With the explosion of coding bootcamps, video courses, and other resources for coding, it can be tough for somebody starting out to cut the wheat from the chaff. We chat with Colt Steele, Colt Steele, developer and bootcamp instructor at Udemy, about his winding road to becoming a coder, what makes a good course, and the best way to find and learn from them.
[00:00:05] SY: (Music) Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today, we’re talking about online coding courses with Colt Steele, Developer and Bootcamp Instructor at Udemy.
[00:00:19] CS: The first thing that I see a lot of students do that makes their lives difficult and miserable, I think people charged through content because you see the whole thing.
[00:00:27] SY: Colt talks about his winding road to becoming a coder, what makes a good course and the best way to find and learn from them after this.
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[00:02:02] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:02:03] CT: Thank you for having me.
[00:02:04] SY: So tell me a little bit about how you got into coding.
[00:02:08] CT: It’s not a very linear journey. The very first thing I ever did was back sometime in middle school. I’m not sure exactly how old I was. My dad was never a programmer or very technical, but he was always just interested in building things. I think it was called Parallax Robotics. They sold these little kits where you made a tiny little four-wheeled like Rover that had different sensors on it and it had this microcontroller you use visual basic code to program. So he brought that home for Christmas one year and I spent the entire year playing with that. They had sort of an activity book to go through. I finished that and I started writing my own. Nothing crazy compared today’s self-driving cars stuff, simple things where I would like chase my cats around or make something to sweep the floor by attaching a broom and having it go around the entire house and hit a wall, turn around.
[00:03:03] SY: Helpful.
[00:03:04] CT: Yeah. I think it was more of a nuisance for my family. So that was the first thing I ever did and then it was not until high school, my junior year, where I got back into coding. So I kind of did that on its own. Somewhere in there, I played around with LEGO Mindstorms, if anyone knows that. I’m a big fan, bought the new set for my little brothers. So I think that’s a really, really good tool for kids. I went into high school. There was an AP Java class. I took that and it was completely different. We never built robots. We never built websites or applications. It was really more of a computer science class. And I enjoyed it, but I was kind of frustrated that I didn’t know how to make anything. I could make like blackjack for the command line or something like that, but I couldn’t make a game or a website. So it was really not until I got to college where I finally got on the track that I’ve been on since then. I went to NYU and I studied. I thought I wanted to go into producing shows and writing Broadway shows, clearly that never happened, and then I moved from there into a really cool course that was called Physical Computing. It was like an artistic view of programming. It was in this program that was called ITP. I can never remember what it stands for. So we walked in and it was like 3D printers everywhere, laser cutters, massive wood shop, workshops. We just made like little fun projects and we tinkered around and it was all about making physical interfaces to computers. And then I realized, “Okay, maybe coding isn’t just AP Java, blackjack in the terminal, writing like loops and algorithm challenges, reversing an array,” or that sort of thing that is pretty dry and not useful on its own. Not that there’s no value in computer science, it’s something my students are always debating with amongst each other and asking me about.
[00:04:57] SY: Okay. So what I love about this journey is that it is a collection of all of these I want to say seemingly disconnected events and I’m wondering, looking back on it, it has created, it has made up your coding journey. But while you were doing it, were you in pursuit of coding or were these just unique moments that you engaged in because you were excited about the project you are working on?
[00:05:22] CT: You know, nothing thus far has been very deliberate or planned out to be frank. It was sort of like two sides. I was trying to pursue, at that point later in college. I realized I have a bunch of credits spread out across different majors. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to major in, what am I spending all this money on to live in New York City to do. So I ended up doing like business school, trying to go that path at one point, and at the same time I actually had a job that I was really excited about in the music recording industry. I worked in a recording studio with one of like my dream bands. I happen to just find an email address online and I sent an email and I got a job.
[00:06:02] SY: Wow. Good for you.
