Where I Began

Long before the end of my customer service career, there was a girl who loved technology

One of the most frequent questions I receive is “how did you get started?”. The answer to this question is oddly complex, because I feel like my decision to “take the plunge” came after years of being deeply entrenched in personal nerddom and playing around with consumer technology.

The early years: Black-ish and nerdy in suburbia

Since I was a young girl growing up in Massachusetts, I had always been unnaturally fascinated by computers and technology. Long before “unboxing videos” on YouTube, I relished the experience of setting up a new computer and configuring it just how I liked, taking pictures on my Sony Mavica with each step.

Software was extremely sexy to me, and for the longest time, I felt like this made me a social outcast in many ways. Around 13 years old, I wandered into the world of online text-based roleplaying (also known as Multi-User Dungeons or MUDs, or MOOs, their more object-oriented counterparts), and had my very first experience with Object Oriented Programming (OOP).

Whatever I didn’t know about, I searched online and devoured whatever information I could uncover. A few older folks in the MUD gaming community took a special interest in me, and helped out in little ways.

I wanted to build things, and take things apart, and figure out how they worked.

My best childhood friend and I would tinker with things for long hours, in between playing computer games. As time went on, I cared less and less about what people thought. This was me, and it was one of my (few) great talents.

Being raised by my mother’s parents and having a significant generational gap, I feel incredibly blessed that my grandfather saw the value in technology and made it his personal goal to provide me with the tools I needed to explore and learn.

Options were somewhat limited for a young girl looking to play with computers, but we succeeded in finding educational camps like Exploration Summer Camps (Explo), where I actually found some nerdy friends from all over the world that I am still friends with as an adult!

Why didn’t you go to college for this, then?

I tried. Trust me… I tried.

When I attended Wellesley College from 2004–2007, I don’t think the curriculum and professors quite spoke to me. The coursework related to the Computer Science major was initially largely based in non-web technologies, where the majority of my interest lay.

After a couple of semesters of making programs in Java and learning Data Structures, feeling on the verge of tears after a lot of office hours because I just wasn’t getting it — I decided that Wellesley’s program just wasn’t giving me what I wanted. I didn’t know at the time exactly what it was that I wanted, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Like so many people—especially women—who are interested in technology but don’t have any sense of their strong suits, I listened to a lot of other people who told me that “maybe I just wasn’t very good at programming”, or “maybe I was meant to be in hardware”. The end result was that I was exhausted quickly, which essentially caused my passion for technology to fizzle for several years, until after I graduated in 2007.

The advent of web technology self-education-as-a-service

In the 2000s and particularly the 2010s, we saw a boom of educational sites for people interested in web technology. In the beginning, I tried to take some online courses through W3Schools and a handful of others, but they just made me feel even more inept.

What was really happening was that they hadn’t yet figured out the true User Experience for someone making an initial venture into this complicated industry, and it simply didn’t speak to me (this is another subject I will be dedicating a separate article to). Everybody learns differently.

After several failed attempts to learn even simple concepts like CSS selectors, I came upon a new company called Treehouse in 2013. Their approach seemed very different, with videos and frequent quizzes and code challenges. I realized quickly that what I was lacking was structure up until this point, and they offered it with different subjects. In the early days, their selection was fairly limited, but I caught on quickly and we were Game On once again!

Working in the non-tech world as a techie

I found a recurring pattern in my adult working life prior to committing myself to making this career change: everywhere I worked, I was heralded as being the most creative, efficient, and naturally tech-savvy person. While it was certainly a nice feeling, I realized that it wasn’t a good learning environment for me.

Having taken some odd jobs in industries like Maritime, the praise came in the same breath as chiding for taking “too long” to complete some tasks because I wanted to find more efficient ways to do them. Nobody seemed to understand the concept of investing time or money upfront to ensure something would be easier down the road (read: automation).

I watched so many wheels spinning endlessly around me, and it was intensely frustrating. I wanted to work somewhere where innovation and efficiency were coveted traits, and where I could improve on them through my peers.

In May 2014, I left my job and went to work for a software start-up in their Customer Care department. In the beginning, things were new, shiny, and exciting. I don’t think I touched a piece of paper the entire time I worked there. Thinking outside the box was praised and rewarded. However, I ran into entirely new sets of challenges that just created greater inefficiency and eventual displeasure.

Taking the plunge

On May 18, 2015, after being promoted from a customer service rep to a manager… I lost my job. The details of that company and job are pretty irrelevant, but all you need to know is that it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

I was planning a move anyway, and hadn’t been happy for a while, but there’s something unique about suddenly being completely unsure of your next steps. I had to decide something, and fast. I talked with my family, who gave me their word to support me in any way they could.

I had been dreaming of just taking a few months off to dedicate to Treehouse, and make an official change into a new industry. The timing was right, and I did not want to get stuck in another Customer Service position. I wasn’t in a good place financially, which meant I didn’t have much time. (Fortunately, my Wellesley alum network has been so supportive and helpful in making this transition a little bit smoother, helping to raise money for me to help with household bills while I started in on self-teaching again.)

To compliment my Treehouse education, I saw a poster for a Coding Academy at a local community college. I applied for and received a scholarship to attend, and classes should be wrapping up in late August. By early June, I was committed to getting started on my path to a rewarding new career.

As of today, I am ranked 10th in points earned on Treehouse‘s site for the month of July, out of more than 20,000 students. I have covered classes in the past month in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, MySQL, and completed the entire PHP track. I am literally hungering for more. I can’t wait for this to be my new career. The things I used to tinker with in my spare time are now exactly what I’m supposed to be doing to find a fulfilling career, make more money, and continue growing… and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

You can do it, too!

If this story (that I’m writing on no sleep) doesn’t make you believe that you can make this happen for yourself, then I’m not sure what it will take. Changing careers is a lot of hard work, but if you’re anything like me, it’s fun. It’s truly an investment in yourself to follow your dreams.

Next up, I’ll be talking about first steps and questions to ask yourself before taking your own plunge!

Do you have questions, comments, or a story to share? Feel free to engage me in the comments below, on my Facebook page La Vie en Code, or on Twitter at @lavie_encode.

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