Kathy Sierra — Programming Training Eminence

By Florencia Grattarola

Kathy Sierra by @SebastianNavasF

Passionate about learning theory Kathy Sierra has dedicated part of her life to make learners’ lives easier by transforming the way of teaching. Author of the Head First programming book series, trainer, and former blogger, Kathy stands out in our list for her innovative contributions in computer science education.

Sierra has a background as a game designer (for Virgin, MGM, and Amblin Entertainment) and teacher of New Media Interactivity at the University of California Entertainment Studies. Also, she worked as a Master Trainer at Sun Microsystems (the company that created the Java programming language), teaching others how to teach Java and developing certification exams, such as the Sun Certified Web Component Developer. Furthermore, she founded one of the world’s largest Java community websites javaranch.com and was the author of the once popular blog Creating Passionate Users. Over the years, she has dedicated her life to transfer knowledge and inspire others to teach.

Kathy is the creator together with Bert Bates of the popular Head First series of introductory instructional books published by O’Reilly Media. The goal of the books is to focus in metacognition, most especially in how the brain works and how to exploit it for better learning and memory.

The space between the lessons and practice is where the learning is made permanent.

The learning principle behind the Head First books is that “first you have to get it and then make sure you don’t forget it”. It’s not about forcing facts into your head and presenting pages of just text. Sierra’s books are based on making the message visual (putting images and words near the graphics they relate), using a personalized style (telling stories and using casual language), and getting the learner to think deeply (by motivation and engagement).

Kathy understood that learning can be frustrating at the beginning but that shouldn’t be a barrier. So, she concentrated in stimulating the apprentice’s brain by using attention-grabbing tactics, such as a thought-provoking page layout, peculiar examples, puzzles, jokes, and some other techniques. The books don’t exhaustively cover every aspect of the languages, but they certainly integrate a great way to approach the unknown.

Example Page oh Head First Java

At the present time, Kathy is more focused in product development, marketing and user experience. Inside the business of software, she has been helping large companies, small start-ups, non-profit organizations, and educators rethink their strategy to user experience. In one of her most recent books Badass: Making Users Awesome, Sierra talks about the sociological side of the product development — “how to build badass users, not just badass products”. With the premise that every experience has the potential to be transformative, she puts the target in building an approach to help the user have deeper and richer experiences instead of focusing in persuasive marketing strategies.

“Upgrade your user, not your product. Don’t build better cameras, build better photographers.”

In 2007 Kathy Sierra was a role model for women in tech, she was teaching Java at Sun Microsystems, her books were best sellers and she was flourishing on her design and coding blog posts. But all of a sudden, her public appearances were abruptly suspended, and she withdraw from online activity for several years.

Some time before that, she wrote about the “The Koolaid Point” (a threshold at which enough users become so passionate that others accuse them of drinking the koolaid), the haters or trolls of discussion forums:

You don’t really have passionate users until someone starts accusing them of “drinking the koolaid.” You might have happy users, even loyal users, but it’s the truly passionate that piss off others enough to motivate them to say something. Where there is passion, there is always anti-passion… or rather passion in the hate dimension.

It all started with receiving criticism on technical matters and ended with rape and death threats. Kathy said to have suffered doxxing, swatting, physical assault and stalking, “real-life damage”. This harassment and trolling against Sierra made her back up.

Later I learned that the first threat had nothing to do with what I actually made or said in my books, blog posts, articles, and conference presentations. The real problem — as my first harasser described — was that others were beginning to pay attention to me. He wrote as if mere exposure to my work was harming his world.

Kathy Sierra pushed back the frontiers of knowledge. Her passion for helping others learn and enjoy programming made her have such an impact in the world of computers that many of us are indebted to her. While she might have taken a distance from the public, her lasting influence lives on with every beginner that’s able to have a shot at a career in programming, thanks to her dedication and love.

From December 1st until December 24th we plan to release one article each day, highlighting the life of one of the many women that have made today’s computing industry as amazing as it is: From early compilers to computer games, from chip design to distributed systems, we will revisit the lives of these pioneers.

Each article will come with an amazing illustration by @SebastianNavasF

If you want to see these series to become a book with expanded articles and even more illustrations by Sebastián, then subscribe to our newsletter below.