A career-switcher's guide to getting in to tech and staying here

15/12/2019

When I tell people I’m a developer these days, I still have that moment, just a beat, right after it lands. “I’m a developer,” I say. It’s in part pride but there’s also disbelief.

I wasn’t always a developer. My gig has always been problem-solving, that’s for sure, but I can’t say that I always did that in this forum. I came to this work later in life, after beginning and leaving a career in teaching, bringing two wonderful children into the world and actually reading an article that my husband pinged me with a message saying only ‘Hey, you could do this.’ 

 

My Beginnings

I wrote my first line of code when I was 8 or 9. My dad worked in IT so he would bring home these old PC’s - and when I say old, I mean old. The PC circa 1991 was a big machine. It took up our whole dining table. I sat there night after night, putting in genuinely floppy, floppy disks and playing text-driven adventure games. It all felt incredibly exciting and I often tell people now, back when I started using a PC we didn’t even have Windows. Now, we could have but Windows would use up so much of your RAM that while you could use the mouse to navigate through your file system, you couldn’t open many applications as your PC would crash and you’d spend the next 15 minutes closing it down only to boot it back up again. 

 

This meant that I had to learn how to use Ms-DOS. I picked this up in no time. It makes me appreciate how much effort learning takes in your 30s than it did as a child. 

 

After playing everything there was to play, I went to my local library and picked up copies of books on coding. I can’t tell you how much this excited me. Software was limited and games could be expensive. Imagine being able to code your own! I spent a couple of years writing the programs the book suggested. The only problem was, the books were from the 80s and I was writing mine in the 90s, so rather than finding a compiler to write and run Basic programs, I had to convert everything to QBasic. It wasn’t rocket science (despite the rocket picture) but it was the first taste I had of taking something and adapting it to my needs.

 

By age 13 I had written tonnes of programs. My husband still laughs that when I was a teenager, I had written a program so that my PC would converse with me. No, I did not get out much. I earned money refurbing PCs from old parts and new ones that I bought cheaply from suppliers to sell on and going round to fix my friend’s parents PCs when they’d encountered problems. 

 

I didn’t use computers at school very much. What we did use them for was mostly word processing. And while this felt quite cutting-edge, it certainly didn’t further my understanding of tech. And while I was there, typing up essays and occasionally surfing the World Wide Web, tech was moving on. And quickly. Windows 95 dropped and suddenly, we didn’t need DOS. I picked up Visual Basic but never really got into the meat and bones of it all and gradually, I decided that world wasn’t for me. 

 

I didn’t feel as though I was much good with computers anymore. I had so many interests and, according to my teachers, the arts ‘suited me better’. Fast forward a decade and there I was, English degree from The University of Sussex and several years into my teaching career.

 

I had my son in 2009 and then my daughter in 2011 and returned to work shortly after that, hardly missing a beat. A little way down the line though, the cost of childcare was eating most of my wages. I loved the work but I didn’t feel it was sustainable. Not just as a parent either. Education has long been on the front line of politics and in the last decade, the profession has seen many changes, some welcomed, most not. I didn’t feel I could do my job effectively and stay sane, and I could hardly afford to either so I was thinking about where to turn my talents next when 2 things happened.

 

The first was a conversation with my then colleague Alison Winter. She had left teaching Maths to go and work in the film industry. By the time we had this conversation, she was working as an assistant director on big movies like RED 2 and I asked her how she’d made such a massive leap and she told me something that stayed with me. She said that as teachers, we’d cultivated so many skills almost as a by-product. She’d spent some time looking at these skills and then asked herself what other professions valued these skills and worked towards one of them. It was genius.

 

The other was just the message I received from my husband one day. I was stood by a bench in a playground. It had been rained on and I was considering whether it was worth getting wet or not and as I was resigning myself to it, the message came through and I thought “Well, why not?”

