My Career Switch from Environmental Scientist to Software Engineer

December 21, 2022

Photo split between nature and Macbook Pro

This is the story of my journey, from the environmental field to the tech industry, a career change almost 5 years in the making.

In the spring of 2016, I graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz with a Bachelors of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which I fast-tracked in 3 years, and immediately plunged into field work in the environmental science field. Towards the end of 2016, while working as a seasonal research associate, I knew something wasn't quite right. I was passionate about the subject matter of what I was working on, but I quickly realized the career potential in this field was like trying to grow a redwood tree in the desert. I began the search for something else, reading broadly. Before I even entered college, I was set on a degree in Ecology and career path as a field environmental scientist. When I began reading, I no longer had any contraints. I lost track of how much I read that winter, but the three resources that had the most impact were Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, 80,000 hours, and Strengths Finder by Tom Rath. With Designing Your Life, my mental framework shifted. I was going to take a more exploratory approach based on actually trying things out. With 80,0000 hours, I had a better mental model of how to think about career potential. Finally, with Strengths Finder, I pared myself down to some of the most basic traits, and critically analyzed my strengths to match them against potential paths. Two of the most notable paths that I set my sights on were tech and healthcare. I chose to experiment with tech first and at the end of 2016, I explored the realm of Data Science since it seemed like a natural pivot with my background in science. I had taken a Gradute level course on Quantitative Ecology using R at UCSC, so I learned introductory Data Science with R and continued with SQL into the summer of 2017.

But after a bicycle accident, life stopped all momemtum. I left my field research associate lead job in Oregon to heal back at home in Southern California. The accident gave me a lot of time, too much time, to reflect on how I got to point of a career change. At the time, it was one of the darkest periods of my life in the winter of 2017. Being punched with the reality of our fragile bodies and receiving medical care during this time, it felt natural to get back to my original strategy of testing out healthcare next, since I had already sampled tech. Given my background in Biology, I explored the path of Physician Assistant. A common stepping stone to enrolling in a University for Physician Assistant training was to accumulate direct patient care experience as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). I enrolled in an intense Accelerated 5-week course with West Coast EMT, succesfully made it past the weeding-out, and passed the exam to receive my certification with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. After obtaining my EMT certification and going out on a few calls, I felt that I was fully immersed in the healthcare industry.

However, at the start of 2018, shortly after receving my EMT certification and while still looking for an EMT company to join, I received a call for an opportunity in the environmental field with a healthcare agency in the Bay Area. This sounded like a perfect fit with my background in environmental science and recent upskilling in the medical field. As a full-time Environmental Scientist in the Bay Area, I was able achieve the growth I craved early in my career. And I was building on my strengths that I had gained more clarity on. Skills like effectively communicating with a diverse audience, analyzing data, learning new material constantly, and solving problems. From the beginning of 2018 to the middle of 2019, I was content... until a familiar tree and desert analogy became apparent, the lack of career potential. Execpt this time, I was not so much limited by openings in the career ladder, but instead I could see that I had done everything there was to do, and the rest of my career down this track would consist of doing the same things over and over again. And I there was something missing that I enjoyed from my experimentation with tech through Data Science: building.

Therefore, at the end of 2019, I embarked on my self-taught journey to find my way into tech. For two years, while working my day job as an Environmental Scientist, I burned the candle on both ends learning software engineering, building web development projects, and interviewing with recruiters. I'll write a blog post that dives deeper into this time period and what I actually did to learn. But for now, know that it was two long years of hard work, and many times around 1:00 a.m., my doubts about a successful career switch would start to creep in, "Is everything for naught?", "Am I just wasting my time?". And nothing thus far had tested my grit and determination like this. One interview after another, rejection after rejection, self-evaulation after self-evaluation. I had to remain stoically enthusiastic during interviews and adopt the growth mindset that the rejection was an opportunity for evaluation on what to do better the next time around. This part of the journey alone changed me in so many ways. But I was happy to put in the work because I finally found a promising career path where I could still enjoy the work itself.

Then, life dealt me and my family the hardest blow towards the end of 2021, one I couldn't even fathom for another 20 years. My father unexpectedly passed away. My entire world collapsed. During the grieving and scrambling to piece my family's life back together, nothing else was more important. Everything else grinded to a halt.

When I gained some modicum of reorientation, I checked my LinkedIn inbox. Nothing I haven't seen before. Recruiters reaching out to schedule phone screens. And at this point, I had gone through so many, I knew exactly how they would all go: "no industry experience", "better luck next time", "(ghost)". But I responded to them all and went through the process with a public smile anyway. On October 21st, I received a typical recruiter email. I thought it was AI-generated so I replied with 01110100 01101000 01100001 01101110 01101011 01110011 at the end, which is binary code for "thanks", just to see if I got some automated response. But it was a real person. And things gained serious steam quickly. Interview with hiring manager, then interview with software engineer, then interview with vice president of engineering. This was the dream I set out to achieve, a full-time position as a Full-Stack Software Engineer, and at a large company.

I'll never forget that one fateful call back from the recruiter on November 9th, 2021. I finally heard the words, "Congrats! We'd like to offer you this role." As I looked out my window into the ocean from my apartment in San Francisco, everything felt surreal. Two years of intense grinding. Five years of constant searching. Disastrous life-changing event after devastating life-changing event. Everything I had gone through and life turned a new chapter. December 22nd, 2021 was my first day as a full-time Full-Stack Software Engineer at PowerSchool. December 22nd, 2021 was my first day as a professional software engineer. Now one year later, I'm performing at a high level and I couldn't be happier with my career.

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Written by Jacob Grisham. I'm a software engineer based in San Francisco. I write posts to help solve your software engineering problems and to share lessons learned in implementation, with a focus on AWS Serverless, AWS CDK, and React. You can find me on LinkedIn.

© 2023 Jacob Grisham