Episode 02 – A Liberal Arts Major’s Change of Plans

This episode features someone who majored in International Studies with a concentration in Asia. Dreams of moving to Japan and teaching English is what Eric always wanted to do, and the job he took after college was meant to be a temporary way to make money while he sorted out his Asia plans. Instead, this job helped him springboard into the world of technology and he transitioned from the Marketing Team to the QA team to Software Development. Today, he’s a Senior Software Developer at Bazaarvoice and has a lot of insightful advice to share regarding his switch from a non-technical position and learning his skills on the job.


Linda: On this episode we’ll be talking to a liberal arts major who was convinced he would teach English in Japan after college. Instead, something completely different happened and he found himself learning new skills on a job; he even took it a step further and taught himself had a code. The part I love most about his journey is that in the end even though he ended up with a different career, he kept his love for Japanese culture and visited the country many times. I’m hoping his story will be somewhat of an encouragement to those who want to do a career switch but have a non-technical degree and might not know where to begin so it’s my pleasure to introduce to you Eric.

Eric: My name is Eric crew I’m a Senior Software Developer at Bazaarvoice and I’ve been a software developer for about 6 years

Linda: Thanks for sharing your experiences with us today. So I want to start with what got you interested in the industry because I know you have a very unique and interesting career path so can you tell us a little bit more about that.

Eric: I became a software developer partly through teaching myself and partly through a graduate certificate through the University of Washington Bothell Campus. Before that I was a liberal arts major majoring in International Studies – Asia with plans of going out to Japan and teaching English. While I was doing that I was also a social media manager for realestate.com.

Linda: So what was the actual turning point for you? When did you actually realize that you wanted to become a software developer or that you were interested in tech?

Eric: My mom knew the HR manager of the company called Market Leader and that was a real estate CRM platform and so really it was just sort of a job that I just took that happened to be a tech job. And it was more like an administrative assistant sort of helping out the spreadsheets and all that stuff. Basically the longer I stayed there I had to sort of work through the ranks there, and I started to get more involved doing more scripting stuff with Python to help with some of their processes like pulling data from third-party APIs for the various marketing platforms they use to working my way into doing a QA role at that company

Linda: It sounds like you kind of picked up the Python and ran with it to automate your daily tasks and so I often get asked by people where to start learning coding and where do I begin? For you, you started at market leader and you kind of started learning how to automate things on your own– can you talk a little bit more about that?

Eric: I was fortunate to be inside a tech company already and I was also fortunate enough to be with a manager who was very supportive of my personal endeavors. To give a rough overview of what my job was, it involved parsing through huge, huge Excel spreadsheet that I had.

There were all these really complex formulas and it was basically inputting data. And that’s when I started looking at technical solution using Python just because that’s what I’ve seen online and became fascinated with staying up in those super script-kiddie type stuff. But it was something that was really interesting to me so that really was the main point as I started to realize this is something I wanted to get into. I requested a transfer (at the time I was in the marketing team). I made that first transitionary step.

Linda: It must’ve been a relief to find something that can help you automate a very cumbersome tasks but how did you decide to use Python?

Eric: I just googled stuff in terms of “How can I access Google ad service in a more efficient way” it was something it was still broad. I think I landed on some Yahoo forums and a lot of people kept bringing up “So you should try using Python” and saying use this script and this and that.

Linda: It sounds like Yahoo forums is really the way to go. Nowadays it would be Reddit or Quora. It takes a leap of faith to decide what career to pursue (that’s what I kind of say to everybody). Did you have a fallback plan in case you hated working on the QA team or hated working in a more technical role? Did you ever think that maybe I’m going to go back to teaching English as my fallback plan?

Eric: I thought about it a lot in terms of what I would do if I weren’t doing software development. And yeah I think that the teaching thing was something that would pop up every now and then. That’s now in the past especially since now that I have two kids and a family to support. It’s less of a thing I think about. I really like that question because it was like yeah it was something that I gave a lot of thought to but I’m in the groove now. At least I hope so anyway!

Linda: I really appreciate your honesty with that. So did you have any other reference points? Are there other jobs you had prior to the administrative Market Leader job that helped you decide that this is what you wanted to do, relative to all the other stuff that was out there?

Eric: After I graduated from college, I kind of had an idea if I wanted to teach English in Japan. That was the plan of the time but in the meantime I had to have a job. And I should probably work and so I was applying everywhere. I was working at Nintendo as a game tester, I was working as a supply person for Best Buy, working at a restaurant doing dishes…just basically taking whatever job I could in post-2010 thinking I was just going to be sort of a temporary thing until I got to Japan.

