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Raquel Román-Rodriguez
Raquel Román-Rodriguez

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Giving Up The Ghost: Why I'm Trading My Academic Career for Software Engineering

On March 21st, 2021, I posted a tweet to clear my head. The next day, I decided to quit my job as a college professor and become a software engineer.

Since 2018, I have worked at a small, private college in Ohio where I am the Director of Vocal Studies. I graduated with a Masters of Music from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2018, and when I was first promoted to my current position, I couldn't wait to help my colleagues build a music program from the ground-up. I believed deeply in the potential of our program. I drew up 5-year plans, created new courses, standardized expectations, and threw my weight behind numerous extra projects, all to improve the experience for our students. I distinctly remember standing in my boss' doorway in February of 2020 and saying, "I'm ready to go all in for this program, so let me know how I can help."

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Me, conducting at our Winter 2019 Choral Concert

And then, March 2020 came. The school closed a week before our Spring concert. Like most professors, I was woefully unprepared to move my courses online, but especially because all of my courses involved performing music synchronously. I wrote an email to my choral ensembles once it became clear that we would not be returning to campus, cancelling class for the year.

Over the summer, I was determined to enter the new year prepared for anything. Colleges were fearful of their dwindling enrollments and were desperate to offer some level of in-person learning. However, guidelines for safe choral singing released by the American Choral Directors Association made me well-aware that our school lacked the facilities and funding to give me what I needed to hold in-person choir safely. I had to find a way to make the course work virtually.

I spent weeks researching best-practices for virtual music making: I learned about programs that could reduce latency to imperceptible amounts, what buffer packets are, how to use an audio interface, and more. I became an expert on Zoom Meetings. I made videos to both show students the potential of the technology and to train them to use it. And perhaps my biggest triumph: I learned to use Reaper, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to edit audio for our virtual concerts. (It may come as a surprise that someone can obtain a Masters degree in Music without ever having had to use a DAW, but this is the norm. As one might imagine, this has been a great topic of discussion recently.)

And in the Fall, I was ready.

Or, I thought I was ready. What I wasn't ready for was how draining spending 100 hours editing a 30-minute virtual concert would be. I wasn't ready for how emotionally taxing watching my students struggle through the darkness of this year through a computer screen would be. And most of all: I wasn't prepared to answer my own questions on the ethics of recruiting and encouraging students to major in a field where I knew that their prospects, even pre-pandemic, were bleak.

I Believe by Mark Miller from our February 2021 virtual concert.

I released three full-length virtual choir concerts. The music was all rehearsed via Zoom, the final recordings made separately using click-tracks and mastered together in Reaper. The reception was impressive-- some local professional ensembles reached out to me regarding our process, engagement on our videos were far higher than in-person attendance could have even accommodated, pandemic or not. But as the year wore on, the feeling of fulfillment wore off and the weight of that question on the ethics of recruitment grew by the day.

So, on March 21st, 2021, after a day of sitting through some auditions from prospective students, I posted a tweet and went to bed.

I woke up in the morning to hundreds of twitter notifications. I had, in the small realm of Academic Music Twitter, gone viral and some well-connected people had retweeted me. Oops.

Moments later, I opened Facebook to find that someone had posted a screenshot of the tweet in the largest Facebook group for classical singers. It is a group that is a bit notorious for its egos and archaic takes, but what do you expect from a group of people who majored in Opera?

In the thread, a shocking number of singers defended the system while also making weird, false assumptions about my career, not knowing that I am actually one of the lucky few with stable music income and a titled position.

I have spent my entire adult life working for a career in academia, I have made countless sacrifices and given up other promising opportunities. Academia has given me more than most, and yet still very little in return. I have often described my career as feeling like a chess game where you can’t see the board, and not in a cool, Beth Harmon way, but an “Oh my god, I forgot I don’t know the rules of chess” kind of way.

It was at this moment I realized that I could no longer contribute to this field. I wasn't okay with the answer, "well, we can't predict student success and what's wrong with training more people than there are spots for?" when we know that includes encouraging 18-year-olds to take out a mortgage's worth of debt (with a much higher interest rate) for that training. I also recognize that if I do not recruit students, the college will determine they cannot retain my position, but I can't look students in the eyes and tell them that majoring in music is a good choice anymore. I had to get out.

I made a plan over the next couple weeks, and once I had my finances in order, I applied to FlatIron School less than a month later.

Ok, why software engineering, though?

Frankly, I had been considering it for years. I have dabbled in code, mostly for my own benefit over the years. I've written scripts for some of my Google Sheets that automated actions I needed done for work, lightly messed with modding the video games I play, and of course, created custom MySpace layouts as a teenager.

It also doesn't hurt that my father is a Senior Developer at Black and Veatch with over 25 years of experience in software development. I grew up watching him pour over books on numerous languages, hearing him repeat ad-nauseum that “JavaScript and Java are two different languages!”, and of course, asking him for help when my own code wasn’t working.

Perhaps it is genetic, but I am a problem-solver who loves a good puzzle, and I often get the same “one more piece” feeling from working on code as I do from puzzles. I have joked that the specter of becoming a developer has been haunting me since my courses on HTML and CSS for graphic designers in my undergrad, so, I'm trading the ghost of academia for that of software engineering and not looking back.

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