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Learn to trust yourself before you learn to code – my journey to becoming a developer

A little under three years ago, I made the life-changing decision to end my eight-year career as a management consultant with no new job lined up. I did, however, have a plan: to pursue my ambition to become a software developer. As part of Softwire’s series on career changes, I wanted to share my experience on why and how I entered the world of software development. I delve into a lot of detail in this blog as it was quite a journey for me.

Not for long

The last two years of my university economics degree coincided with the 2008 Great Recession, the global banking crisis which caused unemployment rates to surge over the next few years. I was uncertain about whether or not I’d find a job once I graduated. Luckily, a firm where I had previously completed an internship offered me a full-time position as a management consultant. I decided not to waste any time and started just one month after graduating, while most of my friends took gap years or enjoyed the summer. Though I found that I liked the job well enough, I thought to myself “this probably isn’t what I’ll do for long”. I guess eight years and seven months isn’t “long” in the grand scheme of things, but it was much longer than I’d anticipated.

Throughout my career in consultancy, I worked on several projects which involved creating complex spreadsheet models and analytical tools. Much of this work relied on creating custom programmes and functions using VBA for Excel – these were some of my favourite projects and sparked my interest in programming.

You do you

To explore this interest, I began asking my company for training in software development as part of my annual personal development review. However, year after year, I was disappointed, and I would press on with a stiff upper lip. I tried teaching myself using online resources, but that approach just didn’t suit me. I had a demanding full-time job, leaving little capacity to learn an entirely new field, and I preferred to spend my free time relaxing and socialising. Despite having a studious mindset and attitude, I need structure, guidance, objectives, and deadlines to be able to learn effectively. A bit of important background on my family and culture: my parents are originally from Hong Kong and emigrated to the UK 40 years ago to start a family with the hopes of giving their children better opportunities. When I was growing up, my parents’ hope for me and my sisters was to become lawyers, doctors, accountants, which is very common of Chinese parents of their generation. Even my eventual career as a management consultant was probably only “acceptable” by my parents as it’s what my sister’s partner did (the one who helped me get my first job). They also didn’t really (and probably still don’t fully) understand what that job entailed – they would often refer to it as “doing computer stuff” (in Chinese), and I swear they thought I was doing IT support or something!

In October 2015, I applied to join Makers Academy, completed the interview process, and was accepted. This was just what I was looking for… and yet, I didn’t go through with it. As with many of my big life decisions, I consulted with my family as I value their experiences and advice, and I was put off from making the jump. It was the usual reasons – job security, financial burden, the pressure of finding a new job, and – my favourite – “just wait it out and see how you feel later”. I realise now that it was also their lack of understanding of the tech industry and what exactly it means to be a software developer. Chinese culture generally doesn’t view software development in high regard – it’s widely considered as a rather menial job, similar in ways to how manual labour is perceived.

Burning desire

Fast forward to June 2017. My boyfriend and I had just moved into a new apartment together, but I barely got to spend any time there as work was crazy busy and took me outside of London during the working week. Less than two weeks after moving, it was his birthday – my first one with him – so I asked him to join me out where I was staying for work so we could celebrate together. However, in the early hours of 14 June 2017, whilst we were still asleep in our hotel room, our entire apartment block burnt to the ground. That was the night of the Grenfell Tower Fire. If my boyfriend hadn’t come to stay with me that night, he would have still been in our apartment. On the 21st floor. On his birthday.  You might be thinking “this is a lot of context, Jules…” but it’s important because this major life-changing event is what made me finally hand in my notice and pursue the career that I had wanted for years. It made me realise that life is too short to be in a job that you aren’t fully invested in, enjoying and getting satisfaction from.

I decided to apply for Makers Academy once more. This time, I ensured my commitment by leaving my job first and I trusted my own judgment instead of seeking approval and permission from my family. I decided that I would tell them once I had success to celebrate with them instead of managing their reactions and doubt-casting.

In the end

Makers Academy is a very challenging and fulfilling course and was exactly what I was looking for in a learning environment. Students are treated as adults, so you get out of it what you put in. It takes an approach that prepares you for a future job as a developer by ensuring that ownership, accountability, leadership, and commitment are sewn through the course. It taught me effective ways to work alone, in pairs and in teams; to research and solve a problem; to learn from mistakes; to communicate in an empathetic way.

I am a perfectionist, have performance anxiety, and am very competitive – I am my own harshest judge. These traits, along with the expectation I’d built up over the years, are what drove me to get the absolute most out of the course. They’re also what caused me to experience and learn from burn-out. Throughout my Makers journey, my boyfriend supported me despite the strain it put on him as I was tired and stressed for most of those four months. I really don’t think I could have gotten through it without him.

Shortly after graduating from Makers Academy, I was invited to interview with Softwire, my third or fourth at the time. It was pretty intense, with two tech tests, an HR interview, a personal interview with one of the directors, and a tour of the office – all in one day. Two weeks later, whilst I was on holiday in Dubrovnik (remember those – holidays?!) I received an offer to join as soon as possible! I was elated, and accepted it, starting my first job as a software developer a month later.

Two and a half years later and I’m still here. I have worked on many projects – from designing and developing rapid prototype websites to delivering complex projects in strict financial environments – and I am currently a Technical Lead for a small team. I’m still an anxious mess sometimes, with Imposter Syndrome being a regular and unwelcome visitor most days, as is common with many people in this field. That being said: I am in a job where I feel accomplished and satisfied with the work I do. I learnt a lot from my management consultancy days, and I still use a lot of the skills and knowledge I gained from it in my current job. Ultimately, I have no regrets about leaving that role and pursuing my ambition to be a software developer.

To anyone who might be thinking about changing career into a totally new field, my advice to you is:

  • Know Your Style – you will likely need new skills for the role, so find the approach that best enables you to learn and pursue the opportunities available to you.
  • Find A Support Network – starting your career from scratch is an exciting act of self-discovery, but it can be a little scary too. Having positive people around you to share the journey with makes a world of difference. As well as friends, family and partners, there is also a huge network of communities out there to draw support from.
  • Be Kind To Yourself – This is a life-changing event (regardless of whether or not your home burned down), so know that you are being extremely brave by doing this. You deserve that long lunch break; you deserve a day off from studying; you deserve to celebrate and feel proud for successfully using your newly gained knowledge.
  • Be Informed – friends and family can be sources of advice, but make sure you also speak with people in the field who really know what the job is like. Ideally, speak with people of various roles, levels of seniority, and companies to get a well-rounded picture.
  • Trust Yourself – ultimately, remember that you should trust your gut instinct. You know whether or not you are ready for this change. Consider the information gained from other people, but don’t let their opinions cloud your ambitions! This is your dream and you deserve to realise it.