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C'est la Z

Leaving a golden age for CS self-learners

In many ways we might be entering a golden age for learning CS. After years of hard work by many many people, more and more schools are offering CS, states are making standards (mixed opinions on these), and in some cases, requirements are being implemented.

In one interesting way, though, for the self-learner I'm noticing that we're leaving what I think was a golden age. You might say, "but Mike, there are online videos and tutorials for almost everything these days" and that's true but on the other hand, many types of resources that were common around 10 years ago are no longer being made available.

When I started to learn about computers back in the 80s there were few paths for the self learner. If you were able to afford one you could get a personal computer but compilers, if available were crazy expensive and there weren't online communities and resources like there are now.

A good example of this was databases. You couldn't play with SQL unless you were on a job somewhere that had an SQL database server or maybe in a class at the college level. For the most part, if you wanted to learn about a relational database, you'd have to "acquire" a program like dBase to run locally. Not SQL but it was relational.

This changed a bit as PCs became more prevalent and cheaper. A big player in these changes was Borland. They actually made affordable tools. Turbo Pascal, C++, Prolog - all affordable to even a college aged kid. Add to that Paradox, a relational database, Quattro, a spreadsheet, Sprint their word processor, and other tools and a self learner could at least have a pretty robust set of CS tools on an affordable IBM-PC clone.

Things really got better when the Internet started to hit and Linux became available. Free tools galore. SQL became available with MySQL and Postgresql (my preference), all the programming languages and tools you could ever hope for and so much was open source and free to use. We also saw the rise of public code repositories like Sourceforge which preceded today's GitHub and GitLab.

Of course, all of these things are available today so why do I say we're at the end of a Golden Age? What's going away?

Free tiers for APIs and services.

As the Web grew, aspiring techies had to move from writing a program that ran on their personal computer to something that ran on a server - that communicated with other servers and clients running web browsers and custom front ends. For the self learner, this wasn't a problem because there were tons of services that had free tiers in their membership models or at least free starter credits that had a generous lifespan.

If you needed to host a project - no problem, spin up a Heroku instance. On free it wouldn't be great and you wouldn't want it for a commercial service but it was fine for a small personal project or just to learn. It was gold for a kid looking to host a project to show off to potential hiring officers.

Want to go more bare metal - use the Digital Ocean starter credits - enough for a full year on a low end virtual server. Again, nothing powerful enough for a business but great for a student or just to learn.

Need to work with with sending and receiving sms messages and cell phones? Twillio had a great free tier - it was set up so that you could learn and play as much as you wanted but it was restricted in a way to make it impractical to exploit for a real business. Perfect for learners without costing the company.

Need a nosql database - try the MongoDB free tier or just download the whole thing onto that Digital Ocean droplet.

There was pretty much no service, technology or API that you couldn't work with for free on your personal computer or using a free tier online.

Now that's all changing.

The first thing that got me thinking about this was the current AI boom. No longer can you just develop locally. Want to do that new fangled AI stuff at home? Good luck young kid starting out at getting all that affordable GPU power. Good luck any individual. So since you can't do it locally, you've got to find a service. Okay, there are some free things out there but more and more the free tiers are drying up. I'm seeing more starter credit scenarios but with relative short half lives. that's a problem unless you can sign up and do what you want to do before the credits expire. That's though if you're bouncing from thing to thing and can't necessarily say "okay, these two weeks will be all on this service." I get it that some of the entry tier rates are very reasonable, at least for someone like me who's at the end of my career but I think about the kid I was teaching at Hunter or maybe the recent Hunter College graduate who hasn't started in tech yet and is really counting the pennies.

We've also seen more restrictions on non AI online services. Both in terms of price and complexity (I'm looking at you OAuth2).

So yeah, some things these days are great for the self-learner but I'm really missing those days from about 10 years ago before the web got too "civilized."

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