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College students aren’t learning JavaScript. Here’s how they learn it

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I talked to a slew of computer programmers who entered the job market within the past five years about the languages and platforms they’re learning and using, and there was one that came up over and over again: JavaScript.

Christina Holland, a software engineer at Google who’s been in the industry since 2015, calls it “probably one of the most approachable languages for beginners.” Scott Woods, a staff engineer at JASK and 2016 college grad, says, “If you have any intent of being a UI developer, JavaScript is a must.”

It powers the web, application front-ends, and, thanks to an increasing number of server-side frameworks, back-ends as well. It’s topped the Stack Overflow developer survey for six years running.

So you might find it a little surprising that, of US News and World Report’s top ten computer science undergraduate programs, exactly zero of them have JavaScript listed as part of their curriculum. Redditors bemoan that they never got a chance to take college JavaScript. As Justin Phan, a site reliability engineer at SAP and 2017 college graduate, put it: “JavaScript was as much expected of computer engineering students as was knowing Latin.”

What’s the source of the disconnect? And, if the kids today aren’t picking up one of IT’s most popular and important programming languages in school, where are they learning it?

What students are learning

JavaScript isn’t exactly some brand-new upstart language. It was first developed in the mid-90s as a scripting language for the Netscape Navigator browser; originally called LiveScript, it got its name as a result of an anti-Microsoft alliance with Sun Microsystems. JavaScript was pitched as the “web companion” to Java, Sun’s hot new programming language, but despite some similar syntax the two languages aren’t otherwise related.

And it’s Java, along with Python, that dominates university curricula. These aren’t unpopular languages in the industry, although they certainly don’t have the cachet and momentum that JavaScript does today. But they do have the pedagogical advantages of being easy to explain to newcomers, and illustrative of many of the core concepts of computer science in a way that JavaScript, often sneered at for a lack of elegance, doesn’t.

“My absolute preference is to teach using Python primarily due to its simplicity and relative conciseness — there’s no need for verbose begin/end statements or lots of curly braces,” says Databricks CEO and adjunct UC Berkeley professor Ali Ghodsi. “It is not as concise as pure functional languages, but those are also harder to understand.”

Databricks CEO Ali Ghodsi
YouTube/Apache Spark

“I do think that Java was a good starting point,” says Carolyn Bump, a software developer at Kohactive who graduated from college in 2017. “I learned a lot of great computer science concepts that I use day-to-day, such as object-oriented programming, data structures, and algorithms. I learned a basic mindset a programmer should have: where to start when solving problems, how to solve problems effectively, and what you should keep in mind while building a solution.” Today, she’s solving those problems in Ruby and JavaScript.

But many of the recent grads I spoke to felt a keen disconnect between what they learned in college and the real world. Kevin Wakatama, who got his CS degree in 2014, noted that Java was taught more or less divorced from any relevance outside the classroom. “Our undergrad professors didn’t really present Java as being either particularly useful, or exclusively as a teaching device,” he says. “It was mentioned on occasion that it was one of the most popular, and why it became so, but not much more than that.”

And Brandon Sheehy, a software developer in Dallas who recently graduated with a Business Computer Information Systems degree, complained that his professors “had no idea what languages would be profitable to pick up. They more or less just taught whatever technologies Microsoft released. I had an entire course around writing Windows 8 Metro apps. When was the last time you’ve seen someone use an application from the Windows App Store?”

Some are turning to coding bootcamps

If there’s an institution that stands at the opposite philosophical pole from the computer science department at a four year college, it’s the coding bootcamp. Offering intensive courses that last weeks, not years, bootcamps like Hack Reactor or General Assembly have rapidly become a huge business since the first one launched in 2011. And one thing they’re relentlessly focused on is the practical. And for wannabe computer programmers, practical often means JavaScript.

