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Don't struggle to learn new programming languages

Modern applications developers are often tasked to learn new programming languages and patterns to improve their skills. The classic do-it-yourself approach with books or tutorial videos is great, but it still requires the developer to set up a programming environment to out that newfound knowledge in a more practical setting.

Fahim Ul Haq and Naeem Ul Haq created a new interactive platform called Educative that makes it easier to learn new programming language skills inside of a pre-built development environment. I caught up with Fahim Ul Haq to find out what they have discovered about how developers try to learn new languages faster.

How did you come up with the idea for Educative?

Fahim Ul Haq: The idea for Educative evolved in a couple of phases. We’re obviously developers ourselves, so we really felt the struggle of trying to update our skills with the currently existing tools.

We first dabbled with interactive learning for developers when we launched a mobile app to teach developers as a side project. The app became popular and we would sometimes receive requests from developers to create more content like this. But with our day jobs at Facebook and Microsoft, that wasn’t possible.

Then in 2014, one of the largest publishers in America approached us to write a book for software engineers, building on the app we’d developed. We wanted to create a free companion website with interactive learnings, but the publisher wasn’t interested in that. Even though they rejected the idea, it gave us the inspiration to create a platform where developers could learn interactively.

Once we started exploring the idea and talking to potential authors, we got one unanimous piece of feedback: authors liked the idea of creating interactive training for developers, but it seemed like a lot of work, compared to making a video tutorial.

So we came up with Educative: a platform that provides interactive learning for software developers, powered by an authoring platform that makes it extremely easy to create content.

How does Educative build on the work of other interactive training programs or approaches to provision fully configured training environments like CodeEnvy or what Sensei has done with security training?

Ul Haq: I think all these different solutions come out of a simultaneous recognition of the same need: a developer learning resource that tracks with all the advances in technology we’re seeing today. That’s really the underlying theme here. Educative and the two tools you mentioned are applying similar approaches — but to different niches. That makes it somewhat difficult for us to build directly on their work, but we’re keeping a close eye on them and would love to see what we can learn from each other.

What are your thoughts on how to measure the results of this sort of training method to quantify the speed of learning compared to other approaches?

Ul Haq: This is something we want to do in the very near future. I think it’s just a case of the current metrics we have on demand for our product and the anecdotal evidence for its effectiveness being so strong, that we haven’t yet felt a need to objectively study its benefits. It will become more urgent as we scale up.

What have you learned about on how to organize software training programs that improve the process to learn new programming languages?

Ul Haq: There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for how anyone learns anything, particularly for how developers learn to program. This applies on two levels. The first one is more obvious: trying to learn to code through videos is just frustrating for so many people. There’s an assumption that people progress more or less at the same linear pace — so going back and forth in a video, re-watching parts or skimming through parts, is just so cumbersome. This is where our platform really helps.

However, the second level is that even on our platform there’s a need for different levels of difficulty on the programming problems. For example, some people will inevitably learn quicker, and just find our practice problems too easy. That’s why we’re planning to launch adaptive learning in the future — to put such people on personalized accelerated tracks. As they answer practice problems, we’re able to get data on how they’re performing and adjust the level of problems they’re served up accordingly.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks that developers face when they learn new programming languages?

Ul Haq: I would say they’re largely the same ones anyone faces when trying to learn a new skill. It’s time-consuming and puts you out of your comfort zone. It’s so much easier to just stick with what you know and not pursue further learning. This effect is magnified in the developer world, where the resources for learning new skills are sometimes highly technical and unfriendly. Those are roadblocks that we are working to overcome with Educative.

What advice might you give prospective course authors?

Ul Haq: Just keep it simple. Teach like you talk normally. Sometimes when someone knows a subject backwards and forwards, it’s very easy to forget what it felt like to be a new learner and just start speaking in this abstract jargon. High-level programming languages get very abstract, very quickly. We encourage authors to use real-world examples to put those abstract concepts in a more easy-to-understand context. Ideally, you want your learners to not just know something, but know how to apply it.

How do you expect the kinds of interactive training tools for developers to evolve, not just for Educative, but for software development in general?

Ul Haq: I expect that interactive tools like Educative will become the new norm, not just for customers, but for corporations as well. Too many smart people are investing too much time and money for outdated methods to survive forever. I think that in the future people will be taught by machines that know exactly what kind of content it takes to keep them engaged, and serve up personalized, interactive material to optimize for their growth. It sounds scary, but it just makes too much sense to not do.

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