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Back in February, We Write Code had the opportunity to host and sponsor Des Moines Web Geeks’ panel, which discussed their personal transitions to professional developers. One of the panel members was We Write Code’s very own Mike Clancy, whose journey from high school history teacher to developer struck a chord with audience members.

We sat down with Mike to get more insight on what it took for him to make his leap into tech, and how others can decide if it’s the right move for them.

Mike sharing his story on the Des Moines Web Geek’s panel in February.

Hey, Mike. Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a web developer at We Write Code and have been in this field for 2 years.  Prior to becoming a web developer I was a high school social studies teacher.  My interest in web development didn’t really start until I was in my late 20’s and I took a non-traditional route to break into the field.

How did you get into tech?

In a roundabout way, really. We [my wife and I] were teaching in Vietnam and there was this distance learning certification program you could do called COETAIL (Certification of Educational Technology and Information Literacy). It was about how to utilize technology in your teaching; it wasn’t about coding at all. Considering that every kid gets a laptop at so many school districts in the States now, I saw the importance of retooling teaching to focus on technology. It was my first real window into the value of tech, and I realized there were countless opportunities to utilize technology for education.

Once we were back in the states, I launched my own startup for a test-prep program. Even then, I wasn’t doing any coding—a friend from high school did the bulk of the development work. But I was amazed how he was able to take these ideas and turn them into actual, usable products. After we did our proof of concept, we reached out to We Write Code with a MVP, just to get some input from people who obviously had more experience than we did. I think this is when the wheel really started to turn.

Keep in mind, I was still teaching full time at this point. I was working in Iowa City as a high school US History teacher. I loved teaching, but after 9 years my interest was starting to fade and I knew I would eventually need to make a change.When we [my partner and I] ultimately decided to end our startup, I couldn’t shake my interest in the process of building the application and designing it, and the value of being able to do it myself. At the time, coding itself didn’t interest me as much as what you could do with it. 

How did you make the transition?

First, I started researching. I thought you had to go back to school and get a computer science degree, which I did not want to do—I already have an undergraduate and masters and didn’t need to spend any more time or money on schooling. That’s when I reached out to Levi [founder and partner, We Write Code] and discovered that there are actually lots of ways beyond a CS degree to get into software development. He encouraged me to take some free online courses and see if I liked them. If I did, then he could offer some tips on what steps to take next.

I made my first one page application: a paint picker. I know, some groundbreaking stuff. But it was enough that I was like, “I like the problem solving, and think I got over the confidence hump of “can I do this”.

From November 2016 – May 2017, I spent an average of  4 hours a week dabbling around with HTML, CSS, and Javascript. I’d often get busy with work and go long periods without practicing.  I’d forget what I was doing and have to start from the beginning. It’s like a language—you have to be doing it all the time. I thought to myself, “There’s no way I’m going to get good at this unless I do it 40 hours a week.” I had to jump off the edge and fully commit myself; so beginning in June of that year I started learning to be a developer full time.

Mike doing his thing in the WWC office, almost a year after his official start date on the team.

What were your biggest hurdles?

Deciding to quit was tough. Obviously finances were a concern, especially when you’re coming from a household of teachers. We [my wife and I] had to make sure we could survive a whole school cycle in case things didn’t pan out and I had to go back to teaching. At the end of the day, we realized it was only going to get harder the longer I waited.  We had a toddler and another on the way, which meant learning outside of work was only going to get more difficult.

After making the decision to leave my job, the next biggest hurdle was deciding what to learn. There’s a massive universe of stuff and you only know a small subsection of it. You don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s hard to figure out what to focus on first. Working on my first application, I knew absolutely nothing, and it’s really easy to sink into that.

That’s where We Write Code was so helpful. When I started shadowing there in June 2018, it was a good test of “was this a horrible decision or not?” Having some direction and being able to commit time to designated tasks really made a big difference. They’d give me a task, so I’d just focus on what was directly in front of me. After several months of that, you start to realize, “Oh, I know some of this stuff.” Having all these brilliant people around me was more reassuring than disheartening. 

When did you have your “Aha! This is for me!” moment?

Honestly? The startup. Even though it was early on in my journey and didn’t pan out, it was a motivator. What I like most about being a developer is the power you have to solve real life problems through technology. I often find myself daydreaming about applications I could build to solve problems I see around me or come across in my daily life. What’s great about having a skillset in web development is that it applies to so many areas and fields. That has been a big change from teaching, where I felt like I was in a pretty narrow field and had a difficult time finding opportunities outside the profession.

What advice do you have for others looking to make a change or just starting out?

Spend some time deciding if it’s for you before quitting your day job. If it is, go for it. I mean really commit to it. I found it very difficult to learn on the side. Also recognize that it’s not for everybody, so be sure you really enjoy it. 

The other piece of advice I would give is to find a network of developers.  The first 6 months to a year can be quite frustrating and having a group of more experienced developers to get help from is key.  I was fortunate enough to find a network at We Write Code, but there are lots of options out there.  Des Moines has lots of dev groups that meet regularly to discuss a wide range of topics and those are good places to start.