From Politics to Programming: How I Found Empowerment in Code and Changed Careers.

Published: 2020-02-15

Some days I wish someone would invent a time machine so I could go back and tell my seventeen-year-old self that she'd be working as a software developer within the decade. She would have thought I was some sort of other-worldly clone. Of all the people I knew in high school, I probably seemed like the least likely to end up working with computers.

And yet, it's because I'm one of the least likely people to have ended up in tech that I feel it's important to talk about how I ended up here. I am privileged enough to see my demographic represented more than others in this in industry. Yet in my office, I'm still one of the odd ones out. And I'm made even odder by the fact I had no technical interest until about two years ago.

I go out to schools often to teach digital skills and I see girls hesitating to raise their hands to answer questions I know they have the answer to. Sometimes I see them succeed beyond everyone's expectations, but then I'll have someone tell me "Oh, she's not planning on carrying on with STEM subjects." It's frustrating. I don't think we've broken down enough stereotypes around programming for every girl to easily see themselves represented in technology. I know that because I still have to break those stereotypes down for myself every day just to believe I belong in this industry.

Discovering Code

At university, I studied history and politics. In hindsight, I recognise that even then I was looking for a career where I could walk a line between analysis and more creative pursuits like writing. But I didn't know that at the time. I just thought I was studying some subjects I liked and that people thought I was good at. I didn't second-guess myself until 2018 when I was in my fifth year of study.

My Master's thesis required me to use code to mine Twitter data. I had never even seen a line of Python before. Any previous experience I'd had with code had involved haphazardly playing around with the HTML and CSS on MySpace circa 2006. I thought programming was just magic - something totally beyond the realm of understanding for someone like me. I remember my thesis supervisor telling me in a meeting, "You should just hire someone to mine the data for you" and thinking a) "No, this is my work. I want to be able to explain every part of it" and b) "Even she has no confidence that I can do this."

Truthfully, I did consider hiring someone for a while. Part of my hesitation around learning to code came from the way I was socialised in my teen years. I went to an all-girls high school in the mid-2000s. We had some great role models as teachers, but it wasn't the kind of place tech was floated as a future career option. Our ICT classes consisted of making videos in Windows Media Player; clearly, no-one thought we were going to go into careers in computer science. We were taught by our brilliant female teachers that we could do anything, but at the time, our vision of anything just didn't involve coding. That's how far removed it seemed. To this day, I'm hugely frustrated by this lack of opportunity, not just for myself but for all the other girls I went to high school with.

Learning Python while I did a non-technical degree was hard. I had very little time and only myself to learn from. But the feeling I got when I had a working program was so powerful. Everything I had ever thought about myself had been blown out of the water. I could be technical. I could be anything. I could finally stop limiting myself to the box I, and other people had put me in. It was the first time in my life where the phrase "you can do anything you want to do" had really rung true.

It felt so empowering to know I had a skill I could take anywhere. Even on the bad days now, I remind myself of that feeling, and I fall back in love with code all over again.

Pivoting Careers

The thing no-one tells you when you grow up wanting to be a journalist or to work in politics is that it's all about who you know. And I didn't know anyone, really. At least, I didn't know anyone that could help me navigate around the endless stream of unpaid internships. I had finished two very successful degrees from great universities, but I was broke and facing the prospect of not doing anything meaningful with my career. The barriers around those industries were firmly in place and I didn't have the energy to try and tear them down. I was burned-out and disillusioned with my chosen path.

In July 2018, I was working in marketing as a freelance copywriter, churning out 300-word pieces for retail giants and luxury fashion companies. While it was far from the worst job I've ever had, it didn't inspire any creativity or stimulate any brain cells. On top of that, the money wasn't always stable, so I had a second job in retail where I had great colleagues but few prospects for the kind of career growth that would challenge me. I was depressed with no money and incredibly low self-worth.

It was time to pivot.

As the idea of a career change took hold, I spotted a Twitter post advertising a free web development intensive course run by Code First: Girls. It was for professional women and non-binary folk who wanted the opportunity to get into tech. At the end of four months of training, we'd interview for a permanent role with BT - the UK's largest telecommunications provider with offices in around 180 countries. It seemed intriguing, but it was also such a huge jump from where I was in, both in terms of skill and geography. So I scrolled past it.

