Is the key to answering the problem of the shortage of current programming skills in the U.S. tech work force held by an individual in Vernon, Conn., who founded an online computer programming training company called LearnToProgram.tv, and who bills himself as “Adorable Guy and Instructor” on the Web?
You could be forgiven for thinking so after a chat like the one I had with that guy earlier this week. He’s Mark Lassoff, a geek’s geek who founded the site 18 months ago. I began the conversation with the assertion that if I’m a hiring manager and I have two candidates for a programming job, one who learned programming at a reputable university and one who learned programming from a website called LearnToProgram.tv, I’m probably going to have a hard time going with the .tv candidate. I asked him if he could fault me for that. Lassoff took the question in stride:
When I hired programmers years ago, what I used to do is I would make them program in the interview. That’s what I really wanted to see—their ability to actually write code. Universities do a great job on the theoretical, but when it comes to knowing the skills that are needed today by most developers who want to work in startups or in agile types of businesses, universities aren’t doing the job, which is why we have the problem we have. Most universities are teaching what would have been cutting edge 20 years ago, but aren’t doing a great job of preparing students out of school for the challenges of today’s business environment. So I would be careful saying that a university degree is immediately more valuable than more self-directed training and experience. At the same time, a university degree remains valuable—it teaches you how to think, how to problem-solve in a way you just can’t do in an online course. So there are definitely advantages to it, but to say it produces better programmers overall, I don’t know if we can make that statement.
I asked Lassoff what sort of feedback he gets from people who have taken LearnToProgram courses, as far as whether that credential was strong enough to land them a serious programming job. He challenged me to see for myself:
You can go onto our Facebook page, or review the hundreds of testimonials that we’ve got online. Quite a few of them say they’ve been able to either start their own Web development business, improve their skills in app development for a design business, or land a web development job. It happens all the time. Part of the reason is the market. Companies would love to hire a programmer here in the U.S., but qualified people who know the languages that people are actually using today for projects seem to be few and far between. So we end up with a lot of H-1Bs and people being hired overseas to do those jobs. If someone who has a good track record of work can show he can write good code, most companies would be eager to hire him. And we’ve had that experience—we definitely have people who have taken our courses, added that skill to their repertoire, and gone out and gotten jobs in industry. And not just here in the U.S.—all over the world. So it does work. Programming is not about the credential, or a certification, or a degree. Some of the most talented programmers I know never went to college. It’s more about thinking in a way that’s congruent with the skill set, and having the creativity to solve the programming problem, and the wherewithal to see it through to the end. That’s really what makes a good programmer. Anything you learn in college can be made up for very quickly with good industry experience.
Funny he should mention H-1Bs. I told Lassoff I don’t think it’s a secret that there are a lot of foreign workers here on H-1B visas who really aren’t as highly skilled as they’re supposed to be, and I asked him if he has any sense of whether workers in that demographic are turning to LearnToProgram to gain those skills. His response focused on the opportunity we have to enhance the skills of the U.S. work force:
Because we sell through resellers, we have somewhat limited access to analytics that most companies might have. I can tell you anecdotally, we’ve got a lot of programmers overseas who are preparing to work for American companies, or are working for American companies, and are using our courses to get more prepared—that’s certainly one of the demographics that we serve. If you look at our Facebook demographics, places like Pakistan and Malaysia and the Philippines are strongly represented among the people who are affiliated with our brand. So we are seeing a lot of that.
On a personal note, I’ve taught for companies like Cognizant that bring people over here on H-1Bs, and staff almost full departments at large companies. While these are generally skilled programmers and very nice people, there is a missing aspect to their training—that’s the cultural context within which we develop applications. There are certain ways people are going to react, for example, to the user interface. That’s generally hard to translate from culture to culture—that’s one of the things we lose out on by using a lot of H-1Bs. It’s just like anything else—some of them are lousy, some of them are great, and there’s everything in between. But we have an opportunity here to build the American work force that I think we’re not taking as well or as strongly as we could be.
The resellers Lassoff mentioned are online training providers like CodeProject.tv and Udemy.com. I asked him to elaborate on that model, and he explained that LearnToProgram.tv is a publishing company, and that you can’t call him up and buy a course:
We’ll send you to Udemy or CodeProject or one of our other partners to do the transaction. That helps us to remain agile and not have to maintain an e-commerce apparatus. And it lets us build a brand with minimal risk, because we’re spreading out our content among all of these different vendors, vs. some of these more well-known projects like Codeacademy and Treehouse—you’ve got to sign up on their website, so it’s all or nothing. Our risk is mitigated through all of these different startups, and we’ll survive for the long term because if one of them goes under, yeah, it’s sad, and it’s going to hurt. But it’s not going to end us, because we’ve got 10 other partners who are also selling our courses.
I asked Lassoff if he had it to do all over again, what in the creation and operation of LearnToProgram.tv he would do differently. He said he would have done a better job of staying ahead of the demand curve:
I would have based more of the courses that we’ve done in the first 18 months around metrics that indicated the specific demand for those courses. We’ve learned since then how to be ahead of the curve when it comes to courses that are going to be in demand. For example, we just published “HTML 5 Mobile App Development with PhoneGap.” And we did that because “PhoneGap” and “HTML 5” types of keywords are arriving in an upward swing, and haven’t apexed yet. So I would have caught some of the technologies earlier—I think jQuery is one we kind of missed the boat on, that was really in a huge upswing when we were just getting started, that we should have latched onto, and could have sold a lot of courses there. But that was a good learning experience, and we know to do that now. Other than that, really nothing. In the 18 months we’ve been open, we now have six full-time employees and three part-time employees. We’re making money every month, and we’re having a good time. What else can you ask for? That’s what business is all about. I’ve worked for Fortune 500 companies, I’ve worked as an individual consultant, and probably everything in between. It’s nice to get up, put on a pair of shorts, go to work and see people who are your friends as well as your coworkers every day.
Finally, Lassoff explained why IT professionals who aren’t coders can benefit from learning something about programming:
When it comes to issues like deployment, and where the server meets the code that’s being developed for in-house systems, in my experience there has always been tension between the developers and the administrator folks. While programmers could learn a little more about systems admin, it really behooves, and is an advantage from a career perspective, systems admins and all of those types of people to know a little bit of coding. Because it certainly helps them understand the entire process from zero to putting something on a production server in a way they can’t totally understand if they don’t understand code.