From teacher to developer

Coming home to my second career

November 22, 2021 · Felipe Vogel ·

As my first full year as a developer-in-training draws to a close, it’s a good time to reflect on my journey so far: how did I get here, and why am I becoming a developer?

I know what you’re thinking. “Is this a filler post that Felipe cobbled together while he thinks up his next programming topic?” No, actually I think it’s important for me to tell my story—and I have plenty of other bloggable stuff going on, thank you very much! Namely, with the job search looming ahead I’m improving my first Rails app and filling in my most gaping knowledge gaps. So why the sudden excursion into my life story?

The simplest reason is that I want to articulate my story in a way that makes sense to a hiring manager or anyone else who might look at my resume and wonder what a former humanities teacher is doing in the tech world. But it’s also for myself that I’m writing this. It’s all too easy to slip into pitying myself as a victim of circumstance; instead, I want to put the spotlight on how much I enjoy learning as a novice developer, and how my creative juices are flowing more than ever before. That’s the story that gives me the most joy in my work, so I want to make sure it stays in the forefront of my mind. But first, let’s back up a bit.

The backstory

I did some programming in high school and was about to go into computer science in college, when someone advised me to study electrical engineering instead because (they said) that’s where the real money is. I followed this questionable advice and found that I did not enjoy the theory-heavy approach and buttoned-up culture of engineering. At the same time, I started voraciosly reading history and classic novels, which put me on a journey of discovery that I could not get enough of. So I ended up switching my degree to English literature, and that was the beginning of my career in the humanities. Next I got an M.A. in classical studies (Latin and ancient Greek) and then I taught for a few years.

Then came 2020. A year that, for many of us, deserves its own dramatically short paragraph. So here it is.

Due to variety of circumstances, it was getting harder for me to stay in teaching. For one thing, my wife was ill and I was having trouble supporting her. But also, I’d reached a point of stagnation in my career. I couldn’t find a way around it, even after a job change, and I found myself thinking more and more about programming. Even in the humanities I’d done a few programming projects for fun, and each time these projects gave me a thrill that I had not found in full-time teaching.

So in summer 2020 I took the plunge and quit teaching. I got a job in tech support with a Shopify app company, where I still work as a support manager, while in the evenings and on weekends I’m studying and coding my way into development.

Coding from the heart

Elsewhere I’ve written on the technical side of my career transition: see my study plan and a post on why I chose Ruby.

But here I want to touch on the bigger question that my story might raise: why am I, a former humanities teacher, getting into software development?

It’s not because I’m selling my soul for a more lucrative career. No, as a teacher I’ve already had to endure a soul-sucking job or two, and I’m not going to do it again. I’m thankful that already I’m making a better living than I did as a teacher, and that will only be more true when I actually get a development job. But if development were a joyless pursuit for me, I would not get into it for any amount of money.

To the contrary, I find a deep satisfaction in programming. I find the wonder and exploration that drew me into the humanities, but I also find something else: the fulfillment of a creative need that for most of my life has gone unfulfilled. Granted, I do enjoy writing, and literary studies helped me hone that craft. But with writing, I’m never “in the zone” as much as I am when I’m coding. I can’t write for hours on end with barely any perception of time passing, as I can when I’m solving thorny problems in code or when I’m adding a new technology to my stack. Yes, I have plenty of moments of frustration when I’m coding (see my “November of WTFs” for a few of them in Rails), but at the end of the day I’m amazed that I get to build these little virtual worlds, and I can’t wait to get back to it tomorrow.

I hope I didn’t get too sappy in my confessions of love just now, but I risked it because I want to put down a misunderstanding that’s easy to get with second-career developers: that we’re going for second best or “plan B” after our first career didn’t pan out. The truth is that very few of us at age 20 can make a completely informed decision about the course of our profession life, and I am no exception. That’s not to say that I regret my years in the humanities; in those years I gained treasures that I’ll carry with me for life (I will always be a Latin nerd), and I matured in ways that will make me an even better developer in the long run. But I am so glad that I’ve finally found my vocation, and I am inexpressibly excited for the years of learning and creating that lie ahead.

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