[00:06:03] CT: And it kind of took over from my school and I thought, “This is it. I’m working with people that I like listen to everyday. I love music. This is what I want to do.” And so I thought I had this whole thing set and school was just a formality I wanted to finish so I could have a degree. And then one day, well, two things happened. I realized I was really terrible at recording. That was a tough realization and that was the point where I realized, “Okay, I really have to figure something out. All my friends are graduating. They’re going to med school or they have jobs or they’re going to go teach abroad, like I just need something that’s going to come next.” So that’s when I really started to focus a lot more and take programming more seriously because I knew I was decent at it and I enjoyed it. I don’t know. It was never a goal of mine to be an engineer or a developer. It was more of something that I just enjoyed. I like the process of making something, kind of like music in the same way. It can be creative if you have some fun idea you want to implement, like I made a really terrible app but at the time I thought it was super impressive where the browser would use your camera and track your head and you would play the piano with your head by moving back and forth. So I was never going to do anything professionally with that or get a job with that, but that was fun and I shared it with my friends and that’s when I focus a lot more. I would like make flashcards at home. I would study, do all sorts of quizzes and make projects and a whole bunch of fun stuff.
[00:07:35] SY: So when you were pursuing the music career for the time that you did, did you decide to drop out of school at that point?
[00:07:41] CT: Yeah. That’s actually something I haven’t, I mean I’ve never liked hidden it or lied about it, but I haven’t really talked about it with my student. At this point, we’re about 2014 and my timeline and I started teaching in about 2016 or 2015 and the middle part of the year. And when I started teaching, students were expecting somebody who was like a PhD computer science grad who had spent 20 years working at Google before Google was even a company. They had these expectations around who their teacher would be, which I understood. So I was very nervous to talk about the fact that I actually did study computer science, but I did not graduate with a degree in it. So I just kind of never addressed it. I would say things like, “Yeah, I went to college from 2010 to 2013 at NYU.”
[00:08:34] SY: Yeah, that would do the math.
[00:08:34] CT: That was something I haven’t talked about, but I think it’s important to bring up because a lot of my students get hung up on that and how they have to have a degree and I think both approaches can work out. And in my case, I kind of took the middle ground where I learned some of the more important concepts and took the more important computer science classes, but I actually didn’t actually have the piece of paper to my name. I didn’t get the degree. So I did end up dropping out. It was not a deliberate, “I’m dropping out right now and I’m done,” it was a… my best friend was in a bad car crash and ended up passing away and so I took a semester off, so I missed a lot of school and clearly was not in a good place for school. So I took a semester off and then I just never went back, but it kind of like everything so far it was never a decision of I’m going to study this or I’m going to learn to code and become a developer or especially not I’m going to become a teacher or I’m going to leave my job and start my own personal business teaching people to code online. Those are never deliberate planned decisions. They kind of just came out of smaller decisions I made and me trying to follow the things I enjoy.
[00:09:50] SY: So when you are doing that ITP program where you were doing art and code, even at that point you didn’t think, “Oh, maybe I want to be developer”?
[00:09:58] CT: Well, I thought I wanted to be an artist there were some really cool projects people were making and there was a gallery in the ITP building as you walked into the lobby and there’s these amazing things that now you’d see at Burning Man or in the lobbies of like fancy tech companies, these cool interactive sculptures or stuff with early VR 3D printing. I remember this one guy who was in my class. He was a little short. So he made a pair of shoes that would sense the height of the person he was talking to and then raise him up to be exactly at their eye level. And I just thought that’s not a business idea, but I was not concerned about making money. I just thought I wish I could just have these fun little ideas and somehow make a living whether it’s in a gallery or I don’t know, talking at conferences or just somehow I would love to do that sort of stuff.
[00:10:52] SY: So when you were talking about learning how to code, after college you mentioned things like flashcards, which I think is pretty unique. Can you walk me through your study habits and what tools you use at that point?
