Yes, a Chef Can Become a Software Engineer

Originally published by BuiltIn – April 27, 2021

In 2017, Joe Gallagher was pretty happy in his position as food equipment director at Oliver Packaging & Equipment Company, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based manufacturer of bakery and meal-packaging equipment. He wasn’t looking to switch careers, but, as it so happened, he did.

In dealings with the firm’s restaurant customers, Gallagher, a mechanical engineer, saw a need for more transparency and efficiencies in restaurant-equipment repairs, a $27 billion industry. Sensing that tech might address the issue, he got in touch with Daniel Estrada, a childhood friend whose background was in IT. The two created 86 Repairs, a software-driven subscription service that enables restaurateurs to keep track of repairs, as well as estimate what might break next and what repairs are needed. The two incorporated the business in 2018 and, later this year, plan to seek Series A financing.

Gallagher switched careers when he was 33 and had a family to care for. The lesson? Career changes can happen at any juncture. To be sure, the pandemic forced hundreds of thousands of people into career changes as lockdowns took their toll on restaurant workers and others who interacted closely with the public. Those people went somewhere, many to careers in tech.

Switching careers isn’t easy. Gallagher, for instance, went for a year without a salary, and had to get used to tech’s breakneck change of pace. The sacrifices paid off. Gallagher works 16-hour days, but he owns a national firm that employs 23 people and has a career that feels right. “I have the autonomy and sense of responsibility that’s right for the workaholic persona I have,” he said.

We spoke to four professionals who, like Gallagher, switched careers into tech. Read what they have to say, and use their advice to plot your next career move.

HOW TO PREPARE FOR A CAREER CHANGE

Switching jobs can be tough enough — how about a switch into an entirely new career? It’s happening for more and more people these days, as the economy is short 9.4 million jobs due to the pandemic, according to the White House. Career changers interviewed for this story offered a few tips for switching into tech: It’s not easy, so be 100 percent committed. Bootcamps are plentiful; research the right one for you. Be prepared to spend long days and nights studying, even more so if you haven’t a STEM background. Tech jobs are competitive, even as so many companies are hiring. Finally, tech is rewarding: It’s a creative field with lots of opportunities.

EMBRACE YOUR BACKGROUND

Rina Takikawa, 21, trained to be a ballet dancer since she was five years old. At age 20, she was dancing for a ballet company in Spain when she sustained a career-ending injury. That, a desire to explore life beyond ballet and a misalignment sparked her decision to start anew in tech. She had always been interested in design, and took a year-long course at CareerFoundry to hone her skills and kick-start her career as a UX designer. In February, she accepted a post as a product designer at Qathena, a restaurant-management software firm.

What was your job search like? I posted about my process on social media; I did it to keep track of my journey. I had been posting about my nontraditional background, and that’s how my employer found me. That’s something most career changers don’t realize: Your background could be the extra spice that makes you stand out.

Ballet or tech: Where are you better off? Right off the bat, I’m better off in tech. To sustain life as a dancer, you have to work multiple shifts in other jobs. That was my normal image of an income stream. When I came into tech and learned about compensation and benefits, I was like, “these things actually exist?” For 20 years of my life, that was not in my world.

What do ballet and product design have in common? It’s the experience behind the creation. There’s a lot of strategy in ballet — the science of it, the physics, working against gravity, turning out, jumping. Those things take constant iteration and experimentation. It takes a lot of thinking to implement the movement you want to show to the audience. That’s similar to how design works.

What was the toughest part of the transition? A dancer’s toolkit is our body and our artistry, not the Microsoft and Excel that other people use. So the regular transferable skills didn’t apply to me. But something clicked. You need physical and mental capacity to dance. So it was more the determination, the discipline, the passion, and the hard work that transferred.

Your advice for career changers? Embrace your background. That’s who you are.

IT’S NOT EASY

Drew Hall, 33, was executive chef at Giuseppe & Sons, a bustling Italian restaurant in Philadelphia’s center city, when the pandemic hit. In March of 2020, due to pandemic-induced shutdowns, Hall found himself working much less than he wanted. He had been mulling a career change within the foodservice industry when he talked to a friend who had had a positive experience with Tech Elevator, a tech-training bootcamp. Hall signed up for a three-month software engineering course with Tech Elevator Philadelphia, graduated in December, and in January he landed a job as a software engineer at PNC Bank in Philadelphia.

How did you switch gears from cooking to coding? I didn’t go to college after high school, and I had no idea exactly what I wanted to do. I loved cooking and was making money, so I stuck with it. It was a big change of pace to go back to learning in a school environment, using parts of my brain that I hadn’t used in quite some time. I think a lot of coding is basic logic and understanding. I’ve always had an interest in computers, and I didn’t know right away that software development was for me. But when I started looking at coding courses online, they started to interest me.

