From Strum to Scrum: A Musician's Journey into the World of Code
So you're interested in a career in coding, which makes sense; many people are these days, as software development is consistently reviewed as one of the best options in today's job market.
Our e-book gives an in-depth explanation of what a career in coding looks like, but what is it like to transition to being a coder from another career?
Never fear, we interviewed Alex Ispa-Cowan, a graduate of Actualize who is currently working at Allstate Insurance. Join us on Alex's journey as he transitions from a struggling musician to a successful developer.
Alex was unsure of which direction to take after having spent three years at Berklee College of Music in Boston earning his B.A. in Music. We invite you to take a step into the past, and meet the Alex of three years ago:
Actualize: Can you tell us about your beginnings?
Alex: "I had just graduated from Berklee College of Music, and had $300 dollars to my name. I moved to Chicago, where I lived in my sister's basement while I looked for music-related work and prepared for grad school. I'm a musician; jazz guitar is my specialty, but finding a full-time job as a musician is not always an easy feat.
"My plan was to eventually be a professor of music, so I needed to further my education. I auditioned at DePaul for a Master's in Guitar Performance, and got in. But it was a two year program, and then another two years for a PhD, and after speaking with some people who had taken this path, I discovered that the job opportunities and benefits were not as great as I had envisioned. I didn't want the knowledge, I just wanted a PhD for the job."
Actualize: Were you working full time at this point?
Alex: "I was practicing guitar for nine hours a day, but not earning much. Any spare change that I had in my pocket came from professional jazz jam sessions that I attended, performances, and whatever music lessons I could teach.
"After six months of this type of scrambling, I had finally saved enough money to scrape together some rent and move into my own place. I took gigs at restaurants, weddings, and country clubs, while still teaching lessons, which were my most stable source of income.
"I could get two to three gigs in a week; sometimes I could go three weeks without a gig. So lessons were sustaining me, but even that wasn't too great; I managed to cover my rent, that was all."
Actualize: After recognizing that a PhD in Music wasn't really your goal, and seeing that your gigs were unsustainable, what was your next step?
Alex: "I had arrived at this place of complete 'I have no idea what I am doing with my life'. I began to Google things. I needed something that would give me stability and pay the bills."
Actualize: Had you considered coding as a career previously?
Alex: "No way. I had never even heard of coding bootcamps; it had never occurred to me that someone with a background in music could ever pursue a career in software development. But I found some online tutorials, and started getting involved in coding."
Actualize: Were you good at it?
Transitioning from Music to Code
Actualize: Why did you choose Actualize to be your mentors? (Not that we aren't flattered…)
Alex: "I chose Actualize because it is part-time. It was absolutely essential that I be able to perform at gigs and teach lessons to bring in money during the day and on weekends, but my nights were dedicated to coding."
Actualize: Switching careers is a big decision that can be frightening. Weren't you scared?
Alex: "My hesitations were real. I was nervous, I was scared. I remember thinking, 'Can these people really pay out on what they promised? They're telling me they can teach me how to code in half the time of the other (full-time) bootcamps.' My other fear was, 'Am I going to graduate from this bootcamp and not get a job?'"
Actualize: Were your fears realized? How was the Actualize experience?
Alex: "The program was FANTASTIC. Peter Jang taught my cohort, and I loved it. It was fun and informative. I could go on and on about it."
Actualize: How did it compare to college?
Alex: "Peter has a really good teaching style. The curriculum was well organized, and it was way better than half of my college classes. Most of us college grads know that for all the classes we take, many are pretty lame, but there are a few really good ones. If this was a college class, it would have been one of the really good ones."
Actualize: That's encouraging! What happened after you graduated?
Alex: After graduating from Actualize, I joined The Difference Engine, a four-month apprenticeship that allows Actualize grads to gain real-world experience, working with project managers in teams to complete projects for nonprofit organizations."
Actualize: So you got great experience. What was your job search like?
Alex: "Well, I applied to over 80 jobs. I guess I was as dedicated to succeeding at coding as I had been at practicing guitar. I had already received two job offers when more interviews started rolling in."
Actualize: That's exciting!
Alex: "It was crazy. One place made an offer on the spot, and gave me a week to think about it. In that time, Allstate Insurance, whom I had applied to a month prior and forgotten about, reached out to interview. Even though I figured anything insurance related would be extremely boring, I told them, 'if it's before Wednesday, you're on'. They agreed to rush it, so on Tuesday, I went out to the suburbs to meet with them. The interview was great; they told me about these incredible projects they were working on, and the new place they were opening up in downtown Chicago, and everyone was really nice. I told them that I would need an answer by the next day, or I would be accepting my standing offer.
"Less than twenty-four hours later, I had an offer."
"Allstate was offering a way better deal than the first place; more money, more benefits. And it was a perfect fit."
Actualize: Did you take the job?
Alex: "I did, and my life has changed ever since. Seriously. For example, my eyesight isn't great, and when I was still an Actualize student, I had to sit up front because my glasses prescription wasn't high enough, and I didn't have insurance to get me new ones! My new job literally allowed me to get the health care I needed; in this case, a new pair of glasses. I also more than tripled my previous salary, which is pretty significant."