[00:11:04] CT: When I think about it now, I think it’s kind of funny because I wouldn’t really recommend somebody do what I did. I think I had this idea coming from business school classes or some of the memorization heavy courses I took in college. I kind of applied what I knew at that time to learning how to code and I drove myself crazy trying to memorize everything. I mean, I would make flashcards with like algorithm questions and challenges, like make this, implement this reversing a string or something like that, reverse a string in place, and then I would try and visualize the solution without writing it down. I didn’t understand that it didn’t matter if you memorize everything and you knew it off the top of your head. You don’t need to be a living encyclopedia of programming. I just thought you did. I thought it was like AP Euro or a history class where you need to be an encyclopedia because you have to write a paper and you can’t reference the book. You just have to know it all. And so now when students ask me that, sort of these questions or when I’m teaching in person or online, I really try and emphasize that but it’s hard because if somebody had told me back then, “You don’t need to memorize that, don’t worry just focus on the concepts, you can Google things,” I mean, I might have believed them in their circumstances, but I probably would have thought, “Yeah, it’s easy to say that when you have a job at Google or when you’re like super high paid.” And I try and make that clear and it’s not that you don’t need to know how to code, but there’s a difference between being a good developer and being a referenced sheet or a flashcard master.
[00:12:35] SY: I am with you. I did the exact same thing and I feel so validated in the story because I’ve never met anyone who did the same thing I did. But when I first learned to code, I approached it like I did any of my regular schoolwork. I had flashcards. I took handwritten notes where I tried to memorize the different code solutions and I just had no idea how I was supposed to study this thing. And so I did the same thing. I was like, “Well, I’m just going to use the tools that have worked for me so far.” And oh man, they did not work when it comes to learning how to code.
[00:13:06] CS: Definitely. And only now do I realize, well not right now, but with hindsight do I realized how much stress I added into my life by doing that and approaching it that way. So I would get frustrated and feel like I wasn’t making progress and that’s because I actually wasn’t. I was making progress in the wrong thing. I was learning to memorize things, but I wasn’t putting the pieces together.
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[00:14:57] SY I think this question of strategy is really interesting because there are so many different ways to learn not just code but learn anything. We can use books, videos, go to in-person courses. There’s just so many different options that we have. So as a student, how do you decide how to learn?
[00:15:15] CS: You know when I started online, well, when I first started, I didn’t have any choice. There weren’t YouTube videos on programming. There weren’t things in the browser where you could learn to code, at least not that were popular. So I got books and it didn’t really work for me, but I felt like, “All right, this is the way to do it. I can’t take a course on this in high school. This is it.” There’s no TV show or movie to explain it. So what else is there? So then when I was really focusing on learning in college, there were really just a couple things online. It was Khan Academy, which early on didn’t even have programming as far as I can remember. It was more math, I think, and then there was Udacity, which was just starting out and there was Codecademy. And Codecademy, which I thought was “Code Academy” for like the first five years of using it.
[00:16:02] SY: Same.
[00:17:47] SY: So you have online courses at Udemy. How did you get started making those?
[00:17:54] CS: Another somewhat accidental thing. I mean, it was deliberate that I made the course. I didn’t upload it in my sleep.
[00:18:00] SY: Yeah, I was going to say.
[00:19:35] SY: So when I think about building an online course, it feels like such a big project. I wouldn’t even know where to start. How do you go about building your online curriculum?
[00:19:46] CS: It can be very overwhelming especially for the larger courses and one of the things with Udemy that is sometimes frustrating to me is because it’s open and because most courses sell for the exact same price, I don’t know if everybody knows how Udemy works, but all courses have a list price and generally people only buy them when they go on sale and that’s somewhere between 10 to 30 dollars where every course on the site is the same price. And so what that means is you’re competing not on price, you’re competing more on the duration of the course, the number of students, the number of reviews, and in general, that means that a lot of courses end up being very long because instructors, myself included, I’ve done this, if you’re teaching one topic and there’s an existing course on the same topic and it also covers five other topics, you’re going to cover those topics too because students won’t want to buy it. If they’re comparing courses and they’re both React courses, but yours is half as long if it’s the same price, a lot of students are going to want the larger course that covers more things. So when I’m making courses, that is one of the most frustrating things that I encounter is this tension between what is, in my opinion, what’s best for our students? In educational experience, what’s the best order to teach things? What should go into an actual course? And then that balances out with, what is going to succeed on the platform based off of the current market and in the marketplace and the courses that are there? And I’m not trying to drag Udemy through the dirt or anything because they’re an amazing platform. However, there are things that do frustrate me coming from a background of basically controlling the classroom, teaching in the way that I think is best that is going to address as many students as possible and their learning styles and then you go to just pure video on these long courses. It’s hard and sometimes I feel like, be very transparent, sometimes I feel like I’m not actually giving students the best experience for every type of student. Honestly, I talked about this with my students, “Video is not the best way for me to learn, at least not pure video.” I like videos, but I get frustrated if I’m trying to learn something new or I’m trying to learn TypeScript or Vue. I have to watch videos at least sped up.
