How many of you out there have thought about learning to code—even becoming a software engineer—only to have some little voice of doubt make you think otherwise? Maybe it’s concerns about not being able to learn everything you need to succeed. Maybe you’re worried about fitting into the infamous “hacker” culture. Or maybe you just don’t think you’re smart enough to work beside those genius developers.
Well, it’s time to shut that voice down.
No, I’m not about to tell you that learning to code will be easy or that you will immediately find success. But I am here to tell you that many of the reasons you’ve been telling yourself “that’s probably not for me” are wildly untrue.
I chatted with a group of developers, many of whom have made the transition from other careers, about the myths they see that hold people back from learning to code—and heard some inspiring truths for those of us who have been thinking of taking the leap.
Myth #1: You Need to Be a Genius to Write Code
“The myth I feared before learning to write code was simply that I wasn't smart enough to be good at it,” admits Jonah Lopin, who started learning to code two years ago and has now founded and written the front end for his own company, Crayon. “It seemed so complicated to write code. The people who write code professionally seemed so smart. It was intimidating. And this is coming from someone who studied physics at Cornell and scored in the 99th percentile on the GMAT! I imagine other folks share this fear.”
No kidding. This was the most common myth that developer transplants admitted to worrying about before they dove into the field. There’s this holier-than-thou perception of the engineers of the world. And it’s understandable why we see them this way: They spend hours working in languages that most of us can’t even begin to understand and building things we can’t always see. It’s true that they do things a little differently than the rest of us.
But it’s not true that they are objectively smarter. Being a software engineer is more about knowing how to think than about being smart. “Sure, there are some really complicated CS problems that only a handful of people in the world are qualified to solve. But those are the exception, not the rule,” explains Lopin. “What it takes to succeed as a developer has a lot more to do with creativity, common sense, dedication, and hard work than it does with raw brain power.”
“If you know basic algebra and have strong puzzle and problem-solving skills, you are on track to becoming a great software developer,” adds Bruna Calheiros, an interactive designer at weeSpring. In other words? A middle-schooler could do it with the right dedication.
And a final reminder from those who have successfully become developers? You’re smarter than you think—so don’t get in your own way! “I think a large percentage of humanity is ‘smart,’ but improving and learning depends on whether they exercise their abilities or not,” shares Hannah Sison, a student at coding school Dev Bootcamp. “I would argue that anyone can learn how to program.”
Myth #2: You’ll Never Catch Up
Okay, so maybe you’ve convinced yourself that you are actually smart enough to code, but now you start wondering: How will I ever catch up with people who have been working on these challenges for years and years? The world of software engineering is vast—it’s easy to wonder how you can possibly learn it all in a short enough period of time to be a viable career option.
Michael Moss, now a developer at Collage.com, had these same worries when he was considering making the career switch from working in test prep and pursuing acting. “It turns out one of the most interesting things about development is that you’re never really caught up—it’s a constant learning process,” he shares. “To some extent, every coder is always still learning how to code as standards change and new tools become available.”
So, what should you do? Spend some time learning the fundamentals—then dive in, admit when you don’t know things, and find a way to figure them out. “Google can be a great resource!” reminds Cari Westbrook, a graduate of creative writing and environmental studies and now a student at Dev Bootcamp. Even the most seasoned developers aren’t afraid to do a quick web search, turn to StackOverflow (sort of an actually helpful Yahoo Answers for engineers), or even just ask their colleagues.
“The nature of the web is that most of the technology is open and visible.
The culture is such that sharing knowledge is valued,” explains second-career web developer Tom Nicolosi.
Myth #3: You’ll Never Be Able to Flex Your Creative Muscle
For those of us coming from more creative backgrounds, it can be easy to feel like working in software development would be dull. After all—isn’t it basically solving logic problems all day?
“Developing definitely involves solving problems, but I liken it more to building something out of Legos,” explains Paul Webster, horticulture laborer turned web developer for Doubledot Media Limited. “You can try different pieces until the right one fits, and at the end, you’ve built something that is actually in most senses a ‘creation.’ As such, I find you do get a significant amount of creative fulfillment.”
