner’s course is supposed to look like. You start by teaching the most basic concepts and then build on them step by step. You add interactivity – things they can try and experiment with along the way. And that is a good solid approach – especially for kids who want to learn programming.
There are lots of great courses like that already. I wanted to do something different. In particular, I wanted something that might appeal to kids who weren’t necessarily interested in learning programming.
Every educational expert will tell you that the way kids learn best is through play. Personally, I think that’s the way adults learn best too, but that’s another subject.
When kids play, they do not start from basic concepts and build on them step by step. They go straight for the goal and fill in the blanks, making them up as needed. They don’t lecture each other – they engage in conversation and argue with each other. They like to mess with each other, prank each other. And they are much more interested in listening to other kids than to adults.
So I thought to myself, how do we make a course playful – the way kids really play?
I knew I couldn’t do it myself. I can have all kinds of theories and opinions of what would appeal to kids, I could even do market research – but I can’t really know it personally. I may have had the vision, but the kind of course I had in mind could only be created by a kid. A really smart kid.
Now those of you who have read my book “Developing Teen Leadership” know that I’ve volunteered for many years as a youth group advisor. Over the years I’ve met a lot of smart kids who were into programming – and let me tell you, the list of companies they work for and titles that they now hold would blow your mind. So I looked at our current membership and who was into programming, and had a chat with a 14 year old named Tom. We chatted, brainstormed and pitched the idea to Pluralsight, and they bravely decided to give it a shot.
The (long awaited) result was “Amazing Things You Can Do With a Web Browser (And a Bit of Code)”. The format is a conversation between Tom and me. Tom is the teacher – I am the student. The examples are… well, playful. We have a talking pirate. A geek test. A cool way to prank your friends. We make mistakes along the way and fix bugs as they come up.
This course is not the final word on kids programming courses. It’s not better that what exists. It’s different. An experiment – hopefully one that will inspire other innovation in this space.
One final thing that I want to make clear. While the original vision for the approach may be mine, the content of the course is Tom’s. We brainstormed the project ideas, but he had the final say. He wrote all of the samples. I did not tell him what to say. He really is the teacher of the course, and I had a lot of fun being the student.

New Course: The Dark Side of Technology Careers

Have you ever noticed that most discussions of technology careers are almost relentlessly positive? Studying technology is portrayed as a guaranteed path to a great high-paying job, sometimes at a workplace that offers all the luxuries of a high-end resort. Courses on tech careers, including my own, reflect this in a way – promising to teach skills that will let you take full advantage of the opportunities a tech career offers. When we talk about our careers we tend to focus on the cool projects we’re working on.
Most people in technology do have pretty good careers, but that’s a far cry from “happily ever after”. Bad things happen. People get laid off, projects get cancelled, and companies fold. There’s politics, interpersonal conflict and various forms of discrimination and unfairness.
Bad things can happen in any career. But we in technology often seem to be blindsided – caught by surprise when things go wrong. The focus on technology, and the positive outlook we find in schools and books and courses doesn’t prepare us for reality.
My latest Pluralsight Course “The Dark Side of Technology Careers” sets out to change that. It’s about the challenges, obstacles and traps that almost everyone faces sometime in their career – how to spot them, avoid them, overcome them, and if necessary survive them. It’s about the things that we, who have been in the industry for a while, learned the hard way – the things we wish we had known starting out.
Those early in their careers will find this course an invaluable map through previously hidden career minefields. Those well into their careers will discover that they are not alone in the challenges they face, and will likely discover some they had never considered.
I invite you to sign up for a free trial to watch it on Pluralsight if you aren’t already a subscriber.