“Being a beginner at something in your mid-thirties is alternately terrifying / humbling / awesome.” Aimee Morgan was formerly a librarian / archivist. Now she is a software engineer at Flixster in San Francisco.Aimee Morgan
Flixster Software Engineer & Hackbright Graduate
Aimee was an Engineering Fellow at Hackbright Academy, and prior to that, she was working as an archivist at Stanford University. She started learning Python on the job but it wasn’t until she heard about Hackbright that she realized a career in software engineering was within her reach.

By Aimee Morgan (Hackbright Academy – summer 2013 class)

Being a beginner at something in your mid-thirties is alternately terrifying / humbling / awesome. At the risk of cluttering up the interwebs with feelings, sometimes I want to use my blog to write about what that’s like, and other general career stuff. And today, I’m thinking about focus.

For much of my last two years as an archivist in a large research university’s institutional archives, I felt like I was just going through the motions. For the last six months or so, I felt almost entirely checked out. At many institutions (my former workplace included), the role of archivist includes an implicit performance component. Aside from the day-to-day practical responsibilities, you are expected to be a flag bearer for the importance and value of the institution and its history. I invested a lot of energy in projecting passion and enthusiasm for the history of the university where I worked: at public outreach events, while presenting to undergraduate classes, through developing exhibits, etc. It was exhausting.

And this was distressing, because for many years I cared very much about being a good archivist; the passion and enthusiasm were natural for a long time. Until they weren’t. And then I got scared that I would never feel engaged with anything again. Sure, I still enjoyed a variety of non-work interests, but for a while it seemed like having a real career – as opposed to just a job – was over for me.

When I applied for Hackbright, I was afraid that my ability to seriously focus on anything had been destroyed – by the burnout I felt at my last archivist job, but also by the nature of the work that I did. I worked in a small department and had a wide range of responsibilities; there were many periods during which it seemed I never had more than 15 minutes at a time to work on any one task. I had serious doubts about my ability to cope with a job that involved spending most of the day, every day, in front of a screen, doing work that requires extended concentration. But I was also desperate enough to take a chance and try Hackbright; I’d find out soon enough if I couldn’t do it.

So one of the most interesting things about completing Hackbright and just under two months of gainful employment as a software engineer has been the discovery that yes, I am still capable of pretty intense focus. I lose track of time at work in a way that I rarely, if ever, did while in the library. I find the problems I’m working on to be genuinely interesting, and I love that I’m learning new things every day. I can look back at my first couple of weeks on the job and be amazed at how many things I didn’t know then, but that I’ve learned since. I know I won’t be this new forever (or ever again), but for now? I’m engaged on a level that I haven’t been in years, and I’m glad.

I’ve also been thinking about focus in the context of some examination that’s been happening on Twitter and blogs of the myth that if you’re going to accomplish anything meaningful in tech, you need to start focusing on it by the time you’re a young teenager – and that if there was ever hope of you being good at programming, you would have discovered it on your own. For obvious reasons, any graduate of Hackbright is probably not going to take well to the suggestion that even college is too late to pick up programming (much less your twenties or thirties – the horror!).

Not many people know that I went through a future-programmer phase as a child. I had almost forgotten it myself until this whole career change thing came up. When I was eight, my family got a Commodore 64 (yes, I am dating myself), and I spent a fair amount of time learning BASIC* via a book that came with it. I remember writing a little Russian roulette simulator, then tricking it out so that the screen flashed if the bullet came up and you died. And then I stopped, for reasons I can’t entirely remember – I think I got frustrated trying to get a damn sprite to display and move across the screen?

So if you’ve been coding consistently since your early teens, that’s great! But some of us spent those years pursuing other interests, and that’s okay too. Yes, you could argue that my primary hobbies (writing bad poetry, being an obsessive fan of R.E.M) were not the most productive use of my adolescent years, but they’re part of what brought me to where I am today.

And of course I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d pursued a career in tech sooner – I graduated from a college with a strong CS program; I could have learned so much if I’d just taken a couple of electives. But ultimately, I will never regret my English major years, not even the semester of all literature and writing classes. And why should I? In the end, I get to have both the impractical-but-enriching humanities degree and the career in tech. It’s required (and will continue to require) a lot of work – but I seem to be pulling it off so far.

I commented on Twitter a week or so ago to the effect that I can’t imagine anything more boring than a tech industry made up of guys who’ve focused single-mindedly on programming since age 13. One of the things I really liked about the archives profession was the wide variety of paths that brought people to it. (Has any kid, anywhere, ever said “I want to be an archivist when I grow up?”) I wish that tech was more open to hearing diverse origin stories – not just for the obvious selfish reason (I want to be able to get hired), but for the less obvious selfish reason (people with different backgrounds make for a more interesting work environment, and I want my work environment to be as interesting as possible).

You’d think that a blog post titled “Focus” would end with an on-point conclusion. But in this case, you’d be wrong.

* Dijkstra said “It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.” Screw that.

This post was originally posted at Aimee Morgan’s blog.

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