How hard could it be to make myself a techie?
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It used to be that at work there were the regular people and then there were the techies. They (the techies) did their thing, and we did ours. Now, tech is embedded in our lives and, I suppose, nearly every crevice of our economy. It’s become one of the essentials of life: air, water, food, sun, shelter and some device that starts with an “i.”
The number of U.S. computer-related jobs has grown nearly three times faster than for occupations overall, and the tech stuff tends to pay far better. We all kind of get that. So it’s a good bet that more people are quietly wondering if they can leap to the tech side. That, or their jobs are demanding far more tech fluency than they ever expected. So there’s a whole crop of for-profit coding schools designed to help non-tech adults learn complex tech skills fast. That has me wondering what it really takes to be a hard-core techie. Can I be rewired as one? Or do tech folks just emerge from the womb socially awkward and with binary brainwaves?
It turns out 30-year-old Matt Valdez was recently asking himself the same questions (minus the one about being socially awkward, ‘cause maybe he’s not a stereotyper like me). He was doing what he had always wanted to do, working as a chef, in this case at the swank Four Seasons ho tel in Midtown Atlanta. But he and his wife had young kids. The whole work-life-balance thing didn’t work with a chef ’s hours, he said. A friend suggested he look into becoming a web developer. To Valdez that was pretty much like saying, “Hey, have you considered growing gills?” “I thought you had to be a math genius to be a computer programmer,” Valdez said. “I was intimidated.” But he checked it out. He took free programming courses. And he started thinking this tech thing might be not only pragmatic but also a fun way to be creative.
A scary leap So he made a very scary leap: He quit his job. Fifty grand a year in wages. Poof. He paid $11,500 so he could take an 8-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week, 12-week-long intensive training program in web development. He was slated this month to finish the program in the Ponce City Market at the Atlanta classrooms of General Assembly, a for-profit with 14 locations around the world. Then he’ll hunt for an entry-level programming job or an internship that will lead to one. Many such training programs have opened in Atlanta and elsewhere to offer experienced workers a mid-career reset. Sometimes called hacker schools or coding boot camps, they tend to offer on-site classrooms with part and full-time schedules. The programs pitch themselves as a faster, less expensive and more focused option than going back to college for a full degree.
General Assembly says it expects to put more than 400 people through Atlanta classes this year, with predictions they will land jobs paying $50,000 to $70,000 a year, says local manager Peter Franconi. Students are refugees from all sorts of occupations: lab techs, musicians, sales reps, an architect , a biochemist and teachers. (I didn’t hear any mention of journalists.) For non-tech people, it’s a jarring mental shift. Valdez remembers the first chapter he was assigned: “Thinking Like a Programmer.” He told me he found the complexity and breadth of the material overwhelming at times. But eventually he started thinking more like a programmer: analyzing problems, formulating solutions and, crucially, boiling them down to core steps. He told his wife it was like telling someone how to change a light bulb if they had no concept of the process. You break it down to each tiny action. Chris Kemeza, a graphic designer in the same class with Valdez, told me he nearly quit. “It is brutally hard,” he said halfway through the program. “There have been tears shed.” The class, he said, is like learning three or four languages is three months. That sounds gruesome given how ugly my Spanish is after years of lessons.
What comforts Kemeza is what he learned from friends already in tech: You don’t have to know everything immediately. Getting fluent in some programs took them years. Early success One of the General Assembly teachers, Mike Hopper, told me plenty of students find this stuff alien at first. So it’s important, he said, for them to experience success early on making a web page. Get them a little addicted. Addicted to software development? I wonder if it is similar to what golf fanatic friends tell me about the pull of that “sport.” It’s a humiliating undertaking, but every once in a while the ball goes so pretty and on target that you are convinced it will happen again, so you keep hacking.
Except that golf ’s backdrop is grass and flowers, while programming’s is fluorescent lights and gallons of Red Bull. But for some people maybe there’s no amount of encouragement that will get them comfortable with building tech instead of just using it. General Assembly aims to help them discover that, by asking applicants a logic question. One query was pulled from a Die Hard movie: measure exactly four gallons of water, using only a five-gallon jug and a three-gallon jug. Does the question generate terror? Or do you feel like you’re about to devour a juicy steak, Tech Star? Tim Mitchell was a finance guy before ending up in some pretty weighty tech postings, first at Delta Air Lines and now as chief information officer for Delta Community Credit Union. To do hard-core tech, he said, you really need to like solving problems, whether it’s a Rubik’s Cube or a word puzzle.
Don’t just get tech training, he said. See if it becomes a personal interest, the kind of thing that drives you to set up a web page for fun or develop a system for your neighbor’s small business. And if you do all that and find it boring? Go back to being a lab tech, a teacher or — horrors! – a writer.
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