Coding Career: The Sequel

Coding Boot Camp As A Returner: A Vintage Coders Perspective.

The beginning…

When I wrote my first blog the questions that I was asked included

  • What is the point of the blog?
  • Who is your intended audience?’ and
  • Is this part of a series?

For my first blog I had no answers to these questions. The point of that blog was to take the stuff that was in my head, out of my head, so that there would be space for more stuff. A valid, but personal, reason.

For this blog I am addressing a specific issue, and therefore I have a message and possibly, an intended audience. I also don’t know what the ending will be, so there should almost certainly be a sequel, to this sequel.

The issues I wanted to address in this blog were my personal experience of how I got back into the tech industry and how I have found it so far. But more importantly I wonder about the dearth of returners and why that might be.

What are the options for an ex-coder to return to tech after a considerable break? What does the the journey look like if you choose the Boot Camp route? What might be your (possibly) unfounded concerns? What are the unfamiliar areas that can derail you and which skills re-emerge to help you?

I’ll explain…

I used to be a happy little coder.

I would be handed an incomprehensible technical specification full of holes and contradictions, and I would have to use it to craft my part of the vast system that my employer was creating, enhancing or maintaining.

I wore trainers and earphones and ate my lunch at my desk. I was proficient and content and moving steadily up the food chain.

After a good few years in this loop I started a family. Very quickly the demands of both meant that one had to be put on hold and I chose to relinquish my career. This may not usual now, but it was pretty bog standard back then. I busied myself for a number of years with a growing family and family friendly career to match. Then, almost on a whim (covered in the last blog) I decided that I wanted to become a happy little coder again.

I blew the dust off my C.V. and started to do some research. Lots of interesting new words, and a few of the old ones still knocking around. The industry had moved on but only by a couple of postcodes, I reasoned. I was given a tick list by an old friend still in Tech. It was long and included repurposed words like Bootstrap, Agile, Standup, Python and Rails. I diligently Googled each one getting more and more lost in the unfamiliar nomenclature.

Slightly disconcerted I went back to basics, I listed my transferable skills. Worked out which languages, old and new, had similar paradigms. Which familiar platforms were still around and if the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’ was too great to breach. Initial panic gave way to calm wisdom. The industry collected information, processed and stored information and redistributed it. Just like the old days, ‘if-then-else’ was still a thing.

I sent my C.V. to some recruiters and, possibly due to the skills shortage, I was inundated. Call after call I was told I had a fantastic C.V., I was promised contacts would be approached, interviews and job offers would follow. Then nothing, nada, tumbleweed.

I was not an easy fit. Yes I could do the job, yes I was a capable and efficient grown up with lots of useful experience, but not having the key words on my C.V. meant that the automation tools spat me out.

Rebranding me …

With a certain amount of trepidation I enrolled onto a boot camp. They deserve a mention… thank you Makers Academy!

The obligatory home-based 4 week pre-course was a fascinating ride through a country I vaguely recognised. Parts of my brain that had been put out to pasture had a little shake and got back to business. I found that I was able to pick up a new language, Ruby, pretty quickly. Partly because it is fairly straightforward but also, because it bore many similarities to languages I had met before. Tucked away in my kitchen I grew in confidence. This was going to be OK.

However, I had not met my biggest challenge and I repeatedly parked my growing anxiety.

Day one on site and I would have to face my demons. Was I going to be the Grandma of the team? Would I experience ageism as well as sexism? Would I struggle to keep up? Was my age going to be my achilles heel?

My version of Impostor Syndrome held the door for me and we entered the building together.

A diverse collection of rookies congregated in the kitchen and made small talk. It was friendly and inclusive and I started to relax. Day one was all about orientation and that was fine and lovely but I needed to know if the grey matter could cope. Day two we started to work on an object oriented project and I was back on solid ground.

The course is like nothing I have encountered before. The emphasis is on self reflection and self sufficiency in terms of managing your own goals and meeting them. There are many blogs that reflect the frustration-to-wisdom journey that is inherent in the process but I’m more interested in it from a returners perspective.

What I have learnt…

I am now three quarters through the course and this is what I have learnt.

  • I may be in an unrepresentative bubble but the only one who has mentioned my age is me. A tick I have had to stamp out. No ageism and certainly no sexism. What a wonderfully inclusive place the industry has become in my absence.
  • I occasionally refer back to my previous coding career when it is relevant, and I try and avoid phrases like ‘In my day, young man…’.
  • The new fangled stuff is difficult at first, but it is difficult for all of us for whom it is new. My vintage has had no impact on my ability.
  • Everyone is tired, not just me. The learning is relentless, it is a bootcamp after all. But my word, do I know so much more than I did? (perhaps the automated system the recruiters use has some merit).
  • I now know, more than ever, that I can do this. Moreover, I want to do this and I want to be good at it. The fire in the belly has returned and I am proactively absorbing as much as I can from the coaches and the rest of the students before the clock runs out and the course is over.
  • ‘Winging it’ is not an option. This might be a controversial point but still valid. The areas that I am uncomfortable with just won’t go away. I can’t clock watch on the days that I just don’t get it, and then skip merrily to the tube station. Everything we are exposed to reappears later. I will have got away with nothing but a delaying tactic. As soon as possible I have to chase it down, identify where the disconnect is, debug my learning block.
  • My cohort, which is not unusual, is made up of a mixed bag of complete career changers, recent students retraining and several people from tech who didn’t code in their previous roles. I am the only returner.

So, where are the others?

This is my story, well thus far. I was a programmer. I stopped being a programmer to have children, and now I want to be a programmer again. I have found a way, hopefully, to get back into the industry and the plan seems to be coming together.

But where are all of the other female programmers I studied and worked with, who left for a myriad of reasons? And those that came after, possibly some before. There must be a vast ocean of untapped talent out there. Surely some of those women want to return but don’t don’t know that it is possible, and how to go about it.

What can be done to address this, or even identify if I am a unicorn and that the rest of them are all happily doing other things without so much as a backward glance?

I have no answers, only questions…

Kate Morris is a Digital Accessibility Champion for Deloitte Digital