Changing your career requires more than learning new skills. Here's the journey that set me up to succeed in a move from teaching to programming, and what a strange late-night noise had to do with it.
A click, a swoosh. Then a click and a swoosh again. Repeating rhythmically. Then a thud and it's silent for a moment. Then it restarts. It's 2:00 am and I hear this sound coming from my patio. I only moved in that week and wasn't familiar with the house's particular noises. This sound was odd. So I went to investigate. What I found stirred a change in me.
In 2017 I decided to learn code with no tech background or relevant experiences. I'd never attempted to code before, and was approaching my forties. Yet within the span of ten months, I was working as a front-end developer for a startup. Sounds like a miraculous transformation but it wasn't. It was the culmination of a long journey. It required changes in my attitude and lifestyle, with constant work towards the next step.
Most career-change stories begin once a decision is made and the hard work begins. But the truth is that before you get there there is a long process of figuring things out and setting yourself up for success.
It's usually "the montage" part of the story. In this article I want to slow it down and share with you that process; what motivated me to look for a new career and the personal changes I made to be ready for it long before I started learning the new skills.
Let's start from the beginning. What motivates us to embark on a career change? And one step further - what pushes us towards any great change?
Smells like teen advice
As I approached my late thirties I started to evaluate my life and my choices. The thing about your thirties is that almost all the decisions that lead to your current life were made when you were in your teens -- or at most, a very inexperienced individual. When you made those decisions you didn't know much about the older you. You couldn't have known how your experiences would have shaped you and how your priorities were going to change.
In my teens, for example, my priorities were very different from what I was feeling in my mid-thirties. Sure, I had lived out many of those experiences I had wanted to, but at a point I realised that my hopes for the next 10, 20 or 30 years were on a different path. This was the first spark of encouragement towards a new life.
Teaching English in Spain
I was teaching English in Spain and it was something I enjoyed. But I wanted to build a career that was more fulfilling and I wanted more financial stability. Growth as a teacher is limited and usually takes you straight out of the classroom and into more managerial roles. The classroom was what I loved about the job. I knew I had to look somewhere else to reach what I felt was my potential.
Around that time, my Dad ---a life-long smoker--- was diagnosed with lung cancer. In a few short and very hard months, his health deteriorated and he passed away. I was a smoker at that time, too. Of course, I knew it was bad for my health. But the tragic thing about humans is we often fail to appreciate the seriousness of something, even when it's so obvious until it touches us directly. After my father passed, I could no longer turn a blind eye. I had to face the fact that my lifestyle would have devastating effects on the lives of the people I loved. It was time to start taking care of my health.
The final piece of this puzzle was my drive. I'd become intimidated by new challenges. Something had changed because big challenges and risk-taking were nothing new to me. In my early twenties, I relocated from Lebanon to the UK. At 25 I dropped a career in the restaurant business and went to university. By my late twenties, I had relocated again this time to Spain. Learning a new language and building a life from scratch once again.
So I wasn't new to the difficulties of a big challenge. I knew the hard work it required and I knew that it could be done. But life throws at you experiences that change you, sometimes in subtle ways that aren't always noticeable. And it's not just life, it's also our own actions, routines, and habits. It's easy in the end to find yourself putting limitations on your own abilities and objectives. Limitations that come from nothing but your own mind.
Becoming aware of all this is very important. And it is the first step to changing things. But it's only the first step and without doing anything about it, it is not going to change on its own. It's also the kind of moment where the people closest to you can have a great impact. My partner, Elena, who is also my closest friend, was in endless conversations with me. These were vital in reflecting, building motivation, and deciding to move forward.
One day on a visit to a science museum we picked up a kids book about coding. We followed its instructions and created our first HTML and CSS Hello World. It was thrilling. This seemed to be like a very interesting career option to pursue. But how did the search lead me there to begin with?
In pop culture, people seem to always be "searching" for stuff. Searching for love, searching for themselves, searching for a way out. And I dislike the idea of the search. It gives the impression that whatever it is we are seeking is already out there waiting to be discovered. And all we have to do is "find" it.
I can hardly find myself in the neighbourhood where I live. That's not how I view the world. I prefer to exchange the word "search" with "create". Create love. Create yourself. Create a way out. That's what makes sense to me. What we want isn't already out there. But it's something we can build, piece by piece. One step at a time. It's something we create, not find.
