• TG Marketing Team

How to transition to a tech career

Authored by: Shawn Petros, Solutions Architect

About 20 years ago, in my youth, I was really into technology. I had assembled and disassembled just about anything I could, and “programmed” on everything from a Commodore64 to a Ti-83 calculator and a few things in between. As a reference, none of the computers I toyed with could hold a candle to the smartphone in your pocket today.

I was a teenager, and it was a really different world. The internet was still a thing you “dialed” into, and when you were “online,” no one could call you. Our music came from Napster (after an hour or so) or Kazaa or a low tech thing called a radio…

The web pages that you went to were mostly text because pictures took forever to download. I mean, just look at the California DMV homepage! The internet was really different back then.

I still remember the Final Fantasy fanfiction page I had. A buddy of mine suggested I rewrite it in PHP due to repeated header/footer code. PHP. That language haunts me still. It was probably 2001 when my buddy handed me a floppy disk — yes, a 3.25" floppy disk, the one that looks like a save button — with my website completely rewritten in PHP.

Looking back now it was actually pretty dull. He just replaced the duplicate code across the pages — headers and footers — with PHP includes. Basically, this:

<? php include('./header.php'); ?><body>

<div class="main">
<h1>Hi! Welcome to my site!</h1>
<? php include('./footer.php'); ?>

I visited bulletin boards and chat rooms and experienced the fall of Napster. I joined MySpace and customized my homepage with inline HTML/CSS. Back then everyone who “dabbled” called themselves “graphic designers” and wanted to “make webpages” for a living, before it really seemed like a thing. Though I sort of understood HTML and CSS, when it got to more complicated things like PHP, and to an extent JavaScript, I didn’t feel smart enough. It was at this time that my doubts convinced me not to study computer science — which I really wanted to pursue — no matter how much I loved messing with the old Commodore64 that my uncle gave me. No matter how cool it was to write a basic loop to say “hello” till the computer ran out of memory:

10 PRINT "Hello, Shawn!"
20 CLS
30 GOTO 10

So, business administration it was! I tried to work my way through my first few years at California State University, Northridge, from stocking shelves at WalMart, making pretzels, or selling TVs at Sears. I ran into yet another big problem, rooted in my own insecurities — I was really unprepared for advanced math! After a couple of attempts at Calculus for Business, I decided I probably wasn’t going to be very good at that either. At the time, I was quickly running out of the patience, money, and grades to keep going to school, so I did what anyone from a military family would…I enlisted in the Air Force. And when I got out of the Air Force I found myself right back where I started, trying to figure out what to do next.

After a few years of trying everything from office work to washing dishes to changing oil, a bit of luck found me. A small company needed a Systems Administrator and I figured there was no harm in applying. The interview went well and I got the job because he said he saw some raw talent in me and he wanted to help me refine it. I worked in a support capacity, managing servers, desktop computing, application distribution, and computer networking.

My big break came with a grant from the Veterans Benefit Administration which allowed me to attend UW-Milwaukee. In the IT Management degree program there, I loaded up on classes with real-world application. I focused on my passion and my talent for programming. I still remember the rush of endorphins I felt from compiling that first binary, or the enjoyment of playing this dumb game against my computer while debugging, and the satisfaction of having built something. It was like adult LEGOs. I realized how much I love making things.

My second big break came in finding a mentor through UW-Milwaukee’s multi-cultural mentorship program. He helped me grow, and opened the door to a great opportunity at Northwestern Mutual – an entry-level programmer job. I was hired for my:

  • Attitude: I have a deep interest in learning, and not just about IT. I was interested in the business and technical aspects of the financial services industry, too.

  • Experience: I showed I’m a problem-solver who takes initiative.

  • Interpersonal skills: I’m personable, I’m service-oriented, I’m able to talk to people.

The dominoes tumbled as they do and VB turned into C# which turned into JavaScript and I found myself right back in building for the web, only now we don’t call it graphic design. Since then, I’ve learned to deploy fault-tolerant and highly available cloud applications, build web apps in NodeJS, React front ends with Redux state, containerize apps with Docker, build machine images for the cloud using Packer or Ansible then deploy to infrastructure built with Terraform.

Some days I find myself wanting to go back to my 16-year-old self and do it over again. To tell my younger self that I am smart enough, that I am capable enough. I have found that your insecurities will always try to keep you in your comfort zone, and if you’re comfortable, you’re not growing.

If computer programming is your passion, the only wrong step you can take is not going for it. Here are some things I’d suggest doing to help yourself make the transition:

  • Spend time networking – think of it like sowing seeds that will eventually grow and pay off for you. Try meetups like Code + Brews, and Milky Way Tech Hub Meetup. During the public health crisis, many of these are still happening online.

  • Focus on developing the bullet points companies are looking for. Take online courses (some are even free).

  • If you have a degree, go back to your school’s careers department to see what resources are available to you.

  • Seek out a mentor.

Today there is so much information available. I hope anyone struggling with their insecurities is able to push them aside and absorb from the vast world of information. Read, buy a soldering iron, build a quadcopter, make a webpage, follow a tutorial, read some more, ask questions, and major in engineering anyway, even if you need a math tutor.

Computer programming allowed me to set myself up for success and make a good life for me and my family. If you have a passion for it, believe in yourself. The world is truly your oyster, don’t let it take you 16 years to extract your pearl…

Shawn Petros is a senior software engineer who is passionate about people and tech - in that order. Petros was formerly a police officer in the United States Air Force who later found himself in IT. Shawn enjoys diving into JavaScript, React, AWS, Docker, Kubernetes, and React Native, and leading teams in an agile way. Shawn has worked at Northwestern Mutual, GMR Marketing, and now is Solutions Architect at TESCHGlobal. He holds a bachelor’s degree in IT Management from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.