For an upcoming project, Andy Adams and I are working to build [what I consider to be] a really cool site for a client. Details of the project aside, he and I had a really interesting conversation earlier this week the details of which I thought were worth sharing. Specifically, we talk about developer pragmatism and balancing work with our home lives.

To some degree, I almost consider this to be a sort of letter-to-my-20-year-old-self, but I think it’s relevant to anyone who may be young and starting out in the field of development or who may be about to experience a major life change for whatever reason.

For those not wanting to read the entire post, the gist of it is this:

The ability to sit at your computer and consume as much information as possible regarding programming, software development, and so on is likely to change as you experience major changes in your life.

The thing is, this can sound like a major bummer if you’re someone on the cusp of a major life change. But it’s not and I thought I’d share why – at least as far as my experience allows me to do so.

Balancing Work and Home

First, some background: Shortly after college when I was living in an apartment working my 9-to-5 and doing a little bit of contract work, I had what is likely considered to be the standard bachelor habits.

That is, I had a mattress sitting on the floor of my living room. I had my TV, my DVD player, my video game systems, and bed all in the same room. On one side of the room was my computer setup (I had two machines each running different operating systems and all of that jazz), and on the other side of the room was the kitchen.

Here’s the thing: This was a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment (as I was going to be getting married in a few months). Did I take advantage of either of that space? Not at all.

Why?

Because I was perfectly fine existing in the space that spanned from the kitchen to the computers. And it felt like a sweet deal: I’d go to work, write software, then come home, and get to tinker with other programming languages, read blogs, try new things out, and generally build stuff even if no one was going to be using.

Then I’d crash and repeat the process. But all of this slowly began to change once I got married.

Now, to be clear, that sounds like a negative and I assure you that it’s not. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be working for myself if it wasn’t for the push from my wife to venture into this, but that’s another post for another time.

Marriage, Dogs, Kids, and More

Fast-forward a few years and I’m married, in a house, mortgage, two dogs, and two kids. Life is as busy as it’s ever been, but my priorities are extremely different.

Obviously, I don’t have the amount of time that I used to have in terms of sitting at my computer for hours on end (and into the wee hours of the morning) working on whatever it is I wanted to work on.

Instead, I’ve a family to take care of, I’ve a mortgage, there’s retirement investing to think about, there’s life insurance, car insurance, health insurance, and every other type of bill that comes with being an adult.

And don’t misread me: I’m not complaining. I absolutely love the direction that my life has gone.

But I have, on occasion, received questions that go something like this:

Don’t you miss being able to work with computers as much as you once were?

I get where the question is coming from: Trust me, there’s a constant tension that I don’t think ever goes away of “Am I learning everything I need to be learning in order to keep my skills sharp in [whatever part of the industry I’m in]?”

But just as my life has changed over the past 10 years, so have my priorities. Sure, I’d love to learn every new programming language and utility that’s available under the sun, but what would it really contribute to the bottom line of my livelihood?

Right now, I tend to learn things on a need-to-know basis. It’s like a page-fault in computer science: If I know it, then I use it; if I don’t, then I learn it, use it, and move on.

The other things in my life, though, far outweigh whether or not I know the latest ins-and-outs of, say, Ruby on Rails. Right now, I do well to continue my deep dive into WordPress and into all of the tangential technology.

  • Yes, I’m concerned about building a successful business.
  • Yes, I’m concerned about making sure that I’m delivering the best possible solution for my customers.
  • Yes, I’m concerned that I’m providing for my family.
  • Yes, I want to make sure that I’m continually advancing my skill set within the field.

But I’ve other priorities – more important priorities – than this right now: I want to make sure that my wife and I (who have known and dated one another since high school, no less) continue to have the strongest marriage possible.

The Mrs. and Me

The Mrs. and Me

I want to make sure that I am spending as much time as possible with my girls during their waking hours to let them know that they are more important than anything else in my life right now.

The Kiddos

The Kiddos

I also want to make sure that I’m as healthy as I can possibly be given my age. Computer programming is a relatively sedentary job, so I try to exercise at least six days a week (sometimes two-a-days since the summer days are so long :).

Some snapshots of exercising.

