From Artist to Software Engineer, An Introduction

Photo by Khara Woods on Unsplash

I am an artist by trade, software engineer in the cloud computing industry by profession. The Venn Diagram of art and development has a lot more overlap than you’d imagine as both fields are creative and share a multitude of ideas, principles, and driving forces. So when I took an unconventional path to becoming a software engineer, much of my prior art experience helped to shape my current career and reinforce my admiration for both art and software development.

I wanted to share a piece of my story because:

  1. Back in my early days of college, it felt like a betrayal to my education to be anything else besides an artist, even if it meant I must fall into the worn out trope of a starving artist. I felt a little guilty that I wanted to do something else with my life. I conflated my identity with my studies and craft, but I know now that identity is not immutable but more of a fluid amalgamation.
  2. It’s important to show others a path forward into tech, especially if they come from a non-tech background. Sure, the road might be winding, riddled with potholes, and sprinkled with thumbtacks, but it’s a road that exists.

As non-technical as they get

From a young age, I loved making art. Where most outgrew doodling in their school notebooks and eventually became too self-conscious to make art, nothing signaled that it was time to do something else. I didn’t grow out of it; it grew on me, around me, it became me. I became it? Being introverted, not particularly social, and having a unique upbringing… art made sense for me. If I retreated inside it, it took me in with open arms.

When it came time for applying to colleges, I only applied to art programs. And I’m talking strictly traditional art. More future-thinking, career-minded classmates applied to programs like Industrial Design, Graphic Design, Art Education, Architecture.. I stick with just plain ol’ capital-A Art. Surely, I’ll figure everything out in college (I didn’t). Fast forward, I graduated with my bachelors in Fine Arts, a major that focuses on drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and art history. My ice breaker at parties was saying that I spent more time drawing and painting completely random, naked people than the average person. The human body is beautiful, I guess; that said, I saw things that still make me wince to this day. During my Freshmen orientation, one of the advisors told us Fine Arts kids that he’s not worried about the other art majors finding jobs, he was worried about us. Nevertheless, I persisted, despite that obvious red flag and something about a stock market and economy crashing rather recently. Maybe it was a test for the true artist to overcome any obstacle (it wasn’t). However, the economy was supposed to pick back up by the time we graduated, so do whatever you want! Plus, the world was supposed to end in 2012 (it didn’t) and I was kind of banking on that.

I chose Fine Arts because I wanted to do something in the art field, perhaps be an assistant or work in a gallery as I had been in college, and I had no interest in using a computer and admittedly barely knew how to use one. If I had applied to college for Graphic Design, I probably wouldn’t have gotten accepted. For nearly two decades I had done nothing more on a computer than do simple Google searches, (on a dare!) watch the pornstar Ava Devine put a fist in her butt (it was riveting, but ultimately it bricked my computer), and burn copious amounts of my town library’s “Learn To Speak Spanish Volume I” CDs for my dad. I pretty much made the decision that I’d attend art school when I dropped all my math, science, and history classes my senior year and filled my schedule with more art.

Maybe computers aren’t so bad

About halfway through college, I took up a second major, Digital Arts, in an effort to make myself more marketable for the real world, just in case becoming a successful SoHo artist didn’t pan out (it didn’t). Through a flurry of new, dynamic classes, I finally confronted my discomfort using a computer. Hell, I learned the whole damn Adobe Suite. I even learned to make electronic music. My whole thesis project was done in video, albeit I filmed myself doing doing things like covering myself in spaghetti and fighting myself in a parking lot. In retrospect, I was probably experiencing a mental breakdown of sorts from unprocessed grief, but for thesis purposes, I called it Art.

One of the classes that was pivotal in changing my perspective was Web I. In a class that probably wasn’t intended to be “artsy,” my Web professor made it just that. He viewed the web as something that could be as expressive as it could be informative. He introduced assignments that made it possible to make art out of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Here’s one of my first projects (and yeah, the rest of the work you can find on my old Tumblr is just as heinous). It’s simple, but wow was that exciting and challenging. I learned just enough code to crank out projects and websites that, while under the hood appeared to be held together by a wish and a prayer, were engaging and purposeful.

