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Ashlee (she/her)
Ashlee (she/her)

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My Journey Into Software Engineering

I started college in the fall of 2013 as a Chemical Engineering major at a small private engineering school in Indiana. That first quarter ended very poorly for me and had me questioning whether or not I could make it at the school. From what I could see, everyone else was so smart and doing so well! (In reality, I think a ton of us were struggling silently and alone.)

The next two quarters went much better. I loved my chemistry courses and had to work really hard in my math and physics ones. That spring term, I had an Excel programming course. That was my first time ever writing code and I loved it! It was probably the first time outside of the chemistry classes that I really felt like I knew what I was doing. So, I decided to take the introductory programming course the next fall.

They taught us how to program in Python. (I highly recommend Python for learning to code!) It was amazing to me. Having power over my computer and telling it exactly what I wanted to do gave me such a feeling of accomplishment. For the term project, we had to program an iRobot. I learned how to program a robot! What a rush. I felt so smart until...

I got my final grades for all the other courses I was taking. I did terrible in my Chemical Engineering courses. I could handle chemistry and physics individually, but I couldn't seem to put the two together. I did decent in organic chemistry, but I really didn't love chemistry anymore. I had a decision to make.

  1. Take the classes over either in the summer or fall, depending on when they'd be offered
  2. Switch to a different major
  3. Drop out of the school altogether

The third wasn't really an option for me. I'd moved out of my parents' at this point and was completely independent. There's no way I'd be able to pay off what loans I already had if I didn't get that degree. The first option was terrifying: there was no guarantee I'd pass the second time around. The material just didn't make sense to me. With how well I did in the introductory programming course, and how much I enjoyed writing code, I went with the second option.

The journey from then until I got out of college felt like actual hell, but it wasn't because of the courses. I enjoyed almost every single Software Engineering course I took. I even took some of them twice. 😉 Being on my own was really hard, and there were a lot of things that got in the way of my education.

When I look back, I wish I had known about all of my options and not felt so pressured to hurry up and graduate college. I'm not sure I'd recommend the college route to everyone. Especially in the last several months, I don't see why someone who's self-taught can't be as successful as someone with a heckin' expensive piece of paper. It's all about hard work, which you can't see at surface level. The same thing is true about GPA, something that might as well have not existed for me.

Hearing everyone's stories over the past few days has really opened my eyes. There's a ton of talent in this industry coming from all backgrounds. Let's continue to build an inclusive culture in tech! So much possibility awaits.

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Top comments (12)

grantbennett profile image
Grant Bennett

I think the main difference between self-taught and college-taught is structure. You will get to learn everything you need to know to build systems in general, and then practice by doing, where as self-taught you don’t necessarily learn everything you need to know, but enough to build what you’re currently working on.

I’m self-taught and looking to up my level of code by trying to find out what you learn in CS classes, etc (must-know algorithms, data structures, whatever) so I can fill in any blanks I have to become better.

Maybe this could be another post? hint :)

ashleemboyer profile image
Ashlee (she/her)

I totally agree with you up to "practice by doing". I 100% think that's how it should be, but I think two things actually happen far too often:

  • there's not enough time to practice on your own (outside of assignments)
  • assignments are far too structured and don't leave room for creativity

I love how much time I have now to practice whatever I want. I think I learned quite a bit of how to structure my own learning though, with college requiring good time management skills.

I like your idea! I think I'll write some posts on Software Engineering specific concepts. There's quite a few things you learn that Computer Scientists don't! Holding all of that information in my head doesn't help anyone, does it? :)

grantbennett profile image
Grant Bennett

My biggest issue at the minute is with working all day then coming home and not wanting to start working on my own projects because I’m a little burned out, but that’s a whole other topic!

I look forward to seeing some of that tucked-away information! Definitely have time for that.

tam360 profile image

Before getting into software engineering, I pursued Electrical Engineering for 1 year. Unlike folks in American colleges, you don't get to choose major after freshmen year. Here, you decide your major before getting into college which in my opinion is quite rigid.

I switched to SE because of 3 reasons mainly:

  • Hardware subjects (especially there practical labs) were really dry.
  • My elder siblings convinced me that role of programming will increase rapidly so it's better go for computer science
  • Disparity between SE and Electrical/Mechanical/Chemical engineering jobs is really high in my country. Financially security therefore in SE is relatively high.

My entry point of SE was MIT's basic Python course on EDx. It was an awesome experience. I still remember Tic-Tac-Toe and Caesar Cipher which I implemented in Python. Looking retrospectively, it was really noob stuff but at that time, it felt as if I was king of the hill 😁

thompsonad profile image
Aaron Thompson

Fellow chemical engineer turned developer here!

Loved reading this. Thanks for sharing :) You clearly made a great choice and I should have taken option 2 but stuck out chemical engineering for all the wrong reasons. I'm self-taught now and I totally agree with you that it's doable.

ashleemboyer profile image
Ashlee (she/her)

I know a couple of others that switched like us. :) I think I was lucky to have learned programming right before I failed those classes! It's hard to know what all of the options are... can we normalize 5-year college programs? It'd be great to spend a whole year exploring different areas of study so you know what you really want to do. Everyone's in a rush to get out in 4 years.

murkrage profile image
Mike Ekkel

It’s great to read your story after seeing a couple of tweets from you come by! I agree the college route isn’t for everyone and it shouldn’t have to be either. I did a UX/UI design track over at my university and while it’s helping me tremendously in some areas, it’s utterly useless in others. You don’t really get to pick the information you take in, it’s there whether you want/need it or not. For some people that’s great! For me, and possibly you, not so much.

This is really motivating me to finish writing my post! Thank you 😊

ashleemboyer profile image
Ashlee (she/her)

The cool part about structured educational tracks is that someone else has already done the work of finding what information you need to know. The less cool part is that sometimes you don't need all that information. I think it all depends not only on how much time someone has to research and teach themselves, but also on whether or not they've found a community of more knowledgeable people. Trying to figure out what you don't but need to know is probably the hardest part.

nanythery profile image
Nadine M. Thêry

It always takes courage to make a decision and readjust your path. So congratulations!

I have also taken a different path. However, a lot of years later after I graduated. But honestly, I needed to live more and experience more jobs, meet people... before I really knew what was the right way for me. :)

garrett profile image
Garrett / G66 / megabyteGhost

Thanks for sharing your story. I’m always inspired after reading others’ stories.

ashleemboyer profile image
Ashlee (she/her)

Thank you for reading it! :)

mohammedasker profile image
Mohammed Asker

I'm glad you still have the time to change the major because I couldn't change mine after realizing the job prospects here are very poor. 😧

Rarely, I'll find in the job lists asking for Economics degree and when they do, they also ask for 5-10 work experiences. I question myself why will they create college degrees when it's hard to enter the industry?!

Right now, I'm spending 2 hours to code daily and I'm enjoying every minute of it.

Better late than never I guess!😊