Some snapshots of exercising.

And then when the house is quiet and everyone else is settled down, I have other hobbies to pursue – sometimes it’s reading, but the majority of the time it’s continuing to do a deep dive into music theory (specifically around the guitar, which is something I’ve played since I was in middle school).

One of my favorite acoustics.

One of my favorite acoustics.

So the majority of my working hours are spent as laser focused as possible on my actual job so that I can be the best possible developer that I can be without compromising any of the above.

Gotta include a shot of the dogs.

Gotta include a shot of the dogs.

Sure, sometimes it’s tough, and yes, it requires a bit of re-arranging at times, but that’s simply the nature of life.

But make no mistake: Just because I’m not sleeping on a mattress in my living room working on some random piece of software that may never see the light of day, I’m doing the very best I can to invest in the things that matter during the times that matter.

During the working hours, that’s work. During the evening hours and weekends, that’s family and personal hobbies.

There’s More To Life

And you know what? Despite a lot of the FUD that the industry would have you believe – especially those that constantly post on certain forums and sites each day of the week – it’s possible to make a living for yourself, provide for your family, and pursue your own interests all within the normal hours of the day.

It absolutely requires time management and discipline and I know that varies from person to person, and that’s fine.

We’re all different.

Ultimately, though, I want to be able to look back in, say, the next 10 to 20 years and know that I spent the time that I had during my waking hours and divided them appropriately so that good work was done when it should have been, and that my wife and daughters were given as much care, fun, and attention as possible.

They will always hold a priority over whatever the next big programming paradigm is.

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Join the conversation! 10 Comments

  1. Great read and spot on. Get out there and keep living life.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Nice post!

    I totally agree with you, for me it was quite difficult to change my “workaholic” habits, but that all changed last year when I got married :)

    I began to work less, and most surprising thing that happened – I began to work much more productive. And now my family and a healthy lifestyle are key priorities in my life.

    • It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I think those who are “workaholics” wouldn’t always identify themselves as such but when you look at the habits and the things that we do, we definitely have (or have had) the symptoms.

      Relationships/Partnerships/Marriages/Committments/Whatever-You-Wanna-Call-Them is a fantastic thing, IMHO. It really helps us to frame our life differently than we would if we were on another trajectory.

      Good thoughts, Max

  3. Well said, dude. This for me was the key takeaway that’s nice to hear from someone else in the same “life stage” as I am:

    “Despite a lot of the FUD that the industry would have you believe – especially those that constantly post on certain forums and sites each day of the week – it’s possible to make a living for yourself, provide for your family, and pursue your own interests all within the normal hours of the day.”

  4. Spot on,

    But its hard. I do not worry about learning every new thing that comes along. I worry about knowing the right things. If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably have stayed coding games and perhaps gone mad.

    Seriously.

    That was more than a 9-5 but there is alot to be said for 9-5.

    In my life, there are at least 5 times as a programmer its been flipped upside down. My staking time into specific software technologies and when they wane, and they always do (something that younger engineers have not experienced) I end up with a skill set that doesnt work for me.

    For example saying I coded with Joomla or WP with PHP for the past 9 years wont get me into Google, Apple, Amazon. It just wont. I just went through this with a fella who comes to our pub night. I ran into him at a local Target store and he asked me if I had a moment.

    He got out of school here and went to work for GE, C++. He then started working for a local operation that does WP, Magento, J! etc stuff. Benn there ever since. He said the market for the stuff contrary to whats commonly said appears to be drying up and there are alot of contract coders using online services now. So the firm he works for gets undercut by everywhere from India to China and inbetween. I asked him just for curiosity sake an example.

    He pondered for a few. Then said they had the job on the wire for a inventory management / parts deal. Auto stuff. Where dealerships (mostly indies) could login, look for parts, secure them, then they get delivered and paid for. They quoted something in the area of $7,000 using WordPress. The job ended up being bid on at one of the places, I forger which. But he said it went for like $1200 or maybe it was 1400, I forget.

    Anyways, he wants out of where he's at. I DID ask him about running his own show. He said that makes things worse. Thats what his boss does now. He didnt want make the same mistakes which is why he wants out.

