You Learn

Evaluating The Effectiveness of Different Learning Mediums on Long Term Leave

We spend a significant portion of our adult lives working. Eurostat estimates the expected working life duration of EU workers in 2018 to be 36.2 years. Given such a large window, it may come as no surprise that we all need a longer break than the occasional sick day. We may take time off for travel, long term sick or parental. Irrespective of motive, we will have breaks in our employment history.

Taking a long term sabbatical makes keeping up to date difficult. Regardless of your occupation, you will undoubtedly return to work in N months to a new cast of colleagues; a forgotten array of knowledge you need to claw back; and the need to adjust to a large set of procedural changes. In any profession, returning from a period of leave will be daunting.

Returning to work after a long period of travelling or parental leave can leave you feeling behind the technical curve

The rapid pace of technological change means those dedicated to a Software Engineering career must also contend with missing out on the technology evolution. Learning should form part of your daily work routine. However, discussions with colleagues leads to an element of learning via conversational osmosis. The latter is a critical element that is missing when you are not in the office.

My extended leave has required me to adapt my learning style to assimilate new information. Partly because I no longer have a daily commute to cuddle up with a book and a hoard of squashed travellers. In some ways because I’m isolated from these office conversations. But also due to the sheer number of interruptions I encounter everyday. Here I share details of my learning journey; which formats I have found effective for keeping up to date; and my reasons for wanting to stay in touch with technology.

I Can Learn

Before delving into details, I must state the following unequivocal disclaimer. No one should feel pressure to try and learn while on leave. Organisations and managers should support colleagues irrespective of their decisions for contact or learning.

 

There should be no pressure to hit the books while on a sabbatical. Supporting those who wish to learn must be balanced.

Many are quite happy to put work on the back burner. For me switching off from the exciting world of software development has been an impossible dream for a couple of years. Of late it has become more of an intellectual life buoy that I cling to in the scary world of new parenthood. Sometimes your brain needs a well deserved break from the mindless repetition of nursery rhymes and The Very Hungry Caterpillar!

This article is intended for those who wish to continue their learning journey while undertaking a period of leave. Or who are looking to incorporate learning into a busy work schedule. Essentially, for those who share my ethos for continuous learning. Here are the mechanisms which I have found accessible on leave, in increasing levels of difficulty.

Letter in the Mail

Medium: Email | Difficulty Level: Easy

With the majority of organisations providing remote working capabilities, reading the occasional email is a quick and easy means of researching current internal trends. Personally I have found the occasional scan useful for monitoring several knowledge streams:

  • Product domain knowledge
  • New product features
  • Technical trends and practical applications
  • Organisational updates
  • Internal initiatives
  • Team changes and events

There is a wealth of information to be digested in your own time. Nevertheless, there are a few pitfalls you should avoid. Depending on your internal infrastructure, passwords may need to be updated regularly to prevent lockout. The regularity with which you monitor email, and access systems to maintain access, is another danger.

 

Email exhibits a similar hit to gambling. Beware excessive email monitoring while on leave.

Ensure you exercise a degree of control. Email addiction is the last demon you want to try and kick when you’re balancing dominating life commitments. Set yourself a frequency and maintain that routine. Avoid replying. Trust that the team can handle things without you. Set up mail filters to exclude or delete any system alerts or checks. As discussed previously, filtering out relevant information from high volumes of email alerts becomes exceptionally difficult.

Cast Your Pod to the Wind

Medium: Podcast | Difficulty Level: Easy

Until now, I’ve never been a big fan of podcasts or audio books. Music and the written word tend to be my commuting mediums of choice. But if you’re out exploring, or in my case trapped on the couch with a cuddly newborn, listening is far better. Quite simply because it frees up your hands.

 

Podcasts have become a useful hands-free learning tool for me.

Podcasts have become an invaluable knowledge source. Obviously getting your hands back is a big advantage. The ability to subscribe to channels and be notified of new episodes makes it easier to track new trends. It is possible to focus on what is being said while you are doing something else. Audio content also makes for a nice break from the mind numbing repetitiveness of daytime TV. Oh how I have come to loathe TV and media streaming platforms!

There is a myriad of different podcasts available covering a variety of fascinating topics. In addition to the Agile focused streams I’ve been following, other podcasts including TED Talks Daily and Superfreakonomics Radio have provided a set of welcome alternative topics. In fact, the recent recast of How to Change Your Mind got me thinking of the importance of openness in Software Engineering and our desire to track technology evolution. No one said software topics are the only way to engage your brain.

