Learning to code when you’re a parent with a full-time job [Dev Interview]

Hey everyone! I’m starting a new series, chatting with developers who are learning coding or have made a career change. This interview is with Owen, who is part of the programmer community on Instagram.

I felt like his honest sharing of learning coding while having a full-time job and a young child would be encouraging to those of you who are doing the same thing.

Hope you are just as inspired by his story as I am!

Owen and his son

Hi Owen, so can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

So currently I am not a professional developer, yet. At the moment I work for local government in the public library sector. It sounds like a fancy way to say I work in a library, but I don’t actually work in a library.

Instead, I’m office based and work on organizing and managing outreach projects for the local community through the library service.

Sounds a little confusing? That’s what everyone says. So as an example, one project is a volunteer-run scheme to help bring books to housebound individuals who can’t access the library.

In short, I essentially try to help the community through initiative and services provided by the local library.

I’ve read on your blog that you started learning to code after your son was born. Just curious what went into that decision? What are your motivations for learning coding?

So I just mentioned that I work for local government. While the job, as a job goes, is perfectly fine. Sadly, the pay is bad, it’s not very secure, and it’s very limiting when it comes to opportunities. It’s your typical dead-end job.

In recent years the UK government has been cutting everything, and it seems to have no end. Because of that, there’s little job security, and opportunities to progress are virtually non-existent.

I’ve already had to re-apply for my own job just before my son was born, and I suspect I’ll have to do it again very soon.

When you’re in that situation and you’re about to become a dad you start to get a little stressed. Me? I was crapping myself.

I want what any father wants for his family and their future: a good life and security. The opportunities for professional programmers seem incredible compared to the dying job I’m in.

I was also really fed up of feeling underutilized in my job. I know I have more to give and it’s absolutely demoralizing. I needed a challenge in my life, and tech is something I’ve always secretly been interested in.

I love tech and have always been fascinated by it. I’m sure you agree, it’s just a really cool thing. However, I never pursued because I thought it was beyond my ability.

That actually brings me to my next reason.

My son.

I want to be his role model. I want to be someone he can look up to. I want to show him that no what matter what, if you have a dream and a passion you should pursue it, and not to let fear or doubt stop you from what you want to do.

If you work hard and believe in yourself you can do whatever you set your mind to.

That’s what I want him to know, and hopefully being an example will show him when he’s older.

To summarize, I guess I just got pushed to the limit, and now I’m determined to realize that dream. For myself, and my family.

How have you been learning coding? Do you use online courses, books, or other methods?

I use a real mix of stuff, from books, YouTube, blogs, and platforms like Team Treehouse, Udemy, Codecademy, and others.

I think it’s good to have a few methods and go-to places, but variety spices things up and give you a wider pool of knowledge to draw from.

That said, I think individual preference does play a big part in how you learn. One person may prefer books, while another can’t stand them. It’s about what works best for you.

What languages/stacks are you learning? Do you have a goal date by which you hope to be able to work full-time as a programmer?

Well, I actually started learning Java and Android development, before switching to web development. But now I’m focused on the web, and my goal is to become a front-end web developer.

I originally told myself that I wanted to land my first job by the end of 2018, which is pretty much here. Hopefully, I’ll land a job soon, but if not, I’ll keep going until I do. I’ve come too far to quit now.

Because my goal is front end, I’ve spent the majority of my time this year learning things like HTML, CSS, JavaScript, JQuery, Bootstrap, SCSS, and recently React.

However, I still wouldn’t say I am an expert in React. In general, though, I’d say I focus most of my time on JavaScript at the moment. I really want to be an expert in JavaScript.

Although front-end is my thing at the moment, I have been learning some back-end basics with Node, Express, and MongoDB.

While my short-term goal is front-end, my long-term goal is full stack. And because I think JavaScript is awesome, and I know some React already, I decided to learn the MERN stack.

I mean, it’s still early days, and I’ll probably focus most of my attention on the front end. Just until I land my first job. But after that, it’s full stack all the way.

One of the reasons I was intrigued by your story is that you’re balancing just a whole lot in your daily life– working full-time, being a parent, and then in your precious free time, learning to code. How do you manage all that?

I don’t really. I mean, I manage, but I’m not perfect. I just don’t want to give the impression that I balance everything flawlessly, because I don’t. I do struggle.

I’ve gotten better over time, which has come from learning to prioritize and also understand that I don’t have to do everything right now. That it’s ok to break things up over a longer period of time.

I used to try and dedicate every spare moment to learning code. Whenever I was at home and my son was asleep, either napping or at night, I would be on the laptop. A lot of the time working till the early hours, and sleeping around 3-4hrs.

This is definitely not a balanced life. I’d often crash out in random places around the house. So yeah, I don’t think I was managing particularly well at this point.

However, nowadays I try to take the “little and often” approach. I tend to dedicate a couple hours in the early mornings, to study, build projects and doing any Code Dad stuff (Note: Code Dad is Owen’s blog).

Normally I wake up around 4.30am which affords me the time to do this before work. Or sometimes, when I drop my wife off for her early shift at 7 am, I carry straight on into work and code until my working day officially starts.

