During university, almost everyone around me was teaching, giving tuition to make extra money on the side. As for me? Sorry, but no thanks. I never thought I would teach and I never had the desire to. In fact, I spent the majority of my younger years proclaiming that I would never do it. Little did I know that it would change my life.
After some years in the working world, I’ve realized that work often feels meaningless to me, especially when the tasks are mundane. My days in IT support involved plenty of such tasks: crimping network cables, setting up routers, troubleshooting computer errors — important, yet often mundane and not very appreciated. My days as an iOS developer were better, with plenty of times where the work was engaging and interesting; but often times it felt meaningless too, especially when I could not relate to the target audience of the project.
Two things are often mentioned when it comes to job satisfaction: money and personal fulfillment. It isn’t always about the money; however, at that point in my life, I felt like I had neither. The work felt pointless, and I was drowning in that lack of passion. I dreaded looking at code, and I procrastinated to no end. It was a vicious cycle, and I didn’t know what I was doing with my life.
Soon, I noticed friends and folks in the community teaching at The Pragmatic Lab. It was this tiny hidden coding sanctuary in an old rundown building along the sleazy edges of Orchard Road, a computer lab surrounded by smoke, alcohol, and night clubs. Yet students craving to learn programming would brave their way through to attend classes. One of the offerings was a 3-day course on iOS — the commitment level was low, and I needed that extra money. So I figured, why not try it out too?
I never thought I would teach, and I had no idea how to prepare for a lesson. The day of that very first class, I had a serious case of the butterflies. I was one of your stereotypical shy geeks — I avoided talking in public. The events and meetups I attended often ended with me not striking a single conversation. Yet here I was, about to teach a class. Holy sh*t.
That was way back in September 2014, and that class went extremely well in the end. It wasn’t a big class — in fact, it ended up being a one-to-one session as the other students had dropped out at the last minute. That changed the game instantly for me, because I stopped trying to be a “teacher” and became a “mentor” instead. At the first startup I was in, we spent 2 months being mentored by the top-notch engineers in Pivotal Labs, and I’ve never forgotten that experience of pair programming alongside the experts. So pair programming it was — I sat side by side with my student, and instead of going through slide after slide of dry theory lessons, I built an app together with him, going through programming basics along the way. It was messy and there was no clear structure to the lesson, but it was exciting and enriching to both teacher and student. I stepped out of that lesson feeling a lot more empowered.
So much more has happened in the 2 years since. I started working full time at ALPHA Camp, teaching programming and iOS app development. I got better at relating to and engaging students, and I built stronger curriculums and lesson content. But all that aside, what really changed was me; with each student that stepped through my classroom, I gained something too.
Some of these students left very lasting impressions on me.
That first student I taught was a man in his 40s who had tried, and failed, at starting his own startup. Twice. His first attempt was during the dot-com bubble in the 90s, after which he went back to the safe zone of a well-paid cushy government job. He left for a second attempt and failed yet again, for the same reason — the lack of a committed technical co-founder. Twice was enough; he sought to fix that problem by learning to code, to pursue his startup dreams by taking up the mantle of technical co-founder himself.
Then there was the ex-insurance agent. His stint in the industry left him feeling defeated and worn out; he longed for a career switch. Through coding, he built up his confidence and self-esteem. His relentless drive in wanting to learn to become a software developer touched me, and in return, I poured in many extra hours to guide and help him. His efforts paid off eventually when he was hired as a junior developer and today, he continues to walk this path of a coder, working his way through problems with patience and tenacity.
There was also the Indonesian student living in Batam. The geographic limitation did not dampen his zest for learning iOS development — he would take an hour-long ferry ride and go through an arduous 4-hour queue at immigration just to attend my class, and because class ended late, he would put up in a hotel overnight before heading back to Batam for work the next day. His commitment to learning was unquestionable.
The nights we spent coding together, well after class hours, watching them achieve that sense of satisfaction when they get something working, the nights spent fooling around with a quad-copter drone before and after class, that communal laughter, the intrinsic bonds between different people, forming bit by bit. Teaching hasn’t just been about me passing on knowledge. It hasn’t just been about me inspiring them to code. Teaching has also been these students inspiring me and rekindling my passion for the craft.
I’m ready for the next lap, leaving my full-time role at ALPHA Camp to hone my skills and return to being a craftsman.
It is true that the more you give, the more you receive. I taught and I set out to inspire, but they were the ones who gave me the inspiration.
I took up that challenge, and gained so much from it. What about you?