I'm Starting a New Career Journey from Receptionist to Software Developer — I Hope

Three years after graduating with a Theatre degree, I found myself totally adrift in a sea of dead-end, low-paying jobs that offered no upward mobility - and I know I’m not the only one.
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February 9, 2016
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work, careers, stem, Millenials

Okay, millennial. How’s your career going?

Probably not great, right? If you’re like me, you picked a liberal arts major that seemed fun and interesting before your brain was fully developed, and now you’re trapped in the revolving door of a metaphorical building with a great big sign that says, “JOB MARKET.” It’s not challenging, it’s not exciting, and you’re not actually contributing anything with your precious time on earth, but hey. It pays The Bills.

Before the recession (in the Before Times), legend tells it that you could take that random degree and turn it into a decent-paying job, repay your student loans within a couple of years, and be sittin’ pretty for the rest of your comfortable middle-class life. College actually was a gateway to a better life.

But these days, if you get a job in your chosen field right out of college and are able to make reasonable payments on your student loans, I consider you a damned unicorn, and I’d like to know your secret.

I am currently a receptionist at a pretty respectable company, and while it’s fine, it’s not exactly my dream job. And the pay is okay, but I’m a single mom with a kid in preschool, so basically one third of my income goes to paying for that. We get by, but it’s not easy.

I could rant about this forever, but I will keep it to this much: I did what I was told. I went to school and didn’t worry about the cost until I was good and graduated. And now, unless something major changes, I will never be able to afford a vacation, or a new car, or a house. I will probably never be able to retire. I am stuck in a debt-pit.

It’s great.

So I’m officially done with that. I’m going to make sure that something major changes. I am going to not only find a job that pays well enough to have a freaking life, I am going to LOVE that job. When I leave my job at the end of the day, I want to feel like I did something that mattered, and that I will be able to do something that matters the next day too.

I understand that every job, even dream jobs, have shitty elements. Sometimes it’s irregular hours, or crappy pay, or long stretches of time without interaction with other people, or maybe it’s too much time with other people, or it gets boring, or it demands too much of you. Different jobs have different downsides to different people.

But here is what I have figured out; if the worst parts of a job seem like a fun challenge, or a puzzle that you can definitely solve, and that you want to solve, in fact, you won’t stop until it’s solved, and the worst parts of the job do not seem like fucking drudgery, then THAT IS THE JOB FOR YOU.

Get. That. Job.

Which is how I came, eventually, to software development.

Maybe you're thinking to yourself, like, what? That sounds boring. It sounds like a lot of tedious technical knowledge that only other software developers are interested in hearing about. But just withhold your judgement for a hot sec. It’s way cooler than it sounds.

This is Mark Hurlburt.

Mark used to work for a really cool company called The Nerdery which has its headquarters in Bloomington, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis). They design and create custom software for companies that have highly specific needs requiring highly creative solutions.

I could write an entire article about The Nerdery and how they are the unsung hero of Minnesota’s tech economy, about their humble beginnings, and about their devotion to company culture and fairness, but I will spare you my NPR fangirl fact-rant. This is about another company that Mark co-founded, along with owners of The Nerdery, called Prime Digital Academy. Mark let me crash their nerd party one Tuesday afternoon and ask everyone a million questions about their lives and hopes and dreams, and he didn't even make me feel too weird about it. It. Was. Awesome.

So here is what they are about in a nutshell: Prime is an eighteen week boot-camp style programming intensive for people who want to be software developers. Mark and his co-founders started this school because they had a very real problem as strategists for The Nerdery – they had jobs to give, and nobody to take them.

It's amazing but true. There is an ever-widening gap between the amount of entry-level development positions open, and the amount of people who are qualified to fill them. 800,000 jobs, actually, at last count. And it's only going to get bigger as the tech industry grows and as people keep on assuming that it’s too hard, or expensive, or time-consuming to learn.

And here's another neat thing about these jobs – they pay real money. Not administrative assistant money, not teacher money, not three-part-time-jobs-money. On average in my state, it's $50,000 a year - entry-level. Programmers can expect to make as much as $90,000 a year after 5 years of working in the industry if they continue to grow their skills. Senior Developers at big companies like Netflix or Google can make two or three times that.

