How to switch your career to coding
Are you stuck at your desk dreaming of another working life? Many consider switching careers but few are brave enough to do it. The FT's Emma Jacobs wants to know what it's like to leave a job as a teacher and enter the very different world of coding or software programming, and how to do it
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Edited by Richard Topping. Produced and written by Josh de la Mare. Co-produced and presented by Emma Jacobs.
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Are you in a steady job but have itchy feet? Maybe you're tempted by a career in tech, but feel intimidated by terminology like full stack, Java, or Scala. Maybe you fear vying for jobs with people who've been coding since they were a child. I want to know how to make a switch from a traditional career, such as teaching, to the mystifying world of computer programming.
If you said to me 10 years ago, when I was 17, that I would become a computer programmer, there's no way I could have believed that. It was still something I thought weirdos did.
Twenty-seven-year-old Martha Chambers now works for British broadcaster ITV as a software engineer on its TV interface. But a year and a half ago, she was an English teacher in a challenging state school in northeast London, having studied politics and philosophy at Edinburgh University.
My mum was a teacher, my granny was a teacher, my great-granny was a teacher. So it's something I always thought I'd probably go into. So I signed up and did the Teach First programme, which is pretty gruelling. Started teaching in Ponders End, which is a fairly poor area in Enfield. So yeah, it was a shock.
And not long into the teaching, she began to consider another career. Martha stays in touch with Ruby Venning, who taught at the same school as her, and now teaches English and maths in East London.
I'm really missing the school, you know.
I've only got 10 days left for the whole year.
Why did you want to leave teaching? I can't remember.
I think, I wanted a change. Teaching, you know, absorbs so much of you, you know. It's so difficult. But, I think coming straight out of university and going into teaching is really hard. I think it'd be something I'd love to go back to once I've got a bit more to offer.
And I wanted to... yeah, I just wanted to start learning again. Problem-solving myself the whole time, rather than trying to get the kids to do the solving.
So Martha started to strongly consider software programming or coding. It was a radical switch from her humanities background, but she already knew she had an interest in logic and maths, and was good at it.
Before I went to university, I was teaching in China. And I met a guy on a hike. We were just chatting and we were doing riddles because we were walking for a pretty long way. And he gave me a maths riddle. And he was a computer programmer. And he was quite impressed with how I solved it and my talking through.
And he said, you know, you should give this a go. I sort of ignored it at the time. I'd just done my English, history, and philosophy A levels. So again, really artsy, and was about to go and study those things at uni. I suppose it was when I got to uni and I started studying the philosophy side of things, I took lots of logic-based modules, computational logic, and loved it. And a couple of people over the years have said I should go for it.
So go for it she did. But how to get in? It's no easy option, and most employers want to see some formal training. That's available in many forms: online courses with technical tests, evening classes, or full-time degrees with universities. And now, intensive courses run at coding schools, which have sprung up in recent years. Tech recruitment veteran Nadia Edwards-Dashti has this advice.
If you can, go back and get yourself a degree within computer science.
The computer science degree will teach some of the pure fundamentals. And when we look at the complexity of systems that we're all using today, you can't have mistakes within those. If you can't, then you do as many courses as you can. On top of that, you go to technology events where you can meet with people. And you start collaborating outside of a work environment. When you do get to interview, you can say, actually, I've got the theory, and I've got a bit of practise, as well.
In the end, Martha decided to go for a shorter, three-month course at a coding school in London run by General Assembly, rather than a year-long degree, which would have meant losing a year's salary. She said it was 12-hour days six days a week in classes, plus homework.
Had you ever been somebody that had been sitting in their bedroom coding away, kind of trying things out? Had you ever done that before?
No. And I think that the great thing about the course is it's a way of getting into it even if you're not one of those types that has spent hours in their bedroom.
Did that put you off at all?
You know, in the beginning of the course, when you just can't get your head around something, it is so frustrating. You sort of look around the rest of the class and think, oh my God, everyone else gets it. And that is really scary and daunting, and you can get really stressed and over-worried. But then after class or in break times, or even halfway through a class, you know, you have a quiet chat with a friend and you realise everyone's going through that struggle.
But to really succeed on a course like this, it's crucial to know this really is the job for you. Martha did coding exercises on her own as a way of finding out what was involved, and she knew her enjoyment of logic puzzles showed her interest, even the ever popular Sudoku.