Creating the new version of me as I saw myself by my late thirties had to start with the first and most important step. Quit smoking.
I knew I had to address the constant nagging voice in my head. The one who knew I shouldn't be smoking. Every day where I continued to smoke was another day that left me feeling like a failure. It was a barrier. A mental one. And a self-imposed one.
So one hot summer day, with the great support and motivation of Elena, I got rid of all my smoking paraphernalia and I quit smoking. It took me two weeks to stop thinking of myself as a smoker and start to notice improvements in my health. Two weeks! That's all it took.
It wasn't easy. But that great barrier was worth only two weeks of fighting. And I couldn't have invested those two weeks in anything better. And it makes you think, why did I trap myself in a self-made prison for so long?
Diet and workout
At the same time, paying attention to my health meant addressing two other important cornerstones. Diet and exercise. I started working out regularly. I went swimming to fight my smoking urges. And I dropped most of the junk and processed food from my diet and started paying attention a lot more to what I'm eating.
A quick disclaimer. I'm not a statuesque fitness freak. I'm not on a strict broccoli diet. Nor is my BMI something to make documentaries about. I'm talking about a move towards a healthier lifestyle in general. This includes a healthier diet and regular exercise. But I'm still eating my pizza.
It's hard to overestimate the impact of these changes. Taking care of my body meant that I felt better and healthier than I have for years. And once those healthier routines became established it was easy to persist. This gave me a boost of physical energy. But it also put me in a better frame of mind. It gave me a boost of confidence. I had faced battles I previously felt were difficult. So I was more open to facing new bigger challenges. It felt doable. This was the right base to be able to build on.
But what did I want to do?
I spent plenty of time investigating possibilities within teaching. At one time I was close to packing up and going back to university again to specialise. But none of the options I explored spoke to me or got me excited. I tried things. I started little courses here and there. Experimented with this and that.
This is the unglamorous part of the story of a career change. You don't get there suddenly. It takes a load of other attempts that don't lead anywhere.
The noise at 2 am
I looked out into the patio. It was a brightly moon-lit evening. The patio was empty. There was that sound again. It wasn't coming from the patio at all. That was just the echo. It was coming from the other side of the house.
And that's when it clicked. Over on that side, down the hill, there was a skate park. It was someone skateboarding! Skateboarding in the dead of night. In the freezing winter cold. Again and again. Up and down. Falling and getting up.
I went back to bed and sat there listening to the unknown skater practising their moves. And I realised that this was exactly the missing ingredient for me.
It reminded me of when as a teen I picked up the guitar for the first time. And you look at the mountain of stuff you'll have to do before you become any good at this. It's intimidating and scary. But you take it one step at a time. And you learn something new every day. And you work hard and push yourself. And you become consumed with wanting to understand everything about guitars and guitar playing.
And that's what I wanted. I didn't want simply a career move towards something "better." I wanted a challenge that seems insurmountable. Something that doesn't only push me out of my comfort zone, but forces me to expose myself to my fears. Something that makes me want to work as hard as my skater friend at 2:00 a.m. I knew in my heart that it wasn't the time for half measures. It wasn't too late to start learning something completely new from scratch. It was the right time!
Right at that same time Elena was on her own quest. She was exploring improving her career options. She was also passionately thinking about why there were so few women in STEM careers. Those two intersected as she started to explore software engineering. It attracted her both as a viable career option and because there was (and is) an under-representation of women in tech.
I quickly got excited when I watched and listened to her talk about code. It was an area I had always admired and found intriguing. Though I thought it was something inaccessible by someone like me. We started looking for more information on how realistic it is to learn to code and what options exist.
After writing our first Hello World, we moved from exploring the career path to actually doing tutorials and trying things out. It became clear this was a viable career choice. And that programming is as exciting as it is challenging.
Once we felt we understood our options and how we could work it into our lives and constraints, we made the decision. We decided to pursue a career change full steam ahead.
The temperature outside had become mild and agreeable, and yet, I could still hear the click and swoosh of my unknown skater still practising deep into the night. And I knew I was ready to take on this challenge and work just as hard.
I hope you find this story useful. I think we have a tendency to reduce our journeys to bite-sized stories that only highlight the best parts. Those moments paint a skewed picture. I don't want to sound cliche but nothing comes suddenly, nothing comes easy without consistent hard work. That hard work goes beyond minimum requirements for a career change.