This leaves my evenings open for family and downtime. If I have a spare moment in the evening I will hop on the laptop, but I consider this extra and not part of my routine. Whatever I am doing I try to make sure I am in bed by 10 pm so I can get at least 6 hours of sleep. It doesn’t always happen though.

Here’s a quick rundown of practical things I do which help me manage:

I have my general routine, which I just mentioned. I also try to plan my weeks ahead of time, which I normally do on a Sunday, just so I know what my main focus is for that week.

I find if I don’t have a clear focus, things can start to go awry. I also try to prioritize and limit how many things I need to do. This may mean saying no to things, or putting something on hold for a little while, or just not giving myself unnecessary things.

Another thing I do is to try to make the most of any small window of time. For example, during my lunch break at work, or if I just happen to have a spare 30mins. Basically any of those instances where I would have normally been watching YouTube or Netflix. Again, I am not perfect and still slip up here.

One last thing I do which helps me to keep the balance is to have a couple of rules for those times when things don’t always go to plan.

I know that may sound a bit weird, but as I mentioned, back in the early days I wasn’t very balanced. And kids being kids are unpredictable.

One week my son may be completely fine, sleeping through the night, and just a really happy chappy. The next he may be up and down through the night, waking at the crack of dawn, and causing general carnage.

In the past, I may have continued pushing on until I eventually crashed. But now I have a couple rules which I try to follow in a situation like this to help me retain balance.

One rule is to take care of myself and family first, then everything else after. So if I need sleep, I sleep. Simple. And the other is to try and do something every day. Something being the operative word. Even if it’s 30 minutes, one tutorial video, or attempting one code wars challenge.

This helps me to take care of myself and what’s important, and leaves me feeling like I am still making some progress.

Do you have any pieces of advice for others in your situation? For those who are a parent, and wanting to learn coding on the side?

Yes, definitely, I’ve got three things I’d say to any parent learning code. One, think long term. Two, focus on your own journey. And three, don’t burn yourself out.

Now the point about not burning yourself out is probably an obvious bit of advice. To be honest, it really applies to everyone. It goes without saying that burn out is bad. It’s bad for your physical health, your mental health, your productivity, all of that.

But I wanted to make a point of it because I feel working parents are at greater risk of burn out. Especially if you have a new addition to the family. You’re probably, well actually no, you are going to be exhausted.

And for me, I always tried to push myself, to the point of burning out multiple times. I think it’s really important for parent and everyone to listen to their bodies and take time to rest and have breaks when needed.

It’s better to have a break than to burn out. If you’re trying to do something like learn code, functioning and an exhausted sleep-deprived brain will get you nowhere.

The information will go in one ear and out the other. The idea of resting may seem counter-intuitive to being productive but it’s important and makes you more efficient.

Onto my other point about thinking long term. When I say this, I mean, don’t go in with the idea that you can learn code in a couple of months, because you’ll end up feeling disappointed and frustrated.

The fact of the matter is if you work full time and have children you’re not going to have a lot of time, or energy, to learn code. So your progress will seem slow, and sometimes it can feel like you’re not progressing at all. This makes the whole challenge seem near impossible.

But every day that you’re coding and learning, you’re progressing. You just can’t see it very well. If you give it 6 months, I can guarantee you’ll look back and see the progress you’ve made.

It still may not be at a rate you would like, but progress is progress. For me, I really thought it was impossible until that 6-month mark, at which point I looked back and realized this stuff was actually sinking in. From then my mindset shifted, it was no longer a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

So my last point is about focusing on your own journey, and it’s kind of related to my previous point.

As I just said, it’s probably going to take you longer than a couple of months to get where you want to be. But you may notice other’s doing it a lot faster. Maybe because they have more time? You don’t know. Either way, it can be really demoralizing, and affect your headspace.

In fact, I don’t recommend anyone to start comparing yourself. All it will do is leave you filled with resentment and doubt. These negative emotions will have a great impact on your progress.

If you feel bad about yourself, you’re more likely to lose motivation or straight up quit. Because, how can you compete with them right? Now I think competition is good because it pushes you.

But just be mindful, and don’t let it drive you to negative thoughts. Just do yourself a favor and focus on your own journey.

Accept the reality of your situation and do the best with the time you have. Remember that everyone’s journey is different.

Any other thoughts that you’d like to share about coding, being a parent, or anything else? 🙂

There’s probably a lot more, but I think if I go on we will be here for years. So I’ll just try and summarize with a few points.

Yes, it’s going to be hard, but it’s possible. Just be persistent and try and put some time in each day. It doesn’t have to be hours and hours, it all adds up in the end.

Take time to rest, and spend time with your family. This is just as important as putting in the work. It will allow remaining effective for the long-term rather than burning out in a spectacular ball of fire.

And, if you ever need some advice don’t hesitate to send me a message on Instagram.

Thank you so much, Owen! It’s been an honor.

You can follow Owen at his blog, Code Dad, and on Instagram at @codedad.

What did you think of Owen’s story? Are you balancing learning to code with other things in your life? Please leave a comment below about it– I’d love to hear from you!

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