Learning CS and Entrepreneurship Online: New Educational Paradigms (Part 2 of 3)

Part two of a three-part series on how I’m seeking out and testing different (free!) methods of learning about computer science and entrepreneurship online.

On the tech front, after perusing the online course offerings of MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, I settled on MIT’s “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming” as a point of entry into the intimidating world of programming. This course is taught in Python, which I’ve read favorable things about as a gateway-language. I started out leaning toward Ruby due to the huge (and evangelistic) Rails community, and may still try to pick it up at some point, but I (mostly arbitrarily) decided to go with Python for now because the MIT course looked great, I’ve found several other great resources for learning it, and the consensus seems to be that it’s a bit easier then Ruby for beginners to pick up. I’ve done some cursory reading about other languages, from historical overviews of C and Java to Paul Graham’s paeans to LISP, but most languages other than Python and Ruby seemed way too intimidating to start with.

My first main goal is to gain a high-level familiarity and basic proficiency with Python, as well as a broad (if cursory) understanding of computational and systems thinking. I’m convinced learning to think in hacker-mode will have tremendous crossover value in how I approach other problems, and will make learning complex things easier as I continue. I’m interested as well in the history of computer science, and in web design/architecture. Concerning the latter, I’ve read up a bit on HTML/CSS, and now have a pretty good theoretical grasp on how design and technology intersect when it comes to designing for the web, but for now I’d rather practice deepening my fundamental programming skills and rely on the genius of WordPress (and its amazing plugins and themes) to take care of my own website needs.

Apart from the MIT course (and several other university open courses that look awesome but that I have not yet explored) there are a couple particularly great resources I’ve found for learning about computer science. The first is the “Learn Code the Hard Way” series, by Zed Shaw—in particular, for my purposes, “Learn Python the Hard Way” and also an excellent introduction to the command line which proved invaluable to a newbie like me. Zed has a very straightforward and hands-on teaching style that makes the process of learning programming feel natural, which is great. More generally, I’ve learned quite a bit about at least basic principles and ideas pertaining to the world of computer science just by reading Wikipedia articles and Quora threads, and following blogs and stumbling on essays by great programmers—many hackers, it seems, are also excellent writers and incredibly talented at communicating complex ideas; it pays to be as curious as possible and sniff out further information wherever something smells particularly interesting.

Since moving to NYC after graduation, I’ve had access to a lot of resources in the startup community. The neighborhood where I work, DUMBO, is home to a large (and growing) number of tech startups and creative agencies; I’ve also started to take advantage of the tons of classes, workshops, and events hosted by organizations like General Assembly which are relatively cheap and convenient. Though I haven’t had a lot of professional interaction with New York’s proliferating startups, I’ve started to pick up the entrepreneurial bug by a combination of osmosis and active fascination with the process of starting and running a business.

For the past several months, I’ve been combing through the entirety of the Internet in search of wisdom about everything from lean startup methods to the inner workings of Y-Combinator; from crowdfunding best practices to branding and marketing techniques. It’s a Sisyphean task, but I think I’m almost done.

Seriously though—I’m just starting to get a picture of the many skills needed, and the many challenges faced, by someone hoping to start a viable business from scratch. It’s both humbling and inspirational, and I plan to continue learning until I feel confident enough to implement pieces of what I’ve learned in my own ventures (as soon as I damn well can!) I’m currently a bit ambivalent about the tech-startup route, as I watch the market grow ever more saturated with social media spinoffs (even some of the success stories begin to feel a bit stale) but I’m convinced there are vast reservoirs of potential (ideas, markets, paradigms) lying dormant and waiting for people like me to figure them out. I’m excited to develop and define a unique skill set that I can leverage in a non-traditional way, an continue to think about aspects of the status quo I might be able to disrupt for the better. I’m not sure I have the desire to build a huge company, but I do want to amplify my value and create some incremental improvement in the world.

The shifting educational paradigms I refer to in this post are mostly various offshoots of the idea that online, digital learning enables tremendous reach and access. I’ve certainly found this to be true in learning about entrepreneurship, although not to the degree of saturation of CS material—or at least not so far as formal course material is concerned. There are dozens of CS courses available online (ranging from official university courses to online ebooks to startups like Codecademy), but less formal material available for learning about entrepreneurship. I’ve found some excellent courses online, including an Oxford lecture series (“Building a Business”) and a Stanford “Technology Entrepreneurship” course.

The best materials I’ve found, though, aren’t through “open course” initiatives, but are rather organic extensions of ongoing courses: SVA’s “Entrepreneurial Design” course with its blog, syllabus, and assignments publicly available via Google Docs; and the incredibly detailed essay versions of Peter Thiel’s Startup course at Stanford, as meticulously presented by Blake Masters. The latter is a particularly awesome example of one student single-handedly leveraging a valuable source of knowledge to make it accessible to a much wider audience. (And many of Thiel’s core points—seek to discover the true and non-obvious, plumb your resources and insights for the deep secrets that have thus far remained dormant, and figure out how to exploit them for profit—are pretty revelatory.) While no complete substitution for actually being physically present at the classes in question, these extensions are tremendous resources, filled with a wealth of vital, timely, insightful, curated information.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk a bit more about General Assembly, which opened just a year or two ago in NYC as a combination startup campus and educational center for technology and entrepreneurship. GA has rapidly expanded, and in addition to serving as incubator/co-working space/event center/classroom, it’s also begun offering introductory courses online, facilitating large-scale tech events, and is even expanding its offerings to London and beyond. I’ve attended a few courses/events at GA and it’s a great resource which I think will only become more potent and influential as it scales via online offerings grounded in vital real-world startup hubs. A physical locus is an important thing for a community to have, and GA is proving to be a pretty integral part of the NYC startup and entrepreneurial-education community.