An acquaintance recently asked me how one would go about getting into programming. My first thought for a recommendation was NOT "go to college," though I suppose that is a reasonable and logical option. I went to college for electrical and computer engineering back in 1978 and while I enjoyed the experience, what I learned has nothing to do with what I know about programming today. I have a young man working for me who went to college more recently, but the technology he uses today didn't exist when he was in school just a few years ago. Like me he is, effectively, self-taught.
So what advice did I give to my acquaintance? Start with Microsoft Access and pick up a good book. Actually, I happened to have the new Wrox book "Microsoft Access 2010 24-Hour Trainer" on my desk, so I offered to pass it on to him. Before I did, however, I gave it a look myself and what follows is my evaluation of the book as a training tool for Microsoft Access.
Why Train From Books?
First I want to defend books. That young man who works for me has virtually no tech books on his desk. He's from a different generation that finds it convenient and economical to learn online. He swears by this method and I have to admit it works for him.
On the shelf by my desk there are 21 tech books on various subjects. I used to read two books a month. Now it seems like it takes me two months to finish a book. Even so, I train exclusively from books. Never could get into online training or reading thousands of pages from a computer screen. Closest I've gotten to that is downloading tech books to my Kindle. (I've got 3 digital books on my Kindle right now too.)
The point is that choosing to do training from a physical, paper-bound book is a matter of personal preference. I like the feel of the book in my hand. I like propping it open and typing long snippets of code. I like having a sense of how far I've come by seeing pages turn and multiply. I think books still have their place, especially in the field of programming, and I encourage their use.
The 24-Hour Trainer
The Wrox book under discussion is titled "Microsoft Access 2010 24-Hour Trainer" by Geoffrey L. Griffith and Truitt L. Bradly. It lists for $44.99, which is a little less than a typical tech book but it weighs in at only 552 pages. However, the book includes a DVD with video lessons which could be invaluable for someone just getting started. All things considered, I think the price is reasonable and customary.
The topics covered are presented in logical order and could be summarized as follows:
· Installing Access and Getting Started
· Understanding Access and the UI
· Creating and using
· Introduction to Visual Basic for Applications
· Customizations, etc.
The authors identify their target audience as "beginner- to intermediate- level users," and I would agree with that assessment. The code in the chapters may be downloaded from the Wrox site. If you are an instructor, you may request an evaluation copy of this title.
The first seven chapters, nearly 10% of the book, are dedicated to installing and getting comfortable in the new Microsoft Access 2010 user interface. I think this is a good idea, even for experienced users who are only familiar with Access 2003 and before. The user experience has changed so much since the early versions, it's nice to have a solid introduction to Access 2010.
Next come a dozen chapters focusing on Access tables. The chapters are short and do not attempt to throw too much at the reader. There is a section at the end called Step by Step where the path to completing the lesson is clearly laid out. Database theory and normalization are mentioned but only to the degree that someone new to Access and databases requires. There will be plenty of time to learn those skills later. For now, the objective should be getting comfortable with the development tool. That's what this book focuses on.
The sections for teaching readers how to create queries, forms and reports included sufficient topics to give a good overall understanding of what is possible with Access. Again the lessons were short enough to make them easy to get through yet they contain enough focused material to be useful.
Next come instructions on using macros and VBA code. Macros have been elevated in Access 2010, and this still takes some getting used to for those of us accustomed to writing VBA code. One thing I really liked is that the author introduces the Immediate Window on the second page of the VBA chapter. To me that is a touchstone of sorts that indicates the authors of an Access tech book know what they're talking about. All in all, the VBA chapters were very good and even include discussion of building and using Class Modules.
The final chapters are on more advanced topics like using DAO, customizing the UI and the Access Runtime. The only appendix in this book explains what's on the accompanying DVD.
Using the DVD
The training DVD that comes with the book is surprisingly useful. I've seen a number of these DVDs over the years and seldom felt inclined to spend time watching them. As a test, I chose to watch the video for Lesson 60, Customizing the Ribbon, because this was an unfamiliar topic to me. I ended up viewing it start to finish and here are the pros and cons I observed:
· The right amount of material was considered
· Step by step instructions were complete and easy to follow
· The pace was pleasingly quick (not a lot of unnecessary babbling)
· Seeing it performed really did prepare me to duplicate the process myself
· The speaker has an annoying habit of saying, "Now I'm going to ..."
· Video files are .MOV format and must be played in the training app supplied
It's worth mentioning that the code files that are available at the Wrox site also happen to be included on the DVD. Simply navigate to the directories on the DVD and click on the Sample Files folder. Inside is a zip file containing the code files for all the lessons.
Training Next Steps
The back jacket of this book encourages the reader with the command: "Don't just learn—do!" If creating that kind of tool was the objective of the authors, they succeeded. I'm ready to pass this book on to my acquaintance who wants to teach himself Microsoft Access and I'm confident this is an excellent starting point for him.
The next step is to put these skills to use. Doesn't matter what the project is or whether or not it ever goes into "production." Build a database for your DVD collection or to track your workout at the gym. The authors of the book mention this as well, but I don't think it can be overstated. Build stuff!
Expanding your technical horizons is an ongoing process. For the beginner with Access, it will mean more detailed tech books. Eventually you'll want to learn about SQL Server. Oddly enough, it's not a huge step to move from Microsoft Access to Microsoft MVC web development. There will be more tech books and many hours of playing with code. It's hard work being a self-taught programmer.