Career change from nursing and fire fighting to developer

Career change from nursing and fire fighting to developer

Lee Warrick started a Computer Science degree but switched major when the class didn't actually teach him anything about making websites. He then worked as a firefighter and a nurse and didn't touch code for ten years. In this interview Lee explains how he got back into learning to code and made another big career change by getting a job as a Web Developer.

Hey, so can you give us a short introduction for people who want to know more about you?

Hey everyone! I’m a full-stack JavaScript developer living in Ocala, Florida and working for Realtruck on the front-end team. I’m a bit of a maniac when it comes to content-creation and participating in the tech community. I co-host the TechJR podcast, run a local junior developer meetup in Orlando, write a blog , and I’m even working on video tutorials. I’m also trying to break into conference speaking, and so I’ve given a few talks at local meetups and conferences.

I know that you struggled to stay motivated during your very dry CS degree. Can you tell us about that?

When I was fresh out of high school and entering college, I had it in my head that I wanted to study computer science. I had always loved computers and done a little bit of web work with HTML, so I felt it was a natural fit. I got accepted to the University of Florida and enrolled in their Computer Science program.

However, on the first day of my intro to CS class, things went off the rails. The professor showed up late and looked like he just rolled out of bed. He addressed the class like this:
A little news in the life of ****. I just found out my former best friend is sleeping with my ex-wife.” (Emphasis his)

After that bombshell, he taught us binary and hexadecimal, and gave us homework where we had to print triangles of hashtags to the screen using Java. I remember coding in notepad.exe and taking code tests with pencil and paper.

That class was excruciating for someone that was excited to learn how to write real software. We didn’t even talk about using Java’s GUI API until the very last week of the second semester.

How did you learn to code after dropping out of Computer Science and changing your major to Japanese?

I felt discouraged and incredibly stupid to have only progressed to the point of writing a Hangman game after a year of learning Java. On top of that, we weren’t learning Java in class, we all had to go home and teach ourselves. This made me think I just wasn’t cut out to be a programmer, so I quit.

I changed my major to Japanese language and didn’t code again for ten years. I worked as a firefighter, paramedic, and nurse after college and completely forgot about coding.

One slow day in the Trauma ER, I started doing python tutorials on my work computer. I missed coding a little, and every once in a while I’d find myself on freecodecamp or codecademy. My boss snuck up behind me and asked me what I was doing. I told her, and she said,
“Well, Lee, with nursing’ve got to want it.”

And at that point I realized that I didn’t want it. I was so burned out on healthcare that I was spending a lot of time reflecting on why my life ended up the way it did. I always wanted to work with computers and write when I was growing up. So that’s what I did.

Code bootcamps had become commonplace by this point so I signed up for the closest and most legitimate-looking one I could find. I put everything into that course. I put an unhealthy amount of hours into coding on my nights and weekends, and even coded on the job. I worked at a surgery center while I was in school as a recovery nurse, which meant we often had 10-15 minutes between patients while they were in a procedure. While my co-workers stared at their smartphones, I would write code in online JavaScript playgrounds like codepen and jsbin.


Did you have any specific people that inspired you to learn coding?

For me, my fellow classmates in the bootcamp were my biggest inspiration. In college, there was no collaboration between students, so it was almost like we were all taking the course in a vacuum. But the bootcamp was very different. We worked on activities in pairs and sometimes as a class. This really opened my eyes to the nature of coding.

Before the boot camp, I always pictured a programmer as someone that sat down at a computer and typed out a bug-free program without using google or any other references. I quickly learned that the reality of writing software is very different from what I imagined. In the boot camp, everyone struggled to get their code to run. We were taught to embrace search engines and reference anything to get the syntax or code we needed to accomplish a task. We were told that coding is hard, and that’s ok, because we’ll understand it eventually if we keep at it.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why I failed to become a programmer in college. Sure, my teacher was bad, but my attitude was way worse. I held myself to impossible standards and limited myself to one teacher and one textbook to learn from.

You’ve been a firefighter and a nurse. How did you persuade someone to give you a shot as a developer?

This is a great question!

I’ve met bootcamp students that are company executives, nurses, lawyers, current CS students, all the way through to the person that repairs mascot heads at Disney World. It was shocking to see all these different professions making the change to coding.

