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Have OSS-inspired developer self-study techniques come of age?

I was fortunate enough to sit in on a Java training course at Sun Microsystems’ UK headquarters not so long ago and good though it was, I had a discussion this weekend with a journo pal of mine in the USA which leant towards the rise of developer self-study techniques and their increasing importance.Not to suggest for one moment that the IT training industry is about to suffer in some way.
Written by Adrian Bridgwater, Contributor on

I was fortunate enough to sit in on a Java training course at Sun Microsystems’ UK headquarters not so long ago and good though it was, I had a discussion this weekend with a journo pal of mine in the USA which leant towards the rise of developer self-study techniques and their increasing importance.

Not to suggest for one moment that the IT training industry is about to suffer in some way. You only need to dip into the UK government’s Train to Gain website or scan the newsfeeds emanating from the Learning and Skills Council to read plenty of “train up to beat the recession” stories.

Indeed, it was only last week that ZDNetUK reported on a new National Skills Academy for IT in the UK as it moves to become the 4th active Skills Academy in the nation’s network.

But will these macro-level initiatives set the standard for IT training over the next decade? At the developer level I want to suggest that the rise of enterprise open source and the desire to learn in a practical and almost ‘empirical’ way will give rise to an increase of self-help techniques.

So there I was chewing this subject over with my pal Kelvin Meeks an enterprise architect that often coaches development teams on their professional development – and if you dig into this subject, there’s more than one way to use your own self-study techniques to learn new technologies.

Kelvin told me that he often creates his own Wiki of the material in question as he studies it. The theory here is that it forces your mind to develop a referential framework for organising the new material, thus allowing for better recall. There are tools like Wikispaces out there to do this if you like the idea.

Secondly, there’s always the option to write code to demonstrate the concepts, techniques and syntax of the project in hand. “I usually start a project in Eclipse to organise such things under a package called ‘demo’ and a good book to have on your shelf for ideas and algorithms to implement here would be any of Robert Sedgewick's books on algorithms,” said Meeks.

It goes without saying that you should incorporate a massive quantity of articles, blogs and various other web-based reading as a result of your many Google searches as you self-learn. But it’s worth also thinking about organising the better links into a reference list, which you might even want publish to as a blog.

You could develop the sophistication of your Google searches further Meeks told me. Why not restrict your search to graduate thesis papers on your chosen subject - restricting the search to domains that end in .edu - this effort usually broadens the conceptual framework Meeks is establishing for new subjects.

Finally, Meeks advocates creating a reference ‘cheat sheet’ like this one done by Julie Bovee Hill for her Scala learning effort.

I’m a big fan of this subject to be honest. For most of the last half decade I’ve been involved with the user group that supports a large US database company, so I’ve seen developer & DBA self-starter groups work to share skills and train up at close quarters. Sure the IT training will still flourish, but I think the open source community will drive self-learning and collaborative learning groups in the same way that it drives non-corporate code share and development. Do you agree?

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