Coming in from the cold: Routes to becoming a software engineer

Inspired by the upcoming digital networking event, the latest cohort of the Guardian Digital Fellowship reflect on how they became developers.

Kate Whalen

While I have always been interested in computers and technology, I had never tried programming until a couple of years ago. One weekend, I helped a friend build and program a small circuit board of flashing LEDs. He insisted that I would be great at programming, I didn’t believe him – but I was still hooked.

My background is in microbiology and I quickly found a fantastic parallel between genetic code and computer code. Even better, you can meddle with the latter without an ethics committee getting involved; programming became my favourite hobby.

I started considering how I could switch careers and become a software engineer. I read articles, looked at courses and asked my friends in the software industry for advice. Their encouragement helped convince me.

It was going to be a big change; I had doubts about whether I had an aptitude for software and whether I would still enjoy it – even when everything breaks. I used free online resources to slowly tackle increasingly challenging programming tasks. The fun of building things and solving problems never faded and I decided to resign from my job to focus on teaching myself. So, after gathering some savings together, I handed in my notice.

Over the following months I worked on online courses, such as CS50x, codecademy and Code School, as well as my own projects. I installed Linux on an old laptop so I could attend hackathons and tech events, which introduced me to the London software community.

It has been a long road as an aspiring developer. However, I am so delighted that taking a gamble and pursuing my dreams has led to such a rewarding career.

Calum Campbell

I never really thought I could make the career jump to software engineering – coding was a far cry from working on oil rigs in Africa. Coding also seemed like a bit of a mysterious and inaccessible field, my image of programmers was a bit MI5 computer genius.

I wanted to obtain a skill that would allow me to work in an environment where I got to solve problems and could lead to working in a company that had values that resonated with my own, so I started to look into learning to code.

When my previous role came to an end I decided to take the plunge and applied for the General Assembly coding bootcamp in London. I had no prior experience of coding, so it was daunting to take up the 12 week intensive course.

However, the experience of learning with a group of likeminded people was incredibly fun and rewarding. There were times when it seemed completely impossible and overwhelming, but heading to the pub with friends after a day of dealing with bugs is always a great remedy.

The change of career may have been a difficult decision – which had some tough moments, but it led to me being able to work in a totally new environment, for a company that I really believe in and doing something that I find rewarding.

Anne Byrne

I never had a sudden epiphany that I wanted to work in tech. Rather a slow, gradual realisation that I was allowed to be interested in becoming a developer.

I was in the midst of my first real job and miserable. Working as a developer interested me but I was scared of investing in a whim. I then joined Amazon in a commercial role to buy time financially whilst starting a course with Code First: Girls.

Over the six week course, I learnt front-end basics and a technical career became a tangible possibility. However, my knowledge was limited and I couldn’t afford a bootcamp or to take some time off work.

Turning to my course instructors for advice resulted in me gaining a mentor. The sessions ranged from learning Ruby, test-driven development, technical writing and working on side-projects. My aim was to apply for a conversion MSc Computer Science and save towards it whilst working.

During this time I was upfront with my manager about my ambitions. She helped me identify ways to improve my technical skills in my current role and internal jobs that could be a good interim step in my career.

I often felt I would never meet the hiring bar. That I was asking for the impossible in seeking a role that interested me. However, I didn’t let these doubts prevent me from applying. I approached every interview as a learning experience. My time spent wrangling with Ruby testing frameworks paid off when it came to my first pair-programming exercise.

You can switch careers without taking a financial risk and there is often a lot to learn in the interim. My commercial experience has been invaluable in my role at the Guardian, and being open with my manager meant I had greater support.

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