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Posts Tagged ‘James Burke’

The thing about teaching a class is that it can’t actually be done. You can only teach an individual.

I’ve been teaching since I was in middle school. Hard to believe, but true. That effort, to teach my younger sister (by six years) how to do addition was an utter failure. My next major outing was to create a one week segment for my 12th grade physics class on black holes, including a test. I believe that one fared better, although I don’t believe my endeavor to expose my classmates to then cutting edge cosmology was necessarily appreciated.

Throughout college, I was a TA and grader for various CS classes. I spent a summer a the Nature and Conservation director at a Boy Scout camp and two summers teaching programming to teens. By the time I entered the professional arena, I knew teaching (tech transfer) was in my DNA.

A decade ago, I worked for a company where teaching C++ was part of the job.

Fast forward to my current position. I’ve had the opportunity to create and present Modern C++ (C++14) training within my company. This has come in two flavors, one to jumpstart them into C++ (C developers) and one to bring them up to speed on the start of the language (C++98/03 developers). Both classes have about 15 hours worth of material.

The first challenge in teaching modern C++ is that of linearization. C++ has a wonderful breadth. Unfortunately, It can be challenging to present the material in such a way as to be both meaningful and at the same time not resort to appeals to Oz-ian “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” My success in this area I attribute to years of exposure to the materials of James Burke.

The second, far more interesting challenge, is hitting that Goldilocks zone where everyone is learning. Even when teaching C++ to C developers, there will be those who immediately take to its conceptual frameworks and there will be those who probably never will. It would be easy to cater to the former and simply write off the later as Luddites. Alternately, one could obsess on the later group and end up boring the former to tears. A fundamental balance can be achieved by using labs which build upon a coherent problem and lead the student to embrace ever more abstract aspects of the language.

In the case of my modern C++ for C++98/03 developers class, I take an entirely different approach. With them I use a progression from changes in the language, to important element of the standard library, to useful Boost bits and finally to the contributions made by the GSL. Within this progression, I give attention to each feature or class using a presentation / discussion format. Unlike the jumpstart class, I can’t use the labs to modulate the pace of the class. Each group I teach will progress at their own pace. (I limit my class size to about 20). In this advanced class, I also find myself researching answers to specific, real-world issues that the students are encountering. I then fold these results back into the materials I present.

As with any modern company, there is a mix of platforms under development. This has necessitated my doing a bit of bounds checking to be sure that the materials I present will work in a Visual C++ / gcc / VxWorks world. With the advanced class, I present not only the modern (C++14) methods (with a bit of C++17 previews), but also the pre-C++11 mechanisms as not everyone has the luxury of constantly upgrading their tool chains.

Overall, it has been an enjoyable experience. One I’m sure I’ll be repeating in the future.

Note: As a nod to an interesting Stanford professor (Mehran Sahami) and in the voice of Starfire, I have taken up the habit of “the throwing of the candy.”

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I believe that you can learn a lot about people through the things they fill their heads with. Over time the mechanisms for this process have grown in number and availability. Once people would travel great distances seeking out teachers. Of course if you were powerful enough you could have them come to you. Once we managed to get the teaching down in permanent (well mostly) form, you didn’t actually need to bother with the whole physical presence thing. Still the needing the scribe thing made this practical only for the silly rich. By the time we get to the 20th century the super clever public library idea meant that you could recommend a book to someone without running the risk that their dog would eat the only copy for a thousand miles. The mid 20th century added audio and by the end video to the menu. With the advent of the internet, we could not only find materials to borrow from libraries with ridiculous ease, but could reserve it and get an email when it was ready for pickup. Then came the Kindle, Zinio, Netflix and the iTunes store. Now if someone is ingesting some bit of knowledge, in all likelihood, you can too (and within minutes).

So, what’s with the Burke-ian prologue?

Well, I was reading The New Yorker‘s article The Shape of Things to Come, about Jony Ive and the future of Apple. Among the bits of past, present and impact; was a fascinating bit. Ive was watching Moon Machines [iTunes Store]. Not expected that.

I’ve always been a bit of a space wonk, so I was interested just on the face of it. What I found fascinating was that a person born in 1967 England best know for early 21st century industrial design saw something of interest in a series dedicated to the United States’ Apollo program.

Having now watched the series, there are things that jump out at me. As with every time I take in something that’s been recommended (if person with the time constraints of a SVP at Apple mentions that they see value the spending time, that’s a hint one would be ill advised not to take advantage of), I strive to understand how it relates to the person, their work and goals. Ive’s comment speaks volumes.

… like the Apollo program, the creation of Apple products required “invention after invention after invention that you would never be conscious of, but that was necessary to do something that was new.”

The Apollo program was a tech start-up writ large. The goal was abstract; the time tables unyielding; the cost astronomical (literally); the toll on people and their relationships severe. In the end, the successes were ascendant and the failures devastating. The six episodes take on major aspects which had to work together in order to assure the success of the program.

The lessons of Apollo are applicable to endeavors in science, business, politics and design. Issues of control, quality, planning, communication and contingency are laid bare. As are their failures. Of particular distinction are the moments of crisis. Unlike anything before or since, we have documentation of and visibility into the people who stepped up to lead their teams and the processes through which they overcame them.

In an era of ever-increasing abstraction and the misplaced belief that you don’t actually need to understand how things work in order to produce something of quality, Moon Machines provides timely lessons. The quality of the end product begins with the confluence of domain and technology, not the application of one to the other. The speed and manner of disposing problems during a crisis depends greatly on the depth of understanding extant in the team of the two questions: What do I have? and What do I need? As well as the understanding of how to get to the latter using the former.

In the end, I have a greater admiration of those involved in Apollo thanks to a comment by Jony Ive.

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