Keep Talking

Medium: In Person Catch Up | Difficulty Level: Medium

Extended leave can be an exceptionally isolating time. It’s imperative that you attempt to meet new people and establish new relationships while on leave. Antenatal groups and tour groups are examples of great methods of building networks on paternity leave or while travelling. Discussing your current challenges in these forums is invaluable. In the case of parental leave it can be difficult to escape baby talk for some much needed adult conversation.

 

Coffee catch ups have formed a welcome learning opportunity, as well as exposure to adult conversation.

Keeping some of your current working relationships warm provides vital support. Those connections can alleviate the fear of being forgotten. Both phone and in-person are valid formats for such meetings. However, be mindful that in-person conversations within the office require a supportable environment. Irrespective of your chosen location, these sessions are a great opportunity to find out about new products and features, organisational updates, team restructurings and new internal processes and initiatives. Such topics satisfy the need for adult conversation and allow avoidance of controversial subjects such as politics.

Internet Killed the Video Star

Medium: Blog Article | Difficulty Level: Medium

One aspect of my original morning routine that I have managed to preserve is my morning perusal of blog articles. With the small amendment that anything over five minutes needs to be reserved for nap time. Ironically this piece would meet the latter requirement.

 

Blogs are short, sweet and instantaneous sources of information.

There are numerous mobile reading and social media platforms that can provide blog recommendations. Utilising various platforms exposes varying opinions and topics. My personal top three are as follows:

  1. Medium
  2. Reddit
  3. Twitter

The sole challenge I’ve found is setting up preferences across various apps. Push notifications are a great time optimisation compared to manual searching. Depending on the platform, preferences can be tweaked far more quickly. Especially if they support automatic suggestions based on your reading history.

Read it in Books

Medium: Books | Difficulty Level: Hard

Now we are getting into the more challenging learning formats. Books require a greater level of effort and dedication than the aforementioned blog posts. The premise is certainly the same. However, the sheer length of the content makes it increasingly more likely that you will encounter interruptions.

Historically, I have always managed to read at least one fiction or non-fiction text per month as part of my daily commute. Therefore a pre-maternity goal of one book every two months while on leave appeared feasible. Oh how wrong I was!

 

Curling up with a good technical book is not always possible while out exploring the world.

Curled up on a twelve hour flight, or a two plus hour train journey, this goal would be achievable. It was achievable while I travelled through Japan last year. You have ample time to settle in and digest the content. I’ve found the number of interruptions I currently encounter result in repeatedly re-reading sections. In hindsight, I may as well restart the book over again when I return to my daily commute. Until then, let’s see how long it takes for me to finish my latest Swedish crime noir novel.

Video Games

Medium: Tech Tutorial | Difficulty Level: Impossible

While I’ve made attempts to try the aforementioned mediums, completing at least one tech tutorial has proven to be an elusive dream. I can imagine completing tutorials would be a powerful means of combating concerns of falling behind the technical curve. Yet it is the most challenging mechanism with which to dedicate time. Although I successfully completed one tutorial pre-baby, post baby it has been impossible.

 

Tutorials require an attempt to follow the steps to reinforce the lessons.

Simply watching video tutorials is certainly achievable, just like podcasts. Nevertheless, practicing the corresponding techniques is imperative to reinforcing the skills covered. Practical implementation requires focus. It is hardly easy to maintain concentration in the face of interruptions and background noise, irrespective of where you are. In this regard, I’ll save these learnings for a Friday afternoon back in the office.

Learn From This Mistake

This piece serves as a reflection on my experiences of trying to maintain my learning without a regular work structure. Even the most varied of software development roles has a relatively strict workday. While on leave, you would expect a new routine to form within which learning opportunities can be integrated. In reality this is unlikely to happen within the first few months.

 

Learning should complement and not dominate your time away from work. Remember to live!

I have enjoyed experimenting with new learning mediums over the past few months. Diversity of formats allows for the extraction of varying knowledge and perspectives. Yet it has also had the unintended consequence of exposing the need for balance in my life. Work and learning has always come first. Yet the next challenge awaiting me in 2020 will be balancing work, learning and family life.

Thanks for reading!

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