For the last year and a half, I’ve been teaching my brother, Leo, how to program. He’s 18 and a sharp guy, very quick to pick up new concepts and eager to learn. I’ve also viewed it as a way to get closer to him because I live on the opposite end of the US. We’ve spent an hour on either Saturday or Sunday morning talking on Skype for most weekends in the last year.
I think it’s been an amazing experience for both of us and I would recommend it. There’s a few lessons I’ve taken away from my time teaching and working with him. I hope you’ll find these useful as well.
###1. Keep it simple Lately, we’ve been working together on a turn-based RPG game and engine in Java called Heroes of the Forest. I worried that the project would be too complicated and that we would spend most of our time building the engine, which is a classic blunder.
I decided that it would be a good idea to invest the time to learn libgdx, which is a cross-platform Java game engine, rather than building most of the components from scratch outself. I had hoped that it would pay off in the long run by allowing us to harvest the benefits of other’s knowledge.
So, decision made, I installed the framework, finished the tutorials, and started rewriting the basics of the game engine. It took a little time but I felt it was worth it.
The real problem is that libgdx can be complicated and intimidating. It has its own way of doing things and, though it can take care of problems for you in advance, it has a learning curve. It was too much for us to tackle both problems at the same time.
It took us a weekend session for us to merge the codebases because of merge conflicts, which are not fun to work through or explain, and another weekend trying to get it running on his machine. In the time between the weekends, nothing happened. I didn’t work on it because I had just started my Master’s at Georgia Tech and he felt understandably overwhelmed.
The next weekend I said, forget it. Let’s just go back to the code we had before and we’ll deal with the problems as they come. His attitude immediately changed for the better and he started to lead it again. He’s made numerous commits over the last week and has made some great progress. It’s a big game but we’ll tackle the problems as they arise, not before. At least, that’s the lesson I extracted from it.
###2. Let them own it Related to the above point, it’s important for the other person to feel as though it’s their project. I think it’s a good motivation to work on it in free time aside from the times that we’re directly working together.
###3. Challenge yourself too Teaching others is a great way to learn what you do and don’t know about something. It’s also a good way to learn new concepts or get better at the process of teaching itself. Keep an eye on what you’re learning in the process and make sure to keep it fresh if something’s not working.
###4. Consistency is key Having a dedicated time each week to meet and discuss programming has been really beneficial. Lately it’s been tough to find the time to meet up but meeting whenever the mood strikes has been less successful. Generally we have the highest success when we can make time in the mornings.
###5. Make it fun Programming can be overwhelming and frustrating, even years down the road. At the beginning, it can be especially so. I think it’s critical to keep projects light, fun, and as relevant as possible. I know from my own experience that I’m more willing to put in effort if I know that I’ll enjoy the result.
###6. Be patient & supportive It can be easy to forget how uncomfortable it is when you’re first learning how to do something new. It is hard when you’re first learning. After years of practice it feels totally normal and you stop thinking about all the discrete steps that go into each action. At first, however, everything feels weird and uncomfortable. It’s good to be sensitive to that.
Overall, I’m incredibly happy with how it has gone so far. It’s such a joy to watch him progress through the same stages of highs and lows as I went through when I started and still go through today.