Many front-end developers are self-taught, spending years building their own sites or side projects and improving their knowledge before they are able to contribute meaningfully to commercial projects. Teaching yourself by ‘hacking’ and reading web forums may seem to be the cheaper (or free) option, but in actuality learning this way can have major drawbacks. Many self-taught developers spend far more time than required to learn their craft, and end up with holes in their knowledge base that have them fall short of achieving mastery, resulting in a ceiling in their earnings potential. Spending 3 years to become average has a far higher opportunity cost than finding real training and becoming great in 12-18 months.
|Total Courses||650+ Videos, all learning tracks feature Quizzes and Code Challenges. New Video content is added weekly. Gold Subscription adds additional 200+ Videos in a variety of subject areas|
|Student Level||Beginner to Intermediate|
|Format||Video, Interactive Quizzes and Code Challenges (with Code Consoles)|
|Certification||No formal certification, although many badges help track your progress|
|Cost||Basic (Silver) Subscription is $25/month; Premium (Gold) is $49/month. With SkilledUp Discount, you can get an Annual Silver subscription for $200 (33% off) or an Annual Gold subscription for $392 (33% off)|
The Full Review
Learning providers often create a ‘formula’ of sorts that determines how they present their content to maximize learning for their audience. If their formula for teaching matches the way you learn, then you’ve found your match because then they can teach you just about anything.
Treehouse’s formula is one of the better ones we’ve seen. Learning is divided into three different mechanisms: Videos, Quizzes, and Challenges. Videos are delivered in short 3-10 minute segments, and feature engaging and easy to understand instructors. Liberal use of screen sharing, animations and overlays are used to explain concepts in the shortest time possible, with instructors also speaking directly into the camera. Videos are sequenced in a logical and chronological format. Enormous time and care has been put into each video.
Instructors are well rehearsed and easy to understand. You can tell that the scripts have been edited down to provide the best possible way to explain a concept or directions. For an extreme web novice, the courses may move a bit fast, but the majority of those using the training will find that the pace is ideal — not so slow that you are constantly fast forwarding, but not too fast that you are going to miss anything. And of course, if you are completely new to the web, you can always rewind.
In general, the training tends to first show you, then explains. This may seem repetitive, but its really the best way to grasp and retain concepts, and they have done it well. In a typical segment regarding CSS, the instructor Nick codes something himself, just explaining what he’s typing. Then he goes through the code he’s just typed and explains what it meant and what it does. After watching the video, you are given a code challenge to replicate with Nick just did. This formula — show, explain, do it yourself — is repeated elsewhere, and it works.
Quizzes are scattered in between videos to ensure that you can retain and understand key concepts. They are effective in ensuring that you are listening, and getting a perfect score (usually 3-5 questions correct) will get you a badge, keeping you motivated and allowing you to better visualize all that you have learned.
Finally, code challenges, using the Treehouse Code Challenge Engine, allow you to actually modify code within a console, and then check your code to see if it works. Challenges are best solved the way that the instructors demonstrated. That means that even if you solve a challenge, but perhaps don’t do it using best practices, you may not pass. They want to teach you the right way — not just any way. That may be frustrating for some, but it provides a good foundation of knowledge.
Depth of Content / Longevity
When it comes to back-end programming — actually creating the code that drives web applications, they have excellent introductory content in iOS and Android Programming, as well as Ruby and PHP — the most popular and growing programming languages for websites, web applications and mobile applications. Treehouse will provide the necessary background, but does not yet provide the necessary depth to get you employable.
We don’t want anyone to misunderstand us — for most people taking up web design for the first time, Treehouse is an invaluable resource that you will go back to, and use as a guide during your first 500 – 1,000 hours of programming. For most, that will take anywhere from 6 months to a few years. And for the 90% of people who stop at being a front-end coder with usable programming knowledge, this will be all you ever need.
However, as the content library stands today, those looking to become full stack (mastery of both front-end and back-end) developers will hit a ceiling. This gap could – and likely will – be closed with continued development of their library, and we’ll update this review as Treehouse continues to grow. Johnson told us that their goal is that someone can “stay with Treehouse forever, with enough content added to make it practical indefinitely. The teachers are going to keep teaching, and growing the library.”
