An Update on Wearables: Fitbit Charge HR

A little while ago I wrote about the market on "wearables" for women. I did some research on a few different options in part to share here and also in part because I was interested in picking one up for myself. I did finally end up picking one up, but it may not be what you might've expected me to select.

I thought Ringly was really really pretty but ultimately I decided a little too impractical. And, while the Apple Watch would be in line with my Apple sensibilities, it is a little too pricey and, frankly, a little bulkier than I would like it to be given my small wrists. I realized that, for me, I would prefer a wearable more for its ability to track my caloric expenditure per day and my sleep per night. Anything beyond that is a nice to have.

With this in mind, I narrowed down my search to the recently revamped Jawbone Up3 and the Fitbit Charge HR. When it comes to new tech, I typically consult with my younger brother who I trust about these things. He also owns a Jawbone so I thought it would be great to get his opinion from his own life experience — and he recommended I opt for the Fitbit, much to my surprise.

So, when I had the opportunity to get one of these for free via some points I racked up, I opted with the Fitbit Charge HR. I think the form factor of the Jawbone is still more appealing to me (feels much smaller and more discreet) but I've found I like the Fitbit and I've found its tiny display helpful. Even though I went for the "small" size of the Fitbit Charge HR, it still feels big on my wrist and it took a little while to get used to. That said, I got it in black and I think the textured pattern to the wrist strap is very sophisticated and keeps it from getting easily scuffed-looking. The tiny display does get scuffed (I bump into walls sometimes…) but it's pretty easy to clean and rather resilient. The thing is pretty sturdy and I like that the black is pretty gender neutral.

I like the fact that it only has one button — that's it! If I tap the display face or tap the button it has the same effect, but the tap is something you can customize. You can also customize how it displays the date and time (I like seeing the time and then today's date underneath) when you hit the button once as well as what pieces of data it tracks that you'd like to see when hitting the button subsequent times.

While the Fitbit Charge HR says it can automatically track your activity, you can also tell it, "hey, I'm exercising right now so track me accordingly!" I use this feature a lot when I go to my muay thai (i.e. kickboxing) class. All I do is simply hold down the button until I feel a little vibration; once the unit vibrates, I know it is tracking my exercise explicitly. Also, I should mention that, while I can't speak for other activity trackers, this one is wearable during activity like this. For better accuracy during periods of activity, Fitbit recommends wearing the device a bit further up the arm (away from the hand) so I usually just push it up and wrap my hands just adjacent to it. It doesn't get in the way and tucks nicely into boxing gloves so for amateur training, this is a great way to track just how much you burn while training.

The best part of the Fitbit though is probably the app. Their app is well-designed; it looks pretty and it works. And, if you have a phone with an accelerometer, you don't even need to have a Fitbit to use their app. This makes it way more fun to engage in their "Challenges" where you and your friends compete for the most steps in a given period of time. That said, if you do have the Fitbit Charge HR and happen to wear it while you sleep, the app will tell you how well you slept every morning. I find this information super valuable as it helps me understand how cranky I'm predisposed to be that day (I admit, I am not the nicest person when I'm tired). I also find it fantastic that it just knows when I'm sleeping — I did not have to tell it that I was going to sleep, which is impressive in that human sleep patterns are so easily discernible by our future robot overlords…

I also find the Fitbit goals very interesting. I'm currently trying to shed a few pounds to get back to my goal weight and so I set a weight goal. I tell Fitbit app how much I weigh every so often and it will keep a log for me (if I had their scale, I suppose I wouldn't even need to tell Fitbit, but I'm not in the market for a new scale so can't validate that purchase!). It will also tell me how many calories I should eat to make my goal weight in the given period of time I told it I want to get there. What's really great about the Fitbit app is that it integrates rather nicely with MyFitnessPal, which already has a fantastic interface for food journaling. So I enter my food intake into MyFitnessPal and then the Fitbit app knows how many calories went in and, based on my heart rate, how many calories went out. Losing weight is all about creating a calorie deficit and this app is able to make that incredibly plain in a really easy to follow way.