To a single mom like me, the idea of financial independence alone is enough to motivate me to learn this shit. But can I? Do I have It? Whatever It is? And what is it that I would need to learn, exactly, and how long would it take to learn it? I realize I'm staring down some kind of challenge, here, and I have no idea what it even looks like. So I went to the best source I could find.

Mark showed me around the Prime “campus,” which is really just one big open room with three classrooms coming off of the back wall, with oversize sliding doors, each one housing one “Cohort,” which is Prime-lingo for “class.”

Each cohort is at a different phase of their training. The space is not fancy, but it's modern and clean, and chock full of Ikea furniture.

Once I had gotten the tour (“There's the classrooms, there's the bathroom... uh. That's all...”), we sat down to talk.

“One of the things that has been identified as an understanding gap,” he said, “and, as a barrier to a more diverse, effective workforce in technology is this association people have with thinking that programming is about math, programming is all about, 'oh, you have to be able to do calculus in your head,' when the reality of the situation is that for a lot of software development jobs right now, that idea almost couldn't be further from the truth.”

I will admit that before I looked into it myself, I assumed this too. As a “creative type,” the idea of computer science as a kid seemed way over my head, reserved for the brainy kids with poor social skills who hung out in computer labs before and after school, making flash games, or whatever. Teenage me was pretty judgmental, I guess.

So if coding is NOT like that, what is it then? And if it's so simple, why aren't more people doing it? And, more specifically, why aren't more women and people of color doing it?

In a survey conducted by Stack Overflow (a popular community for software developers to post questions and find solutions to their coding problems), 92% of its 26,000 participants indicated that they were male — ninety-freaking-two! And that's a 2015 survey.

But there appears to be hope for a change — in the same survey, 67% of the women who responded have only been coding for five years or less, and 37% had only two years or less coding experience, meaning more and more women are gaining these skills every year.

Prime is an example of a program that is actively making choices to close the gender and diversity gap – their Cohorts are, on average, 40% women, and The Nerdery offers a $500 scholarship for every woman admitted to the program, and an additional $500 scholarship for people of color.

After I talked to Mark, I was able to sit down with three female Prime instructors – Kristy Wessel, Antoinette Smith, and Casie Siekman. And let me tell you – these chicks were the bomb. They were all confident, but down-to-earth, funny and good-natured, and smart as all hell – my kind of ladies.

Wessel took up development while studying photography in college – she built her own website to showcase her work and began helping others do the same. Smith has been coding since her teens for fun, but had steady work as a technical writer before coming to development as a career. Siekman challenged herself to build a website while laid-off, and forgot to eat or sleep, losing herself in the project, and finding herself deeply in love.

Their passion for their work was truly palpable, and I was basking in it as we talked. Mark was cool and knowledgeable and put me at ease – but these women were goddamn inspirational.

“I like to think of it as problem solving,” Siekman said of her work. “It feels like I'm just solving puzzles all day, and you just happen to be doing it on a computer. You're just kind of communicating with the computer in its own language to solve problems.”

I asked them what the downside was – remembering my theory that the worst parts of a job are the parts you live in most of the time, and learning to be comfy there will make or break it for you. And they were all in agreement – this shit can be frustrating.

Most of the time, developers work on projects as a team; rarely would one developer work on a project from start to finish, writing every line of code alone. That's just way too much for one person, unless the website is super simple, like a blog. But if you're designing an internal website for a company, for instance, that will require multiple languages to achieve myriad goals. The raw information is one language; the look of it is another. If the website sells something, that can be several languages just to complete the transaction. Searching for data? That's another language, possibly several others.

It gets to be complicated, so you need several brains on it. Which means you may be spending long stretches of time trying to make a totally foreign-to-you code work with your code. Things can very easily get tangled and looped, especially considering that just one misplaced bracket or comma can totally ruin hours or days or even months of work.

How much of the job is just trying to get your work to work? 90%. Seriously. They all threw out this number, totally unflinchingly. And, they said, it doesn't really improve as time goes on.

Mark explained it like this: This profession is like being on a treadmill; everyday what you know is worth a little bit less. So you are essentially a lifelong learner.

