by Kalalau Cantrell

From Sound Engineer to Software Engineer — Why I’m Learning to Code

Mixing console. Image Credit: Unsplash.

I seriously started teaching myself to code several months ago. I say “seriously” because I’ve started and stopped a few times in my life. When I look back, I realize I had caught the bug sometime early in life. Although I’ve lived with it for many years, it took a few life experiences and some nurturing before this bug finally had what it needed to “take-over.”

Now that my understanding of front-end code is starting to gel, I decided that I should pause, reflect, and write. My hope is that posts like this will help my future self stay motivated to learn. If it happens to help motivate other new coders, even better!

Image Credit: GIPHY.

Why learn to code?

After reading the stories of others who have taught themselves how to code, I’ve observed that there are many reasons people get into coding.

Some people want to be entrepreneurs building their own product. Some want a better life for their family. Others love technology and what it can do to help the human race. Still others just love code and what it empowers them to do. And there are many permutations of these reasons. I’d like to share some links to a few stories that inspired me, then I’ll speak about my own story.

If they can do it, so can I, and so can you:

My story

School and more school

I was a music major in college. I specialized in music technology, because I wanted to get into music production and find success at a major recording studio. In the middle of my junior year, I realized that finding a job after college was going to be tough.

Not only was the music industry changing drastically, but the job market also had a somewhat bleak outlook. Many people didn’t need record labels or commercial recording studios anymore — the internet, along with affordable software, made music production and distribution accessible for everyone.

Essentially, if I wanted to be a sound engineer, life was going to be hard for long time. I decided I couldn’t live like that, but I also decided it was too late to change my major. I had to finish my studies, get the degree, and find a way.

Like many others who graduated from college in 2011, I decided that more school would give me more time and more skills to figure out a career path. I thankfully made a wise choice and minored in physics minor in college. This allowed me to get into graduate school and then become a high school physics teacher. I graduated from my Masters program and went out into the real world armed with two university degrees and much optimism.

Life in the real world

After working my first couple jobs, I learned a couple big life lessons.

First, school was a good experience, but it fell short when preparing me for work in the real world. I put a lot of time, energy, and money into my studies. I could say I went to college and got good grades — but not much more than that.

Thankfully, many employers still value that. But I know now that skills which are current and highly productive are more valuable. For all my studies, I think the best skills I got in college were the soft skills.

Second, our society has some real issues with social equality. My short run as a public school teacher let me experience that first hand. There are many kids in the world and in the U.S. who struggle to get even their basic needs satisfied. Understandably, they don’t have much bandwidth for caring about school.

These kids are referred to as “high-needs” in the public education sector. Although I wanted to help the kids in my class love science and learning, their priorities were elsewhere — like finding food and struggling to survive.

The hardest part of lesson number two is that most “high-needs” kids grow up to fulfill the terrible stereotypes that exist in our society regarding crime and poverty. I observed that this cycle is vicious and hard to break. It was hard to see.

Vicious cycle, endless stairs. Image Credit: Unsplash.

Finding stable ground

I have enormous respect for good teachers — they are truly some of the hardest working people in our society, and they are under-appreciated.

I was just out of university when I started teaching. I decided that if I was going to be able to help kids with rough upbringings, I had much to learn about myself and about the world.

I left teaching and have since worked in sales, audiovisual engineering, and IT. At the time, I didn’t realize that the “bug” I had caught so long ago would find what it needed to take over at this point. Looking back on the whole thing, I can see why the conditions were right.

Genesis of a coder rising

From a young age, I enjoyed using technology to do interesting things. When I was kid, I loved messing with the family computer, playing video games, and sequencing music with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).

For an assignment in elementary or middle school, I wrote about wanting to be a computer programmer when I grew up. But when the time came, I actually went to college for music instead.

While in college, CS 101 was required for my minor. I found that I enjoyed the class immensely when most of the other non-CS majors hated it.

After getting my masters, I contemplated going back to school again for computer science. But I realized that pouring more money into more school was not the right answer. Finally, after experiencing life in the real world, getting married, buying a house, and getting ready to welcome a child, the time came and my desire to learn had nothing to stop it.

I started to see the writing on the wall. The technology industry was quickly growing, and there was a shortage of qualified developers able to work in it. Check out TechCrunch’s Unlocking Trapped Engineers and Eric Elliot’s Forget the Click Bait. Here’s What the JavaScript Job Market Really Looks Like.

Coupled with this growth, there were also tons of resources popping up online that helped people learn to code. This made the prospect of becoming a self-taught developer seem viable. Then I started hearing that the tech industry was starting to grow in my city of Indianapolis, IN.

Sparks for the fire

A couple things pushed me past this point of no return when it came to starting the journey of learning to code. The first was a chance encounter with one of Indy’s biggest tech players, Scott Dorsey. He was the CEO of ExactTarget before it was acquired by Salesforce.

I was the live sound engineer for a corporate event where leaders in Indy were discussing the growing tech presence in town. Scott was there to give a keynote presentation. I was putting his mic on as he was waiting to get up on stage, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask: “How can I become a part of this movement in Indy? What skills do I need to learn?”

His response was to start somewhere, anywhere, and just learn the basics. He recommended JavaScript — it was beginner-friendly, but a viable language to learn for employment as well. His advice made me realize that it was possible for me to learn these skills and change my life.

Then I found freeCodeCamp. My learning took off and I never looked back. I’m not yet ready to start looking for a job, but I can feel myself getting there. Some days I can code and learn for hours, and other days I need a break and I may not touch my computer at all. Breaks are good, since they help you prevent burnout and retain information.

In future posts, I’ll discuss some hurdles I’ve encountered on my learning journey and how I jumped over them. I’ll also talk about hurdles that I know are coming up. Lastly, I’ll be documenting how I learned specific concepts. I hope it helps my future self remember the fundamentals and helps other new coders just starting their own journey.

Thank you Preethi Kasireddy, Rick West, Alvaro Videla, and Eric Elliott for your inspiring stories and informative articles. Reading them got me motivated to take the plunge.

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