Finding energy to change specializations in spare time
April 20, 2021 7:23 AM   Subscribe

I work full-time as a software engineer. My work-life balance is okay, but I have burned out on my specialization within software engineering and would like to pivot into an entirely different specialization. Due to the aforementioned burnout, I'm usually in a terrible mood after work and it usually takes me most of a weekday evening or a weekend before I'm ready to sit down in front of the computer again (if at all), which means that progress has been very slow. What are some things that helped you make progress in a situation like this?
posted by rhythm and booze to Work & Money (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Shhh, sneak it into your work day!
posted by london explorer girl at 7:26 AM on April 20, 2021 [19 favorites]

I did coding challenges, 15-30 minutes in the morning. Helped me limber up.

There are plenty of free challenges lying around. Like the Advent of Code.

Listen to coding / software engineering podcasts in the direction you want to go.

Do you have a good environment to concentrate on just what your pivot is to? Can you get a different computer, or location, in which to work? With a home office, this can be hard.
posted by nickggully at 7:40 AM on April 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is highly dependent on a lot of privilege and personal financial circumstance, but a few of the devs I've known have just... quit a job, taken time off, used some of that time to ramp up on a new area, and then returned to work. This obviously requires a nontrivial financial cushion and a high degree of confidence that you can get a new job in reasonable time; given the current market for engineering talent that's not unreasonable, but it obviously won't work for everyone.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:05 AM on April 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

I have had this problem. Because of the burnout, the brain is connecting "sitting in front of a computer" with tired frustration, which I can deal with when there's something I NEED to do, but it's hard to do optional things.

Anything you can do to switch context in an obvious way can help. So if you have a laptop, try moving somewhere else in your house when you want to learn. Maybe try changing the music you listen to. Or change what you're drinking while you code. Anything to separate your current emotions about old work from your potential new specialization that you are completely in charge of can help.
posted by JZig at 8:31 AM on April 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

Can you work through a course aimed at kids, which will be more gamified? Or is the speciality too esoteric?

Maybe find a way to use the desired skill to support an organization you care about, so you have something goading you on.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:34 AM on April 20, 2021

I've had better luck doing these activities early in the morning before or at the start of work rather than after. I have energy then, and after work/family time i often don't have creative energy to jump back into an engineering problem. The only problem is sometimes i get caught up in the learning and procrastinate work, so i've got to put in mechanisms to keep disciplined about it.
posted by escher at 9:10 AM on April 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

I would endeavor to make your home computing environment the total opposite of your work environment.

If you sit at work, use a standing desk at home.

Indulge yourself at home with the cool toys. Multiple monitors on arms. Bias lighting. A mini-fridge for your sodas. Warmer lighting instead of harsh fluorescent white.

Basically, give yourself psychological clues: "this is not work, this is for me"
posted by kschang at 9:54 AM on April 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm writing my dissertation while working full-time (the worst) and I often feel exactly like you after a workday. Something that really got me on track was signing up for Focusmate (I think I actually heard about it here on Metafilter). It's kind of wild how well it works. It's weirdly relaxing having someone else focusing on stuff on the other side of the camera, and I would feel so bad cancelling on someone that I just never did. I don't even have to bother with Focusmate anymore because it helped me develop the habit of working for an hour a night.
posted by thebots at 9:56 AM on April 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am a senior SDE. I can't learn from books, so my strategy is "get paid to learn."

I had a specialization once -- five years after college, I'd worked on a number of different LAMP-stack products so my resume was super LAMPy. When LAMP's day started to fade, I found a new job that needed LAMP but also needed many many other things, and at that job I hustled towards those other opportunities, and I continue to do that to this day. Plus, learning at work provides built-in mentoring opportunities. (I avoid shops where HR disincentivizes cooperation). The cost is the occasional terror of having to come up to speed overnight on something complex that is only documented on Stack Overflow, but the elevated stakes give me focus and help me retain what I've learned.

Since then I've been a generalist, I've worked on signal processing, MRP, data warehousing and feed management, microservices, monitoring, tons of other stuff. I pitch myself in interviews as someone who can come up to speed on a specialized field quickly and that's worked fine for me.
posted by Sauce Trough at 10:27 AM on April 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

I've found I'm best at this when my learning approach has clearly defined tasks so I know what I'm going to be working on. It's not so much that I was setting goals I needed to finish to hit milestones, but rather finding something that requires no brain power to start each night.

So in the context of coding, going through a book meant I could get home, go to where I left off and start typing in (or downloading) code, executing, debugging, changing, etc. meant I got some momentum going and kept it up. Trying to google a topic nightly or watch a different tutorial video or anything like that, on the other hand, drained my will power pretty quickly.

OT, but related: I did recently see a writer mention a similar thing for managing his work. He said he'd write 500 words a day (or whatever) and then stop. Sure, on the good days that meant stopping when he still had ideas and energy, but it also meant on the bad days he was usually sitting down to a work-in-progress where he at least knew the next couple sentences he'd be writing.
posted by mark k at 10:28 AM on April 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

I will be reading responses avidly because I have encountered the same challenge (am also a software engineer, and the "carve out part of your work day to learn new things" just... never works for me? Because I'm typically stressed and hurrying to finish the work I'm being measured on and once that's done I want to... do something that's not coding?).

One thing that did work for me was committing to deliver a feature in the new specialization for an open-source project. I knew there were humans expecting it and there was a set-in-stone date it was needed by (it was going to be part of a presentation), yet the stakes were lower and the expectation was that I was not an expert. The looming deadline gave me the energy to learn new things, BUT it was enormously stressful at the same time, so YMMV.
posted by rogerroger at 11:41 AM on April 20, 2021

Also, consider internal transfers within your company. In my experience, companies would much rather shuffle you internally than lose you entirely.

I used to work for a place that was a big federation of acquired companies and there was always a corner of that company that had a fresh problem for me to work on.

I was there ten years (!) but changed teams and technical environments at least every two so I tell people in interviews that I actually had five different jobs in that stretch.
posted by Sauce Trough at 12:17 PM on April 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Great ideas above. I would just add that you could adopt the mind set that you're giving a gift to your future self. People asked me how I learned (more or less) Linux when my job had nothing to do with it. I had read an IT magazine article saying "Learn Linux, you'll thank me in 10 years". Then in 2014 my company pivoted to Linux. Only problem is I forget where I read it so I can't thank them. But you get the idea. Try to say: "This is an investment in my future self, it may end up being valuable, and in any case (whatever you pick) is better than what I do every work day.
posted by forthright at 2:29 PM on April 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Come up with something you can do at work on the side that has some business value and lets you learn something. If it’s a language then write a tool in that language to automate some annoying task or analyze data. If it’s infrastructure then write a POC that runs a useful bit of your product’s code in AWS or something. This keeps you from having to become a hobbyist coder. I like to go outside on the weekends. It will also help you do your real work faster because you’ll be excited to get back to your fun project. And you can unveil it later and look like a go-getter.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:22 PM on April 20, 2021

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