Is it ever too late to follow your dream and start a new career? Well, I was 30 and had been working for Zalando for more than 4 years when I decided to change my career path for the second time. I made the decision a year ago, joined my new team in April 2020, and I didn't regret it for a single day.
Since that transition, a lot of people approached me with questions and asked me for advice. I started to realize that my experience could be valuable to others out there. Some people may want to change their career too but are afraid of failure or do not have enough support from their friends or colleagues, or maybe haven’t even shared their thoughts with anyone yet.
This article contains answers to the questions I was frequently asked. I hope it might support you with the decision whether a career in software engineering is what you always wanted, provide you with arguments to convince people around you that switching careers is a great idea if you do it for the right reasons, or just help you go through a difficult time of uncertainty.
What did you do before you became an engineer?
I studied business mathematics and joined Zalando as a Business Analyst after completing my master's degree. At my first job, I was helping out one of the Product Managers (PM) in my department. One year later I was offered the opportunity to become a PM myself. By that time, product duties had already taken more than 50% of my working time, so it was an easy decision. I continued to work as PM for another 3 years.
How did you become interested in coding?
I was always working quite closely with engineers in my team. At some point, they realized that I enjoy thinking about technical stuff too, and started to involve me in their discussions. I still remembered a bit of coding that I did during my bachelor years, and I started spending some of my free time attending online courses and re-learning how to code.
How did you learn to code?
My interest was growing, but at the same time, I had to admit that I couldn't spend enough time coding outside my work. You should know that I'm a very social person, so almost every evening in my normal week is blocked for some kind of social activity. I love to travel, so the weekends didn't help either. I decided to give it a proper try: take a sabbatical and do a full-time course at Ironhack coding camp for 9 weeks. With the help of this course I built the foundation for my current programming skill set.
Why did you decide to switch to engineering?
After 9 weeks of coding every day1, I still enjoyed it. So I said to myself, this is what I'd like to be paid for! It felt right to pursue something that is so much fun even while it's sometimes frustrating.
How did you know it was the right decision?
This was the key question for me. It was a life-changing decision, so I wanted to be fully aware of my motivations and confident that I really want it. My key takeaways were:
- Make sure to not bargain one trouble for another. It's absolutely crucial to know that you want to become an engineer rather than just escape your current job. To verify that it's not about my current product or team, I first switched to another department still as a PM but working on a completely different topic. Only after spending half a year with the new project, I could say with certainty that my wish was not about the circumstances but the engineering job itself.
- Make sure you want to become an engineer for the right reasons. I made a list of pros and cons for both my current job and software development and then talked to engineers I knew to ensure it's not just how I imagine this job to be. If some aspects of your current role make you unhappy, make sure it's not going to be a major part of your future role. If you are happy with your job, but the main reason is that you think you could earn more money as an engineer – please, think twice. However, if you can see how becoming a software engineer would fit your interests, character, and life goals much better than your current job – go for it!
What do you like most about engineering?
My favorite topic! There are so many things! Here are just a few highlights:
- Power of creativity: when you write code, you create something that wasn't there before. Sometimes it's really touchable, like a new button, sometimes it's a new behavior you introduce, sometimes a performance gain. Whatever it is, the act of creation makes you feel almost like a god ^^.
- Joy of focus: I love that engineering goals are usually very tangible. I also love that, at least at the beginning of your engineering career, you can focus on one task at a time. In my previous roles, I would often end up juggling a lot of balls at the same time, which can be very exhausting. It’s an extremely satisfying experience to really complete something end to end, even if it’s just a little button that does exactly one thing.
- Solving puzzles: you often have to solve what feels like real mysteries. When you investigate failures or look for root causes of a bug, you are the Sherlock Holmes in this story. If you are into this kind of puzzles, it's going to be amazing.
- Constant learning: no matter how long you are in this job, there is always more to learn - new frameworks, programming languages, tools, principles, concepts, entire new areas of technology. This feeling is shared by every engineer I know, regardless of how many years of experience they have. Your brain is always working, and it's beautiful.
Weren't you afraid to start on a new path after 4 years of a professional career?
Of course I was! Every new start is terrifying. But if you know why you are doing it and you have the support of your colleagues, friends and family, it's less scary. Even if you don't have that, the engineering community is a lovely place – there are always people who will point you in the right direction when you ask for help. Also, what's the worst thing that could happen? If a year down the line I should realize that it's not the right thing for me, I can always return to my previous job with even more valuable experience in my mental backpack.
How did you feel about throwing away years of professional experience?
The answer is simple: I didn't throw them away. Whatever you were doing before, whatever you learned and practiced, stays with you and you can most certainly use it in your new role. In my case, it was easy to justify: I brought with me the knowledge about the software development lifecycle, soft skills and business acumen. If you worked in a different role before, you still learned useful things there: maybe you were part of a team, a problem solver or a great communicator, or maybe you are amazing at structuring things. Whatever it is, you are going to need it and it's going to help you.
How did your friends and family react?
I was a bit afraid to tell them. "I'm 30, and I finally figured out what I want to become when I grow up" sounded weird even in my own head. But almost everyone I shared my idea with was so supportive and excited once I explained my motivation, that soon I started to gain a lot of energy from telling people about my goal and sharing my plans.
Is it better to do the change inside your current company or join a new one?
Well, it really depends on your current situation. On the one hand, I would highly recommend doing the first steps in your current company because it makes things easier. You already know the company, you know some people, you are not a complete newbie. I’m not sure if Zalando is special that way, but I received unimaginable amounts of support from my leads, colleagues and the company itself. Zalando invests in its people, so I was financially supported from the very first milestone on this way. My wonderful company paid for my coding camp, and the only thing I had to do in return was to sign that I won’t leave within the next year (which I didn’t intend to do anyway). Every next step would have also been way harder in a new environment. On the one hand, if you are not happy with your current employer, staying there only to make the transition easier is probably not the best idea. Short: if you like your company - make your transition there, if not - don't be afraid to leave.
What concrete steps can I take towards switching to engineering?
The way to engineering can be very different. Here is how I would go about it:
- Try online programming courses to see if you like it. While doing that myself, I collected a list of resources that I found helpful, feel free to check it out and add new ones using the comments.
- If you are still not quite sure, take a vacation or a sabbatical and give it a full-time test-drive.
- Write a list of things that you love about your current job and that you think you might love about being an engineer. Talk to someone about it and verify that you have the right motivation.
- Talk to your manager about your goal. Together you can figure out what would be the right way: a slow transition with a part-time involvement, or a full switch at a time frame that is satisfactory for both of you.
- Do it :)
I have met a lot of wonderful people who would like to change their careers and try something new. Many of them have always dreamed of becoming an engineer but were told not to. Actually, my own sister once said that I shouldn’t study Computer Science because I’m not smart enough for that, so I didn’t. It can be scary, you might feel like people are going to be judgmental about it, you might be afraid to lose your stability - and it’s all justified. My goal here is to let you know that you are not alone with your fear. The change is not as crazy as it might sound to you, and that there are more people like you who have already successfully made the transition, and can support you. Give it a try!
If you have any questions that I haven’t covered here, don't hesitate to reach out to me, and I'll gladly share everything I know.
I'd like to point out that this was a very special situation for a limited amount of time. In normal times and especially during quarantine I pay a lot of attention to my work-life-balance and strongly recommend everyone to do the same. ↩