Original photo by Jussarian. Used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Taking off the Training Wheels

“How should I prepare for my interview at MakerSquare/Hack Reactor?”

I get this question a lot these days, whether I’m leading one of our workshops or talking to folks at a local Meetup. We’re fortunate at MakerSquare: we see smart, driven applicants every day, and they all want to have a successful technical interview. Even so, many of them don’t pass on their first try. We’re understandably tight-lipped about the specifics of the interview, so it’s not surprising when an otherwise exceptional applicant misjudges the amount of preparation required.

Prior to the interview we do provide applicants a list of recommended resources along with important concepts we expect them to be familiar with and capable of applying. We also wrote a recent blog entry focused on “Hacking the MakerSquare Technical Interview”. Still, an applicant’s first interview with MakerSquare can be eye-opening, and I’ve come to believe that it exposes an inherent weakness in many of the otherwise phenomenal resources freely available online to folks who want to learn JavaScript.

You never miss the training wheels until they’re gone.

I’ll state up front that I’m a fan of both Codecademy and Code School. I think they are great resources for novice and experienced programmers alike. I have an account on both sites and a long-term, active subscription to Code School.

I’ve conducted approximately 50 technical interviews at MakerSquare in the last two months, and I invariably ask applicants how they’ve prepared for their interview. Those that have primarily used Codecademy and/or Code School often struggle to complete our technical interview. There are outliers, but they are rare.

It isn’t that either resource is deficient in some fundamental way. Much like training wheels on a bike, their teaching platforms provide the type of structure and support that’s useful to individuals when they’re just getting started with a new language or framework. Their prompts help users focus on a particular concept, abstracting or glossing over details that might distract from the lesson at hand.

Unfortunately, users are not always conscious of how much structure and support these sites provide. Students are provided a prompt and produce code in response to that prompt. It certainly feels like programming.

But these prompts remove some of the critical thinking that goes into producing novel solutions to coding challenges. Developing a “big picture” view of what you’re trying to accomplish, breaking down a problem into manageable parts, and crafting an algorithm (before you write a single line of code) are big parts of programming. Codecademy and Code School don’t teach those skills. They focus instead on syntax and semantics. And that’s ok.

But to make it through our technical interview, you’re going to have to take the training wheels off. Eloquent JavaScript’s exercises are a great place to start, as are CoderByte’s challenges. If you’re mathematically inclined (or even if you’re not), you might also give Project Euler a try. Jafar Husain’s “LearnRX” is one of the best resources on the web for wading into functional programming with JavaScript, a critical skill that’s rarely addressed by other online teaching platforms. Each of these resources help students take the next step on their path toward becoming a developer. They assume familiarity with JavaScript syntax and focus instead on problem solving. And at MakerSquare we’re looking for folks who have not only taken the time to learn some JavaScript on their own, but also started using it to solve real problems.

So go on…take the training wheels off. It’ll feel a little shaky and maybe even a little frustrating at first, but remember that every great programmer started exactly where you are. The only difference between you and them is time.

And know that you’re not alone. There are countless people just like you working hard to learn how to code. Check out our Meetup page and drop in on one of our weekly JavaScript group lessons. They’re free and a great chance to meet other folks who are learning JavaScript just like you. You can also check out MakerPrep, our part-time program designed for beginners interested in learning JavaScript and web development.

Whether you land at MakerSquare or pursue your studies elsewhere, we want to be a resource for anyone with an interest in learning JavaScript. Good luck!

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