Until quite recently (December 2014) I was a primary school teacher and had been for the prior 9 or 10 years. Despite having a background in IT as a software developer before that, and whilst still using ICT a lot, you can imagine that many of the skills I had, had oxidised. More than that, though, things changed. I mean, really changed.
Much like your waist line or you children growing up, when you watch things day in and day out, you don’t notice the little things. In some ways, it’s so gradual, but having been away from producing software full-time for so long, the huge difference in what was and is became really apparent. Moreover, that was even though I still read around the subject and had some experiences in that time.
That coupled with a decision to return to IT meant I had to make some big choices.
I had tried to study and practise my skills whilst also being a teacher but that didn’t work out. To be frank, teaching is a 70+ hour a week job and trying to do anything else (with my other non-negotiable commitments) was a no-no 🙂 So I decided to make a clean break and left so that I could focus on my learning and beef up prior skills.
This article is about my experiences in doing that and the lessons that I learnt on my way to returning to software development.
Lesson 1: Record Everything
Let’s start with what I think is the number one lesson…record everything. It is scary how easy it is to think that you are working hard when you in fact, you aren’t. By writing everything down, with timings, you can keep track of what you have accomplished and how long you spent doing it. Without this, it becomes kinda…hazy.
This is also useful if you go for an interview and someone asks you what have you done or accomplished during your time. You can whip out that 200 page document (was mine really that big?!) and tell them directly.
Lesson 2: Be Realistic
That leads me on to this lesson: being realistic. When I first started, I had these grand plans to study 12 hours a day right out of the gate, and that just wasn’t possible. Despite being keen and having a strong desire, I ran in to some other issues which I will talk about later, and they really hampered my study time.
My advice is to start strongly, but slowly. Build up those hours just as if you are starting out at the gym for the first time. In many respects, you are: the brain gym.
Lesson 3: Focus
This is crucial. There are so many areas you can learn but should you? It is also tempting to take a peek at job adverts and see a slew of requirements needed and think you need everything. Honestly, you can’t learn it all and even if you tried, you would only have a shallow understanding. Don’t get me wrong: shallow is fine for an overview, but you also need a deeper base.
My advice is to pick one area and learn it well. Depending on what that is, you might want to touch upon some peripheral technologies, but yet, keep your eye on the prize. Focus on one core part.
For example, in my case, I chose C# because it is such a widely used language, has far reaching applicability (web, embedded devices, desktop applications etc.) and there are many roles available in it. In particular, I began working with ASP.NET so specialised a little and in particular, knew that anything web-based would be interesting to me.
Of course, you need to look at your prior skills (if any) but since I had used a variety of OOP languages, it wasn’t a huge stretch for me.
Lesson 4: Try Multi-Sensory
Learning can take many forms and for me, what really helped wasn’t to just put my head into a book and leave it there. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, spoke to others plus read blogs and articles.
In addition, I practised a lot. That is really important to try to reinforce your understanding and cement what you have done. Whatever you do decide to do, try learning in different forms. Some will suit you better or will more easily fit in with your life.
Lesson 5: Keep a Blog
There is a famous quote by Einstein:
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
I think that is especially important with IT. With a blog, you have that opportunity to describe what you are learning about and to flesh out all the ideas and facets, completely. You won’t always get it right and maybe your explanation won’t be the best, you it won’t hurt you to try and I am sure it will help someone.
In fact, helping others is a really good by-product of your blog. If you are learning and starting out, you can bet others are too, and it might help you make connections with them.
It’s also great practice for your writing skills (which are increasingly important, don’t you know!?) and helps to build an on-line personal brand. There is so much that has been written about this latter point – just Google it – for more information.
Lesson 6: Make Something
This ties in with my practising point earlier, but really, you want to make something. This has many purposes. For example:
- It gives you something to show potential employers – portfolios are increasingly important, especially in the visual arts.
- It helps you to truly understand a technology. No matter how much reading you do, using what you are learning about is really the only way to know, you know, for sure.
- Lastly, you will be able to measure your progress and feel like you are achieving something. That can’t be bad, can it?
Lesson 7: Remove Obstacles and Distractions
I started off working at home which on paper, sounded like a great idea. I mean, I didn’t need to travel anywhere, food, drink and facilities were easily available and I didn’t need to consider my attire.
Unfortunately, it desperately affected my productivity and it wasn’t until I tried studying in other places that I realised just how much. For me, the best place was the library for a number of reasons:
- I couldn’t talk to anyone!
- I was unable to just [insert any distraction you like].
- No TV. At all.
- I could truly focus.
If you need to stay at home, you will have to be mindful of these kinds of things because they are a serious drain.
Lesson 8: Find a Community
Working alone can be tough. Aahh. Really, the biggest problem is when you run into a problem because you can easily spend many hours stuck on something that might be easily solved if you only knew someone who had more experience.
I’ve read quite a bit about collaborative workspace and whilst there aren’t any that near me, that’s not the case for others. Try them out. It would be useful to make contacts, if nothing else.
It’s also nice to share and learn from others so again, finding like minded people is really useful.
I hope you have found this useful and that it in some way helps others who are considering a similar move. Making a career shift like this can be tricky but with a little effort and thought, hopefully you will be successful.
Written by Stephen Moon
email: stephen at logicalmoon.com