Overall, I really enjoy how the Fitbit app focuses on the positive aspects of fitness rather than all the "fitness inspiration" that can just be defeating or guilt-tripping which nobody likes. Allowing anyone to play Challenges, even folks who don't have a Fitbit, is really democratic and it makes it really fun. With the Challenges, my only gripe is that I wish there were more options such as being able to create challenges based on calories burned. Gameification is a huge motivator for folks and I think a lot of people already do this in their work places with "biggest loser" challenges so why not extend that functionality to live within this app?

I have two complaints but they are relatively minor. The first is regarding the heart rate monitor. The heart rate monitor can definitely light up your room at night if you are wearing the device loosely against your wrist — it would be great if there was a way to avoid the flashing lights! My second complaint is regarding charging. While I appreciate that it sends an email (yes, it emails you to let you know that it needs some juice!), I wish I didn't have to use this very specific-to-Fitbit wire to charge the thing. This means that, if my Fitbit is dead while I'm away from home, it would be impossible to charge unless I have the specific cord for charging it. Ideally, I'd love to be able to just set it down on a platform to charge wirelessly but, if it has to be a wire, I would've just preferred that to be something more universal like mini or micro USB as I already carry some of these wires in my bag for other purposes.

Finally, if there's one thing that really sets Fitbit apart it's the "surprise and delight" factor. When I fully charge my Fitbit and attempt to unplug it from charging, I usually see a message on the screen. This is not something I ever customized but it displays some sort of vaguely motivational message like "Rock On" or "Go." It is subtle but one of those really nice touches and, to some degree, it serves a purpose as it lets me know that, yes, this device is now fully charged and ready for action.

To summarize my feelings on this particular wearable, I find that I'm wearing it more than I'm not wearing it! I only take it off when I have to shower or charge it — otherwise it is tracking my steps and activity. And, while I know there are way more features in other wearables, I find that the Fitbit Charge HR has just the right amount to meet my needs.

The Pink One: Designing for Women

Inc Magazine published an amazing piece by Jen Alsever in 2014 outlining how companies should market tech to women. In short: Houston, we have a pink problem!

I have no idea where this came from but there appears to be some prevailing logic among marketers (perhaps mostly the male decision makers? I digress…) that women will buy something as long as the item in question is pink. Perhaps the worst (and simultaneously best!) example of this is when BIC, the company that creates writing implements, decided to create "BIC for Her." The marketing for this pen — which, by the way, was just like their other pens except pink on the outside — seemed to imply that women had been waiting eons and FINALLY the good folks at BIC created a pen for the ladies! Needless to say, Amazon reviewers have had a field day with this.

Today I discovered that KOSS, a brand that creates affordable headphones that I happen to really like, has a rather unfortunate filtering criteria on their shopping website.

forwomen

Within the "earbuds" category, KOSS' filtering criteria tells me that in the "For Women" category there is only one option. Who on earth decided that of the 20 earbuds listed on their shop, only one pair was appropriate for women? And furthermore, who decided that the "FitBuds" (which come in colors like Coral and Mint!) are exclusively for women? Do men not enjoy colorful earbuds? And, while I can acknowledge that maybe some women have smaller ears, surely having small ears / ear canals is not a problem exclusively faced by women. That said, I own earbuds from KOSS; the ones I own are not in the "For Women" category which begs the question: why even have a "For Women" category at all? How about filtering criteria based on scale (large buds / medium buds / small buds)? Or filtering criteria based on color (colorful / printed design / black)?

Not only is the KOSS approach lazy but it's also insulting and demeaning to women. While brands probably do not intend for this to be the result, they are making assumptions about a market they are trying to reach. These assumptions are simply validating that they know very little about the market they are aiming for and have done very little to educate themselves. And I say it is lazy because, per Alsever's second point in the Inc article, "women" is pretty broad as far as being a segment you are looking to target.

