From Critical to Coding

In the past four and a half years I have experienced the lowest of lows, and some of the highest of highs. The first three consisted of a critical illness that took me to the edge of not being here to write these words, and for the past year and a half I have spent my time recovering physically and trying to come to terms with how the experience affected and continues to affect me, mentally.

This time, which I have started to refer to as being the happily unemployed period, has been an important journey of self discovery. It has been an entirely privileged affair; needed by many and afforded by few, but without this time I am sure that I would not be in the place I am today.

It has given me the time to fall in love with things and make decisions that make me feel like me. I have spent time participating in hobbies, new and old, which two years ago I was told, as a part of a misdiagnosis, I would never be able to do. I travelled, made new friends, then travelled some more. I got married to the person that stood by my side when the outcome looked bleak. I withdrew from a PhD program which was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made. I have discovered that I am capable of much more than I ever thought was possible.

At the beginning of this year I hit a wall, and it was a strange feeling. Despite everything I was doing, I started to feel a complete lack of purpose. The purpose had been to recover, and while that will be a lifelong journey, it had moved away from being an all consuming activity to something that was now integrated in my life.

The only thing I knew is that I wanted to be a part of something, to have a career, and that I did not want to go back into the environmental sector. This last point feels odd to admit; given the climate crisis, and that I have a degree in Environmental Science, it should have been a no brainer that I would return to the sector.

Something I have learnt during the past 4 years is to listen to my gut. While my head and my heart flutter between the positives and the negatives of any decision, that gut feeling provides an uncomfortable but affirming guidance. I listened to it for my decision to leave my PhD and the feeling of relief I felt leaving the building for the final time was confirmation I had made the right choice. I have that same feeling about entering back into the environmental world as I had when I felt the PhD was not my path anymore.

This did however not help with actually figuring out what I wanted to do. Some fleeting thoughts included taking my experience of illness and the health system and training to become a doctor, physiotherapist, or another type of specialist. I looked into moving closer to, or into the mountainous regions of our small island to gain more experience in the outdoors. I hoped to use these skills to set up a rehabilitation program that would allow others who have been through similar situations to me to experience what being outdoors can do for their physical and mental recovery.

Then two massive life changes happened for my partner, Johan, and I. The first being that Johan was offered, and accepted, a job in Toronto, Canada. The other side of the planet and one of the flattest places on earth I have ever seen so far. It’s so flat, so flat. The other being Covid-19, and the reality of how my health can sometimes throw up massive roadblocks. The damage in my lungs caused by my illness has made me vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, and at the time of writing this post we have been shielding (complete isolation) for 126 days.

These changes have been exciting and challenging respectively, but both have given me some guidance on what I needed from a career. Whatever I do has to be possible wherever I end up on this planet, and that the career must be flexible to accommodate my health.

And this is where I am now, less than 2 weeks away from starting a coding bootcamp, and I am so incredibly excited.

Johan has always hoped, dreamed, aspired that I would ‘see the light’ and follow his path to become a software developer. The idea of becoming a software developer isn’t actually new to me, in fact in another timeline I may already have been one. I had entered college (high school for the rest of the world) with one of my subjects being computing. I thoroughly enjoyed the problem solving and building aspects to it but as I started thinking about university and how I could take this further as a career, personal events caused my mental health to severely decline, my grades dropped and I was asked to leave my college.

I have tried in the years since then to get back into coding. Johan has tried to teach me, I have tried to complete Udemy courses, among other options, but I have always felt too stupid to do it. I think I equated being removed from college and ‘failing’ to simply not being good enough at programming. It took a long time to attribute the source of those feelings to living with unmanaged mental health issues, circumstances outside of my control and the environment I was in, rather than personal intellectual shortcomings.

I had to learn to learn again, and I only was able to come to this realisation after going through the journey of wanting to have a purpose again. It gave me the drive to work hard, and if I failed, rather than just give up, find a different way to learn that worked with how I learn best.

I started looking at online university courses to see if I would qualify to apply, but the idea of committing another 3 years, and another large amount of money to study for another degree was off putting. Johan then suggested I look at a bootcamp style course. I had heard about them before, but always had this assumption they were mainly aimed at the North American market. I was really pleasantly surprised when I saw there were quite a number of options over here in Europe, and due to the Covid-19 situation many had moved to remote learning.

I started learning some basic Ruby via Codecademy, then moved on to Codewars to start learning how to problem solve, after learning about them from the Makers Academy bootcamp website, and it worked. I went from feeling so incredibly stupid, to starting to feel some confidence and I was enjoying myself. Probably a little too much, Johan had to tell me to put my laptop away at midnight quite a few times.

But it’s not just about the satisfaction I feel while coding. The experiences and challenges I have faced in life so far have made me realise the value I place on being surrounded by a supportive community. I have experienced the community that Johan has been involved with for a number of years now through his open-source work. I have consistently walked away feeling inspired, enlightened and humbled by the individuals I have met and would love to be able to be involved in these conversations at a technical level.

Especially as a woman, I have felt lifted up by those who could possibly be my peers in the future, even despite not being an engineer. Many of whom I have met in the community I am now thankful to call my friends.

So I thought, why not do it? Why not follow this path that 14 years ago you wanted to do? Get involved with a career that provides the type of community I want to be involved with?

After some consideration of the different options, I decided that I was going to apply for Makers Academy. Both Johan and friends had heard good things, their ethos aligned with my own goals and aspirations, and I liked their approach to learning. Three solid weeks of study and four days of writing a motivation letter later; I submitted my application, was offered an interview with a pair-programming exercise, passed the interview and accepted a place on the course starting next month.

I am excited by the prospect of starting a career in this field, being challenged intellectually and finding a community that I can be a part of. Have I had the ‘oh my god what am I doing’ moment? Absolutely. My head and my heart are on this massive rollercoaster right now. My gut however is a grounding anchor. This feels so incredibly right, and it’s so nice to have that feeling for the first time in a very long time.

Thanks for starting this journey with me.

Charlotte, the aspiring dev.