How I Found a Fulfilling Career as a Coder

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It’s never too late to think about changing careers if you’re not happy with the one you have. Yes, the path forward might be daunting with money, time, and lack of experience all in the way, but in the words of Drake, “YOLO!”

Before you get started, though, it’s important to think hard about why you’re not happy in your current spot and what kind of work you’d prefer to be doing instead. This is a key task. Most college grads are forced into a specific path to choose a career before knowing what they want to do with their lives.

It’s also important to have a strategy for getting to where you want to be and for monetizing your work. Money can’t buy happiness, of course, but it can buy you some degree of freedom. It is the type of freedom that makes you worry less about providing for yourself and loved ones, to explore your interests and hobbies, and to pursue your dreams. I strongly believe freedom is a core tenet of happiness.

happinessquoteI know successful people who’ve made a career overhaul late in life, even after investing decades in time and money. The cofounder of the company I currently work for, for example, practiced medicine for years before dropping the stethoscope and leaving to build his dream company. One of my friends left a successful law practice in his mid-30s to begin a career in software. And another guy had no idea what to do after the military but eventually landed a great job in physical security at Facebook.

I Found What Drove and Motivated Me

In college at Lehigh, I originally chose to major in biochemistry with a minor in business. I figured that even if I didn’t like it, my math and science skills would be valuable assets and could help me go back to school in another field.

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The first few years after graduating, I bounced around industries and from job to job, from lab technician to business development advisor. But never found something I really liked. In fact, I was mind-numbingly bored with the work. I had such a hard time it negatively affected my general outlook on life, my job performance, and any motivation to look into grad school. I found myself waking up to my alarm (right), hitting the snooze button, and telling myself I didn’t care if I was late since I was going to have to find a better job soon anyway.

Then the notion of working as a coder came into my life. It happened when I had a idea for a mobile app while working in New York.

I’d come up with these ideas before. But it had never occurred to me to actually make them happen until I saw free courses were offered at the Apple App store. I started to explore self-teaching options via YouTube videos. Then, by a stroke of good fortune, or creepy advertising algorithms, I started seeing Facebook ads promising I could make a six figure salary after three months at a coder bootcamp.

I was skeptical at first. The idea seemed too good to be true because I knew intelligent people who’d gone to school for a decade and never made that much in their lives. I researched and found a “free” (but not really) coder bootcamp called App Academy that, rather than asking for upfront payment, allowed me to pay a percentage of my salary upon finding a job. I remember thinking that this  worked for me because if they didn’t deliver on their promise, I could still get a free education. And if they did, it meant I’d double my salary doing something I might enjoy. It was a win-win scenario as long as I could put in enough work to not trip any of their legal clauses.

It took almost eight months of working a dead-end job, living with my parents, and saving money before I was ready for the move to San Francisco. App Academy made it clear I’d be unable to hold a part-time job because of intensive curriculum expectations. I pushed myself hard to complete the pre-curriculum and prepare for the coding challenges to get in the door. Near the tail end of this savings period, I painted houses every day from 9AM-4PM, then drove to my job at a lab from 4:30PM to midnight.

I was exhausted every day. But I kept telling myself all this effort was a means to an end.

I was also fortunate to have a loving family at home in Massachusetts and in San Francisco, where I stayed while in school, to support me during some of the hardest six months of my life.

I especially needed support once school started. The pace was grueling. I was in school from 9AM to midnight every day, including most weekends. But it was also a lot of fun and I truly believe it prepared me for the work I currently do. Choosing App Academy was possibly the best decision of my life and I’m not even saying that because I’m publishing this on their site.

You Can Break Into Tech Even If You’re Not a Coder

The tech industry is booming everywhere, not just in Silicon Valley. People make a lot of money, often doing things that truly inspire them. There is no reason to be afraid of it, even if you feel like you’re so far behind you wouldn’t know where to start. I’m not talking specifically about programming.

There are plenty of other fields in the tech industry that many people don’t know about where you can fit in. Think about jobs in “User Experience” and “User Interface” design. These are the people that figure out how to make software products visually pleasing and intuitive, but perhaps even more importantly, influence user behavior.

The field of programming though, is also often misconstrued, especially in the “geeks-only” insular way it’s depicted on the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” I think there are plenty of people who’d be interested in programming and don’t realize it. All it takes is a smart, analytical mind and a passion for learning.

Think about how many of our jobs will either be replaced or infused with tech in our lifetimes. Taking that into account, know it’s important to know how to leverage your skills.

appacademy_quotes_umbachOne of my close childhood friends moved out to Silicon Valley years ago with a plan to become a successful personal trainer. Once he accomplished that goal, he recognized the value tech could have to his passion and is now one of the voices of Fitbit’s personal training app.

Another one of my friends was looking to make side money, or as I sometimes jokingly call money made on the internet, “internet gold.” She’s artistic and ambitious but uninterested in coding. At the time, I’d been working on a virtual reality side project and was looking for artistic people I could pay to help me create virtual “assets,” or in non-tech-speak, three-dimensional models and designs. I suggested she look into learning a tech called “Blender” which allows people to use art and design skills to create these assets.

Freehand sketching in Blender – Update

There are many jobs in tech for artists. Freelance designers, for example, can sell their designs on development platforms like Unity. Getting started is as simple as finding YouTube videos, researching, and self-teaching to see if it interests you.

Technology Is Not Inherently Evil

There’s a stigma against the industry right now for a number of reasons, one of which is resentment towards money invested in the sector and employees. And a lot of it is based on real problems. In San Francisco, the combination of young techies with money and lack of affordable housing are pricing long-term residents out of the area.

Another is the fear that a future where technology leads the way will create a Black Mirror-esque dystopian society.

But we shouldn’t wholly reject the entire industry because of out-of-touch morals of a few individuals or occasional dumb company decisions. There are plenty of ways to effect positive social change in the world using tech if that’s what motivates you. Elon Musk is at the forefront of this forward-thinking movement and is someone I’ve always tried to emulate.

Reaping Rewards From Your Hard Work

When I graduated App Academy two years ago, I entered the terrifying world of job-hunting. This was arguably the hardest part of all. Trying to find a job in a field where I had no prior experience is not easy. Fortunately, tech jobs are organized meritocratically and generally all that’s required to get a job is a strong portfolio and solid interviews. After three months of searching, over 100 applications, 20 coding/phone screens, and five on-sites, I finally landed a job as a developer at an amazing company.

Since then, I’ve found my way into other awesome companies like Apple and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. I’m currently working as a front-end software engineer at an inspiring startup called Quartzy. For perhaps the first time in my life, I feel like I have the freedom to be and do whatever I want. I want this feeling for everyone, and it’s a part of the reason I started writing. Hopefully other people who find themselves where I was three years ago will find some value in my words.

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Written by Chris Umbach

Chris Umbach is a futurist and a VR/AR and blockchain enthusiast. He currently works as a software engineer at the Palo Alto startup Quartzy. Feel free to reach out to him with questions via earn.com/chrisumbach. All proceeds go to the non-profit Folding at Home, a distributed computing platform for disease research.

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