Some Thoughts, 3 Years In
I’ve been a software engineer for three years.
That feels pretty cool to say. I wish I could go tell my 14-year-old self, who was just teaching herself HTML and CSS, that one day she’d be coding for a living. I think she’d be shocked to hear that - and that is because my 14-year-old self thought she was going to become a professional clarinetist.
It is hard to think about me getting into tech without thinking about the time I spent in the past on my ~*~passions~*~. To begin, I am not stereotypically passionate about tech. I think computer things are fascinating, and I really like my job, but I was never the kind of person who went to LAN parties in high school. I never built my own computer and took only one CS class in college (which I found extremely disappointing because I wanted to learn how to build nicer websites, not learn about recursion).
Anyway. More than any position or title or company I’ve worked for, the fact that I’ve made it this far in tech without burning out is the thing I’m most proud of about my career change to date.
As I mentioned above, I thought for a long time (many years, in fact) that I was going to become a professional musician. I thought that performing classical music was my calling. At 16, I was the youngest clarinetist in one of the country’s best youth orchestras! How could I not make good use of those talents?
I pushed myself so hard in music (and, simultaneously, in school) that I had no energy for anything else. I found I couldn’t be great at music and great at school at the same time. I learned that tying my identity to something about which I was passionate was actually a terrible idea. The fierce competition and the demands of perfection sucked all the joy out of what was once my favorite thing in the world. So I retreated into schoolwork and gave up on my musical ambitions. It took me many years to come to terms with my lost potential there.
Similarly, I thought I’d found my calling in life when I became a teacher. I had (and have!) immense respect for the experienced teachers I met and worked with, and I thought I’d be in the classroom forever. But then the reality proved to be too much. Here’s what I mean:
At my first school, teachers had to be in the building from 7am-5pm, teaching from 8am-4pm. Realistically, that meant arriving by 6:30am to make copies and prepare my classroom before the kids started to arrive for breakfast. Once a week, I rushed out the door at 5pm to attend a grad school class from 6-9pm. One week per month, there was an extra class that meant two nights of graduate school. I was also taking a third class online. This meant doing my own homework on top of lesson planning and grading my students’ work. Add monthly, day-long professional development on Saturdays, mix in planning a wedding, and sprinkle it all with the profound struggles that every first-year teacher goes through, and that was a recipe for burnout, too.
I was initially so passionate about both of those careers, but they became untenable for me after a certain point. They crept into every corner of my waking hours. The rare free time I had felt flat and directionless, and was often spent sleeping. From these experiences, I learned what I didn’t want in life in the long term.
This isn’t to say that passion is bad, or that it always leads to burnout. But I have learned some hard lessons about burnout at the expense of my passions. It is part of what led me to pursue work in something I found challenging and enjoyable, but on which my identity did not hinge.
I very nearly burned out on tech before I even got my first software engineering job. I don’t think I’d be alone among bootcamp grads when I say that the post-bootcamp job search is both difficult and demoralizing. I have more than a few nightmarish interview tales to tell from that period. I almost gave up on searching for jobs in tech. But luckily for me, one company decided to take a chance on me, and I have since made it my goal to learn from past experience and sustain this career over a long period of time.
I’m doing my best to pace myself in tech. I work hard. I do my best every day, and I try to savor the fact that I get to learn and think and solve problems for my job. I’m trying very hard these days to focus on contentedness over ambition.
Perhaps because of how much I actually like my work so far, pacing myself means fighting my inner overachiever pretty much every day. As an example: encouraged by a few coworkers at my first engineering job, I started taking hour-long lunch breaks even though the idea of having a whole hour for lunch felt (and sometimes still does feel) incredibly indulgent. As a teacher, I was lucky if I had time to inhale a microwaved burrito while supervising my students’ 20-minute lunchtime! But it turns out that things like a solid lunch hour, scheduling workouts, sticking to strict boundaries on my calendar, and not spending all of my free time coding or pushing myself to learn more (even though I sometimes really want to) have been critical to sustaining this career. Pursuing something I think is cool but to which I have not tied my identity has been quite positive overall.
I think it’s because I’ve been disciplined about preventing burnout in this career that I’ve been able to enjoy the process of becoming a better engineer so much, even though I’ve never been stereotypically “passionate” about tech. I have zero idea what the next three years in this field will bring for me, but I will do everything I can to maintain this sense of balance.