[00:22:03] SY: Yeah.
[00:22:03] CS: Or what I prefer is text and I’ll jump through the text, I’ll find the code that I’m looking for and then maybe if I get stuck or I need an explanation on something, then I’ll go to the video. But on Udemy, that’s not really supported. It’s pretty much all video content. So I’m working on stuff now where it’s one to one ratio, every video has an accompanying text file, a handout that sort of made and slides in code so that people can read or they can watch and it’s supposed to be a lot more hopefully suitable to different learning styles and needs.
[00:22:34] SY: So what would you say makes a good course? So the first thing I would say is a good course is not going to be made for one type of student or one archetype of a learner. So it’s not going to be purely “watch me do this” the entire time because some people might learn well that way, but there’s a lot of people who obviously needs to get their own chance to practice or I think one of the more important things is aside from chances to practice things just breaking it up. I see a lot of courses online that have videos that are like an hour and a half where they just do one app from start to finish and then the next video is 45 minutes and then half an hour and then two hours. So when I look at courses for myself, I mean I think about them generally in terms of what I want, how I know I learn best. But when I think of course is in general and when I recommend them to people, I’m always looking to see, “Has this person actually put effort into teaching this rather than effort into marketing it?” Which is always that’s a plus two, but you see a lot of people who have an amazing landing page for a course or even some of these big platforms. They spend so much money making it look great and placing ads and making YouTube videos to promote it, but then the content is some person sort of who doesn’t really sound like they’re excited to be there. They’re talking into a microphone and it doesn’t feel planned or thought out. It doesn’t feel like there’s an experience for student. It’s just a passive “sit here and watch this” and that drives me insane because people who do that, I mean, they’re doing what they think is best, but it’s indicative of an attitude that I think is pretty prevalent around teaching, which is I know this stuff. So I’m just going to teach it and it’ll be fine. Like, you know, I’m an expert so I’ll teach. And that approach, it just rarely, rarely works. And I think for a course to be good really requires planning and effort and knowledge of how to teach and teaching online is different than teaching in person but both have some pretty significant similarities where there’s just a lot of things over the years, whether it’s not making incredibly long videos, putting in exercises, organizing your course, where do you start, how do you account for students who already know the first 10% of your content, or what about students who are on a Mac versus a PC, like simple things that I see a lot of courses just gloss over or they assume everybody is a complete beginner. But sometimes I have students who know the basics of a topic, they want to get to the advanced stuff. So I try not to make all courses entirely linear where we work on one project the entire time because then you can’t jump in.
[00:25:16] SY: You kind of walk in.
[00:25:18] CS: Yeah, but I want to have students work on something large too because there’s value and not just doing tiny one-off projects but in working on something that’s larger and more difficult. So then how do you fit that in while accounting for people who already know the basics and they don’t want to waste their time?
[00:25:34] SY: So as a student, how do I know it’s going to be good content? Especially before I pay for that content, right? Before I go ahead and spend my money and spend my time on a particular course. Are there clues, are there different ways I can assess whether or not this is going to be, number one, quality content, but also number two, if it’s good content for me?
[00:27:23] SY: Yeah.