In my case, Nursing and Firefighting are highly respected fields in our society, but at the same time have almost nothing to do with coding or working on a development team. The only skills you could really apply would be “critical-thinking” and “working under pressure”. (While these are great skills to have, if you’re at work writing code and lives are at stake, something has gone incredibly wrong.)

I really struggled writing my resume and went through a lot of iterations. Anyone reading “has Japanese language degree, has done code boot camp, worked as a nurse for 3 years in critical care units” was surely confused, so I eventually dropped all of that experience and only listed my boot camp experience and code projects.

I wouldn’t lie about my previous career in interviews, and I always got positive reactions to that experience when it came up. I think the secret was that I led with my programming knowledge on all my application materials, so to the interviewers my other experience was like icing on the cake once they felt assured that I could actually code.

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I think the best thing to do is to really showcase your side projects and programming talent and drop the rest from your applications and resume. Anything that confuses the hiring manager might land your resume in the discard pile. And if you’re asked about your previous jobs, don’t lie. Once you’re in an interview it’s a lot easier to explain the reasons behind a career shift.

There’s also a lot of fear from the other side in choosing the wrong candidate. If you have a previous career there’s always a lingering question in the interviewer’s mind of “does this person like coding, or do they just want to make a programmer’s salary”.

Your job is to eliminate all doubt from the hiring manager’s mind. Like my former nursing manager said, “you’ve got to want it.” Be confident that this is the career you want, and for the right reasons. Be passionate about your side projects and your portfolio, and be interested in the work you’re applying to do. I don’t think anyone that embraces that advice will stay unemployed for long.

How has your life changed since becoming a professional programmer?

I used to dread going back on shift when I was in healthcare. I wouldn’t want to get out of bed, and I’d want to isolate myself from friends and family in my freetime. It’s hard to put a point on just how stressful it is to work in that field. Obviously there’s death and destruction to face, but also co-workers and departmental politics to deal with. Firefighters are notorious for pranks and hazing, and if you think nurses are much better, you’re wrong. A common saying in hospitals is “nurses eat their young”.

Programmers don’t have the best reputation for having a welcoming culture, but arguing over tabs and spaces or React vs Vue is nothing compared to what I had to deal with before. I’m a lot less stressed out about work, and now most of my struggles have to do with not working too much in my free time on my side projects.

Has anyone ever asked about your coding qualifications when you have been talking to clients? Do you think a CS degree is unnecessary now?

Higher education has failed miserably to properly prepare students for a career as a programmer. There’s a lot of fluff classes in a college curriculum, and it’s almost impossible for college courses to stay up to date with relevant technologies. So you end up learning calculus and how to write your own compiler in assembly language and things like that instead of how to write readable code, git, etc.

My first job was at a new consultancy and I got a lot of experience sitting in on interviews for entry-level positions. There was almost no difference in the quality of candidates coming out of bootcamps and colleges from self-taught candidates.

I’m not saying that learning algorithms and computer science fundamentals is worthless, by the way. I think those are very valuable skills to have, and the higher you go as a developer the more important they become. However, you can learn them on your own for free from a number of resources out there without ever setting foot on a college campus.


Can you tell us what an average day looks like for you just now? What are you working on and what is your lifestyle like?

Most days I wake up early and work on my passion projects for a few hours before heading to work. At work we’re building an e-commerce platform for multiple websites and companies using Vue/Nuxt, and building scalable backend infrastructure to support those sites with serverless Node microservices. It’s a very laid back and collaborative environment. Some days I listen to music while coding and others I hop on a shared IDE and pair-program with my team lead.

After work I spend time with my family or work some more on my side projects. I interview guests for my podcast, write blog posts, and organize my developer meetup instead of burying myself in video games like I used to. Programming is a very empowering skill, and sometimes it’s hard to grapple with my desire to build out all of my ideas versus the finite amount of time in a week.

Have you ever had imposter syndrome and if so, how have you dealt with it?

I feel impostor syndrome everytime I find myself learning a difficult subject. Recently I’ve been trying to wrap my head around machine learning and feeling very stupid while learning it. Before that though, serverless and AWS was giving me the same feeling, and before that, node and passportJS.

I’ve learned that everyone struggles to learn this stuff, and that we’re all on our own journey. The best thing we can do is to stop looking at the people ahead of us and instead look back at how far we’ve come.

Thanks a lot for a really interesting interview!

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About the author
Pete Codes

Pete Codes

Hey, I'm Pete and the creator of this site. I am a self-taught web developer and I'm based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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