What are the crossover skills between cooking and software engineering? The management side will 100 percent transfer over. In the kitchen, I’ve worked with teams of 20, 30, 40 people, and that transfers over very well. People assume that coders are just dialed into their computers all day. That’s not true. A good portion of my day is spent interacting with people and talking to people. You need soft skills to be able to work with your team, and that definitely transferred over.

What’s the biggest benefit — and drawback — of the career change? My work-life balance. I’ve had good benefits and stuff like that my entire career but it was always very hard to take time off. Working as a software developer is totally different. At 5 p.m., they’re like, “You’re done.” That’s crazy to me because I’m so used to working 12-, 16-hour days. The drawback is I miss being a chef. I am getting some of that by working in a kitchen part time. The human interaction of that is also a benefit because I work fully remote for PNC.

What’s your advice for someone mulling a career change? It’s not easy. People hear the stories of people going through a bootcamp, and they’re like, three months, that’s nothing, and that you’ll get a job right away. Not everyone is that fortunate. School itself was very intense. I spent as long in front of the computer as I would in the kitchen. So if it’s not something that you’re 100 percent sure that you’re ready for or you can dedicate the time to, then think twice about it. Also, be prepared for rejection from companies you really want to work for, because that’s going to happen. A lot of people are jumping into the industry now, and it’s definitely competitive.

KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING YOURSELF INTO

Rachel Gonzalez, 25, has a degree in music from the University of Colorado–Denver. Out of college, she took a full-time job as a bank teller in Chicago but wasn’t happy. Friends had made the transition to tech: “I wanted to explore that myself,” Gonzalez said. Pre COVID-19, she enrolled in a few coding classes at a community college, then completed a 16-week class at Coding Dojo while working full time at the bank. She graduated in September of 2020, lost the bank job in October of 2020, and in February of 2021 began working as a software engineer at edtech firm Breakthrough Technologies.

You went to coding bootcamp and worked full time. How did you stay sane? I don’t know if I did. It was challenging to balance a full-time job and part-time bootcamp. Plus, I was playing shows and recording on the side and giving violin lessons when I could. I don’t think I slept very much. Having a rigid schedule and being intentional about blocking off time is a must.

What kind of learning curve did bootcamp present? I couldn’t have done it without the community college courses. It was a steep learning curve. Bootcamp was very specific — I learned more modern frameworks and languages like Node and React, and the MERN stack in general, that were popping up in job applications. It was a lot of independent learning. Being a musician, you have to know how to teach yourself things.

What was the job search like? It took place when I was unemployed, and it was a full-time job. Hiring was slow because of all the holidays at the end of the year. I felt like I was throwing resumes into a black hole. I’m in a network, Latinas in Tech, that has a Chicago chapter. Someone posted a job for a front-end developer, and I was able to connect with her and learn about the job. I had a couple of interviews and went through the process, and got the job.

What’s it like so far? I’m really enjoying it. It’s challenging. I’m working on a modern application using REACT and I think they will add me to another project soon. The company has nice benefits, they treat everyone well, and they’re philanthropically minded too. We’re doing a collection drive for a homeless shelter in Evanston.

What’s your advice for those looking to switch careers? Know what you’re getting yourself into and do research before jumping in. Try your best to have a bit of background knowledge, even if it’s watching a YouTube video.

NETWORK AND MAKE CONNECTIONS

Michael Cote, 38, started working in restaurant kitchens at the age of 14, and eventually became executive chef at a casino. “Being in the business for so long had me burnt out,” said Cote, citing 60-hour work weeks and little time for vacation or days off. In February of 2020, he started full-time at Coding Dojo and graduated in May of that year. Last December, he landed a job as software developer at Videonet Holdings in Seattle.

You graduated from a bootcamp without a high-school degree. What was that like? At first, going into it, after no formal schooling, was a big shock. The first two months were the hardest. I had to stay seated and study, and I’m used to running around a busy kitchen all day. JavaScript is when it started making sense and I started having fun and enjoying it. I’m a visual learner and have always been kind of artistic. As a chef, I could make specials and make plates look good. Now I can do that with websites.

How did you make ends meet while attending school? I had a little bit of savings because of my position at the restaurant. I had good credit too. I took out a $20,000 loan to go to bootcamp, and, after graduation, took out another personal loan to float me for a few months. I knew I had to stay on the job hunt full time and I was taking classes on my own.

What was the job search like? I applied to hundreds of companies and only got replies from maybe a couple of dozen, if that. I had two interviews that went very well, and got the same response from both: “You did well, but your competition did better.” Videonet was a referral from Coding Dojo. My roommate met someone at bootcamp; his company hires bootcamp graduates.

And your best piece of advice? Be prepared to go to school full time. Be ready to be out of work for a half a year, if you’re lucky. Network and make connections. That’s super important in this industry.

To learn more about Tech Elevator, visit techelevator.com

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