My Journey from Ecologist to Web Developer

By Andre Otte On April 06, 2020

My Journey from Ecologist to Web Developer
Eighteen months ago, the only coding experience I had came from a one-credit computer class I took in college, where I created an HTML document that said, “Hello World”. Since then, I realized I love to code, quit my job as an ecologist, graduated from a coding bootcamp at Grand Circus, and got a job as a Web Developer at BizStream.

There are both how and why components to my journey to becoming a developer. I am first going to focus on the why aspect, which I hope can be broadly applicable to anyone facing a career change or big life decision. The how aspect will be geared towards newbies, like me, who are just starting out their careers as developers. 

screen capture Andre's "Hello World" site
Andre's coding experience pre-2019 

My Decision-Making Process

So, why did I end up writing code for a paycheck when, eighteen months earlier, I knew nothing and had exactly zero interest in coding? The complete answer to that question is somewhat long, random, and probably boring, so I am going to highlight just a few of the factors that lead to my decision to switch careers. 

Personal Satisfaction
There are a number of reasons writing software gives me a sense of satisfaction. Most importantly, I really like to code. Coding pushes a button in my brain that makes me want to come back for more and more and more … (It's ok, guys. I could stop anytime I want. *nervous laughter*)

I also like the idea of writing software that is perfectly tailored to a specific use case. One of the major drivers that led me to start teaching myself to code was using a database software in my previous career that was built specifically for my niche use case. I found it so cool that someone had built a tool, seemingly for me personally, that made my job so much easier. The ability to code allows me to help others have the same software experience I had. 

My first real coding project was a Secret Santa generator that sent out an email to my family members with the person they needed to buy a Christmas gift for. I went on to write some Python scripts for ArcGIS to accomplish repetitive tasks I was doing at work. I even took over managing my organization’s WordPress site and found ways to write markup instead of doing the sensible thing of using the user-friendly tools WordPress provides.

I was fascinated with how code could be used to do many different things in many different ways. The endless languages, frameworks, and paradigms always ensure there is something new to learn and be challenged with. Taking on new challenges is one of the best ways for me to maintain happiness and energy in my life, so the breadth of the tech industry was very appealing to me.
It would be misleading if I failed to admit how the financial and lifestyle opportunity my new career provides contributed to my decision. I liked my job, but after three years with my previous employer, I was still in a somewhat entry-level position without much room for career growth and a serious lack of job opportunity in the area. I was becoming increasingly worried about my financial future and being tied to my employer due to a lack of jobs in my field.  

Despite all the reasons for making a career switch, it was still a scary decision. I had my own concerns. What if I stopped liking to code after a year? What if I couldn’t handle sitting at a desk all day? I also heard things from my friends and family like, “What if you can’t find a job and end up living in a van down by the river!?” Or, “But you walk around in the woods for a living. You can’t possibly like working with computers!” Finally, my favorite, “Why don’t you just go to grad school instead of a coding bootcamp?”

There was and is some validity for all of these concerns, but in reality, the risks of making my career change were relatively small, but the potential rewards are massive. I wasn’t ever going to end up homeless; I could always get a job at McDonald’s. If I end up not liking to code three years from now or can’t stand my desk job, I can find something else to do or start spending more time in the woods during my free time. I could have spent $40,000 and two years to go to grad school only to find out that there was no job waiting for me on the other side. A 10 week, $10,000 bootcamp, although not conventional, sounded a whole lot less risky to me.

Looking at decisions through the lens of risk and reward can lead to surprising realizations. My decision to switch careers may initially seem risky, but after thinking about the risks and rewards, I saw a huge opportunity to invest in my overall wellbeing. Additionally, going over worst-case scenarios of decisions can be incredibly freeing, because, more often than not, the worst-case scenario isn’t all that bad.  

