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The Before, After, and Beyond of Learning

James Brownie 74

How can something seem impossibly complicated before it’s understood, but then become so simple afterwards? For most of my life I thought learning software development was beyond my capabilities, but then something changed. In this blog post I’ll briefly detail my personal journey.

Just six weeks into this 15 week software engineering program and I’m amazed at the skills I’ve learned. I considered learning to code ever since graduating college six years ago, but the enormity of the task was always intimidating. Now the veil is finally being lifted, and I’m marveling at the duality of learning something new. In the famous words of Kevin Garnett: “anything is possible.”

I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything at a pace this accelerated! Gaining a new technical skill feels so empowering. It’s still hard to believe that I’m able to look at a page full of words and symbols and decipher its meaning. It reminds me of “digital rain” in The Matrix. I loved that movie as a kid, and it mystified the digital world. Now, while writing this, I’ve learned from a simple Google search that the “digital rain” is actually just Japanese sushi recipes.

Apparently the “digital rain” code in The Matrix is just based on sushi recipes?

Until a few years ago, I bought into the myth of the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy. I struggled with math in school, so I basically gave up on it and stuck to English and other “soft” subjects. But somewhere along the way I fell deeply in love with bicycles, and thanks to two amazing non-profit bicycle workshops, my identity expanded from “creative, non-technical person” to “amateur bicycle mechanic.” Now, thanks to Flatiron School’s software engineering course, I’m getting comfortable identifying as a software developer, too.

Low barrier to entry is extremely important: my first bike mechanic experiences were in free, public non-profit workshops. Similarly, my very first taste of writing code came from Khan Academy, a free online resource where anyone can learn the simple basics of Javascript. My first non-profit bike workshop was Bikeatoga. It was run out of a church basement in my college town. There, the friendly volunteer staff rewarded me with a beautiful old Gary Fisher mountain bike for a mere few hours of volunteer work. When I graduated college and moved to Austin, TX to work for a bike-powered compost collection service, my growing interest in pedal-powered transportation led me to Austin Yellow Bike, where I honed my mechanic skills a bit more. The cherry on top was my time spent working at Austin’s downtown bike-share company. If the non-profit workshops were like Khan Academy, then this job was like the Bootcamp: more intensive but I learned a lot more. I made several good friends at this job who taught me even more about what can be done on a human powered machine with two wheels. With their guidance, I was able to build up my very own bike from an old frame found in a dumpster.

A seasoned bike mechanic might shudder to hear me identify as a bike mechanic, and they’re not wrong. There is always more to learn! But my point is: If I were to give a detailed description of my bicycle collection to my bike-agnostic friends, they would be completely lost, much like I would have been lost upon viewing a screen full of JavaScript code just a few months ago.

With any learning journey, there is The Before and The After. In The Before, everything is overwhelming and complicated. If you’re in The Before, hearing someone from The After discuss the subject can be totally absurd. How can this person store so much esoteric information in their head? Cynics often joke about the language used by passionate nerds. I find it inspiring to listen to someone rant about their passion, even if I can barely understand what they’re describing.

Passion is a crucial part of learning something new and scary. It is the fuel that powers you on your journey. For my bicycle-journey, my passion came from the pure feeling of freedom when riding a bike. Now, after working unskilled entry-level jobs for most of my 20’s, I’m passionate about making a better career for myself. Every time I solve a problem while coding, I get a small rush of dopamine. It’s important to celebrate your small victories along the way: they are the carrot on the stick that keeps you going.

Despite my triumphant tone, I still have so much farther to go. Individual steps of learning can be a before/after binary, but in the grand scheme, learning is a lifelong journey with no clear end. I’d argue that the most important step of the journey is the first one. I still don’t really know how large, complex applications work. But now that I’ve made a few steps along my journey, it doesn’t seem as impossible to go even farther.