Yet I couldn't stop thinking about it. A little "what if?" just kept nagging at me. This was an opportunity not just to learn more Python, but to discover new technologies, live somewhere really exciting, meet new people and land a stable job at a huge company. Even more importantly, it was a chance for me to rediscover some confidence and excitement again.

So the next day, I went back to the tweet to apply for the course.

I got accepted.

Unleashing Creativity.

The first day I walked into BT Centre in London and met the 29 other women on the course, I knew I'd made the right decision. Everyone in the room was delighted, as well as nervous, but there was a feeling of immense warmth and support as well. I was in London, living on borrowed money, in a flat with a needy cat and my partner was over 400 miles away. But I was completely energised amongst this crew of diverse and brilliant women.

I had first applied to the intensive with the idea that I might focus on data analytics. That was why I'd started to learn code, after all. But I remember telling myself on the first day to leave my assumptions about myself at the door, and to give everything my best shot. The HTML, CSS and JavaScript study modules were up first anyway, so I'd have to wait for a few weeks before I could learn more about Python and databases.

The choice to keep an open mind was life-changing. Instead of thinking only about data, I was unleashing creativity I hadn't felt since I'd taken a photography class in high school. I was having fun. Just like I had been during my Masters, I was enjoying the freedom of not limiting myself. I was figuring out what I genuinely enjoyed and following that feeling.

When it came round to the interviews with BT, I found myself gravitating towards web development opportunities rather than data ones. Web development wasn't something I could link to my previous years of study, and that felt both strange and nerve-wracking. It felt as if there was a disconnect between my non-technical past and my technical future and I worried about that disconnect on my CV. Yet, I went with web development anyway purely because it had given me confidence and joy that I was searching for when I was considering my career change. It was the right choice. I got a permanent job, and at the end of the course, I was rewarded with a 'Best Frontend Developer' award.

It took me a while to reconcile the career change and the ways my past skills could translate to a future in web development. I've now realised my experience in customer service, writing and academic political research bring me empathy, communication and critical thinking skills that help me daily on a development team. And my non-technical background has made me passionate about seeing people from all walks of life in the tech industry.

Exploring Every Avenue

The beginning of March marks the day I started my first full-time software development job. At the time, I wasn't sure of where I would eventually fit in, and I'm still not sure that I've figured it out.

What I have learned from this experience is never to shut the door on yourself. Never give up on trying something new, and never assume you know everything about yourself. Also, don't give up any part of your existing skillset. I still love writing. I still love data analysis. I even still love history and politics. I think all of this makes me a more well-rounded person, and it makes me more likely to be able to empathise with coders and designers from non-technical backgrounds.

It also gives me more career options. One day I might move into data. Or election tech. Or tech for social good. Or data visualisation for a news organisation. I strive to learn new things every day so that I can explore more of this industry in which I'm still so new. Change is good. I don't want to ever rule it out.

I'm now in the very privileged position of being a Code First: Girls web development instructor, and I'm delighted that I'm seeing students with backgrounds in law, anthropology, accounting, medicine, science and business walk into our class. Career change is incredibly daunting, but also incredibly empowering. I can only hope that someone finds something in my journey that makes them want to try something new.

Takeaway Tips:

  • Always be on the lookout for free courses. There's more out there than you might realise. Tech organisations and non-profits aren't always the best at finding non-technical people to get into classes, so make sure you check your local library and any computing societies or university buildings you have in your area.
  • Get on Twitter and follow a diverse set of tech people. As a platform, Twitter is far superior to Facebook or LinkedIn for jobs, career advice and learning.
  • Start with a project you're interested in, not what someone tells you to do. You'll learn better and faster, and you'll be more passionate about it when it comes round to job interviews.
  • Try everything once. If you've been learning JavaScript, try a bit of Python or C++. Give yourself two to four hours a week to try something new. Not only will you maybe discover a new interest, but you'll learn a lot about wider software development.
  • Indulge your non-tech interests. Read books. Craft. Create music. Every skill you develop has a transferable element you can bring to your tech role.
  • Prioritise finding a support system over a professional network. The early days of project-building and getting into tech are hard. Focus on finding a group of people who will help you through the challenges.