 

From that day on, I’ve been learning how to code. I’d love to say I learned how to code but that wouldn’t be accurate. I’m not finished yet. I worked in my evenings around the childcare I was doing - both for my own children and as a childminder to make ends meet. I built things and I found a love of building while I did. I had spent years in teaching where you have your perfectionism beaten out of you by a group of hungry young minds who aren’t going to wait for you to have everything just right before they interrogate things. It meant that I was happy to show my half-finished, half-baked, half-terrible things to people and I learned so much by doing just that. I got my first developer role December of 2015 so I am 4 years old now

 

The Myth of the vocation

One thing that has always troubled me around any career is the idea that we are cut out to do one thing; we are destined for a dream role. I’ve spoken at length about the danger in labels so I’ll spare you the lecture here but one of the things that people say when I tell them I’m a developer is ‘I could never do anything like that. My brain just doesn’t work that way,’ and while I’d never deny you your right not to care about dependency injection, I think it’s always worth having a go at debunking these myths. 

 

When people withing the industry ask me about my career change, they often search for evidence that I was a techie all along. And for them, I can offer up my misspent youth, spent indoors teaching my computer how to talk to me, but the thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have your own version of that story. Coding, like anything else, is a skill you can learn and develop. There’s no evidence-based reasoning that would say otherwise either. 

In 2018 alone, an estimated 20,000 developers entered the profession after graduating from bootcamps

 

Some advice to those of us who lose time wondering if we’re encountering problems because we are not ‘meant to be here’: just acknowledging that we all feel like this sometimes can help a great deal. To borrow an overused phrase, this is imposter syndrome at it’s most acute. Research has shown that the more people you see succeeding who are ‘like’ you, the far less you’ll suffer from this. And in this case, you’re looking at other career-switchers. Get yourself to meetups in your area and, if my experience is anything to go by, you’ll meet others who are in a similar situation to you. It might feel like a lot to take on; attending a meetup after work is quite an ask. That said, it will genuinely help you to thrive when you’re next back at your desk.

 

In my most doubt-filled days I will ask myself, am I really cut out for this? I think this is the career-switcher’s cross to bear. Not to say that it’s limited to you, because it really isn’t. It is, however, a road we’ll find ourselves often trudging. Sometimes I’m baffled by how I could have been a decent teacher (honestly, I was) and then a competent developer (I hope I am). It just feels unlikely. Perhaps that’s upside-down thinking though.

 

Are you ahead? Are you behind?

The 20,000 above shows that more and more people are entering this profession via non-traditional routes. This has resulted in an on-the-ground change in demographics in your very office but it’s also changed the way people are hiring. Now that almost a 3rd of the people in the talent pool are folks who don’t hold a Computer Science degree, employers are removing such qualifications from their role requirements in their advertisements. 

 

As a switcher, it’s something you should consider when you’re looking for your next role. I have considered applying for a number of roles, only to discover that I’m not what they’re looking for and decided not to. You could just apply anyways but it’s also worth considering whether you’d want to work with a company who were only looking at a narrow section of the population of developers. 

 

Another thing to consider as a switcher is what you bring to the table that is unique to you. Where I can often feel behind those who studied CS, I know that I have a handful of skills that you wouldn’t necessarily pick up in that BSC. As an ex-teacher, I have skills ranging from conflict resolution to training; problem-solving and refining processes. I could go on. The work I did on the science and psychology behind learning in the classroom, translates nicely into real-world practise in an industry characterised by change. I, like other developers, am forever learning and the skills I picked up in my last career help me to make sure I’m doing that effectively. It means that when I’m off to pick up a new framework for automated testing, in some ways, I’m the one who has a head start.

 

So rather than seeing it as a binary I’m ahead/I’m behind kind of deal, why don’t we try to celebrate the differences that we bring to the table.

 

A little way in, we’re all learning

Which brings me to my next point - we are all learning. I’d love to say that I’ve mastered code. I’d love to pop that on the top of my CV. Qualifications - all the code. The developers I work with will all tell you that they are still learning. Some of them are 20+ years into their careers as developers. We have to keep learning.

