Moving forward by learning on the job

Jul 10 2013

Two weeks ago Capitol Hound was finally blessed with their first complete transcript from Typingpool – a command line based program that semi-automatically submits chunks of audio to be processed by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk where people then pick up the audio, transcribe it, and get paid a few bucks for their work. It ended up being the most accurate method we’ve tried, so we set to work creating a small search engine that would parse through the text to find the words the user typed into the search input for our first actual working prototype.

As I began work on the search engine, I soon realized that the task was well beyond my experience in creating web apps. Fortunately, we have two experienced programmers in the newsroom with Meghan Horton and John Clark who came to the rescue to help me figure out how to make this work.

After struggling with JavaScript and some jQuery plugins for a few days, we moved from JavaScript to PHP having reached the limitations of what JavaScript could do for us.

Imagine you’re in a foreign country surrounded by people speaking a language you don’t understand. You might know a similar language or know a word here and there, but for the most part you are completely lost and overwhelmed. That was my week with PHP.

PHP is a programming language that up until recently, I knew absolutely nothing about aside from a few WordPress tweaks that I’ve done in the past. Primarily, I’ve worked with JavaScript, CSS and HTML, so PHP is a completely new animal to me. It was often frustrating and overwhelming trying to learn a new language from scratch with a deadline over your head. But after a long week of trial and error, Meghan finally got it to work and I got a crash course in PHP.

While I’m nowhere close to being a PHP expert, or even being proficient in the language, I’ve learned a lot about learning new things on the job that I’m sure will help me later on.

I learned that most people don’t learn new skills in nice, comfortable environments, but instead when they’ve hit a wall and are forced to pick things up on the fly. PHP isn’t something a lot of people would learn just for funsies in their free time, and the same goes for most programming languages. I was fortunate to learn HTML, CSS and JavaScript in a classroom setting with a great professor, but the most valuable things I’ve learned thus far when it comes to programming have been picked up while working on my own projects. With this in mind, and with some encouragement from Meghan and John, I was forced to continue moving forward without getting embarrassed or being afraid to ask stupid questions. It’s not like I ever claimed to know how to program in this language, it’s just where the project led us.

After a long week of frustration and some time brooding over a screen full of what looked like gibberish, Meghan walked me through exactly what was going on and after a while, it finally started to make sense. Though I still had some training wheels on with a lot of help from experienced developers, I definitely felt the pressure from learning something new on the fly with a deadline in addition to having next to zero prior experience. It was overwhelming but exciting, and it reminded me why I applied for this job in the first place. The same reason why most people apply for summer internships: to gain on the job experience and learn skills outside of a classroom which is exactly what happened this week.



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