    I've been around a while, 35 years since I wrote my first line of code.

    Anyone running their own biz realizes the benefits, you can make your own schedule. You can just say, "Not today". You get reap direct rewards of your work. All forms of goodness. It was like this in the early video games days and even into much of the mainstream PC gaming days.

    But know what, when I exited it and went for jobs and had quite a resume 98% of what was on it was useless and I was already out of date. Per se.

    Thats the danger and its the most common one. Small business in engineering of dynamic forms of technology can end up bricked.

    I wasnt planning around the future. Heck. Back then this stuff was all growing still so the future was truly very unknown. Now, not so much the case. There is alot of information on what scant years from now will look like. Things such as Apache and Nginx are already dead and dont know it for example.

    mySQL will be relegated to history as Oracle steps its mainstream products into Big Data. See... Alot of these mega-entities common thought is they buy up because its a potential competitor down the road and thats in part true. But those are not the driving factors in software today, many moons back, yes, no longer today. Today its aquire to steer because the future of the technology is simply more defined. Its not guesswork anymore like it was back in say 1995.

    The purchase for example of mySQL was blocked in Europe and they were not budging. But come what may, some calls and papers from the USA (which Wikileaks reported) and bam, the sale goes through just like that. Read between the lines and look around. Reason is clear. Control of software technologies is the only way to regulate the web. Web regulation is not an "IF" its a when as it must happen. While all of us readers may not use the web in a malevolent or evil fashion there are heaps and gobs that do. Because of that, governments globally expend ridiculous resources trying to cope with it more or less deal with it. That was deemed unsustainable in 2006. In other words, there is not enough money to pay enough people and create the technologies to cope with it.

    Aside.

    Point all being, if anyone is seeking “what can be?” it tends go like this. Right now, things are good. Got enough work, enjoy it, I have this skill set and that ecosystem. Just as from the age of 19-28 I was C++, video games coding on some fairly significant titles with brands such as Sierra, EA, Thorn, Maxis and others.

    At 28 wanted change. Sought jobs. I’d even helped write Jack Purdums first C compiler for CP/M, he was CEO of Que Books, back then a BIG publisher of tech books. Not a lick of it did me any good except “C / C++ / Assembler” on my resume. Because I was approaching 30, alot of businesses were seeking new blood they could mold. The term, “Video Games” was poison on the resume. Yet, that technology was the driving factor of home computing growth which was the factor in business computers hardware growth.

    Back to this fella.

    He’s in the same boat. His PHP resume will get him no place. So he’s boxed.

    I asked him, what do you think the next 10 years brings?

    He stated he believes everything will be mobile based. He’s right. Its all mobility and doing anything, anywhere, anytime through any smart / client device.

    Reason (Tom), of the "1 billion+ Windows installs" (it will be closer to double that in actuality). MS bought Nokia years back because what is bottom now (Win Mobile) will be up top by 2020-2025. Win 10 is transitional. What is within it are the core things to broker Win and Mac OS online. Both companies have been working together since 2009 towards online OS's. Apple need be .NET ready, #3 reason mono exists. #2 is web, #1 is wiping out indie web successes. Lots of international funds have appeared to foster many things all towards (their goals) of being able to control what has been deemed unsustainable.

    So… 10 years from now where does “I worked with PHP and whatever” seat me?”. Thats what I put to him. It seats me at the exact same place I was with video games. I have this skill set that worked good for me while it worked. When I wanted out or tech changes I now have a skill set unwanted in the new ecology and atop that, I am 10 years older and 10 years away from what was happening.

    Thats the danger point. I’ve hit it numerous times. I hit it with Visual Basic as well. VB was widely used, then plop and on the Resume be that for business or my own business became worthless.

    IMHO (take it for what the experience is worth), if your going to run your own biz in coding and your plan is to keep doing that forever, then you either A. Create products that fill the bank account significantly and thus have a sized buffer of funds as change happens and it will, count on it. If change doesnt happen your always still good. But the what if it does part is the danger. You have a significant funds buffer to fall back on while you reposition self. B. You keep your skill set honed to latest so you have a spot, dont know what that spot might be, but at least one knows, I have a spot. Say its C#. Resume says, you know C# and been in WP / PHP for 10 years. Ok, you qualify for an entry level position as you have been out of the industry too long, “We’ll see how it goes”.