It's quite a lot like programming. You get to that point where you think, oh my God, have I ruined this? Am I not going to get a solution? And you have that moment of battle. And then when it all comes together and you've completed it, it's very, very satisfying.
The hard work of three months intensive training was only the beginning. Then Martha faced the scary prospect of actually finding a job.
How did you find the job search?
The job search, well, it was great the first two weeks because you're like, yes, don't have to get up, this is fantastic and a bit of a relief. And then very, very quickly, you are plunged into, oh my God, I don't have a job, I'm not going to get a job. But you just start applying, and just sort of view it as keeping up and improving your code skills, practicing tests. We all still went back into General Assembly, so we were allowed to use their offices as a sort of collaborative workspace.
Courses like Martha's aren't cheap. Switching to coding is a real investment of money and time.
It was £8,000 which is a huge commitment. That's why you have to really, really be aware that that's what you want to do before signing up. I think that's another great thing about the pre-work. I think just as much as them deciding whether you're right for the course, it's actually you deciding whether you want to, you know, invest.
So I think that's being reviewed. It may or may not be used.
It's a totally different work/life balance and salary to that of a teacher.
As a teacher, your job is never over. Some teachers get four hours sleep a night. It's really, really all-consuming. My day here, I turn up, I'll pick up a ticket, we have stand-up each day talking about where everyone else is at with their work, and then either continue working on your own or pair programme together. Then, at the end of the day, when the day is done, sometimes you find yourself staying later because you just can't let go of the problem and you really want to keep solving it. But mostly I can go home and put that work to bed.
It's a contrast to her teaching career, but there are some things she misses from her days in the classroom.
What do you miss the most?
I really miss the kids.
You really miss the kids.
Yeah. Our year 11s?
Yes. Oh, they were the best.
I mean, they weren't in lots of ways.
Lots of challenging lessons.
But they were great. And they all did so well.
So what are the hours like compared to what we used to do?
Oh, so good. So we have sort of flexible hours. So I'll leave the office and I don't have to think about it, which is a huge difference. Rather working on the weekend or feeling guilty for not working on the weekend. I remember calling you most Sundays being like, I haven't done the marking for Monday.
And it was really... yeah, really stressful.
What Martha also enjoyed about teaching was the sociability. But what surprised her about the coding work is that, unlike the stereotype of an isolated nerd, it's sociable, too.
I really get on with my team. I really enjoy working here. And I'm loving learning. Really, really loving it. That does go hand-in-hand with the struggle. It's exhausting learning something new. I think the great thing about my team is they're very good at explaining things in a way that is understandable.
And if you have doubts about whether you'd make an actual coder, don't be put off. Martha's manager, Huw, himself switched from a career in social care, and says people skills count just as much as an aptitude for coding.
When we're looking at people's aptitude, there is a certain level that we expect people to be at.
That level is probably not as high as people assume because we can see, once you reach a certain level of aptitude, people can always learn. The assumption that we prefer computer science graduates doesn't necessarily hold true. We prefer people with more life experience, who are clear about what they want. They might be better at working within a team. They may have a slightly different outlook on problem-solving. Commitment and enthusiasm go a long way.
Martha hasn't given up her enthusiasm for education. At ITV, she's volunteered to mentor young women about routes into the sciences, technology, and coding, like Hanshikaa Shyamsundar, who goes to school in south London.
So you've been involved in programming since you were 10. What sort of things do you want to draw out to evidence that? What are your main areas?
I do a lot of, like, HTML for websites. So I think...
I really miss working with the kids. I really struggle with the fact that I'm now another newly qualified teacher that has left teaching within two years. And I hate the fact that I'm one of those statistics. And so I suppose I do feel a little bit guilty for that. I hope, however, to sort of marry up those two skills in the future, either going back into teaching or working for a charity.
So if you want to take the plunge into the very different world of coding, remember that, while it's more accessible than ever, it's not an easy option and consider the following: know you want to do it and have the right mindset. You need to enjoy solving problems, and to be logical, flexible, and creative. Be prepared to make a big investment of time and money.
Consider carefully the pros and cons of an intensive coding course against a university degree or postgrad qualification. Accept a change in status and salary, as you will start, inevitably, as a junior developer. Be prepared for robust criticism. It's part of the process. You need to be collaborative. And never stop learning. Keep up coding projects outside of work. And remember, computer languages are constantly changing.