Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

How I Went From a Career in Education to an Employed Software Engineer in 4 Months

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I only made the decision to learn to code last fall—which, considering where I am now in my career just a year later, feels pretty crazy.

It was after I ended up on a speaker panel addressing a room of 10th grade girls at YouTube’s headquarters that was focused on the importance of teaching young women to code. As the only person on the panel without that background, my contributions to the discussion were focused on what I had learned during my eight-year career in education.

One of the first questions asked was, “Why should all students learn how to code?”

I blanked, though I knew why this question was being asked. In the US, computer science is still mostly considered an add-on. Only one in four high schools offers computer science, and only 5% of high schools are certified to teach AP Computer Science. Compare that to the UK, where coding is now required in all primary and secondary schools.

I didn’t have an answer I could share, however. I’d been a teacher long enough to know that “You’ll need this in the future” is never an argument that teenagers can connect to, and even though the workforce was looking for software engineers, I was skeptical that this was a reason for coding to be a K-12 requirement.

I passed the microphone to the woman sitting next to me, an engineering director at one of the top tech companies in Silicon Valley. She said, “I’m not sure that’s the right question. What I think we should be focusing on is teaching all students to solve problems. Coding is just a skill that helps them do that more effectively, no matter what career they end up in.”

In the pause that followed, I realized that my perspective on software engineering was completely wrong.

I’m now embarrassed to say this, but I used to stereotype engineers: They were the people who sat in back rooms staring at screens, taking orders from real problem-solvers who argued about big ideas in front rooms. That image instantly clashed with the woman sitting next to me. She was poised, eloquent, thoughtful, and could talk about solving problems in ways that I, one of the people in the “front room,” couldn’t.

I wanted her superpower. I went home, locked myself in my apartment and vowed not to leave until I knew how to code.

Obviously, I broke my vow, because learning to code takes a lot longer than a weekend. As an educator, I prided myself on my ability to structure learning experiences, but real learning is actually incredibly messy. So while I was still working at my job at an education nonprofit, I completed online tutorials, read textbooks, and took day-long classes on weekends. It was challenging, but it was also rewarding. Rewarding enough, in fact, that I decided to quit my job and do a three-month coding bootcamp.

Of course, this decision didn’t happen overnight. Taking three months off work for a bootcamp (while living in San Francisco) and plunking down $20,000 upfront was not a decision to be made lightly. I spent a lot of time talking to friends who are engineers, meeting graduates of different coding schools, and planning on how I would pay for the transition.

My friends in the industry convinced me that I needed to get into the best coding bootcamp I could—if I was going to spend the time and money, I needed to put myself into the best situation possible. Unfortunately, this meant extra time preparing for the entrance interview, and a higher tuition cost—the coding school I chose ended up costing about twice as much as others.

In addition, the graduates I spoke with convinced me to plan for a few months of unemployment, and to prepare for a job market that wouldn’t take my experience seriously. Once I had my first engineering role under my belt, it wouldn’t matter–but until then, I would potentially be judged more harshly in technical interviews because I didn’t have that four-year computer science degree. They all suggested that I take out even more loans to support my job search rather than distract myself with a part-time job.

All of this naturally led to a lot of stress about how I would pay for this transition. The hours of the bootcamp would be too intensive (six days a week, 12+ hours a day) for me to hold down a part-time job—and since coding bootcamps aren’t accredited education institutions, I wouldn’t qualify for federal student loans.

My classmates all handled this financial strain differently; some were able to borrow money from their parents, some had the financial support of their spouses, some lived with relatives in the area, and some were young enough that they were still on their parents’ health insurance. Others, like me, ended up taking out private loans, paying out of pocket for health insurance, and blowing through savings accounts. Still others had to consider additional implications like childcare, mortgages, and being away from their families for a few months.

No matter what financial or life situation we were in, we all shared one thing in common: We all had at least one family member or friend who forgave us when we spent our one day off each week (Sunday) at school to continue studying. This type of commitment is never just about the individual.

My last day in education was February 23, 2016, and I started bootcamp a week later. Three months later I graduated, created a portfolio, and started applying to openings. Three weeks after that, on June 17, I received my first offer for a software engineering role. The entire transition from being in education to becoming a software engineer took just under four months. Luckily for my bank account (and the loans I had to pay back), the unemployment gap wasn’t as long as people warned. But I’m happy I prepared for the worst-case scenario and I’d advise anyone going into it to do the same.

I’ve heard from other people who’ve made major career changes that the hardest part is emotional, and they were right. Taking this leap meant that I needed to deconstruct my sense of identity and figure out who I was and what I wanted. (It also meant that I had to rewrite my resume and attempt to condense eight years of work I’m proud of into one line, since it was no longer relevant. That was hard for me, too.)

But when I thought deeply about the kind of work I truly love, I realized I’m happiest when I have my head down, solving problems. After all, that’s why I went into education—I wanted to make the world a better place. Becoming a software engineer is just a parallel path I’m taking to make the difference I want.

I also know that despite all of my years of studying what learning looks like, I’ve never pushed myself as a learner as much as I’ve had to in the last year. But once I realized that this was the next step for me, there was no turning back.

So if you’re at that career change crossroads now, scared to take the leap—take it. It’s never going to get easier, but it will get less scary as soon as you take that first step.

Photo of woman engineer courtesy of alvarez/Getty Images.