    The problem with running your own show ESPECIALLY in tech that is not mainstream in business and contrary to belief WP is not that is orphaning oneself and years marching whilst colleges push out those with to date skill sets. Worse now, its global. China is training kids ever so early in coding. Buckets and buckets of them.

    The landscape today one makes a living within. The landscape 10 years from now can be very different (and in the case of web tech will be as it has to be and again, thats not from biz perspective, its mandated by governments globally).

    Some need not worry, they made their hay. “I have 40 million in the bank”, while this is what I think or this is what I believe will happen to them there is no concern. They dont need think survival 10 years down the pike.

    The next wave in computing / web is completely different from today. In comparisons one might say, “Remember Usenet?” Remember “WWW”? The contrast between the two is similar to whats coming. I’d say, “Oh hogwash!” (especially me as I have saw alot of hogwash in 35 years). Many said Hogwash about the GUI’s. I did. Then I saw a proto-mac at Xerox HQ which is in Webster NY. Ooops.

    I have saw now 5 smart client / server applications. Four in Video, one out of Buffalo directly (a online publisher sorta, and then some). I cant say Hogwash. In fact, I’ve been shocked by each one and I am not easily shocked.

    Or you can see it too. Simply look at the Mass multiplayer Xbox One / PS/4 games. Now imagine that same performance and capabilities curves applied to applications. Thats whats coming. Its already rearing its head, 1 billion Win 10 installs in scant years. Thats transitional. Its the means to start towards OS online which is smart client / server.

    PHP, mySQL, Apache, Nginx, none of it will service big data on scales of billions and billions, secure, effective and performing.

    As with any business its not just today or 6 months or a year from today. IF (and I say IF) your future you deem critical be that family or the house in Jamaica then need think really farther down the line.

    You dont want be 40 years old and a novelty. Hello Me <- (and for 12 more years now).

    It sounds so cool talking to a guy who was there at the beginnings of all this stuff. Cool beans. Its quite different to live it.

    Take acuity. When I was 20 to perhaps 35 you could put any coding stuff in front of me and I'd chew it right up. Few cognitive "I dont get it's". Hit 35 what seemed a breeze now is not so much a breeze. Hit 45, how come I need read things two or three times to stick?

    Effectively once you hit the 40's things change.

    For example, before 40 I never considered time alot. But reality is at 25 years of age one third of ones productive life is already passed. At 30 we are pretty much nearly half. At 40, we either are "all set" or there simply is no light on the horizon's. Thats the truth.

    So... with all that said. What did I tell this young man?

    I told him, take a second job. Put money away. Even if its an entry level coding job. I said build a money buffer. Leave your current employer when you have at least a year preferably two of money reserve. Do this as fast as you can muster. Build some great items for WordPress. Sell them. Make the money while the market is there as it wont be there forever. Its an anomaly and as with all anomalies sieze them whilst the getting is good. This technology marches on and the old will always wane to the new as it has for all my years.

    I advised him when he hits paydirt, start transitioning the skill set.

    He asked about the WP services business as he'd thought of starting his own firm. I stated to him that service is only as long as demand. While demand is there now, 10 years from now it may not be. Wouldnt you rather while the opportunity exists hit real paydirt?

    If he creates 5 items that make him several million dollars would he not rather do that than have to chase around to make $150,000 a year?

    This can happen in WP. But WP is an anomaly. Its popularity if fantastic but ask yourself, will it stand the test of time. The answer is no. Just like the original playstation, PS/2, PS/3, DOS, Mac Classic OS, on and on and on. Software technology NEVER can stand the test of time as its always moving ahead.

  5. One of the simplest and hardest things: making sure your life is well-balanced and fulfilling in every area.

  6. Hey Tom, thank you for this insightful post. I’ve been going through similar experiences for the past couple of years.

    In my line of work I get to interact with bright and talented young people, but sometimes it’s hard for them to understand where I am at, since they have all the time in the world at their disposal :)

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