Uncharted Waters

Dec 7 2017   1:39PM GMT

The Skill Development Myth

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Tags:
"Work-life balance"
Programming

I was at an important cusp about a month ago. One big contract was ending and I had till the end of the year to get something new lined up for 2018. Nothing was in the queue and it was stressing me out. There is low demand for non-technical testers working mostly remote and traveling to work on-site occasionally. I am somewhere in-between. I can learn an API, build page objects, and write automation code, but I’m not a full blown SDET type person that can also write tools on the fly. Currently, at least.

I talked to some people and they suggested I learn a new skill, programming in javascript or python, at night after my workday. Actually, it was phrased more like this. Hey, can’t you just learn to program at night?

The idea that someone can ‘just’ go off at night and learn to program, or any new skill is a myth. This goes for contractors and full timers alike. Let me explain.

An average day for me looks something like this. I wake up at 5:45 and either get my 1 year old ready to go off with his Grandmother, or mainline some (a lot) caffeine and go straight to the gym. After this, I do several hours of work for my main client. Some days I’ll mix in other client work, client calls, and occasional lunch or coffee meetings. The kid gets home at 3:30 or so and then we hang out until his bed time at 7. Monday through Friday looks like that, weekends are generally dedicated to family stuff.

So, there are a couple of ways I could learn a new programming language with this schedule.

I could get a code academy account and spend from 7 to 10pm Monday through Friday working on python exercises and building up a personal portfolio on github. I could ask my wife to do the child wrangling from 3:30 to 7 and focus on programming exercises basically creating an extended work day. Or, I could just quit work and do one of the many programming vocational schools that last a few months.

skill development

The last option is not really an option. I am not willing to sacrifice income for 6 months to learn a new skill. The other two options are inviting burnout into my life and putting productivity at risk, while simultaneously creating a rift in my family and personal life. Basically, those two could be done, but they would suck and have consequences which may or may not be worth the effort.

Here is the myth: skill development is something anyone can do at any time. You just need to make some time and have a positive mindset.

The reality is that skill development while you are currently working favors people that either don’t have a family yet, or those that are willing to sacrifice time with their family. Time is limited, and as a person with a family now, the way I allocate time during my day is done with some thought. The things that fit in are there for a reason. Adding something new means that other aspects of my day are done worse, or not at all. I might be able to add something on the short term, say for a few weeks, but I probably can’t sustain that effort for months. And let’s be real, months or more is what it takes to learn enough about something to make any statements of skill. Especially when you are trying to make money on that ability.

I am all sorted out now as far as work goes and will get to extend my skill set on the job. Think hard about someone telling you to ‘just’ go and learn a new skill. Or more generally, any time someone tells you to ‘just’ anything. They might not be taking into consideration how difficult something is.

7  Comments on this Post

 
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  • ExperiencedGovContractor
    Which why I only hire really smart people. Last two hires I told them in a phone interview on Friday that they need to teach themselves Microsoft's Entity Framework and prove to me in their Monday in-person interview that they understand it. Hired them both.
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  • melispelis
    Fully in agreement. Your thoughts are highly appreciated since they make me realize that my challenges in learning new skills are being shared with someone out there.
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  • Justin Rohrman
    @ExperiencedGovContractor

    That seems like a tall order, and certainly one I would opt out of for an interview. While I'm sure you get good candidates out of that style, you are probably biased toward young single people, or people that are willing to sacrifice themselves for a company. I'm not convinced that is a measure of "smart" or a good thing in the long run. 
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  • Justin Rohrman
    @melispelis

    Thanks, I'm glad this was useful for you. This is a challenge for a lot of people. I'm just happy to talk about my failures publicly lol
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  • Kevin Beaver
    Great points, Justin!

    Until people have walked in the shoes of parents with established careers, they just don't get how busy life can be. Justin's situation underscores the importance of determining - very early on - what career(s) you want to pursue. It likely starts around 5th grade, evolves through middle school, and should probably be solidified by 11th grade or so. Changing careers - or even adding to your skillset - once the family gets rolling is next to impossible. That is unless you're willing to give up family time, income, etc. A core principle of time management is that in order to take on something new, you're going to have to give something up.

    Oh, and how "smart" you are has very little to do with overall career success. I'm living proof! :-) There are a plenty of super smart low-achievers in this world. Instead it's about your personality. Your drive. Your self-esteem. Your motivation. Your sticktuitiveness. Walter Isaacson said it best: Smart people are a dime a dozen. What matters is the ability to think different... to think out of the box.

    So, let Justin's post serve as solid wisdom on seeing the bigger picture and (pre)planning as early as possible on what you want to do for work over the long term. You think you're busy as a young adult...I certainly did. But just wait until you get older with more responsibilities. Things change BIG TIME.

    Good luck, Justin and thanks for pointing this out. I'm sure it will help others.
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  • RobinGoldsmith
    While lack of time is real for everyone, I’d hoped from the title that you’d get into the effectiveness/validity/solutions of learn-it-yourself itself, even when you do have time to do it.
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  • Dale Vile
    Interesting
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