As a reviewer…

One of the other things I spent time on last year was acting as a reviewer for a book that was recently published by Packt Publishing. I was approached by Packt early in the summer to volunteer to help review a work in progress called Enterprise Application Development with Spring and ExtJs. I was skeptical at first, so I did some research. Easily the majority of blog and message board content on the subject of being an unpaid reviewer, especially for Packt for some reason, was negative. This was an obvious red flag. However, I read a fair number of technical books, and I do enjoy writing, so I thought it might be an interesting thing to participate in, especially if I ever wanted to be an author in the future. In the back of my head I knew that if it became too much, especially given that it was volunteer time, that I could simply back out. I agreed to participate and off we went.

Here’s the basic deal: you get a couple of chapters to go through every 4 days. They give you a questionnaire to fill out with your comments. The publisher encourages feedback on many different levels – sentence structure and grammar, chapter-level organization and content, even the order of the chapters and higher level things. All fairly reasonable.

In all, I didn’t have a problem with the process. It was very interesting to see a book as a work in progress. By the time I was involved, it was clear the tools, table of contents and topics covered were fairly well set. Obviously, getting paid would have been nice, but I knew I was volunteering (well, I was getting a free ebook). I also knew the subject matter, which made things much easier. I was able to bypass the learning part of reading the book and focus on the content, how it was organized, and what type of an experience a reader would have with it.

On the book itself – it’s not bad, it’s just presented in a way that would be hard for me, personally, to digest. For a topic like this, I like to start with a clear goal – working through a project to learn a new technology. Additionally, I prefer consuming new information in small pieces and repeating that consumption, reinforcing foundational concepts while slowly increasing complexity, all the while verifying my progress with test cases. Some examples of books written in this fashion that I enjoyed: Agile Web Development with Rails, Grails in Action. This book is presented in a very waterfall-ish way in the name of Enterprise Application Development, and I think this is where I had the hardest time. Developing apps in the Enterprise does not require big up-front design or a waterfall development methodology. The reader is consuming huge new pieces of knowledge in each chapter, and we’re not doing anything to verify them as we go. The book has the reader waiting for a few layers of the application to be developed before performing integration tests. My concern here is that a reader will be trying to troubleshoot something they wrote two chapters ago, and that they just learned within the last few hours. That sounds frustrating!

Side note: I wasn’t a huge fan of the tools used in the book either. I feel like they are complex enough to be a distraction, that there are more modern/simple choices (Ivy, Eclipse, Spring Data) that would have possibly let the reader focus more on learning Spring and ExtJs.

In short, it was a great experience, I’m glad I did it, and I learned a lot, but if I ever do this again, I’ll make sure my own views and development/learning style are in better alignment with the author’s goals for the book.

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