Apr 25 2010

Web Sites and Books for Novice Programmers

In the continuation of the Learning to Program series with Nate Abbott and Natty Zola from Everlater, I asked them a few questions about which web sites, books, and blogs they consumed at the beginning of their journey when they knew nothing about programming. 

It turns out that Nate and Natty spent most of their time simply searching for what they were looking for.  Whenever a specific topic came up, they’d use Google, be patient when reading through the search results and forums, refine their search, and keep trying.   They discovered that there are an amazing number of programmers who publish code on their personal blogs.  As they were trying to get basic stuff to work, they spent time searching for and then reading the full posts and comments. 

While they like sites like Stack Overflow and Github’s wiki pages on different open source projects, Nate and Natty never found a great site on the web that has comprehensive documentation on how to program.  Instead, they concentrated on being smarter than the problem, really thinking it through and isolating what they needed to learn, and then being patient in searching for and researching the answer. 

As Nate and Natty landed on a language and a set of frameworks to work with (more on that in another post) they spent a lot of time with the API documentation for languages and frameworks.  As dry as it might be, they waded through the Rails API, the jQuery API, and even the WC3 documentation.  But they often quickly ended up back at Google searching away.

It turns out that Nate and Natty have only bought three programming books in the history of Everlater and one was a forgettable SEO book that doesn’t even merit being mentioned.  The other two were HTML, XHTML, and CSS published by Visual Blueprint and RailsSpace by Michael Hartl and Aurelius Prochazka.  They felt the HTML/CSS book was so-so but it was enough to get them started. On the other hand, they thought RailsSpace was an incredible book that taught Ruby on Rails by walking through the steps to create a social network for Rails programmers.  While they felt this was a little corny, it also ended up being very effective.

Not surprisingly, Nate and Natty read a lot of blogs.  They read typical tech news blogs like TechCrunch and VentureBeat, popular VC blogs like Fred Wilson’s and Dave McClure’s, and entrepreneur blogs like 37signals blog Signals vs Noise.  But when they went deep technically, they spent a lot of time with RailsCast, the Engine Yard blog, and Yehuda Katz’s blog.  For design, they went with SpeckyBoy and Smashing Magazine. And when they needed a break from development they read Tech Trader Daily which was a holdover from their old life as junior investment bankers.

As I reflected on this, I found it fascinating how little they relied on books.  True to form, they sat down in front of their computers and just got started.  All of the information was already out there – they just had to be disciplined about finding it, reading it, and learning it.

What have you read lately?