Jul 23 2013

From Scientist to Developer: Why I Restarted my Career as a Big Nerd Ranch Intern

How many interns do you know with a Ph.D.? This summer, I may have become the first.

A passion for learning and teaching

I’ve spent most of my adult life patiently and diligently earning higher education degrees: first a bachelor’s in chemistry, then a doctoral degree in physical chemistry. Growing up, I loved solving problems and building things, and studying chemistry and going to grad school allowed me to nourish those curiosities. I felt like I never wanted to stop learning. Along the way, I also developed a love for teaching. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to share something new with others and in some way change the course of another’s life through knowledge. And so a career as an academic professor seemed like the perfect fit for my love of tinkering and teaching.

But when I finished graduate school and the time came to find a tenure-track position, I began to really assess my priorities. As much as I loved teaching bright students and solving hard problems in the lab by designing and running experiments, fulfilling this career goal would require serious compromises: most tenure-track positions require relocating to a new state and a lifelong commitment to one university. The inflexibility and relocation requirements helped me realize that academia might not be the ideal path for me.

A New Path

In the meantime, I started learning to program, first by building my personal website, and then for fun while working on a side project to help dog owners find dog walkers in their neighborhoods. The quick progression of my technical ability and the serious shortage of skilled developers led me to consider a new career path as a programmer, especially as the quality of life for developers and the flexible work environment seemed to align well with my priorities.

Because Big Nerd Ranch plays such a significant role in the Ruby on Rails community in Atlanta, it wasn’t long before I was introduced to the Nerd way of life. My first encounter with Big Nerd Ranch was at the Rails Girls workshop in Atlanta. The feeling of being in a room full of women learning to code was inspiring. Although I already had some programming experience, the Rails Girls event at Big Nerd Ranch gave me the encouragement I needed to finalize my decision to leave academia.

In the days following the event, I began to plan my transition from scientist to developer. I continued working on my personal side projects and I attended Big Nerd Hack Nights and the local ATLRUG meetup. The Ruby community in Atlanta and the developers at Big Nerd Ranch were extremely supportive; it seemed like everyone I met wanted to help. I started to feel like part of the community and I gained enough confidence to begin looking for developer positions in Atlanta.

Building skills

Due to my lack of a formal education in computer science, I assumed it would be difficult to make the switch. Luckily, Big Nerd Ranch gave me a shot at becoming a developer by hiring me as an intern. A summer internship was just the opportunity I needed to build confidence and to prove my skills as a developer. During the internship I was able to work on internal projects as well as external client projects. I worked closely in a team of other developers to ensure that I was shipping excellent code and that my clients were happy with the results. Even though I was just an intern, I was already starting to feel like a real, professional developer and part of the Big Nerd Ranch team.

My internship has nurtured my progress towards becoming a professional developer. Every day I get to tackle new challenges and build awesome things. I’m constantly learning from those around me and I also get to do a little teaching. When I was offered an opportunity to follow up the internship with a position as a full-time developer, I enthusiastically took it.

Big Nerd Ranch feels like home to me. I can’t imagine a better place to grow and learn and I am looking forward to starting my career as a developer here.

8 Comments

  1. Jim B

    Your earning of a Ph.D. in chemistry proves that you capable of accepting difficult challenges and completing them. It is no surprise that BNR found you admirable. You will be able to bring expertise to the table especially in research methods, quantitative analysis, and analysis of the current state of technology. The future is bright.

  2. A. Richner

    Very inspiring, congrats

  3. Lauren H.

    I was in your same boat 3 years ago. I was a print designer. I went to one of the best art schools in the country and had a huge amount of debt because of it. When I started the design path I thought it would be different from what it really is. The pay was low and so was the respect. I lost my print job 3 years ago and started to learn how to code. Now I am working with a company that hired me, knowing that I am still learning. I love this path that I am on now. I doubt I will ever go back to design.

  4. Brice Wilson

    Congratulations! That’s an inspiring story. As a professional developer and father of two girls (and one boy), I love hearing about more smart women entering this industry. Good luck!

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