In the past, I came down on the Coach handbag company for this but it seems like their website has evolved! Their marketing used to infer that their beautiful leather totes and briefcases were only of interest to men. Their web shopping experience used to put all of these bags under the "Men" heading. Now, I'm happy to say that under "Women" they have a "Business Bag" category which includes many of the fine leather bags that are gender neutral. They also have a "For Everyone" header which is nice to see for gender identities that aren't so black and white.

In short, I've reached out to KOSS on their Twitter account to implore them to fix their filtering. Given that I do really enjoy using their products, I hope they will consider making some efforts to avoid pink-washing their marketing.

I Die Every Time I Hear "The Fold"

I've worked at a lot of different companies, both big and small, and one thing that has been consistent is how people think about laying out content on the web. Most people think about the canvas as a static Photoshop document. A lot of people still think about design as purely existing between a Desktop computer and a user (more on that in a sec!) and then there's the dreaded "fold."

We've come a long way…but some things just don't go away. And I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed when someone asks "where's the fold on this page?" Did I say disappointed? I actually meant I die a little bit on the inside.

As you can probably tell, I feel a bit strongly about eliminating "the fold" from the vernacular when we talk about web design. There are three key reasons for this:

1. The term is for print, not for web

As far as I can tell, this is a holdover from the print world. In newspapers, there is indeed a fold where the paper is literally folded in half. Arguably, a front-page story that's below the fold doesn't quite have the same splash as the one at the top of the page (above the fold). Pretty logical for print and, in fact, there are numerous other industries that have a similar concept. For example, in film and television production, there's an idea of being "title safe" where there's a certain amount of space around the edges of your frame where you don't put text that you want to ensure people will be able to see.

There are numerous studies (including this one from Nielsen) that indicate people will indeed scroll. There are products (like Pinterest) that depend on people's propensity to scroll. People scroll! People scroll when they are immersed in something; sometimes we are browsing whereas sometimes we want to get to the point quickly because we are more task oriented.

2. The fold is what you make it

If you really want to think about "the fold," then at least let your users tell you where it is. I find so many folks assuming the fold will be at around X hundreds of pixels but the only way to really know for sure is to dive into your analytics package and pull some cold hard data.

More likely than not, looking at browser heights across your users will give you some insights. It's likely that, unless your site is particularly unusable at certain breakpoints, you'll have a distribution that is not unlike the rest of the internet. Additionally, to some degree you have to understand your content hierarchy and how that's making your users feel. More data, like bounce rate, time spent on site or even percentage of the page the user scrolled through before abandoning, can tell you a lot about how your content may not be helping your cause. Again, people will scroll and they will scroll because they want more of what you are giving them; if you aren't giving them what they want, they will bounce (and you'll see that data in your bounce rate and exits).

If you really want to think about a fold, you have to realize that it is a range. It's not just 600 pixels. It will depend on your users and largely what device they are browsing on, which brings me to the next point…

3. Three words: responsive. web. design.

Responsive web design flipped the script! We want to respond to the device the user is on and the breakpoint at which they are navigating to our experience. If the user is on a mobile device, chances are we don't want to load giant images that will make the page take forever to load. Making adjustments to respond to the user where they are will require significant re-thinking of design and layout.

However, what this doesn't mean is that you have distinct versions of everything across a million breakpoints. You really have to be measured about how you display the content, especially on smaller devices. There are tactics you can employ to make it a great experience in a smaller viewport without cramming everything into the top of the page because you don't want to fall below this ficticious fold.

What's clear is that you have to be rather ruthless when it comes to content hierarchy. What is absolutely the most important thing you need to see immediately? And then, how do we design the UX in a way to draw someone into exploring more of that content if it's not readily available on page load. In my opinion, this often means we have to be a little more concise which I know is something few folks who create content and manage content want to hear.

