(…or how to take on continuous learning while trying to keep a shred of sanity as a parent in testing)

Tired? Stressed? Feeling a bit battered by the combination of work, life and children? Could you happily swing for the nearest lifestyle writer banging on about the wonderful IT learning culture that we are all happily (?) immersed in?

“Yeah, right love” was my typical eyerolling reaction to some “learning ninja” telling me how I could utilise my sleep / train journey or toilet time to absorb new knowledge. My life was laundry, early morning feeds, runs to the supermarket, figuring out how to get toothpaste off my jacket (babywipes!) and trying to eat and sleep. Oh, and work too. Nearly forgot about that.

Somewhere in the middle of that lot, there was (is) a husband too. He took care of everything else AND even did extra tasks like reminding me when it was a bank holiday and the office would be closed. Usually as I was half-way out the door, convinced I was late.

I used to feel like that most days. I still do sometimes but I learned to work around it. Not because I am some sort of learning guru (I, EMPHATICALLY am not) but because I made mistakes, got it wrong, adapted, repeated what worked and am still figuring out the rest, 15 years later.

When my children were young and I returned to work, the continuous learning culture was starting to come into testing and in theory, it was great. Blogs, conferences, online courses and e-books - there was a wealth of learning out there for the taking. The only problem was that I couldn’t find a way to consistently harness it. I’d plan a night to start learning Java (again!) and someone would throw up… all the way down the stairs. (Skillz!) The next time I planned an evening to start again, we got chicken pox. Well, they got it but I was there dispensing camomile lotion and re-watching Tom and Jerry with a fussy, hot, itchy child with socks sellotaped to their hands.

I wished to goodness there was one article just making some suggestions about learning I could use in real life that took into account people have busy, frequently interrupted family lives because of children, parents, animals or hobbies. I can’t promise you this will be that exact post but it is a decade and a half of bundled advice from someone who figured it out by getting it wrong.

Which brings about the first thing I learned as a parent trying to learn:

Try not to get railroaded by changes in plans

Your children didn’t read the manual – they don’t know parents are going to try to make plans of their own. Their hunger, illnesses, hobbies, schools just expect you to just take it all in your stride. This does not equate well with consistent planning. Believe me, you do need to make a plan. That is unless you have figured out how to absorb by osmosis that unread version of Test Driven Development you bought… how many months ago?

These plans will sometimes fail. That’s ok. Take the time to go to outpatients (“again! – really!? I feel like my life is a day release from that place”), talk through why bad things happen with worried sons, fall asleep unexpectedly while reading daughters their bedtime story and deep clean the stairs on your hands and knees (the smell of Dettol will take about a year to fade). Do whatever needs to be done then come back to your learning plan. Keep at it.

Be realistic about what you can do and take real life into account

If you have three children under five, two dogs that need a three mile walk every evening and manage to get some regular spin / rugby / yoga / physiotherapy in at the weekend – please tell me how you do it!

Someone as busy as you may have to consider limiting yourself to getting better at what you already know or take on small learning projects at any one time. Small, such as learning how to use SOAPUI pre-canned scripts to test a service rather than large, a whole brand new OO language.

Figure out what you are passionate about learning

With all the best intentions in the world, if you are not into something, you won’t study it. How many homes of IT people up and down the globe have “that shelf” or “that kindle” of “Learn x in 24 hours”, “Dummies guide to x” languishing unread. Some of them aren’t even parents!

Have a look at a testing website and see what topics grab your attention - I like the Ministry of testing club pages and Stickyminds for this as the content refreshes daily. I often bookmark things to come back to later. It is noticeable that I only go back to about 1 in 5 links depending on what is going on in work and life at the time so my ambition clearly exceeds my capability, still!

Once you have your “this seems interesting” list - spend 15 / 20 mins going through the links, reading related pages and deciding what you feel compelled to spend more time on. Now you have the start of your learning. The chart in one of the following sections also gives you some ideas around what to look at and how long to plan your learning sessions for.

Avoid time-eating black holes

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, computer games and online sudoku (mea culpa). All of these things will burrow into your free time if you let them. This is time you will never get back so it is worth occasionally evaluating the gain you get from these activities and working out if you need to plan for less social media in your life.

Having decided you need a social media break is one thing but implementing it is another.

Free extensions like StayFocusd and WasteNoTime work with your web browser(s) and allow you to block sites you want time away from. There are multiple block options - by browsing time or hour of the day. You can even personalise your blocked message with something like “Ahem… wasn’t this your week to learn RestAssured?” Fabulous!

You could always ask a friendly admin at work to block your work devices from accessing social media and take temptation out of your hands altogether. Bring doughnuts to grease the wheels of this conversation.

Try to understand how long it will take you to learn something

This is the bit I fell down on, I was never sure how long something “should” take me to learn. On reflection, some of my learning commitments were too big for my life at the time. I should have taken on smaller commitments to get back into the learning groove and then increased them as my habit became ingrained. Oh the joy of retrospect!

