…or my story of how pettiness, jealousy, and poor luck very nearly got me to quit the path but it all worked out.
❗This is going to be a super long post, sorry not sorry. ❗
In 2010 I was working at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota as a Clinical Laboratory Scientist in the Cytogenetics lab and had been working there since 2007 and hated my job. I disliked how I was reduced to productivity numbers, I disliked being told in my performance review that I was too bossy and intimidating, and I disliked doing the same thing every single day knowing that I would be doing the same thing every single day until I retired in 2050. I felt trapped and I was angry that I worked so hard to get the science degree I got just to babysit robots all day, every day. My boyfriend, soon to be husband, was and still is a software developer, so he encouraged me to try programming. I had an Android phone, so he suggested I make a simple phone app.
I had never felt so dumb before in my life.
Let me back up a little bit and let you all know where I was coming from. I was the star science fair student, winning 3rd place at the county science fair in kindergarten and winning 1st place every year from grades 1-4. In 5th grade I was asked not to participate because participation by other kids was down because I just kept winning. I loved science and I knew from a very early age that I wanted to study science.
Fast forward to college and I was a Microbiology major at Michigan State University when my friend, two years ahead of me, graduated with the same major and was insanely accomplished (she had 4 publications to her name as an undergrad!) who got a job washing lab equipment for $12 per hour. I realized that my options on my current path were:
- Go to graduate school
- Go to medical school
- Make $12 per hour washing dishes or
- Find a better, more lucrative major.
I found the Medical Technology department (now known as Biomedical Laboratory Diagnostics) and it was the perfect fit for me. Clinical science paid much better than research did and people didn’t have a difficult time finding jobs – a huge win in 2007 when I graduated! 🎉
During my time at Michigan State, I took several electives and one that I was always really interested in was computer science. I walked into the Intro to Programming I, CSE 231, and the first day’s rant was how 2/3 of the class was absolutely going to fail this class. It was also announced that while the title of the class said Intro to Programming, you already had to know programming in order to pass the class. I dropped that class immediately! I didn’t want my GPA to suffer just because of an elective, just in case I did change my mind and decide to go to grad or medical school. It also gave me the impression that programming was hard, only certain people were capable of doing so, and that if you didn’t start learning it as a young child (like me with my science fairs…) then you were not the sort of person who should be programming.
Fast forwarding back to 2010, I got a book about Android programming and like nearly all programming books it said in the introduction that you needed some programming experience to get through the book. I tried my best to get through the first project, but the tools were overwhelming and not up to date with what was shown and discussed in the book, leaving me feeling lost and confused. It seemed that my preconceptions about programming, especially that I just wasn’t capable, was being proven to be true.
Fast forwarding again to 2013…now I was working at Clinical Pathology Labs (CPL) in Austin, Texas and I still didn’t like my job. I was just about ready to get back to work after having a baby and I dreaded the idea of going back. I hated my job. I didn’t feel that I was valued, I felt that I was still reduced to productivity numbers, and I felt that I was on a treadmill – running as fast as I could but going nowhere. There was no future for me there, as promotions were unlikely and I was too specialized in my work experience to get another job in town. I had been frustrated for years at CPL due to budget issues not allowing us to expand testing and increase productivity and I realized that it was never going to happen. I had considered being a stay-at-home mom, and was privileged enough to be able to give that a go for seven months, but ultimately I didn’t like being a stay-at-home mom.
I tried programming again when I went on Amazon and found Hello World!: Computer Programming for Kids and yeah, it absolutely is a book for middle schoolers and yes, I was 30 years old. It was the first resource I had found that was actually for beginner programmers and not just for people who already know how to code. Finally things made sense. After I finished that book I felt empowered, so I tried a free class from Harvard called CS50: Introduction to Computer Science that is a self-paced, free class available online.
I decided that I wanted to try to switch careers. I was still working full-time and my son was seven months old. In 2014 the programming options in Austin were of three types: University, bootcamp, and self teaching.
