New Programmers Should Read Hacker News

I went through a coding bootcamp, and coming out, one of my greatest weaknesses was a lack of breadth of general technical knowledge. I was an active redditor and nerd in general so I wasn’t totally lost, but I noticed during meetups there were a lot of conversations I simply couldn’t participate in in a meaningful way because of my noobiness. When I went to a Hackathon, I watched people talk about technologies and solutions I wasn’t even aware existed – the classic “what I don’t know I don’t know” problem.

As a new programmer, you should be looking to fill your gaps with at least surface-level knowledge as soon as possible. This means finding out about a lot of topics, not necessarily taking classes in them or becoming experts. Think of it as being T-shaped. The “trunk” of your T is a lot of Javascript, the “arms” are a lot of web development knowledge in general, knowledge of some of the other web dev technologies out there, and some basic algorithm knowledge. Your goal should be to rapidly expand the “arms” of the T while slowly growing out the trunk as you expand further on topics you have a surface knowledge on.

This will let you find a problem, be aware of a potential solution that you can’t necessarily implement yet because lack of deeper knowledge, and then gain deeper knowledge while you learn to implement. This will also allow you to sound super smart during interviews.

So: You should be reading Hacker News. 

For those unaware, Hacker News (HN) is a user-submitted news-aggregator site with a voting and comment system. Users submit content, other users vote on that content, other users comment on that content. It’s like reddit but with a much higher expectation for quality in submissions and comments. I’ve witnessed awesome moments where, for example, someone will post a link to a new React feature, and a key React developer will show up and start answering questions.

Skimming is the name of the game when I read through HN. Every morning, I plop down with my breakfast and scan the headlines on the front page. When I see something interesting or that I don’t know much about, I’ll pop the article and comment section open into a new tab.

Articles are hit and miss – sometimes the headline is enough. “Tesla officially merges with Solar City,” for example. I don’t really care about the nitty gritty details. Sometimes the “article” will just be a link to an esoteric physics paper. No luck for me there. I may scan the abstract. I do head to the comment section, however. There you can find good “Explain Like I’m Five” posts, links to related articles and videos, and some juicy discussion by experts and hobbyists in your given discussion.

Imagine being interested in HAM radio but having no idea to start – if you went to a HAM radio meetup, listened to a presentation, listened to the conversations people were having, and engaged as best as you could, you’d walk out of that meetup knowing 500% more than you did walking in, and you’d definitely know enough to start researching intelligently the next steps to getting your own HAM setup. Same concept.

Take a look at this HN article from today: Wind Waker Graphics Analysis. Here’s the link to the article, and here’s the link to the comment thread.

I walked into that article and those comments knowing very little about animation or programmatic drawing, but here’s some things I walked out of that article with:

  1. Threejs exists and can do quite a bit.
  2. Compound sine curves are a thing
  3. Applying mathematical functions to textures is a good way to get random-ish and pretty modifications to textures
  4. A bunch of sources for information on graphics and video game development (see bottom of article)

All that for just a few minutes skimming down through the articled. I retained very little of the hard details, but all of the above is now cemented into my brain. Maybe I’ll never need to warp texture tiles, but if I do, I’ll know to start by looking at things line sine functions.

Now hit the comments – one guy has pasted the C++ classes and methods that Nintendo themselves used in developing Wind Waker, another aggregated other graphic analysis, and so on. I usually learn just as much, if not more, from the comment section as I do from the articles themselves.

So, go read Hacker News, read the comments, and participate!

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