[00:27:24] CS: And so when I see courses that just don’t even mention exercises or activities, they just focus on, “Here’s what I teach and here’s the things you’ll learn as far as topics.” The first thing to me is, “Okay, if this person didn’t even bother to mention exercises or they didn’t put them in in the first place, this is probably not going to be the best experience,” unless it’s a very short course, you know, I mean if it’s an hour course or something. But even when I put YouTube videos out and I try and include a couple of really short things where I say, “You know, pause the video for 10 seconds and what’s the answer to this or where’s the typos?” Or things like that where it just makes it slightly more interactive. I would also look at how the, whatever the topic is, how it’s broken up. If somebody can’t really put time into break it up to think about it in a logical way of modules or sections or chunks or just anything, I think that probably shows that they aren’t really having the student in mind while they’re creating the course. They’re just like flowing out of their own brain onto a page and then making a course out of that. It’s important to just put yourself in the shoes of a student. For me, it’s a little bit easier because I’m not a 20-year veteran developer who learned coming through a computer science master’s program or something and then there’s also online reviews. I have mixed feelings about this because I think external reviews can be incredibly helpful, reading reviews that people write on a blog post or in a YouTube video can be great, but a lot of these platforms and places like marketplaces like Udemy, for example, the reviews to me are never that meaningful because it will be like 10 minutes into a course and they ask a student to write a review or rate how things are going so far. So everybody clicks five stars or four stars because they’re not far in unless it’s just a horrendous course in the very first hour. They’re probably not going to give meaningful feedback So I looked online and it’s the same thing for bootcamps. If students are looking for bootcamps, I always look on different websites, course report, things like that where you can read student reviews and actually see the good and the bad that you’re not going to see otherwise.
[00:29:47] SY: Coming up next, Colt talks about some of the common mistakes students make while they first learn to code, particularly through video courses after this.
[00:31:40] SY: You can find it wherever you get your podcast and make sure to check out the show at redhat.com/commandline.
[00:31:51] So for folks who decide to take an online course, whether it’s on Udemy or any other platform, what can they do to make the most of that experience?
[00:32:01] CS: Well, the first thing that I see a lot of students do that makes their lives difficult and miserable, I think people charged through content because you see the whole thing. They take a course and they see the entire thing laid out ahead of them and in their mind, they just need to get through it and they just have to get to the end because they can see the end versus if you took 30 hours of lecture and you split that up into a traditional college, two hours a week or something like that, I mean that’s a whole semester and people online for some reason, it’s not for some reason, I understand but people look at it and they think, “All right, this is going to be like two weeks. And if I struggle with this, then something’s wrong with me,” and I see that all the time. People will say, “Hey, I bought this course last week. I’m halfway through, but I couldn’t get through this last exercise. Is something wrong with me or what should I do?” And I inevitably end up writing and usually I record a video or I try and put reminders throughout the course to say, “If you were learning this for the very first time and this was in an in-person bootcamp where I was teaching this material, we would have passed two weeks right now and then we’re now at the four weeks’ mark, here’s the six weeks,” just to give people a general idea. In bootcamps, we withhold it. We don’t give you the whole curriculum on day one because who doesn’t want to just go right to the end and try and do the cool stuff. You have to go through the basics. And in an online environment, that is tough. It’s really tough to convince someone. Yes, I know you want to learn this fun, exciting technology and make visual interesting things, but we’re starting with the terminal we’re starting with Git. And definitely, unless you have experience with the technology, don’t skip around and 90% of this is on the instructor to make something where you’re telling students what to expect, like I said how long this should take, where you should be at a certain point, putting in exercises, chances to practice, just trying to give the best experience to students possible. But then part of it is on the student, right? It’s part of learning to code, you’re going to have rough spots, you’re going to have moments of doubt and of not feeling great about things, and online, it’s so easy to just crumple and go back to watching something on TV or going on Reddit or YouTube versus in person, you’re paying for somebody to be there to make sure you don’t do that. And so I’m always trying to figure out, “Okay, how can I make it easier? Because if somebody can get through the first two or three hours, their odds of finishing or at least of getting to full stack level or to understanding their first programming language or whatever it is, to building their first app, that is going to increase significantly if they can make it for the first couple hours, make it past the installation hurdles, make it past the terminal and Git stuff that’s just not that fun or it doesn’t seem that useful. And it’s harder to some extent online but in person my goal and the things that I assess at the end are actually to test if students are able to pick something else up that we don’t teach and I think that shows like that is actually the goal. The goal is not for somebody to become a React master and stay with React for their whole life. So for students who are trying to learn, think, you just got to pick something. I mean you do research, don’t just pick something blindly. But after you pick, stop looking around and reading every blog post that talks about what you should be learning or watching every YouTube video, every person who has a voice. It’s not that they’re all wrong, it’s just that they’re all going to conflict in some way or another and that paralysis can kill a lot of people’s energy. It can kill their motivation and just let self-doubt creep into their mind.
