Final Impressions of COGS 121

Posted on: Thursday, Mar 13, 2008

After 10 weeks, I’ve now been able to watch all of the final presentations from the different groups. Considering that my group was the only “experienced programmer” team, I really didn’t know what to expect from the others. All in all, I’ve been incredibly impressed by the various projects they’ve managed to produce. Most importantly, it’s clear that the quality of the project ideas has nothing to do with programming ability. Implementation is another thing, but even groups of self-proclaimed “newbies” with only (prior to this class) basic HTML exposure came out with some very cool projects.

Something I hadn’t expected, but makes sense in retrospect, is the correlation between prior experience and willingness to learn new things. The class represented a huge cross section of prior-experience from student to student. Overall, those who knew the least starting out were the ones most willing to embrace new ideas and technologies. The eagerness with which the “beginners” jumped into their ideas was truly inspiring.

Soapbox: Pro’s and Con’s

I spent a decent amount of time in and outside of class evangelizing Rails since it was so appropriate for a lot of the project ideas out there. This had different effects on different people. One group actually ran with it and built their entire project with it. A few people were probably bored to tears by my rambling. The majority of the class now knows me as the “Ruby on Rails guy”. I’m glad that I was able to expose more people to the framework, but I don’t think I was effective in conveying the core concept that I work by:

If you’re going to tackle a problem, use the best tools available.

Rails is a great tool for a wide variety of web apps. It is not the be-all end-all solution to life’s endless problems. I think I came across more as “Rails is the answer to everything” instead of what I was shooting for “Use new tools, not just what you already know.” A large part of this problem stems from our own group using Rails for the backend; something I was actually trying to avoid.

The aim of the class is for each person to learn new technologies and develop something with them. Our project, due to the nature of its complexity, was going to require a lot of coding. Once it became clear that we were going to need our own backend DB, I wanted to avoid using PHP. Not because it wouldn’t work just fine. There’s nothing wrong with it, especially for a project this small. The problem, as I saw it, was that 4 out of 5 people in our group had a medium to high level of experience with it. That doesn’t allow for a lot of “new” learning.

My motivation for using Rails in our group was to introduce already-skilled programmers to something new, even if it meant limiting my own exposure to “new” things. For my own learning, I made sure to take time outside of our group meetings to teach myself other pieces that I haven’t seen or used before. The most visually interesting result of that is the drag-n-drop ordering of Categories. Working out the SQL queries needed to find stores that are open at a given time definitely stretched my boundaries. Obviously not as major as learning a whole new language, but it was a great way to push myself beyond what I already knew coming in.

If You Could Go Back…

Were I to do it all over again, I would have spent more time trying to preach the core philosophy of “use the best tool” instead of keeping the focus on Rails. For example, I only realized last week that we, it appears, are the only group using any kind of version control. Giving a talk on basic SVN usage, I think, would have been valuable to the class as a whole.

I had a lot of fun working on Open Past Midnight for this class. After all, I’m a programmer. But the neatest part of this class was getting to see what other people came up with, especially when they had to work with limited experience. That constraint can be incredibly discouraging, but they pulled through beautifully.