Thinking about going back to school

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TizjX
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Thinking about going back to school

Postby TizjX » Wed Jun 11, 2014 6:46 am UTC

So. I don't really know what part of the forum something like this should go in, but this seems most appropriate. A lot of times I'll wonder weird things or be confused by something and I noticed that Google sends me here a lot. I've seen you guys answer questions before and a lot of you seem like smart people, so I figured I'd ask you.

I'm 26, and I drive truck for a living (like, 18 wheelers). The pay is reasonable and I make an alright living. Nothing glamorous, but I can pay my mortgage, afford insurance, save for retirement, etc. I don't hate it, and I wouldn't necessarily have a problem with doing this for my career (I've already been at it five years), but I don't find it particularly stimulating or fulfilling. It's literally just a job to me.

What does interest me is writing code. I've gotten into it over the last year or so in my (admittedly limited) free time, and I enjoy it. I like solving problems and making things. I've written a few programs I use, like one that takes all of my RSS feeds and sends them through text to speech so I can listen to the news or blogs or whatever while I drive, kind of like books on tape. I know I'm not very good at it right now, but I'm proud of the few things I've made. I'd like to get better at it, but for that I'd have to go back to school.

And there's the problem. My biggest problem is that I never did anything beyond high school, I never went to college, nor do I know anybody who did. So I have no idea what "the deal" is with college. Like, what's the difference between college and university? Where are good places to go? How exactly does one go about doing that (like, where and how to apply, whether they're give me my classes or if I have to pick them myself, if that's the case, what classes, specifically to pick, etc.)? There's also no colleges in my town, so I'd have to move. The whole thing seems pretty insurmountable looking at it from the outside with no experience, which is mostly why I decided not to even try when I graduated high school. There's also the problem of whether I go to the right school. I know some schools are scams outright, and I've gathered from various forums I sometimes read that there's some nebulous hierarchy of schools, but it's not really a Google-able question.

And even then, assuming I figure all that out, overnight, and start school tomorrow, I wouldn't be done until I was thirty. So I don't know what I would be looking at for career prospects. Whether it would be a mark against me that I was older than most people with a similar skill set, or if I'd have to work in the field for ten years before I started earning a livable wage, or a bunch of stuff. There's also the problem that I don't know any companies that I could conceivably work at. I got my first computer from a cousin when I was about twenty, and it had Linux on it, so that's what I used. Before that I had never actually used a computer before, and I think I've played video games a total of four or five hours in my life. So I know that somebody has to write the software I use, but since everything I use is either free open-source stuff or business software at work I don't actually know much about what companies actually pay people to make these things.

And, I suppose, my biggest fear, the dreaded Dunning-Kruger effect. I can't really know if I actually have any talent for this, so I don't know in advance if trying to get into it would essentially lead to failure, bankruptcy and embarrassment. And that's the big thing. Not knowing if any of this is any more feasible of a dream than fantasizing about becoming an astronaut.

I think some of the things in the generally positive column are:
•I enjoy coding
•I want to learn more about it and how to ensure I'm writing efficient code
•I enjoy learning in general
•I pick up new skills quickly
•I think a career in the field could be rewarding, personally.
•I don't have a wife or kids or anything, so if I fail I'm only wrecking my life

Some things that make me wary:
•I don't have the slightest clue about higher education, beyond what I've picked up from TV and movies, and am unsure of where to find accurate information
•I don't really have anything like a support network available to me
•I don't know the ins and outs of the industry
•I would be extremely late to the game with no formal experience in the field
•I am not good in social environments (this is the first things I've posted in over a year, I don't even comment on websites), and I don't know how much being social is necessary for navigating college, I'm generally fine working with people but I have a fairly hard rule that I don't say anything that doesn't absolutely need to be said, so I'm not very chatty.
•I might be giving up my current stable, comfortable lifestyle to pursue a pipe dream
•I might just be an idiot. Idiots never seem to know that they're idiots.

So. Any general advice or tips? Anything that could be of use? I don't think I can figure this out on my own.

Newt
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Re: Thinking about going back to school

Postby Newt » Wed Jun 11, 2014 7:53 pm UTC

like solving problems and making things. I've written a few programs I use, like one that takes all of my RSS feeds and sends them through text to speech so I can listen to the news or blogs or whatever while I drive, kind of like books on tape

That's pretty cool.

TizjX wrote:
And, I suppose, my biggest fear, the dreaded Dunning-Kruger effect. I can't really know if I actually have any talent for this, so I don't know in advance if trying to get into it would essentially lead to failure, bankruptcy and embarrassment. And that's the big thing. Not knowing if any of this is any more feasible of a dream than fantasizing about becoming an astronaut.


