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My Transition from Opera Singer to Software Developer

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Brenda Jin is a developer in San Francisco. Three years ago, she was pursuing a career in opera. This article details her personal journey from music to the non-profit industry, and finally to technology.
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Today, I am a successful software developer. Three years ago, I was ready to be a professional opera singer.  Some people find the outward aspects of my transition fascinating—where I found community, how I secured jobs, and how I educated myself. But it is an internal transformation that has brought me to where I am today.

I never dreamed I would build a web or software application—not even after programming in ChucK with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra. Looking back, I loved the programming assignments so much (even going as far as to learn Processing for my final project) that I almost switched majors from Music to Computer Science.

But at the end of junior year, I decided it was too late to make up all the fundamental coursework. I was also in the heat a rebellious era, disillusioned by my experience attending an Ivy League school at the height of a recession and railing against the capitalist systems that had dominated my adolescence. A disdain for privilege and its accompanying inequities had settled in, and I shunned 9-to-5 corporate America as a gilded edifice of uncreative endeavors. Programming had faded into a haze of fleeting passions. Instead, I chose what I deemed to be a more creative path: singing.

I spent the following summer singing “Queen of the Night” in a production of The Magic Flute. It was then that I caught a piercing glimpse into an industry burdened by its own traditions – an industry dying as a form of entertainment because it did not want to change. I calculated the odds of success, and quit.

Next I embarked on a spree of jobs in non-profit fundraising. I clutched to a sense of purpose and wanted to fix the injustices of the world. But after enduring two years of labor code violations and unfair pay, an invaluable lesson sank into the depths of my psyche: sometimes the things we try to change about the world are the things we wish to change about our own lives.  For example, while the non-profit organizations I worked for sought to create equity in the outside world, they needed first and foremost to examine their own internal inequity. It is how we understand the world through the singular lens of prejudice that allows us to be sensitively affected by it. And sometimes, how we seek redress will reinforce inequities rather than fix them. Witnessing this particular irony—and suffering from it—I came to re-examine my relationship with value and reconsider my renunciation of corporate America.

At the time I left the non-profit sector, I never dreamed I would ever make a six-figure salary. When a developer friend casually mentioned his salary to me, I was shocked. I was not only surprised to discover that I knew many people accustomed to that amount of money, I was deeply surprised to find I could not envision myself in a similar position.

As I sat with the shock of my own internalized prejudices, it dawned on me I would never find a satisfying career unless I could imagine myself in one. Confronting and overturning internalized doubts was one of the most revolutionary mental processes of my career transition.

At around the same time, I started to realize that money was symbolic to me. Money was not just the driving force of a capitalist system ruling the world. It could also act as an internal currency system for value. It is one way to measure my own contributions to the world. My disdain for privilege had prevented me from recognizing that my own talents and gifts have monetary value. The day I accepted this was my first day of economic freedom.

I realized I had been holding myself back. I had prematurely dismissed the idea that money, meaningful work, and happiness could be unconflictingly aligned. I had chosen an industry where the reward for excellent performance was a “cause” rather than a raise, a promotion, or even recognition. I had even failed to recognize my own talent at programming because my mental image of “what a developer looked like” did not resemble me. And when I finally faced these facts, I knew I needed to work harder at envisioning a successful future.

And so, the post-graduation rebellious era replaced itself with an inner awakening. I committed to changing and serving myself so that I could change and serve the world.

In January 2013 after taking Codecademy JavaScript lessons online, a friend invited me to sign up for a hackathon. I rediscovered how expressive programming could be. I remembered that ChucK and Processing had been fun. And I found an occupation I loved. I could do math and logic while being creative. I could think about architecture while building elegant experiences. I could learn and learn and learn, and when new technologies emerged, continue to learn. And I could earn a salary I had previously thought beyond my reach.

The next week, I set sail, steering a steady course towards a career in computer science and engineering.

I vigorously completed freelance web development projects during the day. At night and on weekends, I attended Girl Develop It JavaScript classes, Women Who Code study nights, and various other HTML5 and JavaScript Meetups. I met engineers from all walks of life, learned about modern web development techniques, and mopped up all the information I could find. I borrowed books and asked about best practices. I attended every conference I could afford and applied every new technique to a project.

Five months after that hackathon, I landed my first full-time job as a UI Developer at Macys.com. I am currently the lead technologist on a pilot agile team creating rapid interactive prototypes for tablet-based web experiences. I deploy several features per week for our testing schedule and manage a technology stack from server-side JavaScript in Node.js to front-end tools like Sass.

Now, I code even during my free time. I ask for what I want, and I work in an industry with competitive labor standards. I also contribute to an open-source community that is willing to evolve itself to evolve the world.

Whereas before I could not imagine a career that was technical, satisfying, and well-paid, I now expect no less for myself. Before, I struggled to picture myself in the places I wanted to be; now I push myself to envision. I am no longer satisfied with playing a part in someone else’s story, as I would on stage. Nor am I sacrificing my real needs for an abstract cause, as a minor player in the non-profit field. I am here to make my own mark on the world.

Along the way, I felt intimidated at times when someone implied that I would not be successful. I bristled when recruiters doubted my capabilities before looking at my resume or portfolio. Even when one interviewer told me innocuously that I was a “culture fit,” I was crushed because any mention of my skills was omitted. I felt disappointed when hiring companies counted years before looking at my code. Sometimes, I would attribute it to my gender, lack of formal degree, or years of experience. But then I take a deep breath and remember that the pain I feel often reflects a fragment of my own internal doubts. And I know there is more work to be done.

The path from music to programming was not without suffering, but it was also not without immense joy and transformation. I believe that if we knew in advance about the extent of suffering we will endure, we might not show up to face it. And if we knew about all the joy beyond the pain, we might not learn the lessons we need to.

Sometimes it is hard to picture myself as the person I want to become. But now I know that if I transform my outlook, I can transform my future.

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