Learning to code (again) at 49 – part 1

A few months ago I got an itch. It started gradually, arriving unannounced, so quietly at first I barely noticed it. But then, over time, it became more noticeable.

This wasn’t the kind of itch that was going to get me in trouble with my wife though. This was a mental itch. Something I hadn’t felt for a very long time. I wanted to write some code.

In the beginning...

I got my first computer in 1983. It was a ZX Spectrum, with rubber keys (like the photo above). It had 16Kb RAM of memory that eventually got upgraded to 48Kb (yes, that’s Kb). Over the next few years I learned to program in BASIC, but mostly I played games on it – classics like Lazer Squad, Gunship and Jet Set Willy. It wasn’t very common for kids in the Irish countryside to have a home computer at that time and it was the centrepiece whenever my friends and cousins visited. One set of cousins did get a Spectrum too and we swapped games on cassette tapes, twiddling the azimuth-alignment screws on tape recorders to make sure the pickups could read the audible beeps and blips that the games had been saved in.

Learning more about this computer stuff seemed like a good idea to me back then, so in 1989 I set off to a technical college to earn a degree in computer science. Over the next four years, I learned assembly language and Pascal, Modula-2 and C, Cobol and Fortran, and more. I spent long hours in the computer lab working on projects, alone or with friends. I learned to touch-type so I could program faster and go home earlier. My third-year internship was spent testing handheld sales system software for a software company in Dublin and wrote planetarium software in C for my final year project.

I didn’t feel any great desire to enter the workforce as a software developer after graduation though. Maybe I’d just spent too many hours in the lab and needed to do something different. I worked for a year as a part-time lecturer at my college, regurgitating my lecture notes to the following years’ students, then rejoined the company I’d interned at, becoming a member of the technical support team in their London office. The mix of problem-solving and working with people pressed the right buttons for me – I enjoyed working on technical problems as a non-programmer and found satisfaction in hearing from users whose problems we’d solved. I did write scripts from time to time (hello DOS batch files), but programming started to slip away into the past, something I’d done at college but didn’t need as a creative outlet.

2021

Fast forward to 2021. I’ve worked as an IT recruiter since coming to Japan in 1999. I originally took a job in recruitment as it sounded like a fun way to experience Japan for a year or two before heading back to Ireland or the UK to another role in IT. However, like many people, I settled into life in Tokyo, made good friends, and stayed a lot longer than I’d originally intended.

Working in recruitment allows me to exercise my three greatest talents – solving problems for people, talking a lot, and drinking coffee (I’m really good at drinking coffee) – whilst keeping in touch with the world of technology. My friends are mostly people I met as colleagues, candidates, and clients, and I spend a lot of time keeping up to date on tech as it’s ever-changing. I enjoy my work and until this year, programming had remained in the past.

So what’s changed and why now? I think it’s a mix of factors. Like many people, working from home during Covid has freed up the time I spent commuting (several hours per day) and I feel the need to do something useful with that time (at least not spend the extra hours just watching Netflix). Also, I’ve spoken with quite a few software development bootcamp new grads this year and have been impressed by their willingness to learn something new and take a new career direction into IT during the middle of a pandemic. Software development is more accessible now than ever before, with endless information on the internet to help beginners and experienced developers alike. With web and mobile development it’s easier than ever to find an outlet for your creativity. Want to wake up each morning to the sound of your dogs barking? Write a mobile app for your phone. Want to share family photos without giving them to Facebook? Build yourself a website.

So while I’m not planning on changing my career, I decided that it’s time to get back into the coding saddle.

What and How?

How to start? I wrote a post on LinkedIn asking developers for advice on what they’d recommend I learn, and how, and I was lucky enough to receive a lot of feedback from the community. On what to learn, the advice was split fairly evenly 50/50 between JavaScript and Python (depending on my learning goals). For how to learn, it was mainly to jump into something practical, such as an online course or a bootcamp, and get coding from day one. Interestingly, only one person recommended learning some theory. My college days were a mix of theory and practice (the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’), and I had expected more people would recommend knowing what’s going on under the hood. I guess that’s not really necessary to get started though, and ‘doing’ is probably more important in the early stages.

I decided upon JavaScript for several reasons. First of all, I want to make a browser-based game as a project to keep me motivated and JavaScript looks good for this. Secondly, I know a lot of JavaScript developers so there’s a nice pool of people I can annoy for help and advice. Finally, as a recruiter, I see a lot more job opportunities in JavaScript currently than in other languages, so having more understanding will help my day-to-day work speaking to job hunters and hiring managers.

For how to learn, there are a lot of options, with bootcamps, online courses, YouTube videos, books, online university classes, and more. One limiting factor I have is that I need to keep a very flexible schedule for my job (I often have calls outside business hours arranged at short notice), so some options such as taking a bootcamp (such as the excellent bootcamps offered by Le Wagon) are difficult due to scheduling.

I decided to start off with an online course that I could work on anytime and chose Codecademy’s Introduction to JavaScript course to get me going. It’s a 30-hour course that starts with the basics. I’m happy to know that my middle-aged brain can remember the basics pretty well – variables and constants, conditional statements, and all the rest. Once I finish the introductory course, I’ll probably dive into their Intermediate course and get cracking on my game, and we’ll see what I can really achieve after a 28-year gap.

Thinking ahead

So as I’m learning to code (again) at 49, I’ll write some update posts every few months on my progress, on what the challenges are and how I’m doing, and perhaps it’ll be interesting to some of you out there.

Wish me luck!

Have you done something like this? I’d love to hear your story. Drop me a comment below.

Looking for a new IT job in Japan? Check out my job board. Hiring? Get in touch and let’s see if I can help.

2 thoughts on “Learning to code (again) at 49 – part 1”

  1. Good on you Paul! I am always amazed at how dedicated a lot of people in tech are to continuously learn and step out of their comfort zone, even though they’re already seasoned professionals in their field. It’s one of the great things about this industry imo. Good luck with your return to coding!

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