The power of sponge learning or: why I read Hacker News even though I understand very little of it

Posted: May 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: learning | 64 Comments »

I love the Internet and technology in general, but when it comes to the core technical knowledge, I’m definitely a n00b. This is in stark contrast to my roommate, who I mostly chose to live with based on his deep knowledge of web development. jk! (sorta). I didn’t study computer science in college or anything formal like that, but I’m doing my best to learn as much about web architecture as I can, because a) it’s cool and b) I’m never going anywhere in this industry without doing so.

Despite not understanding most of it, I take a great amount of pleasure in reading articles about programming topics. Besides being plain interesting, doing so has helped me absorb (if only the surface) of these topics, and I’ve slowly begun to assimilate them into my vocabulary and way of thinking.

I’ve found the most useful place for this knowledge grazing to be hacker news. Hacker news, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a community driven link and discussion site run by Y-Combinator. People post links or short posts and others comment and vote them up or down, much like reddit or digg. The level of discourse is unusually high. There’s an active, engaged community, and perhaps most importantly, their interests align quite closely with mine: the internet and other technical topics. On any given day, there will be discussion about javascript, startups, ruby on rails, job postings, current events (usually with a science slant), productivity hacks and much more. Worthwhile posts get voted up quickly, and the comments are always a good place to dive in to gauge reactions.

I get a lot of what I call ‘sponge learning’ out of hacker news. For example, today I followed an innocent enough posting: A CoffeeScript Intervention. I didn’t know what I’d find, but now I know CoffeeScript is a syntax that compiles into javascript, that it seems to have some following and that global leakage is quite a problem in js. I’m not really going to do anything with that right now, but next time I start working on a project, I might give it a look. At the very least, I know there’s such a thing as another javascript syntax, that such a thing is possible.

There’s been examples of this type of learning too numerous to list, things I file away and come to me at the right time later: vim (didn’t get it, still don’t get most of it, but thought to start learning it the either day when I had to do some server file editing), django vs. ruby on rails (which to start with — the community seems split but my friend jake and I decided to go with django since we knew a little python), types of servers (apache, nginx and the like — helped me recently when I was setting up an app), what web host to go with (I chose web faction)…the list goes on.

Even if I don’t dive into the vast majority of what I read it, definitely reduces my unknown unknowns. Plus, it’s just damn inspiring and has pushed me to learn more. The level of passion and talent on that site is staggering. Being exposed to other people going after that dreams day in and day out, building incredible things, and having an awesome time doing it tends to rub off on you.

My strategy to conquer n00b-dom doesn’t stop with just reading hacker news, of course. Mostly through being inspired by sites like this and friends, I’ve started to learn python the hard way, setup a django test app, hacked around with css and javascript, and setup my own server.

I’m a level zero on this road to code journeyman, but it’s certainly been fun. Viewing the world through the eyes of Hacker News has been the most helpful to start to familiarize myself with what’s out there. Can’t wait to keep going.

Update: Realized I forgot to post the first ‘real’ programming project I put this learning to use on: twordsie.com which Jake and I built to visualize your top tweeted words.