Lambda School - Week 2: Stylishly Learning Style

As mentioned previously, I’m a student at Lambda School’s Full-Stack Web Development program which started in the beginning of January. If you don’t know what Lambda School is, I’d recommend you check out my previous post first! In short, Lambda School offers 30-week programs in web development, data science and iOS development that are free until you get a job. If you don’t get a job, they don’t get paid.

Every week, I intend to write a small post about my experiences, the ups and downs, shenanigans, and curriculum. If you’re not yet caught up from Week 1, you can read it here.

Stylishly Learning

Having finished up Week 1 of Lambda School, I got somewhat used to the pace and daily structure. The weekend provided a welcome opportunity to relax and I certainly made the most of it. On Sunday, I spent the better part of the afternoon reviewing next week’s materials; Reponsive Design and CSS Preprocessors.

Having quite some experience with styling already, I pretty easily breezed through most of the prep work. I’d played around with SASS in the past as well so felt pretty confident.

I felt ready to take whatever Lambda could dish out.

Pretty much me on Monday morning.
Pretty much me on Monday morning.

Monday morning, we started off with a programming challenge as usual and quickly moved onto the instruction. The lecture and materials themselves were easily digestible and most people felt rather comfortable with the material going into the lunch break. During the afternoon project, more than a few people hit the wall.

A lot of students found out that, while it’s easy to understand theory and principle, it’s implementing and using technologies that counts. It also happens to be the hardest part. With the heavy focus on CSS this week, it favored those of us with an eye for design. And those who pay careful attention to each and every line in their CSS files. It's a lot of trial and error.

The two biggest pain-points were simple syntax errors like missing a semi-colon and the elusiveness of the skill set itself - there being no right or wrong way to do things. (outside of using Comic Sans) More than anything, the assignments were pretty time-consuming. You have to play around with different measurements and values to get it to look just right. Some students struggled massively with their projects, but the Team Leads were there to help out wherever needed.

Case in point: when my LESS compiler was misbehaving, two TLs immediately jumped on a Zoom call with me and we spent the next 30 minutes or so figuring it out. Huge shout-out to Orlando and Tom! Thanks guys!

Distraction & Hardware Woes

As the week passed by, I started to figure out that my study process isn’t as smooth or well-organized as I’d like it to be. I became aware of the fact that I would regularly browse HackerNews, Twitter and Reddit during live instruction. I was still able to understand everything, but I had to struggle to get back on track during the instruction itself. The realization set in that distraction and missing important information was only a single browser tab away. As a serial-procrastinator and Internet lurker, I knew I had to address the issue by its source and prevent the temptation altogether.

Enter Block & Focus, a Chrome plug-in which allows you to designate blocks of ‘focused’ time during which only whitelisted websites are allowed and all others are blocked. Its built-in Pomodoro system automatically schedules a ten-minute break after every hour of work. Having tried this system for a couple of days, it seems pretty effective. Once the temptation to “just quickly read this article” is gone, you can sit down at your desk with a clear mind and simply focus on the material presented to you. No more r/AskReddit for me.

In other news, I was hit by some serious hardware issues. In the first week of Lambda, I’d gotten a Blue Screen of Death every so often when my CPU couldn’t handle the load. This didn’t happen with two dozens programs open in the background, either. Slack, two Chrome tabs, and a Zoom meeting. That was all my laptop could bear. And not even that at times. Mind you, this PC was less than two years old. Thanks Lenovo.

This week, I also had the occasional crash or non-responding app. I’d gotten used to my PC not being the fastest horse in the stable. But I knew things weren’t sustainable when it took almost a minute for me to open and fork a pen on CodePen. The final drop in the bucket was it taking the better part of five minutes to install a single NPM package.

I’d off-handedly mentioned my hardware woes during our daily review and the director of EU operations got in touch the day after. Lambda has been kind enough to provide a loaner MacBook Pro to those who need them and don’t have the means to buy one themselves - myself included, unfortunately. I just got mine in the mail and it’s a beauty! Now to figure out how this thing actually works…

Hopefully this’ll be me in a couple of weeks. Here’s hoping.
Hopefully this’ll be me in a couple of weeks. Here’s hoping.

One thing that I’m really enjoying about Lambda's approach is that it forces you to dive deeper into the material than you’d do self-studying. I don’t do all that many side-projects and tend to put a lot more effort into tutorials than practice. I’d played around with SASS on occasion, but never really forced myself to put it into practice. I'd always used semi-plain CSS (and Styled Components for React apps). That’s not to say I wasn’t interested. It’s just that my approached seemed to perform adequately. So I didn't look any further.

Now, the use of preprocessors is clear. Having to make half a dozen projects with ever-greater complexity practically guarantees it. Neater file structure, sharing variables across your entire project and using mix-ins all amount up to enormous savings in both time and mental effort. The big take-away for me is the fact that if the pace keeps up, I'll literally build more than a hundred mini-projects by the end of the year.

