Switching to a Career in Programming

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In this special guest feature, Jesse Anderson from Cloudera writes about how you can succeed with a career move into programming. At a time when data science engineers are using experience in programming to carve out their place in Big Data, this could be your big opportunity. Jesse works at Cloudera on the Educational Services team as a Curriculum Developer and Instructor.

Jesse_Anderson_ClouderaI’ve been talking to quite a few people who want to switch careers from an unrelated field to programming. I’m guessing they’ve been reading the stories about how it’s one of highest paying fields today, or how it’s the best position for introverts. Either way, for those looking to make a change in careers, here are a few recommendations and considerations.

Programming is hard. It’s difficult in many different ways, which you may already know. One of the ways programming is hard is referred to as domain expertise, which means that a programmer needs to be an expert at programming and an expert at whichever domain they’re writing code for. It sounds fun until you’ve spent your career coding and your brain is filled with esoteric knowledge from various industries. I should have a button that says, “Ask me about financial trading systems, tax calculations, movie post-production or hospital information systems.”

This isn’t a walk down memory lane; it’s something you have that other programmers don’t. You have years of deep expertise in an industry. Let’s say you’ve spent your career as an accountant and you want to switch careers to programming. Your vast experience in accounting will dwarf a programmer’s. You need to capitalize on that experience and find a technology company that makes software for accountants or accounting.

Depending on your abilities, you may not be hired as a programmer right away. You may be hired as a Subject Matter Expert (SME). During this time, you’ll be interacting heavily with the development team. They’ll be relying on you to augment their own knowledge of accounting.

Keep your eyes and ears open. It’s during this time that you’ll be immersed in the act of engineering. Listen to the questions the programmers are asking. On one level there is a question, and on another level there is the reason the programmer is asking the question. Try to get more information about the “why” and this will help you understand the process of engineering a product. Engineering isn’t just about knowing a programming language; it’s about creating a solution that fulfills a customer’s needs with a programming language.

Another possibility is to be hired as a Quality Assurance Engineer (QA). This person’s job is to test and make sure the software works correctly. Who better to test things than someone with a vast expertise in the domain? This job requires you to be meticulous and have heavy interaction with the programmers.

You’ll notice that I didn’t talk about getting hired as a programmer (yet); I’ve covered getting a job that interacts with the programmers. This may be the easiest, but not shortest, way to become a programmer. Companies will often hire or promote non-programmers from within who show promise. I have seen many people move up from QA positions to full-time programmer positions. It will take time and effort, but it’s well worth it.

Let’s say you’re hired in as a programmer or were promoted. First off, congratulations! If you read that you’d be making six figures, you probably aren’t (yet). You might be starting at the bottom. This isn’t anything personal, you just need to prove that you have the skills to program. You’re going to be given easier, non-critical things to work on. Use this as a time to learn and get better. Becoming a programmer is only the first step in a long process of learning and improving.

Before you know it, you’ll be telling the new hires about your rise to world domination after switching careers to become a programmer. It’s going to be fun and you’ll meet lots of interesting, nerdy people who have esoteric knowledge in various domains. More importantly, you’ll have the skills and have accomplished your goal of becoming a programmer. Congratulations, you did it!


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