To make a long story short, don't be that person who talks about "the fold." There's definitely an argument to be had about content hierarchy and how you organize content most effectively to drive users into a given behavior and/or give them what they want right away but that shouldn't come at the sacrifice of the integrity of your user experience.

The Best of the Best: Hotel Tonight

I don't think I've written here explicitly about Zipcar but, if I did, you'd think it was a paid advertisement. I can't say enough good things about them and I'm a huge advocate for car sharing (though, if someone invented teleporting, I'd have to switch my stance…). I get regular email communications from them and fairly recently, they sent over a discount code for a hotel booking through an iPhone app called "Hotel Tonight."

Perhaps I'm atypical or maybe this is how I fit into the millennial sterotype, but I don't always book hotels. On at least a couple of occasions, I've gone with the AirBnB-type rental in lieu of a hotel and have been very happy. Additionally, when I do book hotels, I don't have a ton of brand affinity. Generally, I try to stay at nicer hotels but tend to find better deals at boutique hotels so I don't necessarily have Hilton points or anything like that I'm trying to rack up.

That said, Anthony and I were planning for a very abbreviated trip to Boston for my birthday and we were in the market for a hotel room. I had briefly looked at the AirBnB market and the pickings were pretty slim. On a whim, I decided to download the Hotel Tonight app. I think what immediately impressed me about this app is how streamlined it was to use. Many apps push you to create an account before you even start using the app. I typically dislike this approach because it's really a cheap way to gain users — you can say you have 1 million users but if most of them signed up once and then didn't continue to use your app later, what value was it to have those folks signed up?

Want to try out this app?  Use my promo code "JGALLARDO42" and you can get $25 off your first booking.
Want to try out this app? Use my promo code "JGALLARDO42" and you can get $25 off your first booking.

I wanted to use my promo code so, prior to booking, I went to the tab that looks like one for profile information and loaded in all my pertinent information, including the promo code. Once the code is loaded into your account, it will be applied to your reservation at checkout. You don't have to do anything extra to apply it which is nice.

Really clear error messaging when you don't have a signal.  And look!  No "hamburger"!
Really clear error messaging when you don't have a signal. And look! No "hamburger"!

Additionally, another point to note is that you don't have a "hamburger" menu here that hides a whole bunch of options you couldn't figure out how to fit into your app. The options presented make it clear what Hotel Tonight is trying to do: get you to book with their hotel partners AND refer friends to Hotel Tonight to drive their download/membership/engagement numbers higher. Also, the error conditions — when you dont have wireless or cell signal, for example — are really well done.

One of the really neat things about this app is that you can track hotel prices for a given location over a certain period of time in which you want to book and Hotel Tonight will notify you if the prices have gone down. This was actually very helpful to me as I thought I had missed out on a deal but the next day received a notication that the prices were lower and, sure enough, the original hotel I wanted to book was available again.

All you have to do is authenticate with your thumb!
All you have to do is authenticate with your thumb!

The absolute best part of this app, however, is the integration with Apple Pay. Paying for your hotel is incredibly easy. After hitting the "Book Now" button on a listing, there is nothing left for you to enter. Because I've already entered all my information, the only thing left to do is pay. From the confirmation screen, I can see the dates I'm signing up for and the full price I'll be charged. Simply authenticating with my thumbprint is the last step and confirms that I am authorized to make this purchase.

Expedia's app has an accelerometer controlled door tag and really poor error messages...
Expedia's app has an accelerometer controlled door tag and really poor error messages…

In what has lately been a very busy time for me, I've found that apps that make my life easier have truly been vital. Hotel Tonight will definitely fall into that category and I wouldn't hesitate to use it again in the future. Competitors such as Expedia, for example, often do too much or try too hard to sell add ons/gimmicks rather than focusing on the right customer experience to make the act of booking travel less of an ordeal.

The New York Yankees Don't Always Dominate

The New York Yankees are well-known in the baseball world for having many many championships. While I'm a much bigger fan of the other baseball team in the city (the New York Mets), I still end up finding myself at Yankee Stadium often enough. Ah, the things we do for love!

