Starting Over

In my last post, I talked about why I left teaching. While I am very proud to have been a teacher, and do not discourage anyone who is currently or is considering becoming a teacher, I know others get burnt out as well. This post is to share my experience in transitioning to a new career. Some of it will only be applicable to my personal situation, skills, and knowledge, but it might serve as a partial roadmap for others looking to make a career switch.

The Path to Programmer

Like many children of the 80s and 90s, I grew up with the personal computer revolution. We had a Commodore 64 at home during most of my childhood, and I was able to take beginning BASIC programming classes at a Saturday enrichment course. In middle school, we worked on TRS-80 machines, although there was more keyboarding and gameplay than programming, as far as I recall.

By high school, PCs with Windows were becoming available, and I loved tinkering with the new graphical interface. In college during the 90s, I was exposed to the evolution of both Windows and Mac. While I had to use Macintosh machines for several music-related software projects, and later for several jobs, I was always attracted to the FYI (Fix it Yourself) model of Windows, over the IJW (It Just Works) Mac model, which, back then, often didn’t just work. I loved changing themes, settings, and anything else I could experiment with.

Over the first decade of my teaching career, technology continued to play an important role. Being a tinkerer, I was quite often one of the few people in a building who understood how to fix a computer issue. While working on my masters degree, I took a class in computer-generated music, which included some simple code-writing. I was also collecting and learning from different devices. I had 2 or 3 tablet PCs back when no one knew what that was (almost a decade before the iPad). The iPhone finally brought me into the Apple ecosystem, as I discovered a device that lived up to the IJW motto.

My deeper dive into computer work began, unsurprisingly, the second time I found out I was losing my current position as a teacher, in 2010. I decided to put my training and expertise into writing a book for other music teachers, and wanted to create a website to accompany the book. So I looked into web hosting, purchased a cheap plan, and taught myself how to manage the WordPress system (which this blog is still running on today). While WordPress is a management portal that requires no programming skills to use, it also allows users to tinker with the code through embedded code and templates. I wanted my website to include a searchable spreadsheet of folk songs for teachers, so I learned how to use Google APIs in JavaScript (basically copied and pasted code and tweaked it until it worked) to connect to a google spreadsheet.

At the same time, I used spreadsheet functions to create a lesson plan form in Google Sheets with simple dropdown menus, so teachers could quickly create lesson plans, complete with national or state standards. The form was clunky, but it sped up lesson writing immensely.

A few years later, I decided to explore and learn iOS app development with Swift. I was intrigued by the new programming language (seemed simple enough to grasp), and wanted to remake my simple lesson-planner in a nicer-looking and more accessible way. So I grabbed a book (Learn Swift in 24 Hours), installed Xcode, did a few tutorials, discovered StackOverflow, and within 5 months, released my first app to the App Store, complete with a remote server that saved and synced lesson plans, and the ability to print or save lessons as PDFs.

Since I train other teachers in various settings, I was able to share my app by word of mouth, and got quite a bit of interest. I soon added a full-featured calendar to the app, so teachers could document their rotating schedules of classes (Google Calendar and iCal can’t do rotations on different weekdays, such as a 3-day school rotation). I then created a second app, which was a simple touch-screen rendition of a classroom xylophone, complete with removable bars, the perfect practice app for elementary students or studying teachers!

Porting the lesson planner and pocket xylophone to Android seemed the next logical step. I searched around for way too long hoping to find a way to write Android in Swift or port my code, before finally realizing that Java wasn’t terribly different or much harder to grasp, and that the apps weren’t too large to rewrite. Even if you could write in the same programming language, the bigger difference is the interface with iOS and Android operating systems. Still, this desire for a cross-platform solution did become an important part of my journey, as I eventually decided to try Xamarin, which is in yet another language (C#), but allows you to share some or all code between Android, iOS, MacOS, and Windows.

Xamarin runs on the .Net platform, which was created by Microsoft. This eventually led me to realize that not only could I create apps with .Net, but websites and web apps as well!

Turn What You Know Into a New Starting Point

Remember, all of this learning occurred while I was teaching full-time during the year, and teaching graduate courses for 2-6 weeks each summer. Instead of watching TV, reading, or playing video games, I spent a huge amount of “down-time” learning and coding. It was just as exciting to me as any video game, and far more productive.