If you want a frame of reference, you can read open-source project code bases to get some idea what production code looks like (in the case of really popular libraries, this may be substantially better than average production code); you can also practice on sites like Topcoder get some basis for comparison (don't worry if you seriously underperform at first, or that you don't seem to be approaching top performers; most people employed in a programming capacity are not that quick).

Whether it would be a mark against me that I was older than most people with a similar skill set, or if I'd have to work in the field for ten years before I started earning a livable wage, or a bunch of stuff.

I've seen many people transition into engineering who were older than 30; it's not trivial, but it's doable. I can't project what the market will look like in a few years, but I'm seeing starting salaries in the ~100k range around here (although there is substantial variance) for people entering their first full time engineering positions.

•I am not good in social environments (this is the first things I've posted in over a year, I don't even comment on websites), and I don't know how much being social is necessary for navigating college, I'm generally fine working with people but I have a fairly hard rule that I don't say anything that doesn't absolutely need to be said, so I'm not very chatty.

Software Engineers are not known for their sociability, but networking is important to getting a job (although I personally did not network into my job); it will be substantially more important if you are coming from an unconventional background.

I can't give much advice re: traditional colleges/Universities; I don't know what state you live in, but x state university or university of state are usually reputable. Here in California, lots of people did their first two years at community college to keep costs down and then transferred in to the larger state universities.

Possible alternatives to traditional colleges:

-Coding Bootcamps (eg Hack Reactor); these short term programs tend to get you familiar with commonly used industry development frameworks and the software industry in general, and are meant for people (who usually have bachelor degrees in fields that are unrelated to software engineering) trying to change careers. They have a reasonable success rate of getting students into junior developer positions (although you should make sure you find a reputable one); their tuition is comparable to a semester at college, but the major cost is living in the cities they are based in (as they require you relocate). It may also be quite hard to get in.
-People sometimes work their way into tech without a BA; however, this will require applying for jobs outside of the standard resume/online application format(although you're well advised to avoid doing that, even if you had a college degree). This is also substantially harder to do if you are not located near a tech hub, as many of the ways to build rep, like going to hackathons, aren't doable. If you can't relocate, you can try freelancing through sites like Elance/Odesk for entry level tasks on up, but I haven't tried this; you might also get noticed if you have a high Topcoder rank, actively contribute to an open source project, or have some cool project that somehow gets some press (don't have any advice on how to do this). If you are confident that you can produce something valuable, you might look for small startups at angel.co and see if you can do some volunteer work remotely, and that might turn into something.

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Re: Thinking about going back to school

Postby Bakemaster » Sun Aug 17, 2014 10:26 pm UTC

Late to the party; maybe OP is still reading.
Newt wrote:I've seen many people transition into engineering who were older than 30; it's not trivial, but it's doable. I can't project what the market will look like in a few years, but I'm seeing starting salaries in the ~100k range around here (although there is substantial variance) for people entering their first full time engineering positions.

I'm turning 30 in a few months, finished my BS in December with bells and whistles, and was just offered my first full-time career engineering position. Yeah, it's doable. Yeah, it's not trivial.

Don't expect to start at anything like $100k out of college. Except in certain parts of the country and in certain specialized fields, that's just not going to happen. And those areas have very high cost of living, so the numbers are deceptive. The hype about software engineering degrees is almost as bad as the hype about pro sports. The expectation and the reality do not line up. So when you're figuring out what you can afford, I recommend making the following conservative assumptions:

- It's going to take you 5 years of full-time study to graduate.
- It's going to take you 1 year after graduating to get hired in your field.
- If you do reasonably well in an engineering or computer science program, expect to start at $40k in an area with very low cost of living or $60k in an area with very high cost of living. The reality is that there are many things you can do to increase this number, but there are no guarantees so it's best to plan for less.

It's great that you're coming at this from a perspective of wanting a more stimulating career, and that you have the work experience to know what your alternative is from the start. I think in many ways it's also an advantage that you don't know what to expect out of college. Expectations can get people into trouble. Case in point - the expectation of making $100k the moment they take off their caps and gowns has led many academically capable individuals into financial hell.

TizjX wrote:There's also the problem of whether I go to the right school. I know some schools are scams outright, and I've gathered from various forums I sometimes read that there's some nebulous hierarchy of schools, but it's not really a Google-able question.