He says people can be broken down into three groups – the first group is people who are like, “pfft, no way, that's too much work. I'll stick to what I know.” The second group of people deems this tolerable, but it can wear on them over time, or they choose a job that is less demanding of the newest, shiniest tech; respectable and necessary, certainly, but not the movers and shakers of the industry. The third group of people – the people he finds most desirable for this line of work – gets excited by the challenge and the chance for discovery.

“I think if you're going to be successful in this industry,” Wessel agreed, “learning should definitely be a passion.”

“For me,” Siekman said with a laugh, “I hate feeling stupid. And every single day, you ask yourself, like, why can't I get this? But at the same time, I really like challenging myself, and every single day I get to achieve something that I didn't think I would be able to.”

“The lack of diversity in the industry can also be really tough to deal with,” Smith said.

I asked them if they thought the lack of women in tech was about, like, a pervasive boys' club mentality, or if women simply were not interested overall?

“I think there's a lot of ways that we tell women that they shouldn't be in programming,” Smith said. “You see situations where a lot of women leave even after they get a programming job because they're not able to advance, or the climate is hostile. I think right now people are realizing that, and I think we're making changes but I think we have a long way to go.”

“I think everybody can learn it, and I think everybody should learn it,” Siekman said, when asked if it takes a special kind of person to be a programmer. “Basically the future is going to be built on software, and we shouldn't have one little group of people creating that software that's going to be in everybody's life - I think everybody should be writing that software. That software should reflect the diversity that is the population.”

“I would agree with that,” Wessel remarked, “but you should follow your interests. We should have every different kind of person represented as a programmer, but there's no need to like, force it if it's not right for you.”

“But I think people are surprised, especially women,” Siekman said, “when they start to program because they realize that it IS something they can do. I don't think people realize it's very creative. It uses parts of your brain that you don't assume right away. So I think people should give it a chance.”

Wessel agreed that in her experience, there IS a definite boys' club aspect to the tech industry and that women should be aware of that going in.

Smith recounted a time at a previous job, when asking for clarification on technical terms, her question was totally ignored. Her advice? Be strong-willed, and proceed with your work, in spite of the fact that men may not be eager to mentor or help you.

Wessel said more than feeling discriminated against for her gender, she has felt more excluded. At a previous job at a super small start-up where she was the only woman, the guys on her team would go out for beers and discuss sports or video games, or stuff that didn't really interest her, and they wouldn't invite her - but they would also discuss business.

One of the first things Siekman found herself thinking when hired as the first woman on a staff of all guys was, 'Are they only hiring me because I'm a woman?'

“Guys probably don't think that,” she said after a pause.

“I KNOW they don't!” Smith agreed, laughing.

“They're probably like, 'They hired me because I'm awesome!'” suggested Wessel.

Maybe all my intense questioning of myself and my abilities has more to do with my gender than I thought. Maybe if I was a dude, I would just freaking do it, and worry about if I had “It” later. ...Or never.

I actually applied to Prime a few months ago. It's a rather involved application process by design – they want you to get a taste of what programming will be like, so along with the basic info and essay questions and logic puzzles, you're asked to submit your resume in HTML and CSS. I was pretty proud of mine – and, like my new pal Seikman, I forgot to eat or sleep or pee while I did it. And then when it didn't work, I asked for help online and tried – and failed, and failed, and failed – and tried again until it did. I felt like a super genius.

A month or so later, I got an email back asking me to apply again, with feedback about how I could improve. I was bummed, but so glad to read about how I could potentially gain more mastery of this mysterious magical skill, that it was hard to be disappointed for too long. I vowed to try again.

...But then my boyfriend proposed. And everything has been wedding, wedding, wedding ever since. With the big day just six months away (yikes!), it seems like now would not be a super great time for me to take out yet more student loans and peace out on my guy and my kid for eighteen sixty-hour weeks, an hour away from my home.

But development is still what I want to do, and visiting Prime and talking with Mark and my new favorite rockstar goddesses has only reinforced that within me. So what do I do to get back into it?

Mark says the best way to learn is to have a project. And I've picked one – my wedding website. Hey, it's a start, right? And from there, who can say? But I'm pretty sure the amazing folks at Prime haven't seen the last of me yet.