How can I find a computer guru to help me improve my programming skills?
May 8, 2006 11:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm a full time webmaster running a news website on the Internet. The more popular my site becomes, the more my technical shortcomings are becoming clear to me. I don't have the money to hire out the work, so I want to build up my own skills (PHP, MySQL, Linux, XML, etc). Where can I find an inexpensive technical guru who can mentor me from afar and bring my skills up.
posted by fcain to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your cheapest option would be to simply read up on the technology--use Google to find dozens of tutorials on every web technology out there. Chances are good that someone has been in your exact position and has documented their solution. If you want a real person, you could ask around at a local community college or university.
posted by bangitliketmac at 12:32 PM on May 8, 2006

Also check the local community colleges and adult ed programs. *nix, PHP, and even XML classes are becoming more common. If you can't find a MySQL class per se, any Database Management 101. You'll learn core concepts like normalization, and enough SQL basics to help you readily understand the MySQL documentation.

Or if you don't have the time to take a semester-long class, ask the instructor if s/he can recommend a student to tutor you.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:38 PM on May 8, 2006

Let me sing the praises of community college once again. Community colleges -- and sometimes local state-run universities -- are a fantastic way to obtain cheap instruction on a variety of subjects. Sometimes you can get lucky and find an instructor that's willing to go above and beyond, too, offering all sorts of outside instruction. Check it out.
posted by jdroth at 12:39 PM on May 8, 2006

Drat! Foiled by codemonkey. (Good answer, codemonkey.)
posted by jdroth at 12:39 PM on May 8, 2006

HP Learning Center has online classes. They have one coming up called PHP/MYSQL. I don't know how good it is, but it is a start.
posted by nimsey lou at 12:52 PM on May 8, 2006

YMMV, but don't overlook local linux user groups. If and when you start running into really obscure, site-specific technical issues outside of your general realm (i.e. load balancing, clustering, yadda), you'll likely find a good person to bounce questions by at a LUG.
posted by bhance at 1:10 PM on May 8, 2006

Response by poster: I'm actually attending my local college right now in a 2 year computer science diploma, but I'm learning that it's very high level. Even through I've wrapped up a full year of the program so far - Java, networking, some database stuff - it's just not that applicable yet. I can do simple Java programs and write SQL statements, but there's a huge gulf between that and actually completing real world projects. It's almost like they don't teach me to go the last mile.

The college is expecting that I'll go out and find an apprentice level job in a programming company somewhere and learn from the more complex skills from there. But I'm really just going to be working for myself.

I find that I have a really difficult time learning from books. It's really hard for me to apply the theoretical knowledge to things that I actually want to do.

That's why I want to find a tutor online who can sharpen my skills in the areas I'm most interested in. Someone who can set me up with challenges and then give me guidance as I solve the problems.

I was hoping to find a hacker guru in some Eastern European country with more skills than money who could earn some extra cash and give me personalized instruction to learn the exact skills I want to learn.
posted by fcain at 1:18 PM on May 8, 2006

again YMMV but the only thing I really learned from my 4-year computer engineering degree is how to learn. that's pretty standard. learning the specific skills of the moment is a skill in itself, and that's what you're more or less focusing on at school.. although they sound to be prepping you more for a temp job in a specific area.

I can't say classes ever helped me learn a specific technology outside of some very obscure parallel cache coherency techniques (MOESI anyone) and the like. anything undergraduate and below used programming languages merely as tools, as it should be done.
posted by kcm at 1:36 PM on May 8, 2006

Best answer: Do you really need someone to "set you up with challenges"? It sounds like the most relevant challenges are right in front of you—the work you need to do in the course of running your site. So one approach might be to take your best shot at implementing a given piece of code, or database design, or whatever—maybe an experimental version of something you want to have on your site, or an attempt to reproduce a cool feature you've seen elsewhere—and then go to a relevant online forum and ask "How could I make this code better?" At that point you could offer some cash for anyone who'd be willing to give you a more detailed answer and make sure you understand the answer.

I'm just thinking that there are a lot of geeks out there who wouldn't necessarily make good teachers, per se, as far as coming up with some sort of step-by-step lesson plan, but who could teach you a lot by critiquing your own efforts.
posted by staggernation at 2:02 PM on May 8, 2006

"Where can I find an inexpensive technical guru who can mentor me from afar and bring my skills up."

You can hardly turn around on the internet without bumping into one. Its pretty much what the internet was for, before everyone else found out about it. The trick is to ask well-formulated questions in the right places. Staggernation is right, in that you don't need artificial challenges. The ideal starting point for learning is to have an appreciative audience for your work. You are using open tools, which is also ideal, because there is a vast amount of source code available.

Trust that your questions have all been asked and answered many times over. Once you know what questions to ask, and the proper terminology, Google will quickly turn up a message board post or article to solve any problem. Places like turn up quite frequently for me, and you can pay for answers there.

When I'm completely stumped, or just looking to absorb terminology by osmosis, I'll hang out in IRC, or on forums dedicated to the topic I'm trying to absorb. Mostly I'll listen to the chatter in a side window while I'm working, but I'll also ask questions. If you ask good questions that show you are trying to understand a topic, and not just get other to do the work, you will get plenty of help. I've never tried offering cash, that would get you plenty of attention, but of what quality I'm not so sure.
posted by Manjusri at 3:22 PM on May 8, 2006

One resource I find indispensable lately is the O'Reilly Safari Bookshelf. I the reference material there is just great, and my local public library allows free access to it.

Also, are there users groups in your area that might host SIGs?
posted by Charlie Bucket at 6:24 PM on May 8, 2006

Best answer: Someone who can set me up with challenges and then give me guidance as I solve the problems.

That's what your instructors are being paid the big *guffaw* bucks for. Seriously, helping students to meet their professional needs is what community colleges are designed for. They want you to get your money's worth. Find out your instructors' office hours, and go talk to them. Most instructors consider their office hours to be the best, and least frequently utilized, resource they offer students. So sit down and explain what you want to accomplish, the dilemma, etc. At least one of them is going to be thrilled that a student is interested in engaging more deeply with his/her subject, and will be delighted to give you more challenges and guidance.

I was in your exact position about 8 years ago. Not only was it ridiculously easy to get that kind of mentorship from profs, but they generally got so excited that they told all their colleagues. "Wow, that nakedcodemonkey is something else. Would you believe she actually came to office hours? And has read the textbook?? There were relevant questions and everything. And -- get a load of this -- she wants extra work to explore the subject in greater depth."

It got kind of funny/odd after a few semesters, because the word had spread so widely among the faculty. I'd walk into the first day of class in some unrelated department, and somehow in a school with several hundred faculty, each teacherswould perk up as soon as their role call reached the name of the Legendary Student Who Actually Wanted to Learn.

Teaching community college is really a bitch.

Go make some bored prof's day. And shamelessly wring every last bit of value from your school.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:51 PM on May 8, 2006

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