David Jackson, CEO of custom app developer FullStack Labs, explains the incentives thusly:

“There’s a lot of demand from employers for JavaScript devs, and JavaScript devs tend to make more than other types of devs, so that’s probably why bootcamps are focusing mostly on JavaScript. The bootcamps measure themselves primarily on the number of graduates receiving jobs and their starting salaries, so it makes sense that they would focus on JavaScript to boost these metrics.”

General Assembly offers several intensive coding bootcamps that turns participants into programmers.
General Assembly

Google’s Holland graduated from a bootcamp in 2015. She credits the fact that bootcamps are nimbler than CS academia for the solid grounding she received in web technologies, which are “where the majority of the explosion in job demand is.” In fact, she points out that bootcamps have already gone through a shift: “For a while in the late ’00s that meant Ruby, but now it’s mostly JavaScript, especially since you can use it on the server side.”

Of course, the differences in approach between academia and the bootcamp world means some people take extreme positions: Holland says that on one side, you have an attitude like “I would never hire a bootcamp grad unless I wanted my product ruined,” and on the other: “CS grads are great if you want obscure math problems solved that don’t apply to real life.”

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Holland found her bootcamp experience invaluable, and feels she got a decent grounding in CS fundamentals. But, she says, “a lot of bootcamps are driven by demand of students to ‘just give me what I need to get a job,’ so they’re just jumping straight into how to build JavaScript web apps using certain frameworks. If you lean too much on this, you get people who know how to do a specific thing and don’t know the concepts behind it, and aren’t very flexible in adapting to slightly different circumstances.”

Making it on your own

Google’s Holland sees a counter-tendency to this pigeonholing: “A lot of people who go to bootcamps are very self-motivated and kind of take it on themselves to fill in the gaps.” But the truth is that many young developers who came up through academia — and who are hungry to learn JavaScript and other platforms they aren’t getting in their classes — do the same.

Wakatama, the recent grad, remembers hearing “whispers” of what was popular in the industry during his undergraduate years, which helped students guide their career planning. “There were also things that I wouldn’t exactly call research,” he said, “but something like community information — JetBrains’s ‘State of Developer Ecosystem,’ for example — that might give us an idea of what the popular and ‘up and coming’ languages were.”

Sheehy may have been learning Windows 8 development in his classes. But at an internship at a city government office, he snagged a JavaScript programming job.

“I was able to fumble my way around it until I actually knew what was going on and eventually fell in love with the language,” he said. “I learned pretty much everything I know from internet tutorials, reading code, and a lot of trial and error. I was lucky to have an environment where I was free to grow and make mistakes.”

Many turn to the community for guidance

Finding tutorials and boilerplate code online has a long and honorable history in computer programming. However, one interesting twist that many of the young developers I talked to brought up is that they prefer to find put a human face on that information nowadays, via various social media sites.

“If you want to get your foot in the door now,” says Holland, “people seem to know that you should get on Twitter and follow famous devs — authors of popular open source libraries, people in developer relations at big tech companies, speakers, bloggers, ‘thought leaders’ with nebulous credentials, etc. You should have a web page to showcase your projects and make blog posts on.” Sheehy has turned to Reddit not only for programming advice, but for career advice as well.

Mosh Hamedani’s popular YouTube channel teaches viewers how to get started with programming languages like Angular.
YouTube/Screenshot

Another perhaps-unexpected site that serves as a locus for young developer community is YouTube, says Parth Jhaveri, a front-end developer at the EGC Group.

“A junior developer can seek out mentorship and tutorials from popular developers like Fredrik Christenson, Telmo Sampaio, Programming with Mosh, and Code with Tim,” he explains. “I view their content on a variety of topics, including react.js, Redux, coding best practices, and industry norms. Christenson, who is my personal favorite, answers subscriber-submitted questions pertaining to coding or on related topics like looking for your first programming job.”

The long road ahead

So JavaScript and its various frameworks rule the roost — for now. But that could change. Holland notes that a source of great anxiety for many young web developers is how the state of the art is a moving target.

