Switching Careers – A Pragmatic Guide (Or “How I Left A Four-Year Career In Finance And Became A Software Engineer In Five Months”)


Gulnara currently works at Jibe as a software engineer. She attended Hackbright Academy in the spring of 2013. Prior to Hackbright, she spent four years working at a bank on the commercial credit side. She is actively growing the Washington DC Nightowls group, the District’s after hours co-working community of self-starters turning big ideas into exciting projects. Gulnara Mirzakarimova
Jibe Software Engineer & Hackbright Graduate
Gulnara was an Engineering Fellow at Hackbright Academy, and prior to that, she was working in a bank in Washington DC. Gulnara also leads the DC Nightowls group, the District’s after hours co-working community of self-starters turning big ideas into exciting projects. This is her story of a career pivot from finance to engineering.

By Gulnara Mirzakarimova (Hackbright Academy – spring 2013 class)

(Disclaimer: I am not urging everyone to become a programmer; so, keep your pitchforks to yourself. I merely use my experience as an example of achieving a set goal)

Step 1: Figure out what you want by trying different things.

Most of us are scared of drastic career changes. I didn’t let that fear stop me only because I was a miserable, self-loathing, unhappy human being. I knew I needed a way out but I didn’t know what is that I wanted to do.

So, I started trying things. It went from feeble attempts in journalism where I interviewed startup founders, mentors and investors from Washington, DC area and posting those video interviews online to co-organizing co-working events around town with DC Nightowls. That’s when my sleeping hours declined to about three to four hours a day. Granted, it was not healthy but I was getting close to finding out what is that I like.

By being in the heart of a startup ecosystem, I saw possibilities for myself. I learned more about new technologies, how businesses are run, and skills that are needed. I started taking programming classes online. I spent about four months coding after work and on weekends. Once I realized that I enjoy staring at hundreds lines of code trying to figure out where the bug is, I had to come up with a plan on how to leave finance behind and dive into software engineering.

Step 2: Come up with a plan.

I believe that switching careers should be treated as a startup. You need some funding to stay afloat, you need milestones to measure your progress and most importantly you need a solution to a problem you are solving. For me, the solution was to attend Hackbright Academy in San Francisco for 10 weeks, where I would learn principles of computer science and necessary programming skills.

Now about funding. I was pretty sure that if I work my ass off, I would get a job within two to four months; so, I needed money to survive for about eight months. I also needed to cut all possible expenses and find where to live while in San Francisco. The milestones were primarily related to the skills I was about to learn.

Step 3: Execute.

I applied to Hackbright in the beginning of February. In two weeks, I was accepted and then I had only two weeks to arrange everything and move to San Francisco. This is when I submitted my letter of resignation (one of the happiest days of my life). But right before I quit, I took out a loan; so, funding was secured along with extra motivation to make this career switch successful.

As of cutting expenses, I terminated all unnecessary subscriptions, canceled my apt lease, sold my car and all the furniture. By pure miracle, my sister found a friend of a friend who let me stay at his place with his daughter for as long as needed for free. It was still pretty far from where my school was, but I took it. I stayed there for a month. Then moved closer, by renting an apt in Nob Hill with a great guy who became a great friend of mine. The last few weeks I spent on a couch of one of my classmates.

At Hackbright, I studied hard. I also pretty much lived there, since I slept only four to five hours a day. For my final project, I wrote my own programing language, you can read about it here. After the Hackbright career day, I had more than 20 companies interested in me but I had to say no and come back to DC where my husband was bootstrapping his startup (yes, I also got married right after I quit my job).

DC is not San Francisco, and honestly there is no other place like San Francisco (in the sense of a job market for developers). My classmates at Hackbright have starting salaries of about $90k and none of us have degrees in computer science or prior experience. The biggest problem I faced in DC was that I had to prove that I am worth hiring.

Back in California, Hackbright did that job for me. Doors were open and I just had to stay in San Francisco, but here in DC I had to fight. I tried freelancing first, it was a bad idea. I will write a post on that later. Eventually, I got a part-time job with Jibe as a software engineer. It was great way for me to see what Jibe is about and for them to see what I am capable of.

Five weeks later and I am a full-time software engineer. My salary is still higher than the one I left in my previous career after working there for four years. I work with an amazing team of smart and bright people. I wear jeans and t-shirts, because I want to. I walk to work and it takes me only 10 minutes. I sleep about 9 hours a day. I learn tons and I contribute a lot. I am happier.

All in all, a five month turnaround for a career switch, not bad I think 🙂

This post was originally posted at Gulnara’s blog.

September 03, 2020
Learn Software Engineering Remotely with Hackbright
September 01, 2020
Mathilde from Smartcar Skills Up with Hackbright
August 27, 2020
Hackbright Academy's Software Engineering Course
August 12, 2020
Interview with Hackbright's Program Director, Ashley Trinh