Ever since I was 16, I’ve been doing service manual type job. Like my first job ever was a bag boy at QFC [a local supermarket], working at places like Subway and Jamba Juice and I didn’t mind the work. You’re busy until you’re done and you get some overtime and it’s nice and manual. It’s simple and it’s something I can do. But then I realized how much more I could be making with less physical toll my body. Not saying that that’s bad work or anything like that, but will it be something I would be able to handle especially now with the family and kids? So in that respect that I’m very thankful for the jobs I had prior to being in tech.

Linda: Yeah it sounds like you did a lot of different things. How did you land your current job and what was the interview process like for that?

Eric: There was a lot of different interviews I did. I did some with the FAANG companies, some of the start of companies…

The interview process was very much like a technical interview with the exception that a lot of the on-site, phone screen stuff made it seem more like it was about a holistic view of me versus how well I can LeetCode.

Linda: Right and answering a LeetCode question properly doesn’t mean you’ll always be successful on the job either. What was the most challenging part of becoming a software developer?

Eric: The sheer volume of things that I needed to learn. Especially for someone who didn’t have a formal backgrounds and was still relatively new to the space. From basic stuff to command line interface things to Cloud platforms, like understanding AWS infrastructure. Or understanding what Docker is, understanding every part of computing on top of just being able to code well possibly made it seem like an overwhelming uphill battle. I never actually touched core, like corporate-level production code. There were just so many things I didn’t understand even when I switched to Curalate and I became a relatively well-established back-end developer in Java and Scala. Even using Scala, Curalate was using a completely different framework and so even little things like that took me a couple of weeks and maybe a month to get ramped up with their infrastructure. It just felt like I’m in the wrong industry! I clearly don’t know what I’m doing! While I do feel confident saying I’m a software developer, it’s always been something where I hesitate saying that because I just am constantly made aware of just the amount of things I still don’t quite understand or have a mastery over yet so yeah.

Linda: So aside from all the technologies, was there anything else that came up that you didn’t account for originally? Or was there anything that your training was lacking?

Eric: I didn’t know how to ask questions the right way. There was stuff that I didn’t know. And there would be times when they would explain things and make it seem like “Oh here’s a very basic thing that you should know how to do.” Instead of stopping and asking “What is that thing?” For fear of being judged by my peers and not being good enough to be in this industry, I just wouldn’t say anything. As a result that core thing that’s supposed to be very basic that you know everything else is built upon…it fragmented my learning moving forward.

One of the key differences in the success I’ve had with at working at Curalate and you know becoming a Senior Engineer is being able to ask questions, trying not to let that fear of inadequacy get to you too much, because it’ll lead to a much more firmer understanding and foundation.

Linda: That makes a lot of sense and I think everybody has struggled with that a little bit from entry-level software developers to people who kind of data bootcamp for people who did a mid-career switch so I think you’re definitely not alone in that. What was your favorite part about becoming a software developer?

Eric: I really like working with the developers I’ve been working with. I especially love working with really smart developers who are eager and willing to talk about their craft and knowledge. Because it’s fascinating to see how people thinking about approaching problems. And secondly there are a lot of interesting people. The leadership that I’ve worked under at all my companies have been very smart and passionate people.

And the second thing is now that I found my niche in an industry which is REST, back-end API development with some infra, I really enjoy thinking through a good design, thinking through optimization, testing and seeing how things work especially when it results in a better experience for the customer. Or if it helps our tech team or support team perform their jobs a little bit easier.

Linda: I can definitely see that being very fulfilling to help out customers and other engineers. If you could do anything differently about your career path if you could go back and do it again would you would you do anything differently?

Eric: I think there are a lot of things. I would differently. If I just went back and I told freshman year me that “Hey guess what 2021 you’re going to be a Senior Software Developer at a company and don’t be afraid to take computer science. CS is something that you can do. It is something that you know you’re going to enjoy doing. Just try.”

I can’t help but get this idea that as much as I like to fluff up and talk about my experiences outside of CS, I do think that it was kind of a way for me to not have to try really hard at things. Even with teaching English in Japan… it was a passion of mine and it was something I was just sort of innately good at. I like talking to people and English is my first language and I don’t think I would have gotten as much career satisfaction as if I had to pursue something like software development where I really had to learn about this industry and really have to learn to make it fulfilling.

Linda: That totally makes sense. What exactly was the blocker for you in terms of studying CS in undergrad? What was really preventing you? Was it like a fear of failure? Was it a matter of you not thinking you had the right credentials?

Eric: Yeah so it was the fear of failing and sort of understanding that math was never my strong suit. Which I always interpreted as something that was crucial to software development. I was just thinking that I wasn’t smart enough and that I was going to fail so why bother because there’s always really smart people who are way ahead in the field. Why bother competing with that?