It’s also worth mentioning that unlike front-end developers who must always optimize for the client (the user’s web browser), back-end developers are more likely to utilize newer code libraries that can run on the server environment. As a result, the best back-end developers utilize online web forums, GitHub and other communities to extend their knowledge from the larger community of web developers — borrowing code, ideas, and inspiration from others. The back-end developer’s job is inherently more open-ended, and as a result, it is just more difficult to encapsulate. Based on our conversations with Treehouse, we believe they will be able to get someone to being employable as a back-end developer, but they are not there quite yet.
Finally, Treehouse offers “Business” courses, and while still adhering to their excellent production quality, these fall short of being a primary reason to sign up. It’s excellent content to have, and we’re very glad that they created it since many taking Treehouse will gain knowledge about how to better monetize their skills by becoming a freelancer, but we wouldn’t recommend signing up for Treehouse if business training is your primary intention.
Accessibility is best-in-class, as there is closed captioning, along with transcripts, and the ability to download courses in standard or high definition. Although Treehouse does not have their own App, all videos are available via a Podcast channel, so you can watch them on your iPad while you try things out on your laptop or desktop, among the best ways to learn if you happen to own both.
Treehouse has thought long and hard about how to help motivate you to succeed. They have an elaborate set of badges that map to each course, challenge and quiz. Earning these badges is helpful to keep the motivation up and allow you to see your progress.
When it comes to supporting your learning, Treehouse does an admirable job putting the right tools and support in place. They created a custom-built Forum area that provides everything you need to ask or answer questions. It is not a ghost town like many others learning libraries — you tend to see a few dozen posts each day, and the posts are thankfully tagged by subject area. Moderators are quick to answer questions to ensure that you aren’t left hanging, and the forum uses Markdown, a lightweight markup language, so it’s very easy to format your posts with code — ensuring rich answers that are easy to read.
The only negative is that the forum is not tagged or organized to the courses or lessons themselves. If you are going to hit a wall in a course, it would make sense to see what other forum questions were asked by others at the same moment in time, especially since courses are chronologically ordered. However, we talked to Treehouse and this is in the works.
Gold members can also utilize Treeviews, which allows members to submit projects to the Treehouse team for feedback. Feedback is either given via a webisode where multiple projects are critiqued, but you can also ask for feedback directly via Twitter using the hashtag #treeviews. From a cursory look, it appears that Treeview episodes are done approximately once a month (or a little bit less). This is exactly the type of support that can really help you develop a specific project, although it’s up to you to submit your project and open it up to wider scrutiny.
The other aspect that we wish we could see more of is some way to provide socialization among learners outside the forum, although Co-Founder Johnson told us that their goal is not necessarily to be “everything to everyone”, and that the “self-paced learning style could conflict with too much group-work”. This isn’t something that we expect from Treehouse, but some way of working collaboratively with others would be a big plus. It’s unclear if this is best accomplished within the Treehouse site, or if its better to direct learners to online communities such as Github or Stack Overflow to extend their knowledge.
Craftsmanship & Production Quality
There’s a famous story about Steve Jobs, and his father, who was very good with his hands. One day when they built a cabinet together, his father used a quality piece of wood for the back of the cabinet instead of using a cheaper piece of wood. He explained to Steve that even though nobody would see the piece of wood, he would know that it was there. Steve learned the lesson of the importance of good craftsmanship.
It’s clear from using Treehouse that they, too, understand craftsmanship. Every single interaction you have with the site and the content exudes a consistent high-quality feel. From the responsive, fast-loading and beautiful website, to the high quality animations and overlays in the videos, Treehouse has spent the time and it shows. We’ve looked at over 200 learning libraries ourselves and can think of just a few that come close to Treehouse’s production quality. Although you don’t choose where to learn based on look & feel, it is also no small thing if you plan on spending hundreds of hours with their content.
Gold vs. Silver
Like most providers, Treehouse offers multiple levels of membership — Gold or Silver. Silver provides the bulk of basic training content, with Gold going way above and beyond. From our estimate, the Gold plan offers an additional 200+ video modules split into various video libraries offering Q&A, interviews with professionals and other web developers, workshops, and weekly webisodes to keep you fresh on the web development world. These are some of the key features of Gold:
- Treeview (Discussed Above)
- In-Depth interviews with Industry professionals (Treehouse Friends): Treehouse has taken the time to network with leaders in their fields to offer video interviews that provide additional content that goes above and beyond learning. Think of this as a lecture series, with topics ranging from “How to Approach Venture Capitalists and Investors – with Chris Hutchins of Google Ventures” to “How to Raise Your Profile in the Web Industry – with Chris Coyier”. These interviews will help give you specific tips, and a professional angle to add perspective to the skills you are gaining.
