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Articles by Josh Niederer...

Massive Open Online Courses

In the fall of 2011 there were three classes offered from Stanford University that changed the entire spirit of higher education. These three classes “Machine Learning”, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence”, and “Introduction to Databases” were not only offered for free, but they were open to everyone on the planet [1]. By lowering the barrier to entry for higher education, these classes allowed anyone who wanted to learn the opportunity to do so. The demand for these classes was amazing and many professors saw the potential open online courses, leading to the creation of several startups created around the idea of offering high quality educational material online for free.

The idea that such high quality classes are taught online and are available to anyone is mind blowing. This is one of the things that shows how positively the internet can influence the world. Here are a few of the sites that offer massive open online courses (MOOC) and brief selection of the courses they’re offering.


Coursera offers classes that mimic traditional college classes and has the most eclectic mix of classes available online. There are strict deadlines for homework sets and each week the professor uploads numerous lectures. One of great things about Coursera is the forum system. Each class has a forum where you and your classmates can go to ask and answer questions about the course. Often the professors will post in the forums making for a high quality destination for discussing in depth concepts about the course. Princeton, Stanford, The University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University have all offered classes at Coursera.

Some upcoming classes being offered from Coursera include: 9/11 and Its Aftermath – Part I, Analysis of Algorithms, Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, and An Introduction to Operations Management (I’ve already signed up, join me!).


Udacity was started by Sebastian Thrun, one half of the professors of original “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence”offered from Stanford. Udacity offers many go at your own pace classes taught by world renowned professors. One of the can’t miss classes (Web Development) that I highly recommend is not actually taught by a university professor, but by Steve Huffman, one of the creators of Reddit. The Web Development class benefitted greatly from having an instructor who used the concepts he was teaching professionally. As for the structure of the courses, they usually consist of videos that are accompanied by quizzes throughout and homework sets for each section of the class. The majority of the classes I’ve audited at Udacity have been top notch.


edX is a joint effort created by Harvard and MIT. Since it started, UC-Berkeley, The University of Texas, Georgetown, and many more have also joined in to offer courses on edX. I’ve personally never taken a class from one this site, but it looks to be structured a lot like Coursera. Some classes that are currently running or are scheduled for edx include: Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, The Ancient Greek Hero, and Innovation and Commercialization.

Since MOOCs have exploded, I’ve signed up for at least 20 classes. Even though I’ve only finished a small fraction of the classes (three of them to be exact), I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons. Consider the recent Startup Engineering class offered at Coursera. This class was a survey of how to start a technology company and focused on the tools and effort needed to be successful. This guidance is priceless and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to be exposed to such ideas all in one convenient place.

So why should you take an MOOC? In short, to learn! Since the classes are free, there is no reason not to sign up for a class if you see one that interests you. With the selection that is out there, especially if you’re interested in picking up some valuable Computer Science knowledge, you’ll find so many classes that are interesting that you won’t have time to keep up with all of them. Happy learning to everyone!

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Published on 9/12/2013 4:01:00 PM

Getting Started

Over the years, I’ve found that the hardest step in any endeavor is getting started. Even if it’s something I want to do, the energy and effort required to get started far exceeds what it takes to continue forward. Take for instance me building this website. is something that I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember but months went by and nothing materialized. Then, one day I finally put forth the effort to get started, simply creating the project within source control, and in just a few weeks I had a test site live on the web. It’s not that I’m lazy or even procrastinating, it’s that getting started on anything is hard. I’m going to share with you some tips that have helped me get started and try to distill just why it’s so hard to take the initial step.

  1. Set a Deadline

    For whatever reason, some people thrive when working under the gun. I remember in school, we’d often start a difficult homework set the night before it was due then end up spending the entire night in the computer lab. All of that energy expended in order to solve the problem only minutes before the homework was due. The deadline created a sense of urgency that temporarily raised creativity levels because there was no other choice but to move forward. Deadlines are set because they are effective in creating progress. Sure, deadlines are sometimes made to be broken, but by setting on a concrete time by which to start working on your project, you’ve given your mind a goal to aim for. Sometimes this is all it takes.

  2. No X Until I Do Y

    This trick feeds off of our self-control which can be an amazing catalyst for kick starting any task. Let’s say you love Dr. Pepper, but you’re struggling to put pen to paper on an article you've been meaning to write. Using this tool, you’d give yourself an ultimatum, “No Dr. Pepper until I write 500 words of my article.” Then 30 minutes and 500 words later, you’re welcome to the Dr. Pepper you've been craving. The soda became a reward for the hard work of writing the article. This trick can work with tasks of any size, but it often works best for completing small tasks for little rewards. The minor work items accomplish just enough to hook you into your work.

  3. Create and Listen to a "Getting Things Done" Soundtrack

    This largely depends on your mood and how you prefer to work, but sometimes listening to music or some other ambiance is helpful in getting me started. The best sounds I’ve found for getting started is through using coffitivity. It’s a website that provides the ambiance of being at a coffee shop through my speakers or headphones without actually going there. Research has shown that right noise can even help raise creativity levels. Coffitivity can be paired with your favorite music to create the perfect soundtrack for really focusing on what needs to get done. For music, I like to use Rdio but Spotify, Pandora, and 8tracks are all great.

  4. Just Start

    It’s not glorious, it’s not romantic either, but just starting is probably the most effective method for getting started. As soon as the idea strikes, act on it. Sure, it might be daunting to start working, but there’s no reason not to see what you can deliver. Most things in life can be achieved by merely showing up, so why not get started and create something? I’m not saying that just by starting working on something you’ll be able to release a product, but getting the ball rolling gets you moving in the right direction. This forward progress of starting builds momentum and, in turn, the momentum grows into a completed work over a long enough period of time.

Those are some tips that have worked for me in the past. With the right mindset, or with enough motivation, it gets easier to start working on anything. True, there are days that are harder than others, but I know that if I put in 15 minutes of focused effort, enough to get me started, nothing is going to pull me away until I finish the piece that I’ve decided to work on. Just by getting started, I’ve already won the biggest battle I’m going to have to face.

So why is getting started hard? A lot of it comes down to the sheer number of things that are out there fighting for our attention. Chief among the things that keep us from getting started are internet time sinks like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. Think about this, if you start the TV series Lost on Netflix with the intention to complete it, you’ve just signed away almost 87 hours that could have been spent learning or creating. Personally, I’m guilty of watching all 87 hours of Lost on Netflix, once I started watching them, I couldn’t stop. I could have probably started three or four blogs in that time! By cutting down on consumption of unproductive habits, the problem of getting started becomes markedly easier.

Published on 8/29/2013 1:20:00 AM

Welcome to

Welcome to! This is the first post on the site and I’m very excited about what’s to come. The plan is that I will write at least one article a week about the things I’m learning about or working on during that week. Typically, the topics I’ll be learning about will be related to programming and computer science. The projects I will be working on will lean towards web applications but anything is possible. Since the software industry changes so rapidly, it’s impossible to predict what technologies I’ll be excited about a year from now. I also plan to write about life hacks that I've found useful.

About the Site

The site is hosted on the Microsoft Azure cloud and built using the Asp.Net MVC 4 framework. It’s been a joy so far to use Azure for hosting, and also learning Microsoft’s MVC framework. The commenting system is provided by Disqus, which has become quite popular on the web. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts on any of my articles and I look forward to talking to you. If you don’t have a Disqus account, it’s easy to create one using your existing Facebook or Twitter account.

Thanks to everyone who looked at an early version of the site!

Published on 8/22/2013 2:00:20 PM