“React came into existence in 2015 and now it’s the standard in front-end. Then there’s bundlers that get replaced by the hot new thing every two years or so. This drives job hunters crazy because what if the thing you’re learning goes obsolete once you’ve finished learning it? There’s fights about frameworks and tools that get hot because people are scared that the thing they learned yesterday is going to die tomorrow, or the future thing they’re learning now isn’t actually going to be the future,” says Holland.

But perhaps these new developers should have faith in themselves.

“Most employers don’t expect students to know every language,” says Heike Rees, Senior HR Business Partner at SAP, who has done a lot of hiring over the years. “It’s impossible to know every language because they change so quickly. We look for people who have a basic understanding of how languages work the ability to quickly learn new ones. We want someone who can independently research how to learn a new language — someone who can ask good questions.”

Many young developers, emerging from an educational system that doesn’t spit them out ready-made for the job market, have already proven that they can meet this challenge.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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Lamborghini’s latest Huracán is a supercar with a supercomputer

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Over the past few decades, technology has made vehicles safer and easier to drive. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, torque vectoring and other bits of tech keep cars on the road instead of flying into a ditch when things get hairy. It’s why newer cars typically handle corners better than older cars.

At Lamborghini, they’ve taken things further with their new Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata or LDVI system. The Engine Control Unit (ECU) takes data from the entire car and uses it to adjust how the new Huracán EVO Spyder drives in real time (actually in less than 20 milliseconds. But that’s about as close as you can get to real time). Cars have been doing some form of this for a while but the Italian automaker needs to be able to do this at incredible speeds and in environments your typical sedan or SUV doesn’t encounter.

At Lamborghini, they’ve taken things further with their new Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata or LDVI system. The Engine Control Unit (ECU) takes data from the entire car and uses it to adjust how the new Huracán EVO Spyder drives in real time (actually in less than 20 milliseconds. But that’s about as close as you can get to real time). Cars have been doing some form of this for a while but the Italian automaker needs to be able to do this at incredible speeds and in environments your typical sedan or SUV doesn’t encounter.

With this technology, Lamborghini is able to take the raw power of an all-wheel-drive supercar with a V10 engine and 630 horsepower and tame it, just enough, so your average driver (who can shell out $287,400) can enjoy themselves behind the wheel of the all-wheel-steering vehicle without, you know, flying into a ditch.

To achieve this, the LVDI is actually a super fast central processing unit that takes in data about the road surface, the car’s setup, the tires and how the driver is driving the vehicle. It then uses that info to control various aspects of the Huracan.

The system works in concert with the Lamborghini Piattaforma Inerziale (LPI) version 2.0 hardware sensors. This system uses gyroscopes and accelerometers located at the car’s center of gravity. It measures the vehicle’s movements and shares that data with the LVDI computer.

Lamborghini says the system is so in tune with all aspects of a drive that it can actually predict the best driving setup for the next moment. In other words, if you’re behind the wheel flying around corners on a back road, the system will recognize your behavior as you enter a corner and adjust itself.

“Where it’s possible to do a bigger jump in the future is with the intelligent use of four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering and the movement and control of the torque wheel by wheel in a way that can be more predictable and that is what we have with the Huracan EVO,” said Maurizio Reggiani, chief technology officer of Automobili Lamborghini.

Lamborghini is thinking about a world beyond a completely gas-powered engine though — it has a pipeline for hybrid and electric vehicles. But Reggiani notes that Lamborghini will probably be the last automaker to leave behind a large growling power plant.

Putting all that power to the ground in a controllable way requires an incredible amount of technology — that’s where LVDI and other pieces of technology come in. The automaker believes the result is a driving experience that matches exactly what the driver wants, regardless of the mode the car is in. Whether it be Strada, Sport, or the track ready Corsa, the vehicle (in a controlled way) should deliver.

That control allows a driver to do something that typically takes months if not years to master: drifting. It goes against what the car wants to do — lose traction. But in Sport mode it’s possible. To do that, the vehicle has to figure out (in real time and safely) things like what angle it wants to slide. The Huracán EVO Spyder has to understand that you want to drift and not fight that. If it does, it will jerk the car (and driver) back into alignment.

