On March 8, women’s day, I and a bunch of amazing ladies had a chat at Cheesecake Labs about all things Women In Tech. (A bit of the conversation was live streamed here).
Something we quickly found out about ourselves was how many of us had come from different backgrounds than tech, and had then quit our previous careers to pursue a more computery life.
Arguments aside about why that is and why it shouldn’t have to happen, it raised a few interesting questions. One of which, as brought up by Letícia Portella, was:
How do you cope with feeling like you got into your career too late?
How do you deal with your peers having ten years of experience when you have only two?
How do you deal with the urgency to catch up already?
I suspect what she really meant was…
How do you not just panic all the time?
…and that’s what I’d like to address.
Some background: I have a different story than most people in that I started coding at a very early age, around 11 or 12, and then rage-quit computer stuff altogether when I was 18.
When I was ~12 I'd pwn random servers to run quake1 server and play w/ friends over the weekend, and patched them afterwards. #WITBragDay— Ellen Körbes (@ellenkorbes) August 11, 2017
I decided to come back to it ten years later, at 28, and now one year and change after that I’m about to get my first actual job as a developer.
This somewhat unique perspective of having been both the prodigy who got started in their pre-teens and also someone who quit a different career to start again in the same field allows me to see things in a light most people don’t. So I’d like to take a few minutes to outline why I think this whole process of getting it all wrong, switching careers, and then starting over means a lot more than simply “wasting years of experience.”
In essence, had you started right away on the “right” career instead of going down a few wrong paths, you’d be a different person. That person would possibly be better off financially, but you’re better than them. And the reasons are:
Let’s dive into each briefly.
You’ve recognized your previous career sucked. You saw it was a mistake. You looked into how to fix it. You took the rather drastic step of leaving a whole old life behind and going down a new, unknown path. You did this as an adult, with bills to pay, responsibilities, and likely very little external help. You got started with your new life, and you’re working your ass off to catch up.
It says a lot about you.
It tells me you’re not afraid of owning your screw-ups. You’re not afraid of a huge challenge. You’re not one who quits at the first sign of trouble. And your words are backed by an extraordinary, endless stream of hard work.
It tells me when you hit a hard technical snag at work you’re not gonna smash your keyboard in frustration and yell at it for not doing what you want. You’re gonna deal with it the same way you deal with everything else: like an adult.
It tells me when you end up causing a major fustercluck on your project you’re not gonna come up with excuses, toss blame around, and make an even bigger mess. You’re gonna own it and you’re gonna fix it.
It tells me when you’re assigned to a new, scary job in an area you know nothing about you’re just gonna keep doing what you always do: deal with the problem one bit at a time, one day at a time, until you got it. Because that’s what you do.
And speaking of what you do. You work hard. You work really hard. Not only by necessity but also because it has become a part of you. While your more “talented” peers might be capricious and wait for inspiration and have “meh I’m feeling lazy” days, you’ll be there quietly grinding and grinding and grinding.
You’ll catch up eventually. And when you catch up you’re not gonna stop, and you’re gonna go farther and farther.
As much as talent and intelligence are talked about, grit is a more reliable predictor of success. And while I can’t talk of your talent or intelligence, I can talk about your grit. If you’re reading this, you got it to spare.
There’s so much to be discussed about learning processes. In fact, I did a talk about it, and only barely scratched the surface.
Brains are finicky little machines. The way they absorb and process information is quite peculiar. It’s not in the scope of this article to get into that, but suffice it to say that learning is itself a skill that has to be learned.
And the best way to learn something is by practice.
How many completely different worlds have you had to wrap your mind around?
How many completely different contexts have you had to understand and become familiar with?
Were you in a different field? With people who did things in a different way? Was the bureaucracy of things, for example, completely alien? What was the format of the materials you studied? Did you have field trips? Did you have to learn something with your hands? Or had to spot visual patterns? Was smell something you had to pay attention to? And sound? Were you in a field where knowing facts is useless, and what you really need is practice? …I could go on.
Your having seen different worlds means you’ve experimented with different forms of learning. By now you’ve covered a lot more ground into how you take in, retain, and cement learning. Had you done the same one thing your whole life, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.
You’re a faster learner. You’re a better learner. Your learning is more reliable, fun, and efficient than it would be otherwise.
This is huge.
You may not give a damn when your friend is making a down payment on their house, meanwhile you’re in your 30s working at a junior position, but trust me. Most people never get to experience being exposed to different forms of learning like you have. Your “failed” career gives you an invaluable advantage, you just have to give it some time.
Brain plasticity is a thing. When you first learn a pattern or process, you’re clumsy. You’re slow, it takes a lot of attention, and you make mistakes. Then your brain learns. It optimizes. You get smarter.
There’s a reason I can tell a piano is out of tune from a single keypress while most people would go the whole song without noticing it: I was a professional musician for years and years. I didn’t have any pre-existing talent, my brain just caught up eventually.
And the way this goes is, when you learn a second skill, your brain doesn’t create a whole new room in your skull just for that, completely unrelated to anything else. We only have the same one brain, and we use that same one goop-ball for everything.
The same way it finds new patterns and optimizes for single skills, it finds patterns and optimizations from the whole library of experiences you’ve encountered in your life.
Having experience with diverse kinds of activities expands that library and creates connections other people have no way of coming up with. Incidentally, this is how true creativity emerges.
To wrap things up, this is why headlines say learning multiple languages make you smarter. Learning a musical instrument makes you smarter. Practicing yoga makes you smarter. It’s because they do. You acquire a broader library of experiences to make connections with, to find patterns in. Machine learning 101: when it comes to data sets, size matters.
You got a better data set.
In the long run, I’d much rather bet my money on you who had a false start as opposed to the fictional you who got the right career from the start.
You’re smarter. You’re a better learner. You’re stronger as a human.
Maybe you still have to learn a little patience, but given everything you’ve learned in such a short amount of time the past few years, I have no doubt it’ll come.
So relax. It’s 2018. Life expectancy isn’t 35 years old anymore.*
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*Unless you’re trans. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.