Workplace Based Learning – How To Balance Learning At Work VS Home

In software development, a recurring question often emerges: Is coding outside of work hours truly necessary? While workplace based learning and on the job training undeniably play pivotal roles in a developer’s growth, many argue that extracurricular coding can provide an edge in an increasingly competitive industry. Are there enough learning and development opportunities in the workplace, or do we truly need to rely on side projects to bridge gaps?

Striking a balance between seizing learning and development opportunities in the workplace and ensuring personal well-being is crucial. After all, while both learning on the job and learning through side projects are beneficial, burnout is a genuine concern.

The New Developer’s Conundrum

Standing Out in a Competitive Job Market

For junior developers, the tech industry can sometimes feel like an intimidating labyrinth. With countless seasoned professionals and emerging talents, how can one truly stand out? The answer often lies in diversifying one’s skill set. While learning in the workplace provides a structured environment to hone skills, personal projects can showcase initiative, creativity, and a genuine passion for the craft.

Building a portfolio isn’t just about displaying completed projects; it’s about demonstrating a commitment to continuous learning outside the confines of on the job learning. Personally, when I am speaking with developers I am much less interested in how shiny and polished their projects are… I am far more interested in what they learned along the way.

The Resume Challenge for New Programmers

It’s a scenario many new developers are all too familiar with: An enticing job listing catches your eye, but the requirements section lists years of experience you haven’t had the chance to accumulate. This “experience required” paradox can be disheartening. However, extracurricular coding can offer a solution. By dedicating time outside of regular workplace based learning to develop personal projects or contribute to open-source initiatives, new programmers can showcase their skills, dedication, and adaptability. This proactive approach can help bridge the experience gap, making one’s resume more appealing to potential employers.

On-the-Job Learning vs. Exploring New Tech

The Depth of Workplace Learning

On the job learning is a cornerstone of professional development in the tech industry. It offers developers the opportunity to immerse themselves in specific tech stacks, becoming proficient and even expert in certain domains. This deep dive, often facilitated by workplace based learning, ensures that developers can handle the intricacies and challenges of their primary tools with finesse. Moreover, the workplace provides invaluable learning and development opportunities through mentorship. Senior colleagues and peers offer guidance, share their experiences, and provide feedback, enriching the learning in the workplace experience.

The Lure of the New and Unexplored

While on the job training provides depth, personal coding endeavors outside of work hours open the doors to a vast horizon of new technologies and tools. For many developers, the allure of the uncharted is irresistible. New programming languages, frameworks, and methodologies emerge regularly, each promising to revolutionize certain aspects of the tech world. Personal projects grant developers the freedom to experiment with these innovations without the constraints and requirements typical of workplace projects. This balance between deepening expertise through on the job learning and exploring the broader tech landscape can be pivotal in a developer’s journey, ensuring both proficiency in the familiar and adaptability to the new.

Transitioning Domains: The Experienced Developer’s Perspective

Why Switch Domains?

For many seasoned developers, the idea of transitioning domains is not just about chasing the next big thing in tech. It’s about seeking new challenges and ensuring continuous growth. Learning in the workplace often provides a structured path, but after mastering specific tools and processes, some developers might feel the onset of stagnation.

The rapidly evolving tech landscape continuously presents emerging opportunities, and for those who have spent years in one domain, the allure of a fresh start in another can be compelling. This drive to adapt and evolve is often fueled by the desire to stay relevant and to harness the learning and development opportunities in the workplace that a new domain might offer.

Leveraging Outside-of-Work Programming

While on the job training is invaluable, making a domain transition often requires developers to go beyond workplace-based learning. Engaging in outside-of-work programming becomes a strategic move. It allows them to build foundational knowledge, experiment without the constraints of professional projects, and prepare for the challenges of the new domain. This extracurricular coding can bridge the gap between their existing expertise and the requirements of their desired domain.

Furthermore, diving into personal projects related to the new domain can lead to networking opportunities. Engaging with communities, attending meetups, or contributing to open-source projects can provide insights, mentorship, and even job opportunities in the new domain, reinforcing the value of continuous learning on the job and beyond.

Work-Life Balance: The Double-Edged Sword

The Benefits of Downtime

In the realm of software development, where learning in the workplace is a constant, it’s essential to recognize the value of downtime. Mental health and rejuvenation are crucial for sustained productivity and creativity. Continuously engaging in workplace based learning without breaks can lead to burnout, diminishing the quality of both work output and on-the-job learning experiences.

Often we might not consider that workplace based learning can lead to burnout because we compare it to spending time on side projects. Side projects are those things that take up your personal time, taking away from your downtime and generally your chance to recharge. But constantly focusing on workplace based learning can have a similar effect on your mental fatigue.

It’s vital to remember that while coding is a significant aspect of a developer’s life, it isn’t the only one. Non-coding hobbies and activities play a crucial role in providing a holistic life experience, fostering creativity, and offering a mental break. These activities can indirectly enhance learning and development opportunities in the workplace by providing a fresh perspective and renewed energy.

The Pressure to Always Be Coding

The tech industry, with its rapid advancements, often exerts both external and internal pressures on developers. There’s a prevailing notion that one must continuously upskill, often extending beyond regular on-the-job training. This pressure can stem from various sources: peers, industry standards, or even self-imposed goals.

While it’s commendable to seek continuous learning on the job, it’s equally essential to recognize when to step back. Navigating the fear of falling behind is a challenge many face. However, it’s crucial to understand that quality often trumps quantity.

Effective, focused learning in the workplace can be more beneficial than scattered, exhaustive self-study sessions. However, some may find that dedicating small amounts of personal time gives them a more effective environment for learning. It will be situational and personal. Regardless, balancing work, learning, and personal time is the key to a fulfilling and sustainable career in tech.

Wrapping Up Workplace Based Learning

Every developer’s journey is unique, and shaped by personal aspirations, challenges, and experiences. While the tech industry often emphasizes continuous growth and upskilling, it’s essential to remember that the path to success is not universally defined. Learning in the workplace and outside of it both have their merits, but what’s most crucial is finding a balance that aligns with individual goals and well-being.

As developers embark on their careers, it’s beneficial to be open to various learning and development opportunities in the workplace and self-study side projects while also recognizing the value of personal time and non-coding pursuits. Ultimately, the most fulfilling and sustainable approach is one that is personalized, considering both professional aspirations and personal well-being.

Embracing this mindset will not only lead to career success but also ensure a rewarding and balanced life in the ever-evolving world of tech. If you want a lightweight learning opportunity every weekend, consider subscribing to Dev Leader Weekly for software engineering content straight to your inbox every weekend!

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Nick Cosentino Principal Software Engineering Manager
Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft. Views are my own.

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