Work in America

Leaving the comfort zone to learn computer code

Paul Sullivan Mar 24, 2014
Work in America

Leaving the comfort zone to learn computer code

Paul Sullivan Mar 24, 2014

After eight years, Patsy Price had grown bored of working as a program manager at Google.

“I got more and more responsibility and higher-visibility projects, but I was further away from the technology,” she said. “I was managing teams, but I got really jealous of the software engineers who were developing all the cool products.”

So last spring Ms. Price quit to embark on a new career. “When people learned I had quit Google, they didn’t believe people actually quit Google,” she said. “I said, yes, they do because Google opens your eyes about what is possible.”

This may sound like another story of a Silicon Valley executive weary of the long days of a manager at a technology giant, despite the high salary, and intent on seeking opportunities elsewhere, but Ms. Price’s story is different. She was not among the early Google employees who could take their millions and never work again. She was 57, married with three children and two grandchildren and had enough money to live for six months without a paycheck.

She quit Google to learn how to be a computer programmer, or coder, in tech parlance. It’s a hot job with a median salary of $74,280, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet Ms. Price was giving up seniority and a solid six-figure paycheck as she approached 60 to break into an industry that is overwhelmingly young, male and unencumbered with family commitments.

“This was a huge risk,” she said. “I was leaving a great job and I would be making half the money I was making before. But I wanted marketable skills.”

She had two motives: She missed her early career, when she worked fabricating silicon chips for computers, and she wanted a career where she could continue working for another decade or more.

So she applied to several coding boot camps — think cram sessions — and was accepted into the 12-week intensive web development program in San Francisco at one of them, General Assembly.

She became one of the thousands who each year are trying coding as a new career. While most are in their late 20s and early 30s, the schools say there is a cadre of people in their 40s and 50s who have either grown tired of their current careers or see coding as the way to job security.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from employers that they love that, while they have coding skills, they have another well of experience to draw on,” said Jake Schwartz, co-founder and chief executive of General Assembly, which has five campuses in the United States as well as ones in London, Hong Kong and Sydney.

Mr. Schwartz said the school’s enrollment has grown quickly, with 1,700 in its immersive programs this quarter, up from 1,150 in the fourth quarter of 2013. The cost for the web developer course is $11,500.

While General Assembly’s New York campus in the Flatiron District is a series of open, loft spaces with walls used as white boards for marking and nooks for collaborating, it functions more like a 19th century guild, where developers pass the craft on to newbies.

“When we started we thought we needed all of these business professors to lend validity to the program,” said Mr. Schwartz, 35, who taught himself to code. “What our students really wanted were practitioners who were really active in their fields giving their perspective on what is important.”

When the students finish, he said, the school works hard to find them jobs. He said it had a 95 percent placement rate within three months of graduating.

For those students who need more initial training, General Assembly has an apprenticeship program where they work at a company four days a week and return for course work on Fridays.

Adam Enbar, co-founder and chief executive of the Flatiron School, another coding boot camp, said he wanted to test how teachable coding was to people without a background in computer science or engineering. He deliberately mixed people from all walks of life in the school’s first class.

“We had a boxer, an investment banker, a professional poker player, an NPR producer,” he said. “We made it diverse and they all got jobs.”

For middle-age people who want to understand coding but not become coders there are other options. Decoded offers one-day classes for $1,495. It also holds classes for companies that want employees to understand coding.

The intensive programs are careful not to make their promises too grand. There is only so much someone can learn in a few months. “We’re trying to teach them to walk into a company and be productive and add value,” Mr. Enbar said. “What do we need to teach them so they’re productive and continue to learn for years?”

When Ms. Price finished the General Assembly program, which she found intense and difficult, she had a job. While she never expected to learn how to code well enough to return to Google, she knew there were plenty of small companies that needed solid, competent programmers.

“I’m a 1956 T-Bird and up against Maseratis, Ferraris and Priuses,” she said. “I wasn’t the best coder in my class. But as a newbie coder I’ve been given opportunity and I’m asked for my opinion.”

And since she switched careers not to make more money in the short term but to continue working into her 60s, she made sure companies knew that she expected to start at the bottom.

In her interview at SmartZip, which makes a real estate app aimed at real estate agents, she was asked how much she earned at Google. “I said, ‘That’s irrelevant,'” Ms. Price said. “You’re hiring me to be junior developer and junior developers make between $60,000 and $80,000 a year.” She got the job.

But like any field that attracts people changing careers, old or young, some people come to coding in search of a career that will stick. Raymond Gan, who has a degree in chemical engineering, had five careers — from web developer to surgical neurophysiologist — before he enrolled in the developer class at the Flatiron School.

“I realized from my coding experience years ago that what I really enjoyed was consulting,” said Mr. Gan, from Quito, Ecuador. Mr. Gan, who asked that his exact age not be published, said he was confident that this career would stick. “This is both sides of my personality,” he said. “You can be introverted and extroverted as a software consultant. You can talk to people and then you can go and build something.”

While Ms. Price had spent her career at technology companies and Mr. Gan had an engineering background, there are people with apparently less relevant backgrounds.

Tim LaTorre, 42, had worked in graphic design, mostly for Nautica, the clothing and apparel company, off and on for nearly 20 years. He said he was inspired to learn how to code after he had an idea for a travel app that he couldn’t bring to fruition without coding skills.

After attending a talk at General Assembly, he decided to apply. From the start, though, he felt out of his league in class. “Half of us were what I call Muggles,” he said, referring to the people in the “Harry Potter” stories who are born to nonmagical families.

Work in America: Our special series in partnership with the New York Times looking at how the improvements in technology, combined with companies’ increased ability to outsource, have conspired to make radical changes to work in America. 

But he kept at it, even though he struggled. His goal was never to be a hard-core coder but to merge his design background with his coding skills to get a job in technology. He now works for Sailthru, an email marketing company.

For people like Ms. Price being a coder is a badge of honor. “My husband thought I was crazy that I’d be doing a job for half the money,” she said. “But I’m five times happier doing this, and I’ll be making that money again.”

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