Here's another area where people trip themselves up with expectations. I wrote a post some time ago about how to choose which schools to apply to (it's stickied in this forum) but it doesn't really say anything about which schools are good or bad. You know why? Because it's not that simple. I've attended public, private, and community college. I've worked at several private schools, including one Ivy. And my advice is, ignore the hierarchy bullshit. Focus on specific things that schools have to offer you -- like financial aid. Facilities and equipment. Career fairs and internship opportunities. Clubs and extracurricular competitions. Accessibility of faculty and staff advisers. Graduation rate and job placement rate (be VERY SUSPICIOUS of bare statistics). Modern curriculum and flexibility to dual major, design your own major, etc. if you want.

The last thing to think about is all that rating crap. It's not irrelevant but it's blown way out of proportion, not to mention it's geared at graduating high school seniors and what they want. Or what they can be convinced they want. Nobody ever credited 18 and 19 year-olds with an overabundance of critical thinking. Treat US News & Review and all the other publishers of rankings and ratings like what they are: Self-indulgent marketing machines.

As far as "bad" schools, here's my simplified advice for you:
  • Given your inexperience and lack of safety net, under no circumstances should you consider attending any school other than one that is both accredited and not-for-profit. For-profit and non-accredited schools aren't always completely worthless but they are not to be trusted and you don't have the means to navigate those waters.
  • Don't go to any school that doesn't offer financial aid. End of story.
  • Don't go to any school that can't answer (or tries to avoid answering) your questions about that school.
  • Don't go to a public school where you have to pay non-resident tuition -- except a community college, if the cost is still low and you have a clear path to transfer after two years to a four-year school.
  • Don't pay to go to a private school in an area that doesn't have many jobs in your field. One of the primary strengths of a good private school is networking and industry connections. (I'm talking specifically about STEM fields here; liberal arts is a different beast entirely.)
TizjX wrote:I wouldn't be done until I was thirty. So I don't know what I would be looking at for career prospects. Whether it would be a mark against me that I was older than most people with a similar skill set, or if I'd have to work in the field for ten years before I started earning a livable wage, or a bunch of stuff.

It's not that big of a deal to be a bit older when you graduate. You'll have the advantage of being able to show that you held a steady job for five years before you returned to school. That means a lot. Employers can be more confident that you're not going to just sit at your desk and play on a smart phone for 8 hours than they can be about some shiny new 22 year-old who's never been in the workforce before.

The 30-something graduates who have the most problems are the ones who were in school for 7, 8, 9 years just to get their Bachelor's degree. That raises warning flags. You're just going to bring different strengths to the table. Better to have different strengths than none (and some of these younger graduates have real difficulty communicating any of their strengths on a resume or in an interview).

As for your biggest fear, of being an idiot and not knowing it? Idiots don't generally ask themselves that question. It's clear from the way you communicate in writing that you're far from an idiot. As an older student, especially with a modest background, self-confidence is going to be one of your biggest challenges. If you do choose to go to school to earn a BS, at first it will feel like a sprint; but after a while you will come to realize it's a marathon. It's exhausting to be surrounded by teenagers and not identify with anybody. A support network is super important. Many schools have organizations geared specifically at older students, especially veterans and first-generation students (whose parents never went to college). That's where you build your support network.

Man, I am talking a lot, and you might not even be lurking any more. I want to give you encouragement that college is not just a pipe dream. But I don't want to give the impression that it's your only path or even your best path. Honestly? It's going to take you more than four years. That's an expectation you'll need to let go of. It's not at all impossible to graduate quickly, especially since you don't have family to deal with. But a lot can happen in four years. You need to add time for the application cycle. You may need to add time for important internships or co-op experiences.

It's hard to get a job writing code without a degree. But how hard is it? If you're really motivated, you can learn an incredible amount online these days. If you have a little disposable income and some free time, you can rent a domain and some server space and put whatever up on the internet. You can school yourself in this field. So maybe it's so hard that it takes you four years to finally get hired to write code. Do you see where I'm going with this? Four years down the road, you might have student debt, or you might not. You might have a job writing code, or you might not.

I recommend you test the waters a little bit with a course like CS50. You can work through it as quickly or as slowly as you like. It has a subreddit and a Stack Exchange site for support. And it will give you a glimpse of what one course is like at one very good school. There are many, many other courses available on that and other sites. You could, if you wanted, get your education from some of the best classes at some of the best schools in the world without ever paying tuition. The catch is that it would be on you to prove every little bit of what you can do to a potential employer. You'd have to show hard evidence of your skills instead of just waving a transcript. Can you do that?

Take a free online course. Give it your best, honest effort. Keep asking yourself what you want and what you're willing to do. Then revisit the question of "real" (real expensive) school.
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