 

Coming into the game a little late, you might feel you’ve missed something really important. I know I do. I have friends though who did come through the CS route who feel the same way. The key to success in this line of work isn’t having an encyclopaedic knowledge of a particular framework, it’s having the skills, interest and patience to work with new information. We are fortunate in this landscape in that if I wanted to learn React, I could do that in the comfort of my own home. It would cost me in time, it might cost me in money but it is available to me should I want it. Long gone are the days of committing to a discipline and hoping it will be around for the length and breadth of your career. So what makes a developer stand out then? It’s that desire to keep on learning.

 

My favourite living and breathing examples of this are people who are able to set down their tools when they are faced with a problem and rather than writing code right away, take a step back and assess what tools they need to bring to the party first. They’re people who are passionate about solutions and they will tell you that “the best code is no code at all.” 

 

When you’re feeling as though you don’t know enough - remember that quote and rest assured that the most integral part of a developer’s job is designing an elegant solution. The rest is just syntax.

 

Climbing slowly back into your comfort zone - tips for staying in the industry

I’ll end this article by telling you a little about how I manage to keep doing what I do. At times, I feel like running for the hills. I often bite off more than I can chew and find myself up against a deadline and fearing that any moment now everyone will work out that I know nothing at all and on those occasions, I do one of the three things below.  On one hand, they’re very simple. Sadly though, they’re not easy. I can, however, tell you that they’re the things that have made all the difference to my staying or going over the few years I’ve been in the industry.

 

  1. Build a network of people like you (and then use it). Many people will tell you that the networks are useful for finding work, and that’s true. But what you should also know is that people who have networks of like-minded people are more likely to stay in the profession. On any given week, I’ll have pinged at least 5 other developers who I do not work with and chatted over Slack or WhatsApp with them. It helps when you’re having a hard day but it also gives you the chance to share your successes too. It’s not fun, working in a vacuum and sometimes the work itself can be a little solitary. Get to a meetup, make some friends and enjoy the benefits!

  2. Go and create something just for the fun of it. When I started coding, I was forever making little console apps to help me learn something. When I’m on a huge project, I can often lose sight of the very thing that piqued my interest in the first place. I recently made a text-driven adventure game in Python as it was a language I hadn’t picked up before. It was a really nice way to spend a sunday afternoon and while I was learning, I was also finding my passion for the profession again.

  3. Show your stuff! Some great books have been written on the benefits of doing just this but from a personal perspective, I was terrified of unveiling the imperfect, quirky little things I had built when I first began but each time I have, I’ve had such unexpected and helpful feedback. The value is not just in the feedback either, it’s a great way to build self-esteem. Don’t let the only time that you share your work be on go-live day - get into the habit of showing your half-done and not-quite-right builds and it will improve your builds and your confidence.

 

People make tech

There’s not much else I can share with you, other than to remind you that we are building the future. That might seem slightly melodramatic but we live in an age where the technology we have in our back pockets would put my 1991 PC to shame. In a relatively short space of time, things have moved on so far that the landscape would be unrecognisable to me if I’d gone to sleep then and woken up now. The things we build today become the building blocks of tomorrow’s world and before we know it, a choice we made one late afternoon over a coffee becomes a tool used worldwide. So it’s integral that we’re here. We can’t have the fate of the world in the hands of the few. The breadth of our experiences, the problems we face and solve and the perspectives we share with our peers bring a richness to the solutions that get built. One that would be sorely missed if the tech world was entirely made up of developers from just one background. 

 

About the Author

Emma Burstow

@emaburst

Emma is a .NET developer with 4 good years of experience in both Umbraco and the .NET world. After embarking on a career in tech after leaving teaching, she feels passionate about creating pathways for new talent and nurturing environments for newcomers to the profession. Based in Surrey, Emma is a mother of two brilliant people and spends much of her time outside of work, writing about the tech world, reading murder mysteries and crocheting things that no one will wear.