I didn’t think I had the discipline or foresight needed to teach myself (even though all of these avenues had a large degree of self-teaching in them) and I didn’t have the time or family flexibility to dedicate 70+ hours per week that bootcamps in Austin were requiring of their students. I approached University of Texas at Austin to see what their transfer or post-baccalaureate options were and was told (again, in 2014) that UT had too many students already and didn’t accept post-bacc transfers. I saw on reddit that there was another option, an online post-bacc that I could complete in one to four years and so I applied for the Oregon State University Post-Bacc BS in Computer Science.
The program consisted of C++ for the first two intro to programming courses followed by discrete math and algorithms. My husband said it looked like a solid program, and because it was a post-bacc, you could get a full BS in Computer Science without retaking English or philosophy classes. I loved it. I found it frustrating at times, as I’ve learned all programming is frustrating at times, but when I was able to solve a problem I felt on top of the world. After a year of classes, I decided to quit my job and dedicate more time to school. I had some bad times, like when I was late finishing a project and had to take my laptop with me when my son went to the emergency room. I had more than one break-down where I didn’t think I could do this, I didn’t think I was capable. I had a lot of self-hate and hateful comments to myself, which I regret and wish I hadn’t done because it wasted so much time and energy. I had a lot of projects in the program that involved working in groups, and working in groups across time zones is always tricky. But I got through and finished in 2.75 years with a 3.4 GPA.
Then there was the job problem.
Austin, I had seen, is a hot tech market. What doesn’t get said is that the tech market is hot for senior developers and somewhat for mid-level. Austin is a terrible tech market for inexperienced newbies…you have UT Austin pumping out a ton of grads, people from all over the world flocking to Austin, and a habit of Austin hiring managers wanting senior developer experience for junior developer salary. It took 7 months for me to get my first job after graduating. I actually worked as a freelance WordPress developer for two years and had a short internship (4 months) at a local tech company and it still took 7 months to find a job. To be fair, I was picky about what job I would take. I wasn’t interested in being on-call all the time, I wasn’t interested in making $35k a year (way less than I made as a Med Tech, then I was averaging $55k a year) and I wasn’t interested in working with a bunch of 22 year old bros who played ping pong and drank heavily while at work. There’s nothing wrong with an office where young men play ping pong and drink!! However, I am not a good culture fit for that and wouldn’t enjoy working there, which is why I decided to reject offices like that.
In order to get a software developer job, I did the following things:
- Went to local programming Meetups
- Both for women and for mixed groups
- Later became an organizer for Women Who Code
- Got a BS in Computer Science
- Online degree, not a local well known university
- Made several large projects on my own
- Ruby on Rails, Elixir, and PHP projects
- Learned over a dozen languages/frameworks including:
- Ruby on Rails
- Attended Hackathon
- Gave talks
- Went to conferences
- Local and national conferences
- Was invited to GraphConnect
- Was invited to the Neo4j planning/future talks
- 4 months at a local small company
And then I got a full-time job offer and I can say that I really enjoy my job. It combines my previous experience in the clinical lab and software and my polyglot programming experience is a huge asset. I actually got hired as a senior specialist because of my extensive clinical background and the ability to pivot both in work and in my life.
The biggest issue I had wasn’t the programming, it was my pride and ego. I didn’t like feeling vulnerable to being bad at something and I really feel that it was something that held me back both while learning and while interviewing. As soon as I got good at being uncomfortable I was able to really able to move on and be confident enough to land a job. If you aren’t confident in your abilities then you’ll probably fail to make a hiring manager confident in your abilities.
I know a lot of people talk about going to a code intensive and get a job after 3 months of learning to code. That’s fantastic for them, but I would wager that it isn’t the norm. I want to show people that even if it takes you 3 years, like it did for me, it’s OK. I know that it hurts sometimes to read stories about people who get to the finish line much sooner than you, especially when you’re struggling. But here’s the deal: you can’t let the pettiness, jealousy, or pride get you down, because it will destroy you. Let the journey happen and you’ll be in a much better place as a result of it.
I’m glad I took the long route.
Photo from Tim Wright