In other words, coding is often how engineers express their creativity. Yusuf Simonson, CTO of The Muse, explains that this myth about software development bothers him the most. In fact, coding allows him to express abstract ideas in the same way a painter might do so in a work of art; he just can’t paint or draw as well as he can write code.
Plus, depending on your role, you might get to do more traditional creative work than you’d think. Front-end engineers, for example, can spend as much time thinking about layouts and fonts as they do writing code. Explore the various roles available, talk to people who are doing those things to understand what their day-to-day looks like, and see if you can find one that matches your strengths.
Myth #4: You’ll Never Fit Into the “Nerdy” Culture
All it takes is a quick scan of pop culture to see how prevalent stereotypes about programmers are. Take a look at The Social Network movie or the show Silicon Valley. They tend to look something like this.
And while, yes, Silicon Valley at least is a parody of the tech scene, it still caricatures a common idea. “There is still a stereotype about the ‘typical programmer’ (white male, in a hoodie, drinking Mountain Dew in the basement, showering once a week), and some people may be apprehensive about whether they would fit in,” agrees Hilary Wells, a staff member at Dev Bootcamp.
This fear was echoed most among women, who were hard-pressed to find role models they could relate to when considering moving into engineering. Lindsey Smith, now a full-stack engineer for Udacity, started college with plans to get a computer science degree, but then switched to anthropology after being in class after class full of only men. “It wasn’t until later that I started learning about all of the women’s initiatives into tech and realizing that I wasn’t alone and that the myth of the socially awkward, male nerd engineer was just a stereotype. And that hey, I’m a nerdy engineer, too, and there’s a place for me in software development,” she says.
Of course, not all developers are nerds at all, at least not in the traditional sense. The engineering team at The Muse has shocked me out of this stereotype the most strongly. While, they all care about their work and can “nerd out” about that, the team includes a former musician with a passion for interior design, a developer who can kill it on the dance floor, one who is often heading up the happy hour train, and one who spends weekends having dinner parties with friends.
In other words, engineers have all sorts of personalities and interests, so you’re bound to find your people. If you’re considering going back to school for coding, Wells suggests that you “go visit a coding school or attend an event to see whether that school reflects the stereotype or not.” Jill Jubinski, the technical recruiter for DigitalOcean, echoes this idea, also encouraging women especially to look into groups like Girl Develop It, CODE2040, and Women Who Code. “I highly encourage all to get involved in meetup groups,” she says. “They are a great place to get support and meet mentors!”
Myth #5: You’ll Never Interact With Another Human Being
An offshoot of this stereotype is the idea of the “lone wolf” developer—that to work in this field you have to spend hours on end hunched over your computer and not talking to a soul.
While, yes, software engineering requires chunks of focused working time, it’s no more than any creative worker requires—or anybody tackling a big project, for that matter. And between those work sessions? Developers at many companies spend time collaborating with their teams and other departments to create amazing products for users. “Programming is more about working with others and being able to express your ideas and communicate effectively. Good software is built by teams that can empathize and understand their clients needs,” says Andres Macedo, a student at Dev Bootcamp.
Plus, working as a developer can, in some cases, give your life some extra flexibility, helping you live like you want and spend time with the people you care about. “As someone who used to work outdoors for a living, being stuck in a cubicle every day was a primary concern,” admits Webster. “In reality, all of my seven years of developing have been performed remotely, providing massive amounts of flexibility. If I can’t solve a problem, I let it process in the back of my mind while I go for a run or bike ride.”
Of course, this isn’t to say these myths are incorrect all of the time. Certainly entry-level engineering jobs might not be as creatively fulfilling as higher-level roles, at some companies you may find yourself working alone most of the time, and there are some engineering problems that pretty much only a genius (or someone with a lot of computer science experience) could solve.
But those are the exceptions, not the rules. The reality is that software engineering is a vibrant and diverse field—and if it’s something you’re feeling excited about, then it’s worth considering the move.
Photo of puzzle courtesy of Shutterstock.