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Sun-Li Beatteay
Sun-Li Beatteay

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Why I Didn't go to College for Software Engineering

The sounds of the keys clicked and clacked as I rushed my fingers across the laptop keyboard. I only had 30 seconds left.

“Gotta finish this fast,” I thought.

After a couple more finishing touches, I hit “Enter” and watched as a popup window appeared on-screen.


Beneath the popup were two buttons: Update and Cancel. Just as I had practiced.

A few moments later, I heard a door open and footsteps coming down the hallway. I shut the laptop, tip-toed to the filing cabinet across the room and began rifling through the papers, as if searching for something important.

Penny, my co-worker, strolled around the corner and made a beeline for her laptop on the counter. My pulse quickened in anticipation. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the alert materialize as she opened her laptop.

Penny said nothing as she read the alert and quickly clicked Cancel. I bit my tongue — the last thing I wanted was to give myself away with an unintentional titter. The silence was broken when a new alert popped-up on Penny’s screen.

WARNING: New Virus Detected! Shut Down Now!

A red danger symbol accompanied the text, emphasizing the apparent danger:

Photo by [Michael Geiger]( on [Unsplash]( by Michael Geiger on Unsplash

“What the hell?” Penny whispered to herself.

She immediately powered down her laptop and slammed the screen shut as soon as the screen turned black. I bit my tongue harder but to no avail. I let out a muffled snort that devolved into a fit of laughter.

“Was this you?” Penny said, turning to me. I nodded. She sighed in frustration and relief.

“You really shouldn’t do that. We work with medical patients. It wouldn’t be good for them to think that our computers are infected.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Sorry. I won’t do it again.” I sighed, though my persistent smile revealed my true feelings. It worked! I thought to myself with glee.

A couple minutes later, my other coworker walked into the room holding her computer. Her eyes were wide, seeking assurance.

“Can one of you help? I think there’s something wrong with my computer.”

I looked to Penny, who was glaring at me. “That was the last one, I promise.”

This happened back in April 2016 but I’ve recently found myself reflecting back on that day quite a bit. For two main reasons.

The first is that it’s a memory that fills me with a sense of pride. Admittedly, the script I wrote wasn’t anything special and could have landed me in trouble with HIPPA. But it was the first time anyone had used code I had written, besides me.

The second reason is because it happened four years ago. Why is that length of time special? Because it was at this job that I had to make a difficult decision that would impact my life for that exact amount of time.

Two Roads Diverged

At the time, I was working as a technician in a physical therapy clinic. The pay wasn’t anything to brag about and there wasn’t any upward mobility. But it was a fine job for what it was: a means to an end.

I knew I wasn’t going to stay there for long. But I also wasn’t going to quit until I found a calling. Something that motivated me to continuously improve myself. Something that would help me achieve the life I wanted to live.

I had found it in coding.

Photo by [ThisisEngineering RAEng]( on UnsplashPhoto by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Programming made sense to me. It was logical yet creative. It was a craft that was welcoming to novices but difficult to master. I wanted to make this my career. The question was how?

Up until the day my coworker opened her computer to find a suspicious popup, I was self-taught. I would often practice and study on lunch breaks and after work. When I decided to make this my profession, I saw my road ahead diverge into two distinct paths.

Do I continue to teach myself to code? Or should I go to college?

Believe me, it was a tough choice. While I had been learning on my own for free, the idea of a degree was enticing.

I lived in Seattle, only a stones throw from the University of Washington. If you aren’t aware, the University of Washington has one of the best computer science programs in the country. Seattle itself is also home to some of the largest tech giants in the world.

Seattle | Photo by [Felipe Galvan]( on [Unsplash]( | Photo by Felipe Galvan on Unsplash

In fact, a large portion of the patients I worked with were either software engineers or computer science students. I often talked to them about their jobs and studies. Who knew that sitting in front of a computer for over eight hours a day with bad posture can lead to physical ailments?

When I was at my crossroads, I asked some of the patients I worked with how they had landed their first jobs and whether they thought getting a degree was the best way to get a job.

To no surprise, most of the engineers had computer science pedigrees. And the students all thought that a degree, or at a certificate at the minimum, was the best way to get that coveted first job.