As I was making the decision that I needed to change careers, programming was the obvious choice. Yet finding a job in a new field, with no degree, and very little in the way of a portfolio, seemed impossible. At the same time, I realized that I had accumulated knowledge and professional connections that could still help me in the future. So I decided to continue creating software for music teachers, as someone with a unique position of both understanding their needs, and having the technical skills to make it happen.

I launched Unison.School early in 2017, and left my teaching position that June. Even before leaving, I laid out all the details I needed to make an attempt at running my own business. I had to learn to create an LLC, work out how I was paying my family bills for a year (thank you to extended family for investing in the business), and explore various advertising methods. Once school was out, I dived into full-time development, creating a web-based version of my touch-screen xylophone and lesson planner, and then implementing a new feature, digital rhythmic and melodic assessments that automatically save a grade to the teacher’s gradebook.

Keep on Learning

While working on Unison.School, I also devoured resources to improve my programming skills. I listened to podcasts (I especially recommend¬†Coding Blocks), read books (check out Clean Code), and took online courses (HarvardX’s CS50, Pluralsight). I used Google and StackOverflow incessantly, and took advantage of all the free developer tools that Microsoft and others offered. Everything I learned was used to make Unison.School a better site.

Use What You’ve Learned to Create a New Portfolio

Unison.School has several hundred teachers currently using some part of the site after just one year of development. However, since I decided to go with a free tier to attract users, this has not yet translated into a financially stable business. Nevertheless, the site has become the centerpiece of my professional portfolio, giving me concrete proof of my skills as a developer.

When I would need a break from working on Unison.School, I would create small programming projects that I could post on GitHub, a free, online repository to share code. I created a Sudoku game (which required lots of math!), and pulled the Gradebook feature out of Unison.School as a separate app. By using GitHub, prospective employers could see the actual code that I write, as opposed to just a finished project.

I kept my LinkedIn profile up-to-date, adding links to all my work. I wrote blog posts about programming, and answered questions on StackOverflow. I took Pluralsight quizzes to demonstrate my knowledge, and figured out how to post these badges to my blog.

Finding a Stable Job

Applying for and finding a job is always the hardest part. No matter your resume, knowledge and experience, blindly applying to positions can seem like a futile task, as you can apply for hundreds with little or no response.

One issue was how to quantify my experience. Nearly every application wanted “3 or more years experience.” I had just under 1 year full-time when I started applying in earnest, but a decade of hobby-level/part-time experience. Did this make me a beginner? Was I qualified for mid-level positions? Certainly there were holes in my experience, such as working on a team, and I didn’t have many tech-related references. I decided to apply for both entry-level and mid-level positions. I had one phone interview that seemed to be going well until the interviewer realized that I had been working full-time as a programmer for less than a year. Apparently, that was not what they were expecting, since I’d already passed their programming test. I’m sure this exists in other fields as well, but it is startling to see just how many developer jobs require those 3-5 years experience. It creates a no-win situation for newcomers, and yet makes you infinitely more marketable a few years later.

They say that most jobs come through people you already know. In my case, that didn’t happen. Cedar Falls/Waterloo is a small metro area, and there just aren’t a huge number of programming jobs. Even though I knew people in the industry, there was nothing that matched up with my skillset and experience level.

The job I finally found was through the StackOverflow jobs board. The nice thing about these listings is that they are targeted specifically to developers, and there are many postings for remote workers, which seemed ideal in my situation. My new company, ID Networks, had a posting, and it caught my eye because it used .Net technology, and strangely enough it was located in northeast Ohio, not far from where I was born and raised! I mentioned this connection in my cover letter, which may have helped my application stand out from the hundreds that they received. It also helped tremendously that the senior developer who interviewed me, Steven Doggart, is much more interested in aptitude than experience, and he gave me ample opportunities to demonstrate not only what I knew, but how I learned.

Looking Forward

I just started my work at ID Networks, and I hope to stay a long time. At the same time, I’m excited to maintain, expand, and support Unison.School for all my teaching friends. I managed to make a huge leap, from one field to another, and I’m grateful for everyone and everything that helped me.

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