The “breaking moment” in Jon Liu’s teaching career came at 7 o’clock in the morning.
An hour before his students arrived for classes, he sat in his car, stared at the school where he taught and wondered:
What if I didn’t get out of my car today?
What if I just sat in the car all day and I didn’t go in?
What would happen?
That morning marked the beginning of the end of Liu’s teaching career — and the start of a promising career in software development. But it didn’t happen along traditional routes.
He taught for a decade, first in California as an elementary school PE teacher and then web design, yearbook and journalism at a high school before finishing at a Denver middle school. He loved teaching, but it left him exhausted and eager to start anew.
“It never hurts to learn more,” he says.
Brighter Days Are Ahead for Web Designers and Developers
Liu talked with Treehouse recently about his path to the web development world and the pitfalls he avoided. He also shared advice he’d give to potential students who perceive a web education as too scary, too time-intensive or otherwise too out of reach.
In the United States, software developers earn a median annual salary of $93,000 a year — or $45 an hour. That’s according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects that the field will grow at a “much faster than average” 22 percent through 2022.
But Liu, who earned degrees in business administration and education technology, wasn’t just lured to switch careers by a better salary and an outstanding job outlook.
“I really like writing code,” he says. “I really enjoy problem-solving.” Liu notes that his personality is suited to unraveling programming riddles and he finds an immense sense of satisfaction once he’s able to crack a problem.
A similar passion also led Jen Byyny, a senior UX designer at Yahoo, to explore a career change. She worked as an executive assistant at a California advertising agency when she discovered a talent and aptitude for web design. She tackled night classes in web design for three years and worked her way to art director at the agency in five years. She then left the firm to complete a master’s in media design.
“It wasn’t a traditional path,” Byyny says.
And education is increasingly not traditional for a lot of Americans who embark on new careers.
While the BLS doesn’t examine how often Americans change careers, we switch jobs every 4.4 years. And the way we’re learning new skills is certainly different. More than 7.1 million students enrolled in at least one web class in the fall of 2012, according to the Babson Survey Research Group, which tracks online education. That’s a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year.
In short: We’re revamping how we study for our future careers.
Resources like Treehouse are instrumental toward that, Liu says. Students should also seek a well-rounded education by exploring meet-ups in their area, following high-profile programmers on Twitter and attending developer conferences.
It’s Not Too Late to Play, Explore and Learn
What guidance do Byyny and Liu have for those considering a career change and who might view web development as too formidable?
- “Practice,” Byyny says. “With anything. People say that about sports, little kids say it about learning to read. It’s the whole ‘you won’t know unless you try’ attitude.” She urges students to create designs on their own time and unveil them to just a few people with whom they feel comfortable sharing.
- It helps, Byyny says, to grasp foundational knowledge like color theory and typography. And it’s never too late to learn: “It’s not too late because you can play, you can explore. There’s no harm in that. If possible, find a mentor because they can also help guide where [your] focus should be.”
- “Dip your toes in the water and try it out first,” says Liu, who took a web programming class in 1999 but is otherwise self-taught. “You can take a single class and learn that specific language and before you start working on the next resource. Before you know it, you have a full breadth of knowledge to transition to that career.”
- “From every failure, there is a learning opportunity,” Liu adds. “Even if you find [a project] doesn’t work the way you intended, that gives you the opportunity to learn how to do it the right way.”
Beyond learning new skills and making more money, what are the added benefits?
- “I don’t think any two days are the really the same,” Byyny says. “If you’re trying to solve different problems, it keeps you and your problem-solving skills sharp and allows you to grow.”
- Liu says the attitude and culture at software jobs are indispensable: “That’s more important than the code I write or the projects I work on. People are more important.”
But you first have to start.
“Do it,” he advises. “Don’t sit and think about it. Start doing something. Right now, start building something that you want to learn.”