I agreed with them. A top-notch Computer Science education combined with internships at high-profile tech companies would open any employment door. It was a straightforward plan. However, before I made a decision, I needed to consider how life would look over the next four years if I followed this path.

If I chose to pursue a degree, it’s no doubt I would get a top-tier education and a significant boost to my career, but it would come at a price. Judging by the tuition rates, four years would costed me nearly $45,000 in student loans.

There was no question that I would have to take out loans — I had hardly a penny to my name. After all, I was still trying to pay off the debt from my first degree. A second trip to college would leave me with a total bill of around $70,000. While still in the five figures, the thought of accruing that much debt made my heart race.

But the even more intimidating factor was the time commitment — four years.

Photo by [NeONBRAND]( on [Unsplash]( by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

For a single eighteen year old with no life obligations, it’s not an issue. In fact, it’s expected. However, for someone nearly in their thirties, four years is an eternity to put life on hold.

I had loved my time at college the first time. I made great memories and friends. But I wasn’t 18 or single any more. I had just moved in with my girlfriend and we were enjoying a new chapter in our lives. I didn’t want to force her to live the starving college lifestyle all over again.

Carving My Own Path

So with all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I made my decision. I rejected the sage advice of the patients I worked with and dived headlong into the self-taught route.

I was gripped with fear at the idea of striking off into the unknown. I didn’t know anyone who had successfully taught themselves to code, much less land a job as a self-taught engineer.

But I also had hints of excitement and hope. In the months that I’d been studying, I had made leaps and bounds in progress. If there was even a chance that I could start my career in less than the four years it would have taken to earn a diploma, it would be worth it. Any time saved would be extra time spent with my family — enjoying the fruits of my labor.

And that’s exactly what happened.

After deciding that college wasn’t in the cards for me, I threw myself into self-study.

Photo by [Clark Tibbs]( on [Unsplash]( by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

I picked the brains of my techie patients until I eventually quit to study full time. My girlfriend and I moved to New York City and I signed up for every several online courses and tutorials. That is, until I settled on LaunchSchool.

From there, life is a blur. Programming, note-taking, and the (not-so) rare video-game break. All while sitting in my tiny New York apartment.

My original hope was to get my first job and start my career within four years. Through the power of dedicated study, practice, and Zelda, I was able to do it in two.

Ever since getting my first job, life has been anything but a blur.

As the alternate version of myself would have been sitting in classroom adding to his student loan debt, I paid off all of mine. And while college version of myself would have graduated into the worst job market in a decade, I got promoted and became a project lead.

While I’m proud of my career milestones, I’m even more proud of the time I was able to spend with my family and the adventures I’ve taken. In the past four years I’ve I road-tripped across the entire United States.

Photos from my road-tripPhotos from my road-trip

I’ve visited several countries.

Three of the countries (Thailand, Italy, and Iceland)Three of the countries (Thailand, Italy, and Iceland)

And proposed to the love of my life at Yosemite National Park.

Proposing at Yosemite National ParkProposing at Yosemite National Park

All while the other version of myself was heads down in the books.

So Did I Make the Right Choice?

If you’ve read up to this point, you can probably guess that my answer is yes.

Four years ago, I was working in a physical therapy clinic and pranking my coworkers with fake viruses. I was treating software engineers on a daily basis while daydreaming of having their lives. Now, I’m one of their peers.

Not only that, teaching myself to code has resulted in a faster start to my career and more time spent with my family. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Photo by [Daniel Cheung]( on [Unsplash]( by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

But let me be clear, this was the right choice for me. I took a risk and it paid off. Not everyone who has made the same choice has been as fortunate. This article is the definition of survivor-ship bias and shouldn’t be seen as prescriptive.

For those of you learning to program, you may have to decide to either teach yourself, get a diploma, or something in between. If you’re in this position and are unsure what direction to take, I have some advice.

Remind yourself of your goals and which aspects of your life mean the most. — use that to shape your decision. The most important lesson I’ve learned in this process is to not sacrifice what means the most to you.

Don’t worry if other people are getting a job faster or a better starting salary. Breaking into tech isn’t the important part. It’s all about what you do when you get here.

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