That said, on our most recent trip to Yankee Stadium we were approached by a young lady offering us the opportunity to take our photograph. This seems to happen a lot at most sports venues and, if you are with a large group, it's nice to have someone else take a group shot — even if you do have to go retrieve it later and pay a boatload of money for it. Though the woman who took our photo was very nice, she handed us a poorly designed business card sized piece of paper for us to use in order to retrieve our photo.

I've done this before but I was surprised to find that, of all the stadiums at which I've done this, the Yankees have the absolute worst fan photo user interface. Let me explain…

The business card instructs me to go to a specific website and that my photo code is XYZ (for example). When I arrive on the website, it isn't immediately clear to me where my photo code comes into play. I click on "Baseball Fan Photos" instead of "Soccer Fan Photos" — that much is clear.

Which game did we go to again?
Which game did we go to again?

Then, once I'm in the baseball area, all I see are various dates of games. Again, it's still not immediately clear where I'm supposed to enter my photo code. Also, I've had this card sitting at the bottom of my purse for a few weeks now — without going back to my calendar, it's really hard for me to remember the date of the game I went to. However, that's exactly the exercise the New York Yankees expect you to embark upon when selecting your photos.

Now which of these cryptic folders should I open?
Now which of these cryptic folders should I open?

I went back to my calendar and found out when I went to the game. It was a Sunday in mid-July so I found it. At this point, it now shows me a list of numbers appended by "NY" — I see "09NY" and notice that this matches my photo code. Again, I still don't have a way of entering my code and quickly retrieving the photos from this particular day.

Searching gets you nowhere...
Searching gets you nowhere…

Nonetheless, I decide to click on "09NY" and see what happens. At this point, over 300 pictures load in a thumbnail view. I'm still not clear on whether I can search but I do see a "Search" button so I click on that to see if maybe I can enter the rest of my photo code to get directly to our photo. Sadly, when I attempt to do that, all I get is a black overlay over the page, but no interface or anything appears via which I can search.

Given that I still can't search, I decide that I'll just browse. The one thing they did get right in this user interface is that they use lazy loading rather than having me click through 10 pages of content. I continue scrolling until I find my photo code number. Once I find it, I'm severely disappointed — the people in this photo are not me and my friends! Not even close to being us. And I have absolutely no way of finding the photo I was trying to find.

Who are these people?!
Who are these people?!

This UI is so severely broken and such a negative touchpoint for an organization that is such an established brand. The New York Yankees may want to consider partnering with a better vendor to do this work in order to maintain the kind of on-the-field dominance they exhibit in their off-the-field interactions with their fans.

Wearables for Women

Wearable tech has been all the rage for a little while now. Everyone is glued to their mobile phone so it seems perfectly reasonable to wear something on our body that makes that connection a bit more seamless. The NIKE Fuel Band was an attractive option but was primarily geared at folks who were interested in measuring their physical fitness rather than the number of likes on their latest Instagram photo. Alternatively, the Moto 360 Smart Watch is — quite frankly — very smartly designed and a great companion for an Android phone…but it is LARGE and in charge. For a woman with a slight wrist like myself, the 360 is simply ginormous.

While I'm a firm believer that companies don't need to make a "pink one" to appeal to women, I do believe that the wearables market is a bit more nuanced. This might sound vain, but I'm in the market to buy a wearable and would like to have something I'm likely to wear daily meaning that it is less likely to clash with my existing wardrobe. Since I am in the market for such a device, I started doing some research to see what exists besides the obvious wrist devices from Jawbone, Samsung, Nike and Motorola. I found that there are quite a few options but none seems to stand out as a clear definitive winner.