Day to Day
Actualize: Previously, you had spent nine hours a day strumming a guitar. Now you are coding all day. Let's talk about what that looks like every day.
Alex: "Sure. Work starts at 8:05 AM, with standup (a quick team meeting, similar to a huddle in football) which lasts about three minutes. But I show up at 7:55 AM and eat breakfast because it's catered every morning! After standup, I sit down and code. I work mainly in Java, and I am a back-end developer.
Actualize: How long do you code for?
Alex: "We usually code until around 10:00 AM or mid-morning, and then we take a break, which involves playing Super Smash Brothers in the video game room. Or ping-pong. Whatever it is, we do something to relax."
"Like any focus-intensive task, it can get tiring to code for hours at a time. But once we have that break, we get back into things, and will usually code for the rest of the morning."
Actualize: What does the rest of your day look like?
Alex: "Lunch time is from 12:00-1:00 PM, so I go to the gym, which is conveniently on another floor of our building.
"The afternoon follows a routine similar to the morning; more coding with a nice break in between. Work ends at 5:00 PM sharp.
Actualize: Do you work alone?
Alex: "My team consists of four to six developers and a product manager. Within the team, we do something called pair-programming, which means there are always two developers working on any given project. However, the teammate I am paired up with will change from time to time, so we all get a great opportunity to work with different people within our team."
Actualize: So you must get to know your team pretty well!
Alex: "Yes. Interestingly, there are rotations every few months, which means we occasionally get a new project to work on. While this means that the developers who remained on the project are teaching the ropes to the developers who just joined, it is relatively easy to get everyone on board.
"Additionally, the change brings new knowledge to the table. I just switched projects, and taught my new team something I had learned from my old project, which was really helpful because they had been trying to figure this out for months.
"Lastly, the rotation is helpful not only for bringing on new talent, it's also the company's way of ensuring that employees are constantly challenged, and get an opportunity to meet new co-workers and develop a close working relationship with them."
Actualize: What are you specifically coding?
Alex: "The product we sell is API's to other companies which process GPS data from customers' cars in real time. Maybe they want functionality to see the total number of miles any given customer has driven from a specific time. So I'm building a feature to assist in calculating data for drivers in whatever company hired us. It could be that other insurance companies are hiring us, so I'll be building a feature that can actually be used in the product.
Actualize: What do you spend most of your time on?
Alex: "This journey has been incredible. When comparing my new job to my old job, well, it's way better. I now have stability, and I make a lot more money. I don't work more hours because when I leave at five, I'm DONE. I used to practice guitar all day. I spent my time working all day, looking for more work, and practicing. Now I can relax after work. I never felt I could relax before, because I could always be getting another gig. I hated the pressure."
Actualize: That's incredible. What do you do with all of the extra time you have, after 5:00?
Alex: "In my spare time, I still play music, but it's actually relaxing. I also like to go biking, play soccer, stay active. Although I will occasionally play Xbox. But you know, I like to do 'normal person stuff' for fun."
Actualize: What was the biggest thing you were afraid of?
Alex: "That I wouldn't find a job. Once I got my job I was afraid of what it would be like. It was totally unknown."
Actualize: What is an example of a myth in the coding world that you had believed in before actually working there?
Alex: "I knew so little about the coding world that I hadn't even heard of the myths."
Actualize: But you did end up with some awesome perks! What are they?
Alex: "Catered breakfast every day, video game room (Wii U and PlayStation), free snacks (chocolate covered raisins, oh yeah!) and free drinks. We also get twenty days of PTO per year, health insurance, Safari books online and any books/resources I might want for studying software, as well as monthly learn days (once a month we take the day off and attend workshops and learn new skills.)"
Actualize: Love those perks! What is your favorite part about coding?
Alex: "The moment when you understand something that you didn't previously. Or when something works for the first time."
Actualize: Did Actualize prepare you for the career you currently have?
Alex: "Yes. Even though I don't code in the same language, Actualize taught me how the internet works in general. They also taught me OOP (Object Oriented Programming). They taught me how to learn code, so given enough time, I feel confident learning any new language."
Actualize: What advice would you give to someone who is looking into changing their career, but is afraid of taking that first step?
Alex: "If you're not super uncomfortable in your life, you're not trying hard enough."
Actualize: How would you explain coding to someone who is as unfamiliar as you were?
Alex: "You're solving technical problems all day. If you don't like to focus on problem solving for long stretches of time, this is not for you. If stuff doesn't make sense and it pisses you off, and you like to figure it out and make it do what you want; if you were the kid who took pens apart to figure out where the springs are, then this career path is for you."
Actualize: Lastly, what would you say to coding bootcamp graduates who are scared of a career?
Alex: "Keep applying to jobs, because you got that far for a reason. Take it until you get a job, and find out for yourself what it's really like. Just do it. You can always quit later if you really don't like it."
Actualize: Alex, thank you for sharing your story and we wish you the best of luck on your journey!
If you would like to connect with Alex, or book him for a gig (after 5:00 PM of course), you can reach him at email@example.com.
For those of you who want to change your life the way Alex did, we invite you to meet with one of our Admissions advisors here to see if Actualize can help you achieve your goals!