I made the chart below a few years ago to demonstrate to someone what sort of (generalised) time commitment was needed to learn the following skills that covered most of the knowledge needed to thrive in the environment we were in. These timings applied to me and my experience. However, from the feedback from the handful of other people that have used it was that the timings applied quite well to them too.

If you understand how much time you can give to learning, you can make the best decision about what you can reasonably take on and finish. Not finishing something can demoralise you and put you off further learning. This makes it important to get this stuff right if this applies to you.

Plan your studying to have an end

It’s great to get into the groove with learning. Finally, after hours of tinkering, you have Appium up and running but it is 1am. Hopefully someone fed the kids and they are not breaking into your neighbour’s house asking her to be their new Mummy as their current one seems to be broken going by the moans and groans she is emitting.

The problem will be that all that over-studying can leave you grouchy and tired the next day making it easy to be tempted to skip your planned learning for that day and the next day and suddenly it is a year later and you can’t even remember where that online VM that you installed Appium on is.

Set a timer based on the time you can devote to something undistracted. When it buzzes, beeps, or yells at you - get up and walk away. I am #SoBlessed not to need a timer. I have teenagers who break their studious indifference of their loving parents to declare a national emergency over the fact they cannot find their phones, oat bars, favourite t-shirts or the book they left down “RIGHT THERE”… 3 weeks ago.

Gather a learning army

Here is the good news, you don’t have to do this all alone. There must be other parents in your workplace or online groups feeling the same. You can even reach out to your employer to help you too.

Talk to other parents

Ask other parents how they combined sanity, child-rearing and studying. A lot of us have had to do some studying outside of work for internal exams, beefing up our own knowledge or an external course. I don’t pretend that all the answers are in this piece – other parents out there will have better ideas than me. Ask them what worked for them.

Talk to your team

Ask your team how they learn and how they like to learn. Ask them about good sites or books that have really engaged them for the subject they were trying to learn. Even if you are the sole tester embedded in your team, it is more than likely that someone else has tackled what you are trying to learn and has some recommendations to make around suitable resources.

Ask your online peers to play a part

Read the blogs and presentations of your peers, learn about the challenges they have faced, you may encounter these too down the road and it will have saved time to learn how someone else dealt with them.

IT, technology, methodology, software and software tools change fast. Accept that you cannot keep up with all of them. What you can do is keep up with people you respect (and who may have less dogs and more free time than you). Use them as a compass as to how and what you can go about learning.

Call out for help on Twitter. The testing community are fantastic in helping people who are feeling overwhelmed or don’t know where to turn to. Tweeting the question to @ministryoftest will get you bigger reach than you might find by just throwing the message out there on your own account.

Have a look in the mentoring section of the ministry for test https://club.ministryoftesting.com/c/mentoring and post a question or find a peer on the same journey you are.

Ask your employer to get involved

Ask your workplace to start hosting techie brekkies / learnie lunchies / study supperies – whatever meets your learning needs. You could always start the ball rolling by offering to run the first one on a topic that is your speciality. It is in their interests to support you and anyone else who is interested in this. After all, they reap the benefit in terms of employee engagement, workforce skills, collaboration and the indicator going up on general happiness levels.

You may need dedicated, uninterrupted time to learn

You have done the research, planned the time and then just keep getting interrupted by real life. It may be time to face the fact that you need help with the dogs, the kids and whatever else in real life is barging into your study time. You go online looking for advice and a load of people with more money than you will be talking about “childcare options”. Yeah, like we can ALL afford to install someone to do the childcare in the East wing of our riverside townhouse. The only decision being if we should pay the lucky Manny in gold bullion or bank notes. Right?

There are other options – Give your employers the nudge to start a learning culture. Do a childminding swap with someone else local so you both get some free time. Hire a babysitter for a few dedicated hours a week to make sure your offspring don’t decide to investigate where the stereo wires go by yanking at them until the speaker starts to topple on the ledge. (Yes, this happened). Talk to your spouse or a relative and negotiate a dedicated study evening making sure that your spouse/relative gets one in return when they need it. Hint: Don’t replace date night with study night. Research has led me to conclude that spouses do not tend to be a fan of this idea. Some are quite vociferously vocal about it as well… 10 years later.

Don’t worry, be happy… sang the man who has a lesson for all of us

Your partner is not speaking to you because you spent date night working, again. The dogs are hyper and howling their heads off because they have not been walked in three days and your curly-haired freckled four year old has flushed your phone down the loo, repeatedly.

Take a deep breath. This is the universe giving you the ‘something has got to give’ signal so start at the beginning and deal with what you need to so you can start again.

Perhaps… just perhaps, you need to hire a dog walker or sign up to a shared dog walking scheme.