Lamborghini Huracan EVO Spyder

To relive your Fast and Furious dreams, the automaker started where lots of companies start with new technology: In the simulator. But a computer can’t faithfully reproduce the real world. Mostly that has to do with tires, a variable that’s tough to predict because of the density of the rubber’s compound and its wear.

Then, of course, there’s the driver. We all drive differently but the experience must be the same for everyone. It’s important that even with all that technology, it’s still a driving experience. “We don’t want to have something that substitutes the driver. We want to have a car that is able to understand what the driver wants to do,” Reggiani said.

Lamborghini is known for large engines, intense growls, striking design and bank-busting prices. But the reality is all that power would be useless if drivers couldn’t actually control the car. The automaker’s latest system makes that possible for everyone. Sure, only a select few can own a Lamborghini, but everyone can appreciate a system that makes driving safer while simultaneously more fun.

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This device makes it easy for the elderly to stay in touch with their loved ones

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Only 20 percent of over-75s in the UK have a smartphone compared to 95 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds. Digital technologies change fast, become obsolete quickly and usually need you to spend a bit of time learning how to use them.

This helps explain why most older adults tend to use what they know best when it comes to communicating, which usually means a phone call via a landline or basic mobile, instead of a quick text or social media update.

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But it doesn’t have to be this way. My colleague Massimo Micocci and I have recently designed a more modern device we hope will help older people stay in more frequent touch with instant updates, but that has a familiar feel to it. By drawing on smart materials and what we call “design metaphors”, we hope to make new technology more accessible.

When older people don’t have access to instant messaging, a phone call or a visit may be the only way for friends and family to check their loved ones are well. And doing so more than (or even) once a day might not be feasible or wanted.

Similarly, older people might feel that ringing their relatives morning and night just to let them know they’re OK would be an inconvenience. And while you can buy specialized monitoring devices that record people’s movements around their home, these often feel like an invasion of privacy.

With this in mind, we developed something that lets older people broadcast their status to their families like a social media update. Our device (which is designed for research purposes rather than commercial development) looks like an analogue radio. But it lets users transmit information about their activity captured from a wearable heartbeat sensor in a way that is entertaining and intuitive, and only shared with selected group of followers.

The keep-in-touch. Author provided

The information includes how energetic their current activity is, for example whether they are conducting an active task such as gardening, or a relaxing and restful one such as reading a book.

By designing the device to evoke technology with which people will feel instantly familiar, we’re using the principle of design metaphor. Most people find it easier to interact with devices that resemble products they have already used.

In cognitive psychology, this is known as inferential learning, referring to when someone applies established knowledge in their brain to a new context. The design of our “radio” device makes it easier for users to work out how to use it, based on their previous interactions with traditional radios – even though it has a very different function.

Giving users control

There are plenty of systems that enable people to monitor older family members. But usually these are fully passive, where the older adults are observed directly through cameras and sensors around their homes. Or they are fully active, for example mobile phones that require the older adults to stop what they’re doing and respond right away.

Instead, our device lets people choose the level of communication they want. It runs in the background and doesn’t transmit detailed information such as images of people in their homes. This makes it a much less intrusive way of letting someone know you’re OK.

We also wanted to make the device very easy to understand, interpret and remember. So rather than having an information screen that showed text or images, we wanted to create a display that used so-called smart materials to convey what the user was doing.

In this context, smart materials are those that can change color, shape, viscosity or how much light they emit. Our research showed that light-emitting materials were the best way of conveying messages without words for both under and over-60s.

The “radio” is just a research prototype but it has allowed us to understand that the combination of innovative materials and familiar artefacts can be a successful way to encourage aging users to adopt new technologies. In this way, smart materials and design metaphors could help bridge the digital gap and promote innovation among older consumers.

This article is republished from The Conversation by Gabriella Spinelli, Reader in Design Innovation, Brunel University London under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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