- Workshops: Workshops explore specific topics in design, mobile and business, often going past just how-to into territory like how-to-do-it-better. Topics include Optimizing Front-End Performance and Building an Ecommerce site with WordPress & WooCommerce. These are specific and actionable, and will allow you to build your own projects or improve existing projects.
- Exercise your Creativity: An additional video library that offers you workshops on improving your creative process with specific ideas, such as Creating a Custom Ad Campaign for the web, or Creating a Graffiti Style Logo. These modules are more about inspiring your creativity — an element that is not usually a large part of the overall training, but has outsized importance in becoming an elite developer.
- Multiple additional video libraries, including Q&A sessions with head instructors, weekly webisodes reviewing what’s new in the world of web development and more.
The decision of Gold or Silver should not be about money, because all else equal, the amount – and more importantly the type – of additional content you gain with Gold is more than worth the incremental cost. Instead, you should consider your level of commitment and time availability. If you are serious about a career in web development, you should get Gold, and it shouldn’t be much of a question. It will give you the training, but also the additional content that takes you above and beyond just learning the basic foundation knowledge so that you can quickly implement projects, get advice directly from developers and professionals in the space, and stay abreast of the latest happenings in the web design and development field.
Cost of Program
For the type of training you are getting, this is a tremendous value. We can’t think of giving this any less than a perfect score — other companies are charging many multiples of the price for inferior content. The strong ease of use and high quality of all the learning resources make it a purchase you will not soon regret. And if you do, there is a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Ease of Use
Treehouse’s interface, usability and accessibility make it on par with the very best learning libraries we have seen (i.e. Lynda, Grovo) — in other words, best-in-class. Transcripts, closed captioning, videos available for download to mobile devices or your computer, and badges to track progress and keep you motivated make this a top-notch platform for learning.
Quality of Content
The content formula consisting of videos, quizzes and challenges works, and the instructors and sequencing of videos does a great job to teach you the skills you need. There is plenty here for your first two years or more of coding, with a library that continues to expand. For most front-end coders, this may be all the training you need.
Quality of Support
Forums provide an excellent way to ask questions and have them quickly answered by moderators or other students. Unlike other providers, these forums are also regularly used and well organized. The only missing piece is making the forums aligned chronologically with learning, but at most that’ll cost you another 2 minutes in finding the right answer. The Treeviews program for Gold members allows you to ask for feedback on your projects, if you are willing to do so.
Free coding services (Codecademy, Learnstreet) offer you a basic introduction to coding. Meanwhile, Treehouse takes you to a level of competence that makes you employable. Sites like Treehouse are the reason we started Skilledup — to direct learners to the best in the new wave of high quality online learning. Although we believe that those wishing to learn back-end development are going to fall short of employability, their roadmap shows that they are continuing to increase the amount and depth of advanced programming content.
Treehouse vs. Lynda
A lot of people are going to look at Treehouse as a kind of competitor to lynda. You shouldn’t. Both are best-in-class learning providers that offer excellent content, very high production quality, and substantial libraries for a very reasonable monthly cost. However, Treehouse is laser focused on creating coders, who use programming languages and code at their consoles to build websites and programs, whereas lynda’s strength is in creative professionals using hundreds of software programs to edit and create photos, illustrations, videos and documents. There certainly is some overlap consider the raw size of lynda’s library, and both will continue to grow. Right now though, if you are deciding between these two providers, you probably aren’t sure about what you want to learn.
Treehouse fully earns their near flawless rating, the highest rating we have given to any learning library. They have executed a vision of the future of skill-based education, and we
like love what we see. It’s quite simple: if you are looking to learn front-end web development (i.e. how to make a high quality website), go straight to Treehouse and pick up the Gold subscription.
SPECIAL NOTE: After talking to the Treehouse team, we are happy to be able to offer a special discount to SkilledUp readers. Normally a one-year Gold subscription will cost you $588; today you can get it from us for $392 — a 33% discount. Treehouse is one of few programs that is a no-brainer to do a full year program with. If you don’t want the extras, we are also able to offer readers a one-year silver (normally $300) for $200 — again, 33% off! If you aren’t ready for a full year, you can also sign up with our discount and get you first month for free!