Code School Review: The Magical Marvels of MongoDB gets you started with shell syntax

Code School’s got a new database path! Woohoo!

I was invited by Code School (and comped with a free month subscription) to try out The Magical Marvels of MongoDB. I’m not that experienced with backend data stuff, so I was excited to fill in a bit of my knowledge gap with this intro-level course.

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About Code School

As some readers already know, I’m a big fan of CodeSchool.com. Code School is great for both curious newbies (“is coding something I want to do with my life?!”) and for more experienced programmers who want to get a feel for a new technology without going through the hassle of setting up an environment, a new project, and then wading through a pile of documentation.

They’ve grown a lot in just the last year, so check ’em out! Especially if it’s been a while since you last visited.

About the MongoDB course

What you need: a modern web browser – and that’s it. I used Google Chrome and experienced no technical difficulties. All the videos and interactive lessons take place in-browser.

Time spent from start to finish: about 4 hours. The course is divided into 5 sections, with about 10 minutes of video instruction per section.

Topics covered: inserting and finding database documents, transforming record data, filtering documents by various search criteria, embedding vs. referencing, and aggregation.

Overall instruction quality: Excellent. The class’s instructor, Joel Taylor, speaks clearly and concisely. On-screen text is clear and readable, and the graphic design is pleasing and modern.

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Wins

The course is largely a tour through the syntax used in MongoDB’s shell. The course does a great job of showing the student how MongoDB structures its data and how to perform simple operations like adding, removing, and updating parts of database objects as well as filtering results by more sophisticated criteria.

The error checking is pretty good – it caught most of my bonehead mistakes and the hints were relative to the mistakes made. Occasionally, I ran into a problem where the error checking couldn’t tell me what I had done wrong, such as omitting the “$” before “$lte” in one case, but I never stayed stuck for long.

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I liked how the course never gave me ready-made code to work from. I have a vague memory of an earlier Code School course giving me existing code to add to, and I feel like I got a lot more value out of the repetition of typing the same “boilerplate” (ie: db.wands.find() ) each time I started another section.

The pacing was good: I especially enjoyed the multiple-choice format to section 4, which I felt deepened my understanding of embedding vs. referencing and also was a nice change of scenery from the usual coding challenges. Lessons never dragged on too long, so I could squeeze them in between other things I had going on.

I love the in-lesson shortcuts to the relevant video sections, the reviewable slides, and the suggestion near the end of Lesson 2 to look in Mongo’s own documentation for help with $mul. Since I usually work with documentation up on my second monitor, I appreciate the validation. :P

Shortcomings

As with many CodeSchool courses, the larger context is probably the thing I miss the most in this course. I loved the intro at the beginning: the conceptual rundown (“NoSQL”, collections, the diagrams), but I didn’t get a great feel for the whys of MongoDB. Why would a project be better served by MongoDB over MySQL? What are the advantages of MongoDB and tradeoffs?

The course is a great way to try out the technology, but for me, finding the syntax of a language or technology is usually the simplest step (thanks to documentation). My personal learning curve tends to steepen as a result of the quirks, the gotchas, and the… mindset (for lack of a better word) of a technology.

And, of course, the usual caveat applies: practicing a language or technology in the browser is a lot like reading foreign language words out of a book vs. attempting a conversation with a native speaker. If you were to actually make a project using MongoDB, you’d find there’s quite a bit of setup, interfacing with the rest of your project, and debugging to get through first. CodeSchool doesn’t cover this aspect of the experience, but it’s a pretty big part of using any new technology.

But hey, these aren’t really problems with the course, just things that an intro-level online class can’t be expected to deliver on in the first place. The fact that I’m missing them is probably a testament to Code School’s ability to get me interested enough in the technology to want to know more.

The bottom line?

Great course! I finished it and wanted more. My favorite parts were the sections that went beyond syntax and into best practices, like the embedding vs. referencing parts. Don’t expect to be able to speak fluently about MongoDB after just this one class, it’s too small in scope for that.

But I’m wishing there was more, so – good work, Code School!

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