Coding, Preschool Style—My Udacity Grow with Google Experience

Some 5,000 students have been a part of the Grow with Google Scholarship — a US-focused program offering learning opportunities to a dedicated and diverse group of incredible individuals. Udacity invited students to share their experiences in their own words, and we were delighted to receive some truly powerful stories of transformation and success. Today, we’d like to share one of our favorites.

Anyone who has tried to learn to code can tell you that it’s a daunting experience no matter what your circumstances are. What I can tell you is that learning to code with a toddler underfoot is an especially enormous challenge!

Learning to code takes a lot of focus, time spent staring intently at the monitor, examining what you have written in an attempt to figure out why its just not working. This presents a direct conflict when you have to switch gears at a moments notice, when the calls of “Mommy, Mommy” permeate the air. Often times, when taking care of a small child, asking them to be patient and “wait a second” is NOT a viable choice. They want their Cheerios, and they want them NOW (and trust me changing gears and getting them their cereal is a much quicker alternative then letting them attempt to do it themselves).

I quickly realized not only would I have to learn how to code, I would also have to learn how to change the way in which I approached the task of completing the Udacity Grow with Google Scholarship, while keeping my son entertained.

I first began my coding journey a few years ago when I decided to make a career change from nursing to web development. After a personal tragedy in my life I realized that I wanted a career change. My husband has worked in the tech industry since we have been together, and I always found it fascinating, but always thought it was beyond my capabilities. I started off with books I could not comprehend, and Coursera courses I barely understood. After numerous failures, and a few successes, I began to learn some valuable fundamentals to computer programming.

Shortly after learning these fundamentals I realized that I would need to dive much deeper to get to a professional level. Since we are currently a one income family and budget is always a concern, I began to look online for resources that were either low-cost or provided scholarship opportunities. This is when I found the Udacity Grow with Google Scholarship. The opportunity was presented with two paths, Web Developer, or Android Developer. In each path there were two tracks, and completion of the second track awarded the respective NanoDegree program from Udacity. The scholarship to the first track was offered to 15,000 applicants, and scholarships to the second track were offered to the top 1,500 students from the first track. I decided to apply for the Web Developer path, and went through the application process. To my surprise I was accepted and began the Intro to HTML and CSS portion of the course.

“During the first part of the scholarship, it was fairly easy to schedule my “productive” coding time around my son’s nap times. However, as all parents know, once you get used to a schedule, your children change it.”

Coincidentally, about the time that he decided he was too big for naps, was the exact same time that I completed the first track of the Web Developer course. I then received news that I was one of the top students and had been awarded the scholarship to complete the Front End Web Developer Nanodegree program. I remember being equally terrified and excited all at once, terrified because I knew things were only going to get more difficult, but excited (and proud) to dive deeper into the world of web development.

Looking at the course outline, I quickly realized I was going to need to devote more time to this second part of the program if I was going to be successful. Awesome, I thought to myself, I need more time, but how I am going to be able to get it while still being Mom? Like most parents, the first place I thought I could get some extra time was those hours that are seemingly wasted with our eyes closed. My plan was to start getting up with my husband, who gets up at the insane hour of 4 A.M, nearly every morning. This would give me at least three good hours of coding while the kids were still asleep. Countless gallons of coffee and ten days later, I realized cutting out sleep was not going to work. Then, one day in my sleepy haze, I realized the answer to this problem was in front of me all along—I just needed to look at the problem differently.

One of the things we have consistently done as parents is keep our kids involved in the things that we are doing, and my youngest was no different. When I first began this adventure in learning to code through books I would find at the library, he would sit on my lap and I would read the book to him. We had an old Windows XP laptop that we dug out of the closet so my son could sit and “work” on his computer next to me.

He enjoyed doing it because we were doing something together, and it also allowed me to be able to focus on what I was doing. I suddenly realized that keeping him involved with me as I was learning had to be the foundation for my plan going forward.

The first step of getting him involved was to start explaining to him what it was that I was learning as I was trying to do it. Sometimes he would be interested, other times he was happy going off and doing his thing. I also tied my coding time to a timer set for thirty minutes, and would set up some type of activity for him to do along side me. I would explain to him that when the timer went off it was our time to do something. When the timer did go off, I would put on a lecture in the background, and while I was working with him on his letters or drawings, be listening to it. It was amazing at how many things just sunk in when I would be actually writing code later. In the beginning it was difficult to always stick to the schedule, but the longer we did, and the more I tried to keep him involved, the easier it became.

“Keeping my son involved was a great idea, but it did have its pitfalls. When I was working on the memory game project, he became not only my official beta tester, but also my project manager, with his never-ending question of “is it done, yet?””

During the frogger clone project, he could barely control himself, and the “is it done yet?” question was coupled with “Can I play it now?” Talk about pressure! But the smile of joy when he played the games, knowing that his mom wrote them, made it all worth it. When I would get frustrated with things just not working, I would turn the music on loud, and he would become my dance buddy to help me dance out the problem.

He cheered me on during the days that I didn’t feel like even looking at the computer with his questions of “Mommy, when are you going to work?”.

“The day I submitted my final project, and found out I passed, my son told me how proud of me he was, which made the entire experience so much more amazing.”

Going through this journey not only taught me how to write code, it also taught me that sometimes, to meet your goals, you have to think about the approach differently. You may sometimes have to be flexible while attempting to adhere to a schedule or routine. Finally, you have to be able to press on when you have a million distractions to contend with.

Leslie, thank you for sharing your awesome story with us! We’ll be publishing more of our favorite stories from the Grow with Google scholars shortly, so check back soon!