Andre leading a volunteer seed collecting day
Andre leading a volunteer seed collecting day​

How I Became a Developer

Quickly learning to become a developer consumed about a year of my life. I had to make sacrifices to the amount of time I dedicated to my hobbies, projects around the house, and my relationships. I spent the first half a year teaching myself while still working full-time. I bounced around between a bunch of resources but spent the most time using Treehouse’s Full Stack Javascript Tech Degree as my learning track. I ended up deciding that working full-time and coding in all my free time was unsustainable, so I went all-in and quit my job to enroll in Grand Circus’ back-end, C# .NET bootcamp. After graduating, it took me another two months before landing an internship at BizStream. During those two months, I continued working full time on side projects, interview prep and applied for jobs like crazy. In fact, I ended up applying for 55 positions.      

After coming out on the other side, I have a few pieces of advice for those starting their careers as developers.
  1. Find a learning track and stick to it. Having one platform to focus on instead of bouncing between platforms and languages is crucial if speed is important to you. I did not do this when starting out and ended up using four or five different resources, which diluted my learning and slowed me down. When I finally honed in on the Techdegree through Treehouse, I started to make huge progress in a short amount of time. I also found using a paid service, like Treehouse, gave me extra motivation to be diligent in my practice.
  2. It doesn’t matter what language you learn. I spent way too much time researching the best coding languages to learn. There are so many articles arguing why Python, JavaScript, or C# is the best first language to learn. My advice is to do a little research about your local job market and pick one based on some popular languages you see in job postings in your area. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of the popular languages because generally, learning to code is more important than learning Python or JavaScript.
  3. Be as prepared as possible for your bootcamp. I started Grand Circus with over 300 hours of “hands-on keyboard” coding experience. This gave me a great foundation to start bootcamp because I already was starting to recognize common coding patterns and even had a little experience with object-oriented programming. In addition to writing code, I did a ton of research about local companies and read blogs about how others were successful in getting into tech without a conventional background. Coming into the bootcamp prepared allowed me to spend more time on the non-technical side of the process, doing things like going to tech meetups and applying for jobs.
  4. Look for a job that optimizes learning. I was fortunate that I could be patient in my job search and ended up with a couple of employment options to choose from. I decided to take an internship at BizStream over a permanent, salaried position because I saw it as a great opportunity to continue to learn very quickly. BizStream has a history of turning people from unconventional backgrounds into successful developers, so I knew I would be surrounded by people who understand my position and would help me through the beginning stages of my career. 

Andre at BizStreamAndre at BizStream

The Rewards of My Decision

Less than one year after I made the decision to switch careers, I find myself pretty close to the best-case scenario I could have hoped for. Through Grand Circus, I gained technical skills, learning strategies, and a professional network, all of which have set me up greatly as a new developer. 

My job at BizStream gives me the personal satisfaction and novelty I was looking for when I first started learning to code. Being on the product team means I get to work on software BizStream has been continuously improving for their customers over the past 18 years. I feel like I am taking part in providing our users with the custom software they need, so they can spend less time wrestling with their software and more time on the important aspects of their jobs. 

BizStream is an excellent place for a junior developer looking to learn quickly. I spend the vast majority of my time writing, reading, and debugging code. I sit between two senior developers who are eager (or at least seem eager) to help with all my questions. I am also learning and using a wide range of technologies and practices. On any given day, I will provide support to our customers, improve an existing feature, or write a new feature using many different languages and tools.

I am incredibly happy with my decision to become a developer. I am very fortunate to have had such a good experience at Grand Circus and to have a job at a place like BizStream, where I am encouraged to challenge myself and follow my interests. What are some decisions you have made, or are you thinking about making that have a big upside with a relatively little downside?
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Photo of the author, Andre Otte

About the author

Andre took a roundabout way to web development. Before BizStream, he worked as an ecologist at a land trust for several years. He realized the power of software after using a program developed specifically for land trusts to organize data. This eventually led Andre to Grand Circus, a coding bootcamp in Grand Rapids. He enjoys coding because it “pushes a button in his brain that makes him feel awesome.” Andre loves running and hiking with his wife, Kimby, and their dog, Cow. He is a mediocre cook and gardener, aspiring to be slightly above average at both.

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