Voices of Gatsby: How I Learned to Code as a Full-Time Working Parent

Shaundai Person
August 28th, 2020

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“If I could go back and do it all over, I would’ve gone to school for Computer Science.”  I could hardly believe those words just came out of my mouth.

“Really?!” my sister exclaimed.  She was surprised as I was.  The pressures of balancing a challenging CS course load had been weighing on her and she was thinking of switching majors, again, just a year before graduating. 

“Definitely,” I said. “It’s hard, but it’ll be worth it. I know you can do it. Stick it out and when you get your first job you can buy me a boat – yay!”  She wrinkled her nose and laughed.

It really was true. Though I was grateful for such a successful sales career, a huge part of me wished I’d learned about software development as a profession back when I had been the one deciding on a major, over a decade earlier.

Growing up, I’d never actually seen programming as a viable career path. I didn’t know anyone in the tech space and so only had stereotypes to go off of. I’d pictured programmers as Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park. You know, the super-nerdy, socially awkward guy who deactivates the park’s security system, letting all the dinosaurs loose? That was my vision. People who eat mathematics for breakfast and spend the workday in front of screens streaming with 0’s and 1’s.

nerdy programmer Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park

When you’re eighteen, this is certainly not the most appealing option. Ultimately I chose Entrepreneurship because I figured that, in four years, I could learn everything it took to become the next Oprah…and I’d be a billionaire by age 22 or 23.

Instead, by my early 30s I found myself almost a decade into a career in tech sales — not to mention $55k deep in student loans after finishing my MBA. I was certainly good at what I did; I’d won numerous awards for continually exceeding my numbers quarter after quarter.  Still, I didn’t see sales as my path forever.

My “Aha!” moment 

I’d actually dabbled in programming many times in my life before my “aha” moment finally came. From using the command line to load computer games to building a Geocities site to customizing my Myspace page, I’ve been a coder since I was very young — I just never realized it!

In 2015, I left my tech sales career to build my own online company. I started by doing what I knew (selling stuff!), but quickly realized that what I loved most about my business was learning Liquid so I could customize my Shopify eCommerce site.  Over time, other online business owners offered to pay me to build their Shopify sites for them as well. Suddenly, web development became not just something I was interested in, but something I could make a living doing! For the first time in my life, I’d found a passion that pays.

By 2017, however, I was headed back into tech sales. I was pregnant with my son and I wanted more financial security. I told myself that switching careers would no longer be possible; parenthood would require me to be practical. This meant sticking with a career I was already familiar with, and where I was already well established.  Besides, there’d be no time or money for getting a CS degree. Sales is a demanding role in itself – couple that with parenting and I wouldn’t even have time to compare universities, much less apply to programs. I reminded myself that leaving the workforce and paying tuition while my son was in diapers wasn’t practical, either.

Still, though, the dream stayed with me, in the moments in between working and parenting. Someday, maybe…

Someday is Today

Then one day I came across an advertisement for CodecademyYou don’t need to have a CS degree or go to a bootcamp to become a programmer! one of the student testimonials said. I got a job as an engineer and I’m completely self-taught.

Self-taught. Now that sounded like something I could do. Sure, it’d take a lot longer, but I could pace myself. Balance work, school and parenting, and get a better understanding about what it meant to be a programmer — before abandoning my 10-year career to start anew.

My earlier passion for programming blossomed — I LOVED every minute of learning to code! Still, I wanted to start slowly. At first the goal was to try to fit in a half hour a day a few days a week around my job and my child. But because building things was so much fun, I quickly found myself coding past 1 am most days! Slowly the realization settled in that programming actually could be the practical path. In fact, all those rules I’d originally had in my head about what was practical vs impractical for my career were all just that…in my head.  

Sure, I’d proven that I could be successful in sales, and it was the known and reliable path. But I was realizing now that there were other important things to consider: I wanted my child to have a mother who was living without regrets. A happy mom who is fulfilling her potential is best equipped to raise a happy child who will live out his dreams, I realized. That’s what mattered to me. That’s what I wanted for us.

Maniacal Prioritization

Finding the time to build my coding skills while working a demanding job and being a full-time single parent (in a pandemic!) took sacrifice.  When you become a parent, you’re forced to follow whatever schedule your baby dictates for you and still somehow work and manage the household given the opportunity to really hone those time management skills through lots of practice. 

I started with writing a list of my top priorities (be a good mom, switch careers, get rock-hard abs) and became incredibly intentional about my time. It required learning to say “no” to things that didn’t fit my list.  I deleted social media and only allowed myself to watch Netflix once a week. I even cut out alcohol because it made me so sluggish the next day.  My schedule looked mostly like this:

  • Wake up at 6am.  Work out.
  • Put (sales) work away at 5pm.
  • Dedicated family time until 9pm. Put son to bed.
  • Code or watch a coding course. Bedtime by 12am (sometimes 1am)

It took more than a year, but I am currently preparing to make a transition to the engineering team at my company.

I want to be completely honest though – every day has not followed a perfect schedule. In fact, it’s safe to say that I never had one “perfect” day, ever. Some days get so crazy that I don’t even get the chance to code. 

I tell you this because I want you to understand that there is nothing magical about how I built the skills to switch careers. It all began with me being tired of regretting decisions made in the past and deciding instead to focus on designing my future. Past-me was past, why waste time looking back? I simply decided now was the time to change paths so that future-me will never need to look back with any regrets about today. 

What would future-you wish you had done differently today?

Shaundai Person
Written by
Shaundai Person

Account Manager at SalesLoft. Developer. Mom. Inventor of the modern paper towel (1942). Loves peanut butter cups and long walks on the beach.

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