With the rise of free online courses, it’s becoming much easier to learn programming. Over time, more people will learn programming through those courses. Overall, this is a good thing. It means I’ll be able to buy a singing fridge sooner. However, beware of the dragons.

Big IT companies are suspiciously keen to provide free online software courses. Take bigdatauniversity.com for example. It’s a very slick site with lots of content. However, that content is tainted by the site’s ulterior motive: it doesn’t just want you to learn big data, it wants you to learn how IBM is the company to use if you’re working with big data.

So, instead of explaining abstract big data concepts, some of the material descends into the corporate agenda: how big data makes corporations’ wheels turn 15 % faster, improves customer turnover by a factor of 3, and how IBM could’ve gotten you all of that yesterday - for a small fee.

This agenda ties into the other dragon of free online courses: the fact that most tend to ignore the installation, deployment, and integration of software. With most courses, you’ll never install an interpreter, set environment variables, open a port on your firewall, deal with that incorrectly-versioned dependency a library uses, or integrate your code against a 20-year-old (but working and stable) x-ray diffraction library written in FORTRAN.

Not learning those skills could be a big loss for new developers: the murky edges of cross-language, cross-process, and cross-application integration is where a decent amount of magic tends to happen. Think about how hopeless most web frameworks would be if they could only use databases, web servers, and admin systems written in their core language.

Big IT companies make alot of money capitalizing on developers not knowing that stuff. With the rise of powerful, reusable, and composable open-source libraries, the big boys have evolved from implementing frameworks and application architectures themselves to integrating open-source software stacks. They’re making a killing selling web frontends for Hadoop, GUIs for rsync, and lipstick for Wordpress.

Companies embedding themselves in education or “borrowing” from the open-source movement isn’t a new thing: Microsoft has been handing out free copies of Visual Studio to Universities and repackaging platform-independent languages since forever. It’s also not a bad thing: it can be fun to write an application in C# with Visual Studio. However, I’d highly recommend that new developers try to invest some time into learning integration and deployment. Who knows, one day you might end up making billions selling a haskell-based data analytics stack.