From Teacher to Coder

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Bob playing his instrument of choice, the Tiger Trumpet

I am six weeks into my RedLabs internship at 50onRed–a little beyond the halfway mark. During my time so far, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from collaborating with senior engineers and Product Team members on company products, learning the best practices for writing clean code, and becoming familiar with new languages and frameworks. I’ve also been adjusting to the schedule and lifestyle of a new career, as well as reflecting on how I got here.

I like to think of my transition from music teacher of 12 years to software developer as a journey. A challenging, yet rewarding, journey. It’s taught me a lot about the importance of perseverance and human connection. It’s been emotional as well, with some days leaving me feeling like an impostor, and other days feeling proud of my accomplishments.

Since middle school, becoming a music teacher was my career goal. With that said, I’ve always had a significant interest in computers and technology. I recall getting my first computer in high school and spending hours tinkering with both the hardware and software. When I left for college, I built my own PC to take along with me.

I did eventually reach my goal of becoming a teacher, but I still loved technology. I always looked for ways to incorporate technology into my job, both as an instructional tool, and as a way to keep my music program organized.

As I got older, my goals began to shift. I began to lose my passion for teaching. At first, I ignored this feeling. I’d wanted to teach since I was 12, but now that I was doing it, I didn’t like it? That couldn’t be right. Soon, I accepted this reality and began to think about other options for careers. “What about computers?” I thought. That’d be great, but how would I get started in a whole new career so different from what I was doing at the time?

Bob conducting his last concert

A clear answer came to me one Friday afternoon last April while teaching my 6th grade band class. I’d been helping my students become better music-readers by writing random rhythm notation on the board, having the students perform what I wrote, erasing it, then starting over with another random rhythm. I remember thinking to myself, “There has to be an online tool for this.” After some Googling, I found that this was not the case.

I went home that day with an idea for a web app called The Rhythm Randomizer. You’d give it some basic parameters (the length/difficulty of the music), and it would generate a rhythm for you to practice and perform.

I’d dabbled with both website development and coding before, but had never created anything serious. At this point, I was ready to learn. I spent the weekend completing the basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript tutorials on Codecademy, and, by the end of the weekend, I had a working prototype of my app.

I found that I loved the process of building this app. I relished in the ability to solve a specific problem simply by writing some lines of code. I went to school on Monday feeling proud that I’d built something that no one else had built before.

Rhythm Randomizer

I spent the next nine months continuing to build, learn, and refactor what I’d already done. I built WordPress blog templates for myself and for my wife; I built a music practice website for a band director colleague of mine; I designed and developed a website for a local hair salon. I began to become familiar with the tools of the trade, like Linux and Vim. I continued to learn more languages, becoming comfortable with PHP and SQL. I continued to refine my front-end and JavaScript skills, as well.

I also started attending Philadelphia JavaScript Developers meetups. While I found the talks and presentations helpful, the bigger benefit has been the various connections I’ve made with individuals in the industry.

One of those important connections is Tim Miller, Product Engineer at 50onRed, who I happened to sit next to at one of the meetups. I told Tim my story and asked for some advice for someone in my situation (which I’d become accustomed to doing when mingling at meetups). Tim suggested that, since I had the summer off as a teacher, I look into getting a summer internship, perhaps at 50onRed. He also gave me an opportunity to work as part of the development team at Hangify, a startup based out of the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Bob teaching himself to code

Over the next few months, my abilities as a developer grew tremendously. With Hangify, I learned how to collaborate and code with other team members working toward a common goal. I found my way through an existing codebase, learned a new framework, and added features to the app. I loved the work, too–specifically, the challenge of having to solve a problem and the feeling of success when that problem was solved. Plus, I was now much more confident in my abilities. Finally, I was ready to call myself a developer.

And then, this past April–almost a year since my coding journey had begun–I applied, and was accepted into, the RedLabs program at 50onRed. With this major milestone reached, I had to make an important decision. I felt like I had matured immensely as a developer and was also ready to move on from my old (but safe and comfortable) career as a teacher. After much discussion with my wife and two kids, I decided that I’d be officially ending my career as a teacher and beginning my a new career as a web developer.

Of course, the journey isn’t over. In fact, it’s barely begun. The RedLabs internship has taught me many things; one of them being that there’s still a lot I have to learn. I’ve continued to have those feelings of joy from accomplishing something new, along with a heavy dose of “impostor syndrome,” when I get stuck on a particular problem. I hope to make the best of the remaining four weeks of my internship, and the many years ahead of me in my new career as a developer.

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