MICA cuff designed by Opening Ceremony
MICA cuff designed by Opening Ceremony
One such option is the high concept Opening Ceremony designed MICA cuff by Intel. The website for this product (and reviews I came across) are pretty light on what the technical specs are for this. It's described as a "beautiful bracelet first, a brilliant piece of wearable technology second." This seems to explain the lack of tech specifications as it appears technology is taking a back seat here (which begs the question: do you think women aren't interested in these details?!). As far as I can tell, it doesn't need to be tied to a wearer's mobile phone but then I have so many questions! How do you manage what it knows about you? What is the UI like for setting this up? Can I talk to it (to dictate messages, for example)? Will it talk to me (to feed me real-time directions while I'm walking or driving)? I assume we'll hear a little bit more about this when it actually hits real consumers who have pre-ordered the MICA for delivery in Q1 of 2015. Rebecca Minkoff has a similar offering coming as part of a collaboration with Case-Mate but, per the fashion industry trend, the focus of all communications thus far is on how great the device will look and not so much about how it will become essential to my life.

MEMI wearable bangle
MEMI wearable bangle
An alternative to this is the MEMI (not sure why we're always yelling these product names!) which is closer to the MICA but definitely less feature rich. In the case of the MEMI, it is a bangle with the ability to vibrate and flash some lights. You then configure what these vibrations and flashing lights mean to you so they can serve as important alerts. Their website indicates that you sync it to your cellphone so you'll need to be within range of the device — er, actually, your iDevice as MEMI is only compatible with iPhone 4S and newer. There is definitely some value to having a way for important communications or notifications to "breakthrough" (as they put it) to your bracelet but it feels like it falls a little flat due to its lack of any sort of screen. It wins points for being discreet, but I don't see this working its way into my everyday life. I think a successful wearable should be something that I would feel naked if I left the house without.

Ringly's "Dive Bar" option
Ringly's "Dive Bar" option
Ringly is another wearable, similar to MEMI, except instead of a bracelet, it is a ring that resembles costume jewelry. I kinda dig the one called Dive Bar (it's sooo pretty…) but at $195, it's a bit steep. The manufacturers of Ringly appear to have a nicely designed app by which you can customize your ring to vibrate and change colors for a variety of different notification events. Unlike MEMI, Ringly is compatible with both iOS and Android-based phones. Of course, Ringly is still consumption only it seems. It just pushes notifications to the ring and doesn't offer any means of responding to certain notifications (like calls or text messages, for example). This bothers me a lot about the women's wearables market as I'm noticing a trend. There's very little focus on helping increase productivity (can a girl get a text auto responder at least?). In the case of Ringly, their website indicates you can have a special alert to know when "he texted"; MEMI mentions you can get special alerts for when the babysitter calls — because the babysitter would be calling you, not your husband, because you know, normative gender roles and all that. I get that these are valid use cases for their devices, but they feel really limiting to me.

Yikes, Cuff! Why is she in an alley looking over her shoulder?!
Yikes, Cuff! Why is she in an alley looking over her shoulder?!
Speaking of limiting, a more scary entrant to women's wearables is Cuff. Cuff's positioning is that women need to be notified, tracked and kept. While its app pushes notifications to your bauble of choice — you have the choice of a few different bracelets plus a necklace — the wearable itself has a "Life Alert" type button that, when activated, notifies people (your "In Case of Emergency" list, essentially) that you may be in an emergency situation. This, for me, is a little terrifying; first, this makes the idea of a butt dial so much less innocuous. Usually, when I receive an unintended phone call, I assume the person accidentally called me; with Cuff, I'd have to assume my friend is in dire need of help and with the help of Cuff's geolocation assistance, go find her. Second, I think this is basically saying that women need to have a safety device on their person at all times because you never know when you are going to be abducted. What a terrible thought! Doesn't everyone need a quick way of getting in touch with their ICE contacts (I'm surprised this isn't built into iOS…)? Why is this targeted at women? And, in a real emergency, would a woman think to use her cuff to call a friend? Would this help or hinder in a real emergency? You can decide — Cuff is available for pre-order and ships March 2015 for both iPhone and Android.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 7.46.58 AMA more straightforward entrant to the wearables market from the fashion world is Tory Burch. Burch has actually partnered with Fitbit to essentially create "cases" for their Flex tracker product. Instead of the band typically associated with Fitbit products, Fitbit Flex users can insert their Flex into various Tory Burch wearable accessories. At current time, there are three different finish options for a cuff and three different finish options for a pendant. The pendant seems to be an elegant solution to counting your steps while also looking elegant for a business meeting, for example. However, as you can guess, this integration purely tracks your activity and, unlike some of the other examples noted, doesn't provide any degree of interaction or push notification.