[00:35:41] SY: Yeah.
[00:35:42] CS: So I just really strongly advise, you pick something, do some research, pick it, and then stick with it whatever it is until you get to the point where you have confidence to then switch over.
[00:35:57] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Colt, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:36:05] CS: All right.
[00:36:06] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:36:09] CS: Oh, geez. Probably the worst advice I’ve ever received was somebody who is in my family, but I will not name them, who told me to never go into teaching. I wanted to be a teacher when I was really young, like science teacher, biology, marine biology, something like that. And they’re coming from a place of logic, I guess. They said, “You’ll never have enough money to support your family or have a career so don’t go into teaching.” And I didn’t go into teaching for a long time until I stumbled into it because of that. So I wouldn’t say it was the worst piece of advice because it’s not like if somebody gives you advice and you just take it without considering where they’re coming from and why they’re saying that, like you think about it. So I understand why this person in my family gave me that advice, but I think if they had told me to go into teaching at the time, I probably would have done it and then who knows where I’d be now. So I guess you can’t second-guess any of that, but I think for somebody who’s interested in teaching, there’s going to be more and more careers as you move forward especially online and not just teaching programming or coding. There will be more careers where you can be a teacher and work with people and get that experience of teaching, which I really don’t think there’s anything more valuable to me. I talked about wanting to do Broadway and music, teaching in a lot of ways is a creative skill. It’s performative sometimes, it’s something where it’s very analytical, you think about it, it’s tough, and anybody who wants to go into teaching, I think they should go into it. I will not repeat the advice of my family. It just might mean you might be teaching online. You might be teaching internationally. You could be a professor still. Who knows? But I think teaching hopefully is going to evolve more as the internet sort of takes off and the whole education space, which is it continues to evolve. I think there will be more opportunities.
[00:37:59] SY: Yeah. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:38:04] CS: Well, probably from my dad. My dad is one of the wiser people I know. He has a lot of advice. You could write a book with all the things he says. But it never comes across as cheesy, but he’s kind of, as I was thinking about if I should leave my job and start teaching online and if I was crazy for doing it, my dad talked to me about how he spent his entire life working at one company, almost his entire life, and that he had many chances to leave and kind of regretted it after he’s retired. He said he regrets it all the time. And so he had a very frank conversation with me about, “You know, you’re young you can try it. You should do it. If it completely goes away as a disaster, you’re going to be okay, but you’re going to really be upset if you don’t try it five years from now and you’re just going to regret it.” I know it’s not the greatest piece of advice for everyone because for people where it doesn’t work out, like that’s the worst advice you could ever give to them is you should quit your job and start your own thing. But for me, it was like a kick in the pants I needed.
[00:39:09] SY: Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:39:12] CS: I’d say the real first real thing I made on my own was a machine to sort Skittles out of Legos and it would sort them by colors because I really liked purple Skittles. I still love purple Skittle so by far the superior flavor and purple is just an amazing color. Anybody who watches my videos because I kind of obsessively talked about purple, they might think I’m crazy for it. So I made this thing to sort the purple Skittles out using a little color sensor, which kind of basic. But when I made it, I thought it was just so amazing, but I actually didn’t have money to buy very many Skittles at the time. I wasn’t allowed to have candy in my household. So I had to have a friend buy them and then sneak them into my house, but that was like the first thing I felt proud of.
[00:39:54] SY: Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:39:58] CS: Kind of the things we talked about. The biggest thing for me would be, you do not have to know everything at once. The experts don’t know everything. It’s not about creating this massive like store or repository of knowledge in your mind becoming just a programming guru who can recite everything. It’s really about learning how to code and learning how to learn new stuff and that you’re never going to be set and your knowledge and from project to project or job to job, you’re going to be expected to learn something new or alter your skill set.
[00:40:30] SY: Well, thank you again for joining us, Colt.
[00:40:32] CS: Thank you.
[00:40:39] SY: This episode was edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, email@example.com. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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