In Part 1 I regaled you with my first encounter with programming and the bygone era of the early web computing days. Now, I'm going to explain why school turned out very differently for me than the real world. This may seem like a stupidly obvious realization to anyone who has already passed through the gauntlet of our education system, but when you're still in the thick of things it's not as clear. Looking back, I realize how under prepared I was and how much I relied on sheer luck to get by. I was intent on getting a career in software development, without a thought or consideration for any alternatives. I scored pretty high in that area on my career placement exam, I had fun doing it at home, and so, obviously, this must be the one and only career for me. My quest was so blind that I also didn't even consider other schools. I had settled on a university that seemed to be a good fit: Kettering University, and didn't bother with any second or third choices.
Then I got a notice from my counselor about my GPA being less than...desirable. So, I wrote a letter of apology in hopes they would accept my application. Luckily, they did, and I was off to college to prepare for my career! I was finally moving out on my own, on my way to learning how to write real, professional software. The first few weeks were great. I was making friends, taking difficult, but challenging classes like Calculus, Discrete Mathematics, and Introduction to Java. I was really enjoying myself. Many late nights were spent on homework assignments, trying to work out the algorithms needed to get them working correctly. Of course, at this time, I also played an excessive amount of Final Fantasy XI Online which cut into my studies more than I would admit at the time. Programming was hard, the compile, hack, compile cycle was annoying. Calculus was also hard, along with many of my other classes. Then came, what I consider to be, some pivotal moments that altered my life course.
I was given a Java project in which we were told to write an encryption algorithm that would take some text, encrypt it, and print it out. The second part of the assignment was to reverse the encrypted text back into its original form. Now, these days, I consider this to be a pretty trivial task, especially with the wealth of encryption libraries available in pretty much any language of your choosing. However, this assignment (at least as I remember it) did not involve the use of any pre-existing libraries. We had to implement an encryption algorithm from scratch. This was only my second semester in computer science, and I hated this assignment. I never did complete it successfully. I was able to encrypt text well enough but never succeeded in being able to decrypt the content. Strike 1 in my plans for a career in software development.
The looming expenses of the upcoming academic year were starting to worry me. My tuition for that first year came out to around $24,000 including room & board, and I was barely able to afford it1. The whole reason I had settled on Kettering was because they offer a great co-op program. The idea was that you would swap between school and co-op every three months. I had been looking for a co-op position since the start of the school year and nothing had come up. The few interviews I had had all required one critical skill that I failed to satisfy: Visual Basic. The chicken-and-egg conundrum was that Kettering did not offer a course in Visual Basic (as far as I knew at the time). Lovely. Strike 2.
A movie called Office Space was released a few years before I started at Kettering that cast a very negative (but humorous) light on the software industry and on the mind-numbing conditions of working in cubicles. I absolutely love that movie, but, quite honestly, I was terrified to actually get a job in software if I was going to end up stuck for years on end in a cubicle patching bank software. It just seemed so mindless, and so far my experience in school was exactly that. It was far different than the fun I had had sitting in my room at home, hacking away on something I got excited about. Strike 3.
It was because of this third strike that I began to consider transferring schools because I was going to go bankrupt without a co-op. And, I thought, I might as well change my major while I was at it since the whole computer science thing wasn't really turning out to be my cup o' tea. My thought process was that the reason I used to get so excited about programming was because the projects I had worked on had a much more visible outcome. Graphics, web design, user interactivity. The assignments I was being given in class were all back-end algorithms, where most of the work was being done behind the scenes with no visible output. Following that line of logic, I decided to switch my major to Graphic Design. I switched schools too, to a local community college called Baker (much cheaper tuition!).
I had fun for a year before I realized how bored I was. I was really good at it, but it just didn't have the same gratification as working out the solution to a complex problem. I sought the advice of one of my graphic design teachers about what I should do. Her recommendation was to try something more challenging, naturally. I went home that evening and dug into the course curriculum offerings that Baker had to find the major that would suit me. Web Design seemed to fit the bill nicely. It had front-end components with a visual output, it also involved back-end programming that would challenge me. I thought I was all set!
Sadly, it was not to be. Only a year into the program, Baker canceled their Web Design degree. Thinking about it now, that seems kind of crazy and extreme. It's possible that I misunderstood what that cancellation was truly about, but nevertheless, I ended up switching schools and majors yet again. It was the proverbial last straw on my camel's back.
Now, let's fast-forward through four years of changing schools and majors, getting married, and moving from Michigan to California. I managed to land in an IT related field working as a support technician for a company that sells business phone systems as a service. This was a fantastic job. So much better than anything I had before, and stable enough as a career choice for me to forego finishing my degree. Over the course of a few years, I steadily rose through the technical support ranks, earning experience and knowledge as I went. It was around this time that my intense passion for programming began to resurface. Out of necessity, the job required knowing a lot about our software which was primarily written in Perl. It was also a great boon to be able to write or hack together quick support scripts to help with everyday, mundane, tasks.
More and more, each day, I was spending increasing amounts of time and energy on programming various things and getting excited like I used to back in those early days. I was slowly planning my transition to move over to the engineering side of our company. There were so many good ideas I had that would solve problems we were dealing with in support. I wanted to be the one to solve those problems through software. Of course, my wishes were eventually granted and I was able to change positions.
When I finally found time to reflect on my history with software development, I realized that being taught how to program is not the same as discovering how to program. This, I think, more than any other is why software in school is so different than software in a professional environment. In school, I was being told about problems that needed solving and was told to solve them. The problems were not my problems and thus were not important. It wasn't until I started encountering problems that were important to me, that programming solutions to them also became both important and interesting enough to invest my time in. It was in the thick of that problem solving that I discovered how to program. Very fluidly and organically.
The best advice I can give to anyone wanting to get into software development is to go find a problem that you're passionate about solving and go solve it. The joy of writing words into a computer that solves a problem is amazing and well worth the effort. In Part 3, I'll delve into what my first experiences were like in engineering and the kinds of challenges that came up that I didn't expect going in.
Read: I took out a ton of loan money to pay for it. ↩