So, while wearable technology has been flooding the market lately, it doesn't appear that there are any clear definitive winners — especially with many products officially coming to market in the first half of 2015. With the Apple Watch set to debut in Q2 of 2015, it will be interesting to see how that changes the market. Personally, I'm very curious to see how the Apple device will impact the market of wearables for women, specifically. Apple doesn't market its devices specifically to women but they've already indicated their watch will come in a smaller size that seems to respond to the fact that many existing wearable watches (like the Motorola watch) are just too large for some wrists. That said, I'm not fully sold on the Apple Watch based on what I've seen so far. But then again, I said the same thing about the iPad and now I happily tote one around on my travels.

If you've tried any of the devices I've noted, please feel free to let me know in the comments!

The Value of Computer Science

I read an article today on Read Write Web decrying the Computer Science degree as something that may no longer be necessary for a fruitful career in technology. I don't agree with this statement. Well, at least not entirely.

I admit, I learned a lot of the web development skills that come naturally to me simply by being on the internet beginning at a ridiculously young age. And with the plethora of online learning tools available now (from technical blogs to iTunes University offering free videos of classes at Stanford), you can really gain a lot of knowledge online and at little to no cost. Definitely cheaper than my degree at NYU, anyway.

Also, sure, GPA at a top school (or any school, for that matter) is not a clear indicator as to whether a given person will be successful in a particular role. I know lots of folks who flunked (read: drank) through their first year in college and ended up turning things around, graduating and becoming responsible and accomplished adults.

And then, of course, there's the value of experience. Experience, in my opinion, is the best instructor you can ever have. Banging your head in front of a computer screen for hours because you forgot one (ONE!) semicolon in your code will teach a very valuable lesson. Doing freelance work or gathering a smattering of industry jobs will definitely also help you gain experience as you go.

But…

I've been seeing a disturbing trend. I've met people who say they are proficient in JavaScript, for example, but really only understand abstracted frameworks (like jQuery and etc). I've come across people who know all the right buzz words to use but don't really understand how logic works. I've been in "bootcamp" classes where pre-requisite programming knowledge is required (CS 101, basically), and people don't know what a "variable" or an "object" is.

Look, I'm not saying that I'm the best programmer in the world. I'm also not saying that obtaining a Computer Science degree will make you better than someone who doesn't have one. However, what a Computer Science degree did for me was give me a world within which I can frame problems and solutions. I understand that most programming languages contain similar constructs so the only barrier to entry is just getting the syntax and best practices down (that's the stuff of experience). Plus, I got to spend four years immersing myself in all that. It is hard to find this long of an uninterrupted chunk of time outside of college.

I was at a conference last week Friday (GothamJS) and Tom MacWright said something that really resonated with me.

"Use abstractions for efficiency, not ignorance."

That's exactly the problem I'm seeing with new programmers. They rely on abstractions to just get the job done which unfortunately results in them not REALLY LEARNING ANYTHING. Whether it's leaning heavily on jQuery or other framework when vanilla JS would've been sufficient or (RAGE!) copying and pasting solutions directly from StackOverflow or some other tech solutions site, I see it far too often from novices.

