Do I need to be a coder to work in tech?

Most people outside the world of tech have a lot of misconceptions about what “people in tech” actually do on a daily basis. I know I did.

I thought you had to be a math genius, a computer whiz or otherwise some kind of a prodigy. And, while folks like this do exist in tech and most other industries, they are rare. They tend to be the outliers, the 10xers, so to speak. Also, a great majority of those in tech never program at all. Not that they have never programmed, mind you, but that they don’t program in the course of their daily job duties. This is an important fact to know about. And also a fact I wish I’d know far, far earlier.

Personally, my journey into tech was extremely unconventional and was a destination I more or less stumbled on almost by accident. In searching for a means of bettering my situation as an expat in an area of the world with very, very few opportunities, the world of tech eventually boiled up to the top of realistic opportunities. Before finding tech, I tried a lot of different things up to and including officiating weddings in rural Japan, starting my own English school, selling on Amazon, and diving into affiliate marketing. I even tried my hand at crypto trading and various crypto products but was soon “scammed straight”, so to speak. After all these various attempts, some successful and some not so much, I realized that what I had really been doing was essentially chasing the low hanging fruit in terms of making a living. If I really wanted to succeed in getting away from teaching kids the alphabet (ESL in Japan) for the rest of my life, I would need to invest in learning a skill most other people either wouldn’t or believed they couldn’t. I realized it was the only way to separate myself from the herd and stand out as someone worth taking the time to talk to.

In the end, I landed on programming. And I fell in love with the beautiful blend of extremely rigid logic and open ended creativity it offered. Yes, it was extremely intimidating and time consuming to learn. There were times I believed I couldn’t do it. The only other time I remember feeling so consistently dumb and frustrated was when I was learning Japanese. Both pursuits brought on the sensation of what could be called “mental weightlifting”. They took incredible amounts of effort and resulted in equal amounts of mental exhaustion. But the perseverance paid off. And, just as learning Japanese had allowed me to succeed in my own brick and mortar business in Japan, learning to program landed me a job in the industry (and I was free from ESL in Japan!).

Interestingly, my path to my first paid role as a programmer was heavily influenced by my background in education. I began as a student in an online programming course the instructor of which, although a brilliant programmer, did not have the same level of experience as a teacher. And teaching is most definitely a craft unto itself. Anyone who would tell you different doesn’t know what they are talking about. It takes a very sensitive level of understanding to match a student’s needs in order to ensure their steady progress. You have to have the right touch and you have to care. 10+ years of experience teaching all ages and experience levels forced me to develop this touch. But I was completely lacking in the hard skills required for programming. So, I reached out and offered my time and experience as a teacher to help my programming instructor fine tune his course to match the needs of his students to the material in the course.

This led to an internship which led to a job. So there I was, a true tech head. And here is what I learned: programming is an amazing art but it is quite solitary. The majority of it involves either fixing bugs or adding features (and then fixing the bugs created by the new features). It is extremely interesting on a purely mechanical level and can do wonders for developing your problem solving abilities and general sense of logic. But for me, I had a desire to not only implement my knowledge, but to share it. My decade plus of helping people solve problems had instilled in me a strong sense to continue doing so. I still had a strong desire to work with people. And it turns out there is plenty of room in the world of tech for people like me; people with a blend of soft and hard skills that know how to communicate and care about who they are talking to.

Regardless of what industry you are either currently in or looking to get into, there will almost always be a need to be able to talk with people in order to affect change. While programming is, for most, an extremely challenging craft to gain any proficiency in, it is very much worth it. It is a barrier to entry that takes solid effort that cannot be faked. And that, in a professional sense, is always something worth pursuing in my humble opinion. Hard skills of any kind will always make you valuable to somebody. However, you do not have to limit yourself purely to a field that focuses 100% on whatever that hard skill is. Personally, I have found it much more rewarding to leverage my understanding of a given hard skill as a tool to help me affect change on a level that visibly benefits others. Sometimes that may mean sitting down and writing code, other times it may mean helping someone debug an application or chase down some obscure error in a build log. Other times it may mean simply having a conversation with a client to see where you can be helpful and what service or product you represent may be best for them.

In the end, whatever endeavor you take on will invariably be, at some point, directly involved with our fellow human beings. And, during my long and strange journey as an ex-pat ever searching for a better way of life, focusing on how to benefit people with your skills and understanding has consistently proven to be very, very rewarding. And so I think it should be the main motivation behind whatever you do on a professional level. It is my belief that, if you are truly focused on being valuable through being a positive force in the lives of others in your work, the titles, the money and the satisfaction will naturally follow.


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