The hands-on approach might not work for everyone. I learn best by doing, but that’s not to say everyone will. A friend of mine back in high school knew the name of every component of an internal combustion engine, what it did, how it interacted with others and where it was most likely to break. Give him a set of jumper-cables and he doesn’t have a clue what to do with ‘em. If you learn by doing, Lambda School’s the place for you. If you prefer theory over practice, maybe think of applying to a traditional Computer Science department.

On Friday, I stepped back from the computer, my final project done and looking pretty damn sexy. The moment you step back and everything works flawlessly is magical. If it works flawlessly, that is.

Turns out the prequels  were  good for something
Turns out the prequels were good for something


Styling For Idiots

As most people are curious about the exact curriculum at Lambda, I’ve listed them all down here. I guess it also makes for a good roadmap if others try to do something similar by themselves.

Week 2’s base curriculum was based around:

  • Quick intro to Node.js, NPM, and Yarn;
  • Understanding fixed, fluid, adaptive, and responsive web layouts;
  • A deep dive on CSS Media Queries and breakpoints;
  • Relative units, PX vs. em vs. rem vs. %-based styling and positioning;
  • Cross-Browser and device compatibility;
  • LESS nesting, variables, mixing, functions, escaping namespaces and scope;
  • Principles behind compilers and Less-Watch-Compiler, specifically;
  • Professional styling workflow with importing LESS files, separated by component or importance;
  • Using and delivering PixelPerfect design.

In addition, I spent some of my ever-shrinking free time to cover:

  • Implementing CSS Grid and its pros and cons. (Grid Garden by CodePip is a great introduction!);
  • Exploring the differences between LESS and SASS. Like the pineapple-on-pizza-debate, there’s no consensus on which is better. Some prefer SASS, while other sources are more nuanced. Having used both, I haven't come to a conclusion just yet. SASS seems to be enjoying greater popularity, though.
    Pineapple is awesome on pizza, by the way;
  • Redid this week’s projects using SASS to experience the differences for myself;
  • Read ‘Eloquent JavaScript’ by Marijn Haverbeke as preparation for next week’s JavaScript Sprint. This was the very first book I read on JavaScript and is still the best introduction;
  • Redid the first three weeks of Harvard’s incredible CS50 course. While most of it will be covered later during Lambda’s Computer Science track, it’s good review material and will hopefully make the transition to React and the rest of the curriculum a bit less jarring;

More than anything, this week was about putting theory into practice. Of course, it’s valuable to read and hear about using media queries and responsive units. Full understanding only comes after struggling with your margins for a good hour because you missed a semi-colon.

Which totally didn’t happen to me, by the way.

Out of all the skills Lambda teaches, styling and (by extension) CSS come closest to being considered soft-skills. With JavaScript, C, Ruby or COBOL, code either does what it’s supposed to - or it doesn’t. It’s Boolean; true or false. Design on the other hand lies on a spectrum; from breathtakingly butt-ugly to breathtakingly beautiful. I tend to gravitate towards the butt-ugly end of the spectrum myself.

The amount of repetition and practice this week was exhausting. You can only style the same element or page so many times before you start losing touch with reality. Having had a day or two for everything to settle down, I can see that it did serve a purpose. Like any other skill, we get better with practice.

Q&A

If you have any questions regarding the student experience at Lambda, hit me up on Twitter! I’ll try to answer some of them every week.

Is there a way to do Lambda School part-time?

There is! Monday to Thursday from 18:00 to 21:00 and on Saturday from 09:00 to 12:00, Pacific Time. Currently, it’s only open to American residents, but I know for a fact that there are plans to open it up to Europe sometime soon. The students lucky enough to get a job offered halfway through the curriculum often move over to the part-time track and so get the best of both worlds.

How much time do you spend interacting with instructors? How much time is spent on completing the projects by yourself?

In general, you spend about 40% of the time directly interacting with your instructors or Team Leads. If you decide not to do pair-programming, that is. Every morning, you review the morning code-challenge with your team at 9:45, have two hours of in-person instruction every morning from 10:00 till 12:00 and stand-up meetings and review sessions from 16:45 to 18:00. The coding challenge runs from 09:00 to 09:45 and you work on the project from 13:00 till 16:45. It should be noted that whenever you run into difficulties, the instructors and PMs will jump on a Zoom call with you and figure out the issue together.

State of the Lambda Union

This week was a mixed bag but I expect that it’ll be an exception, rather than the rule. Now that we’ve gotten some of the ‘soft-skills’ out of the way, we can deep-dive into JavaScript and move onto more tangible and immediately-gratifying projects. I’m excited!

Finally, if you’re interested in signing up for Lambda School yourself, please consider using this link. With it, you’ll receive $250 after you attend your first day and Lambda will give me $250 for sending you there! Win-win!

And remember, the average pace is for chumps!

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