Forking My Life
Every mountaineer, in graduating from a novice to an adept, must master the art of routefinding. Not every path leads to the summit. Often many paths will, though each comes with its own unique challenges and experiences. Finding the best way — and best can be subjective — requires exploration, flexibility and the willingness to backtrack in order to ultimately progress.
A career is like climbing a mountain. There are infinite trails that lead to the summit of retirement, an overlapping web with many twists, turns and junctions. What to do, then, when the track you’re following loses its luster? When you start thinking back to a decision, years ago, that led you to take the right fork when now you’re more interested in the left?
I don’t want this to sound like I have any regrets. I don’t. With a rare exception, I’ve absolutely loved every job I’ve ever held. I wouldn’t change a damn thing about my career to this point, which somehow already spans 12 years since graduating college. (Don’t blink, kids.) I got to experience a real thriving daily newspaper newsroom before they were gutted throughout the 2010s. I created Jeffco Open Space’s digital marketing suite from scratch — the Panorama monthly e-newsletter was my baby, and it’s still in use today with many of the original elements. I helped “make the Colorado Mountain Club cool again” as one of its first marketing hires, rebranding the outdoor nonprofit to cater to younger demographics. When I joined in 2013 the CMC’s Trailblazers section for young adults had only a handful of active members; today a Trailblazers happy hour can fill an entire brewery.
I had the privilege of living in Durango (*swoon*) for a year as social media manager for Zuke’s dog treats, where I grew the Instagram following from 22,000 to 41,000 and immersed myself in a wonderful community of adventure dogs and their equally rad owners. In my first director-level gig as digital marketing director for Fire & Flavor grilling products, under my direction the company’s e-commerce sales exploded from $53,000 in 2017 to $270,000 in 2018. Finally, when I returned to the Colorado Mountain Club as publisher of CMC Press, I saved the struggling guidebook department from financial ruin and doubled year-over-year Q1 book sales (in the middle of a pandemic). All along the way I kept up with a freelance writing side-hustle, earning bylines in 5280 magazine, Outside and more.
None of this is meant to sound braggy — my intent was to show that I was good at what I did and mostly happy doing it. I’m choosing a new path not because I hit a dead end or found myself with a dearth of future options. I’m going a different way simply because my interests and goals have changed.
As of December 2020, I’ve resigned from CMC Press and enrolled in a software engineering bootcamp through Flatiron School. I’m beyond excited to begin the next phase of my career as a developer. After stints in the declining industries of print journalism and publishing, I struggle to put into words how refreshing it is to enter a field that’s doing the exact opposite. Tech, especially along the Front Range, has been exploding for a while now, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
This isn’t entirely out of left field for those who’ve known me a long time. I grew up as a PC gamer and partially built my own rig as a teenager. I taught myself basic HTML in middle school to create a personal website before platforms like WordPress existed. In college, I was pretty evenly torn between a major in English or Computer Science. I ended up going with English mostly because I figured out I could get a 4.0 if instructors just let me write papers all the time. Not the best decision long-term, but again, one that I wouldn’t change, even with the benefit of hindsight.
I personally know four people who have graduated from coding bootcamps in the last five years. I talked with each of them, either over lunch or text, before committing to my decision. The overwhelming takeaway? All four wished they’d done it sooner. They’re thriving in roles that they love, with endless possibilities for advancement. One went as far as calling it the best decision he’s ever made.
Flatiron School’s published and audited graduate surveys also assuaged my fears. They show a 93% job placement rate, with most new graduates getting hired within two months. I won’t lie — the average entry-level starting salary of $75,000 factored into the equation, too. That’s more than I’ve made in any role to date, including the director-level positions.
(ASIDE: The outdoor industry faces a significant challenge in coming years as the voices shouting for fair and competitive wages grow louder. But, that’s a blog post for another time. Pay your people.)
I’m now nearing the end of my second week as a Flatiron School student. The month between turning in my resignation and starting the bootcamp was admittedly full of anxiety and apprehension. Had I made the right decision, for the right reasons? I was leaving a career at which I demonstrably excelled — would I even be good at programming? As a creative writer at heart, I worried if my brain was capable of the complex math-like logic required to code.
Turns out, all that self-doubt was for nothing. By the end of the third day, I was bursting with excitement about the road ahead. The people in my cohort are inspiring and amazing. The instructors are engaging, brilliant and helpful. The structure of the program seems to fit my learning style perfectly, with teacher-led lessons on specific topics combined with self-paced study. It’s learning à la carte. Most importantly, the subject matter is even more interesting than I’d hoped. I find myself thinking and dreaming in code, and I get a surge of adrenaline whenever I open a new lab to try to solve. So far, it’s work that doesn’t feel much like work. That’s the dream, right?
I’m sure there will be many downturns on the emotional rollercoaster over the next four months, but I know that if I keep my nose to the grindstone I’ll graduate in April with a wealth of new career possibilities and significantly elevated earning potential. My path in journalism, marketing and publishing was fulfilling in part because of how winding it was — there’s a tangible power in keeping an open mind, learning new skills and exploring unique challenges. I honestly hope it’s the same in tech.
Who knows where this new trail will lead? Will I focus on apps, websites or other software? Will I work in aerospace or renewable energy or wildlife conservation? Create my own company? Will I return to the CMC and finally update cmc.org so that it no longer looks and functions like it’s stuck in 1997? I hope I have the chance to do any and all of those things. For now, I’m just glad bootcamps like Flatiron School exist to afford mid-career changers like me such wide-ranging opportunities.