Following on from my previous review of the Google Tech Dev Guide, I have completed another course related to software engineering and am posting a review in the hopes it will help others direct their own learning journey. This time, it is a course by a fellow RSE at the University of Bristol, Matt Williams. It came to me by recommendation on the UK RSE Slack. You can find the course material online:

Learning objectives

To round out my proficiency in good (not necessarily best) practices of software engineering. I would like practical steps and techniques I can apply to my daily work to improve the code that I write.

Brief summary of the course

The course is based on the use of Python, and the value of attempting to complete it in another language is dubious. But the topics covered have applicability outside of this particular language. It is broken into three main teaching sections, accessible through a web browser:

  1. Documentation (using Sphinx)
  2. Licensing
  3. Testing (using pytest)

Practical examples are employed throughout to introduce and explain the topics, and then related exercises are given to help the student put this into practice. At the end, a series of exercises tie all of the learning sections together and reinforce them nicely.

How would you evaluate you skill level in the material covered by the course?

Novice to Intermediate. I have fairly good awareness of documentation, licensing, and testing, but my practical experience is usually working within larger projects where the tool and standards have already been decided. I have less experience starting from scratch and getting the tools and practices set up in a project.

Was the course too easy or too difficult?

For an intermediate level software engineer, this course will be quite straightforward, and most would probably say easy. For a novice, this course is spot on for difficulty, and I think that is probably the objective of the course author anyway. Being somewhere between those levels, I found this course easy at times but exactly appropriate at others. Personally, I would have liked the course to reach just a bit further in terms of seeing how these practices can be fully exploited and automated in a proper software project. However, there are resources at the end of the course that likely do just this.

Was the course useful to you?

Notwithstanding my comments above, this course was very useful to me. For documentation, it has made me realise that I need to get serious about sticking to a consistent documentation standard in whatever language I use, and it gave me a very nice introduction to how to get Sphinx up and running. I had also usually hacked my way through reStructuredText, and this gave me the opportunity to get more seriously acquainted. The licensing section had no practical work attached to it, and I did have awareness of most of what it said. However, now I know exactly where to go if I am trying to decide what license I need for a project:

Lastly, and certainly not least, the sections on testing were undoubtedly the most useful to me. It fully convinced me that pytest is a really powerful yet intuitive tool for testing in Python. It will certainly be my default moving forward as opposed to unittest which feels really clunky in comparison. Getting some experience, even toy examples, of Test-Driven Development (TDD) and how easy it can be makes a convincing case for its use more broadly. In fact, I actually found a minor inconsistency in the exercises related to the word_count() routine, and used the tests to update the function so that it produces results that match grep’s use of word boundaries instead of the simpler implementation supplied in the course.

What did you like?

The layout and teaching style is impeccable, and it is obvious a great deal of thought and care has gone into it. Getting small, manageable bits of information and then putting them into practice is a great way to learn, especially content like this.

I particularly liked the final exercises since they really tied the entire course together, reinforcing the points and techniques made earlier.

What did you not like?

It is very hard to pick any bone with this course. My one criticism would be that it doesn’t mention where testing data and parameters should come from. For the initial toy examples, it is easy to verify what the correct answers should be, but once one gets to the word count problems, it is impractical to do manually, and this is a better reflection of what happens in the real world. I have raised an issue about this on the course repository, and it seems like it will be addressed shortly.

How would you rate the course overall?

A solid 8.5/10

Other comments?

This course certainly aligned with my learning objectives and has given me practical techniques to apply in my daily work. I see it being of great value to others on the spectrum of novice to intermediate in software engineering proficiency.