It makes me really sad. I love to encourage people (especially ladies, if you are reading this) to get into coding. I've done career day at various middle schools in the area telling kids that coding is a way for them to gain some control in their lives — for once they can tell something what to do! — but with that great power comes great responsibility. You have to be responsible for the code you push out into the world. This was also something that was echoed at GothamJS. If you don't understand what you are creating, how can you possibly take responsibility for it? Also, if you don't understand what you are creating, how are you sure it is solving a problem? And how are you sure it is solving the RIGHT problem? And how are you sure that you aren't introducing MORE problems (especially performance-related problems)?

Now, that said, I think there's a lot of "real world" stuff for which my Computer Science degree didn't necessarily 100% prepare me. But I have a feeling that's pretty much college in general and a much larger problem to solve. I've always felt that Computer Science degree programs should offer "tracks" that can help students gain more marketable specialized skills. I was always interested in web development so I took EVERY web development class offered at the higher levels. But, if you are interested in networking, for example, your "track" should be specialized so you end up taking all the networking classes offered and etc. Seems to me akin to how you don't just major in "Engineering," but rather you might select Mechanical Engineering or Electrical Engineering. Perhaps Computer Science needs to be a smidgen less broad, at least at the undergraduate level, to better prepare students for life after college.

And, conversely, "learn to code" bootcamps may need to incorporate a little more theory into their offerings. My experience has been that "breadth" of knowledge — knowing how to discover solutions to problems that may not exist yet! — can be a great complement to "depth" of knowledge.

To leave you with a very real life example, consider Flash. Flash (and ActionScript, the language that powered it) used to be a coveted skill for a web professional to have. Since the proliferation of the iPad and emergence of client-side methods for simple animating (HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript frameworks), the demand for Flash skills has diminished. If you focused on learning Flash but not truly understanding the underlying programming concepts that made ActionScript work, for example, you might be shit out of luck right now. However, if you learned basic programming constructs as you learned ActionScript, you might be finding success applying those same concepts to JavaScript (or some other scripting language) with great success.

The moral of this story? Understanding the LOGIC behind WHY things work the way they do, by whatever means you get there, is the REAL must have skill.

Why The Beatles on iTunes is Important

Yesterday, Apple (Apple Computer, the company behind my beloved iPhone) changed their homepage to read that on Tuesday November 16th, a big announcement was coming from iTunes.  Over the years, Apple has made lots of big announcements but usually they are pretty easy to forecast.  For example, around "back to school" season, Apple usually has a music event where they'll release new iPods and refresh iTunes software.  This big announcement, in the middle of November, was not really in keeping with Apple's usual release cycle.  My first thought: The Beatles must be coming to iTunes.

The Beatles on iTunes
Screenshot of Apple.com announcement of Beatles on iTunes

And turns out, I was correct!  The Apple.com homepage changed to reveal that The Beatles have officially come to iTunes.  The new content available for purchase on iTunes now includes the fab four's 13 studio albums as well as video content (concerts, commercials, and etc).  As a big Beatles fan, I'm really happy to see their catalog added to iTunes; but truthfully, it's far more important than just making me happy.  A lot of folks on the internet (well, in my twitter-verse at least) are making noise about being somewhat disappointed by this announcement.  It's actually a really big deal for The Beatles' members and their estates, as well as a big deal for Apple Computer.  However, it's a much bigger deal for music history. Continue reading "Why The Beatles on iTunes is Important"

Photoshop v. Illustrator (or: who cares?)

Lately, I've been hearing a lot of chatter about which tools web professionals should use and why. I'd like to begin by saying that I've never been one to drone on about tools. My perspective is you need to choose the right tool for the job. How do you ascertain which tool is the right one? The right tool is the one that does the job.

Let's take an example from the painting world: Bob Ross. I remember being a small kid, watching Bob Ross create beautiful paintings on PBS. Later, I re-watched those programs and found that he was not using a fancy set of expensive brushes. But rather, he was using a standard painter's brush — something most people own or can easily and cheaply find at their local hardware store. In 30 minutes at a time, using a big bushy brush, he created some pretty great work and a following of folks who suddenly realized that painting was accessible to them. Continue reading "Photoshop v. Illustrator (or: who cares?)"