Linda: I think that’s pretty common and you’re definitely not alone in that sentiment. On that same vein what advice do you have for someone who is deciding if they want to pursue software development as a career?

Eric: I think the number one thing I would encourage people to consider is figuring out if they will want to be more on the front end side of things for the back-end side. I know these are sort of broad terms all that stuff, but I notice there’s a lot of people who are really interested in making the next Facebook right or when people want to be in development, they see one of those snazzy Facebook Mark Zuck fads thinking like “Oh it’s a lot of fun! Look at all these activities you’re doing where you’re drawing on a glass whiteboard!”

The truth is– from my experience anyway– is that the first thing is you need to really know is do you want to do something when you’re doing in web design like more on the graphic design/UI/UX sort of things. Because to me those are two very different brains to software development. When you’re thinking about UI/UX or if you’re thinking about doing backend development. Both of them have their broad spectrums of what does it mean to be back end and frontend type thing. And then there’s full stack.

But understanding like if you are you really passionate about UI/UX and you really like to see how things work and all that stuff– see how things move. Or animate the webpage or an application and interfaces–like is that something that you’re really passionate about? Or is it something on the flip side where I’m more of on the data and not really super artistic–but I really do like thinking about databases and data sets as soon as lame as that sounds like that’s true for me. Where I don’t really think I’m artistic enough to be thinking about UI/UX design and that’s you know to me it’s an art form that’s you know crazy and all that stuff. But I do like thinking about performance; I do like thinking about optimizations too. Everything from like the very beginning like I’m pulling data from APIs. How can we get this be better and faster? How do we do this analysis?

Linda: Totally I think that’s great advice. What do you think you would say to somebody who has decided “Okay I want to be a back-end engineer” or “I want to be a web developer” or “I want to be a front end developer?” What’s next?

Eric: Try something. Like trying writing an app. Don’t worry about deploying it; don’t worry about making it publicly available. Just have something working on your machine. Because I know it’s cool and it’s gimmicky to be like “Oh! I set up CI pipelines” or “I was able to get it running in Travis and and now it’s like on the web!” And I found that then you’re spending a lot of time doing DevOps-y stuff right? Now if that’s your passion then that’s your passion. But coding something just to code it whether it be something you’re passionate about or not or whether someone’s already done it before or not, I think that would help people break the mold of “All right I want to do this project. And it might have been done millions of times before and in a lot better ways.” But at least this way you’re getting familiar with frameworks.

Deciding what frameworks you want to use is number one. What language you want to use too. All that stuff. Because the other stuff will come later but if you have something you’re passionate about and you want to develop something for…focusing on just that will take you a long ways is as long as you don’t get yourself distracted with serving the ancillary stuff.

Linda: I agree I think that’s a great place to start. And really the more projects you work on especially projects in industry that maybe have a lot of legacy code… you’ll end up learning a lot. Also there are just so many different technologies, libraries, tools out there that it’s impossible to master it all. So there’s really no worries if you start small and slowly find your niche.

Eric: I constantly think for example like at Curalate or at Porch, if I were to setup my own service like from scratch and not use any of the infra built in, it would just be a huge challenge for me in terms of how I would implement Terraform on my own? What deploy script would I use if I were running Jenkins? Should I use cloud products through Google or through Amazon? I never set up load balancers or any of that stuff. And docker! Docker container optimizations! So…

I think about it a lot and it makes me think that you know either A. I’m not really well suited to do anything other than what I’m doing now or B. I need to spend a lot more time figuring out how to stand up services on their own.

Linda: I just find it interesting that up until recently you weren’t even sure if this is really what you wanted to do and I really appreciate your honesty and sharing your thoughts on that. I’m sure there are many others in the industry who feel kind of similarly.

Eric: And of course no one wants to admit that right? No one wants to admit that “Oh I’m not sure if this is where I belong.” Because you worry about the smile you put on for other people. You want people to think you’re a well-established engineer. Like I was talking to my coworker who had no idea that I didn’t major in CS undergrad. It’s interesting to me, because there is a part of the industry where you can’t ever admit that type of weakness. Then it’ll throw into light your whole credentials right? Unless you’re just like hard core coding day and night.. like you just live and breathe code. You wear shirts that say I churn coffee and code or something like that. Then you’re not a true software developer. And so it’s something that I think this industry probably needs more of. Like hey it’s not fun and laughing all the time and playing pool in the rec area. It is also seeing a desk for a living and banging your head and wondering why things do and don’t work.

Linda: Right it’s not all free lunches and napping pods– there’s actually a lot of complexity that comes with the job. But thank you so much Eric for sharing your experiences today and really appreciate you providing your valuable insights.

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