This was around the time that Twitter Bootstrap came along and parallax scrolling was having a moment. I enjoyed working with Bootstrap because it took little effort to make a website look professional and functional, while it was quite laborious to style vanilla html pages and a lot of them still looked lame (except this one, obviously). I learned how to read documentation and apply what I’ve learned in my work. In realtime I could quite literally bootstrap a decent website. Bootstrap also scaled webpages seamlessly for phones and tablets that were increasingly being used to surf the web. Soon you wouldn’t need to zoom in and out on your phone like you’re reading a newspaper on a microfiche reader at the library. Design and code were melding together and making the web more beautiful. Web 1 was the first time I learned that people can design web pages for a living and I was interested.

While the barrier to getting a coding job without a Computer Science degree was slowly crumbling, it was still difficult to get that first job when you’re an art major just coming out of college. Honestly, I couldn’t even get a random gallery to call me back for a desk job. I had only a taste of doing web design too, which was not enough to land me a job in that field neither. I was a Jack of all trades and felt directionless when I graduated. By that point, I was applying to anything just to start making some money before my loan payments kicked in.

Time for a change

With every temp job I took after college, I inched my way closer to being a developer by taking on more technical work and showing that I was up to the task. I was enamored by each company’s software developer team and longed to one day be a developer instead of the temp with no obvious career prospects. The developers’ projects and the conference room whiteboard covered in diagrams after a brainstorming session were exciting to see and the frantic energy of getting projects off the ground was hard to look away from. I wanted to be in that conference room when all the ideas were flying. I loved that the developers turn ideas into products. Sounded a lot like what an artist did; they make ideas real.

I knew I couldn’t get to my goal of being a dev on my own in a timely manner. Trying basic things like CodeCademy and some tutorials here and there without much meaningful progress, I was spinning my wheels and needed a harder push in the right direction. I wasn’t even really sure how and what I needed in order to be a competitive job candidate. One day, I answered an ad to get more information about a bootcamp that was starting up at a nearby university. Bootcamps had been around a few years, mostly in New York at the price of one arm and one leg, so the thought of one down the street from me was appealing (and at a much lower rate). I applied, dumped my entire savings, and attended the bootcamp while working full time. For someone with little coding experience, it was difficult and even more so when you work full time; you spend all your free time after work either in class or up all night finishing projects, feeling burnt out in many directions. I struggled and questioned whether I was cut out for this kind of work; it was one of the most difficult things I had done at the time. I completed projects that now I could knock out in an hour, but they nearly broke my spirit. It’s funny to admit now, but back then I was regularly getting my ass handed to me. The high of completing a project with all the features working kept me going, though. The low lows and the high highs is a feeling I, and many developers, experience in this line of work. It’s exhilarating and crippling. Kinda like being an artist.

After my first bootcamp, I left my content marketing temp job and I finally got a job where I could code everyday. Well, it was still a temp job, but I was converted to full-time soon after. It was part development work, part data analytics. I worked in the company’s digital operations department as an analyst and analytics developer to capture user data to improve our sales funnel and drive business decisions. Still, though, I started getting restless; I wanted to do more true development work. While this job a great opportunity and was my first full-time employment, I felt it was a diversion from my goal. I wanted to challenge myself and I couldn’t escape the need to make something. I decided I didn’t want to be on the sidelines anymore, just watching others have the career I wanted as I had done for years. I left that company for my current job and I’m living my dream and building products for customers that I feel really proud about. I’m learning more than I thought possible.

Life is what you make of it

As I look back on my time in college, it was awesome I studied Art. I don’t regret it one bit. Of course, not once did I think “Wow, I’m so glad I did this to myself” as I lay on my couch sad and unemployed (well, I was quasi employed, I worked birthday parties on the weekends at a circus school for awhile — stories for another time) while my friends in literally every other field got really great jobs soon after graduation. Hindsight is, well, you know. Art teaches real world skills you may not realize. Grit, creativity, critical thinking, the ability to turn ideas into something real, the ability to handle criticism, are all crucial skills that helped me succeed. I am lucky I could study art, then learn to be a software developer, and now have the ability to be both an artist and developer. The journey was difficult, incredibly stressful, and I experienced crippling self-doubt, but taking a bet on myself gave me an incredible opportunity to pursue my dream and freedom to become the artist that I still get to be. Right now, I’m really into ceramics.

Are you someone who transitioned into the tech industry from an unrelated field? Are you a techie turned artist/something else? Do you do both? I’d love to hear how your experiences and skills inform the work you do now.

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