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Switching Lanes

Published: 2021-12-03

Changing careers, learning to code, escaping a dark night of the soul.

I was miserable.

I lived in one of the greatest cities in the world, worked for one of the best companies in my field and was about to become a father. I had a wonderful woman by my side to share all this with. I was fortunate.

Yet there was a primitive and guttural alarm inside me signaling that if I stayed the course, something terrible was going to happen. I ignored it.

After more than a year of my general enjoyment of most things steadily fading, I caught a lifeline. Thankfully, this happened before I had absent-mindedly let everything dear to me float away.

Distress signal decoded

I started dabbling in computer programming. My first experiences with computers were in the MS-DOS era and I always felt reasonably comfortable using a computer, but I had never felt any real draw toward building software.

Yet suddenly programming took on new meanings. Learning new thought patterns, solving tough problems, speaking a completely new language unlike any I knew before; all that felt like something. Thrilled about the challenge unveiled, I threw myself into code with fire and vigor I’d almost forgotten existed.

The feeling grew: there was something here I’d been missing. I was typing away at least a couple of hours every night for months on end, after the little one had gone to sleep. Then again, London was locked down and there wasn’t a whole lot else to do anyway.

Modern JavaScript syntax with functional programming techniques. Low-level access via C. Immutable, unidirectional data flows. Declarative and imperative paradigms, relational and non-relational databases. Little by little, my Swiss-cheese knowledge was filling in.

Sustained effort is not magic, although the outcome regularly feels like it.

Fitness landscapes

What may be a bigger hurdle is overcoming one’s ego.

Changing careers means sliding down the slope of your local peak, setting out to find a better vantage point. It’s a whole new mountain to climb and there are no guarantees.

For me, the specific hurdle was nine years of fairly high-profile experience in financial journalism and industry-standard qualifications that I’d spent about 1,000 hours on obtaining.

Like with any new language, I felt like an idiot muddling through rudimentary expressions. Worse than learning to speak English.

I suspected that entering a new field was unlikely to match what I had. Probably not in terms of salary in the short term, almost definitely not in terms of prestige or meaningful decisions available. Nor the fuzzy warm feeling of actually knowing what you’re doing.

Chase your bliss

In the end, it wasn’t a tough choice. It was time to divert course, the internal compass was clear.

The daunting search for the first programming job worked out well. As a general advice, it’s preferable, if at all possible, to link your background and existing domain knowledge with the newly found skills to make this first step at least a little bit easier. Seniors are a lot more in demand than juniors, but there’s plenty of room for both.

I’ve managed to carry a large part of the initial excitement into this job, and as a result, I’m a lot happier than I’ve been for several years. The horizon seems broader.

If you’re interested in the specific resources I used to make this career switch, I’ve curated the best ones in this post. There are no affiliate connections, just trying to pass it forward.

Listen to the signals, observe the compass.

Don’t despair.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Kasper Viita