Middle aged academic looking to move into a tech career

So, I looked through this forum and there’s a lot of questions along these lines; I’m asking anyway, because I feel my situation is a bit specific and I wouldn’t mind some more tailored guidance.

It has come to my attention that I am unfortunately middle aged, having reached the unfortunate age of 32 pursuing a career in academia which earned me a PhD in a field (communication) which I unfortunately don’t think I can apply outside the field. Because I went “off track” in academia (failed to complete a tenure track, it’s a thing) my chances of ever accomplishing much there are more or less burned, and with the ongoing COVID crisis making education a rather unpleasant place to work as an instructor, it’s not something I feel I want to go back to at this time.

So, I’m in one of those resume gap situations, and, frankly, I considered coding instead of academia when I was young, chose to “pursue my dream” (when honestly I probably would have enjoyed coding just as much) of being a professor, and I wish I had. I have all the time in the world, and motivation, to study. Most of my friends who chose to work in programming/IT are very happy and live in places more like where I want to live (I’m stuck in rural America and wouldn’t be able to in-person network much even if it wasn’t for the pandemic situation). I guess my point is, I feel like I’ve probably lost a lot of career potential in IT, but that if I don’t start now I’ll never have a shot, and I’d like to do what I can to get up to speed in terms of what could land me a potential career.

I’m not looking for miracles or easy fixes. I’ve read job ads and I know a lot of even “entry level” positions want years of experience, and many want computer science degrees. I know people will tell me not to try to specialize in something I’m not passionate about, but at this point, I’d like to develop a passion in something I have a reasonable chance of landing work in, within the IT field, preferably in a major city.

I’m working my way through tutorials here and on other sites, reading books, and talking to contacts in tech like my friends and social media contacts. In terms at this point purely of what I should work on learning, though, what would you prioritize if you were me? I’m gonna try to work through every dang thing on this site, but I know I have to do it in various orders.

A couple of notes I think are worthwhile:

  • I’ve done coding before; I know a little Python, a tiny bit of Javascript, and a long time ago I took Visual C++ classes when that was a thing. I also know quite a bit of HTML and a little bit of CSS.
  • I have run a web forum and know a bit about SQL databases in that sense, but I can’t say it was professionally done. I could see myself being happy learning to do sysadmin work.
  • I did some graduate work in quantitative analysis and I feel like I might be able to frame my academic experience as relevant to jobs if I learned r or data-oriented Python.

When did 32 become middle aged?

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So, I’m a math academic who is becoming a coder. My experience is closer to coding than communications, but I’m also making the jump from academia.

If you want to shoot for the data analysis route, go for Python. R is a hellscape of poorly written spaghetti code. Depending on your interests, it could be useful to learn the GPU packages since that’s hot right now. In any case, brush up on your statistics to go the data analysis route.

HTML, CSS, databases, etc is more the full stack web dev technologies. I can’t speak to that as much, but FCC will set you up well with a good foundation.

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So you don’t think you’ll make it past 55 :slight_smile:

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As someone a year older than you, let me just say OUCH.

You talked about why you want to try a career change into programming, but not what you want to do. You asked what you should focus on learning, so here are a few different pieces of advice based on some of the things you said.

You mentioned “IT” a few times. Generally speaking, that term tends to refer to jobs like technical support, corporate technology infrastructure, system administration, etc. If that’s what you’re interested in, then the good news is that it’s a field that has more concrete qualifications than programming. There are various official certifications for system and network administration.

You talked about doing quantitative analysis. If that’s something that you are interested in and want to pursue, you’ll want to focus your studies on the “data” related fields, which could include areas like machine learning. Languages to focus on would be Python and R.

Your PhD is in communication. I only have a piddly BS but that was my original degree as well. You have a lot to offer in the areas of User Experience, Usability, and Product Design. One of the hardest parts of creating technology is creating it optimally to be used by people. There is a lot of work that goes into questions like anticipating your user’s assumptions and previous experience, communicating information in a way that is non-obtrusive, finding the balance between giving enough data or choices to be useful without having your user shut down from to much “noise”, and so on. This is a hard problem in all areas of technology from the physical design of hardware to the text on a website and there are awesome people whose full-time job is user experience design. If that’s something that sounds interesting to you, then there are some really useful resources dedicated just to good UX. There are many UX/Product designers who are not developers. I don’t know if that is appealing or if you would rather sling code, but in either case I would suggest building some technical chops. The technology I would suggest here is the same one I would suggest for a general “I don’t know what I want to do, but I think I want to learn to code”: JavaScript. JavaScript continues to broaden its realm of influence, making it a good default first language. In your case though, it is also the best option for UI (user interface) development.

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Thanks to everyone who replied! Obviously my comment about being middle aged was meant to be read as somewhat self-effacing, apologies if it offended anybody.

I used the term “IT” rather generically; I think “coding” is what I’m interested in, and I think I agree with @ArielLeslie that JavaScript is a good place to start. I’m working through this site’s tutorials on it as well as various other resources (Humble Store has a deal on game development focused Javascript stuff, but it comes with a full unit on just learning React and Javascript frameworks, so even though the game industry isn’t my target at this time, I’m gonna go ahead and get that as a supplement to work through).

I also agree that I think I could contribute to user experience and product design in a number of ways (from a data science angle too - I would love to learn how to analyze what works for users from analytics data, etc.) The big challenge as far as front end design for me is that I have absolutely zero artistic or drawing talent. Is that something that can be worked around?

Roles vary from company to company, but UI/UX designer don’t have to mean artistic flair. A lot of it is pretty analytical: questions like “How can we balance giving enough information to new users with making it quick and simple for experienced users?” or “What are the most common patterns for user behavior and how can we leverage that?”

Good luck on your journey. I hope you’ll be hanging around out community watering hole.

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Okay, so this will obviously be a question that will have a certain reception, but I am trying to make the decision and I figure it’s worth getting as many people’s input as I possibly can.

I’m seriously considering a paid (online) coding boot camp. The reason is specifically the ones which have hiring contacts and provide active assistance in trying to help place people. I understand that they can’t get me a job, but accurate or not, I worry self-teaching will get me nowhere without some sort of credential.

I can afford a paid boot camp; I’m curious if there is anyone here who has had experience with same. Again, I’m sure that I could self-teach the material - but my goal is to get on the job market as quickly as possible, I’m going to be looking in a geographic region I don’t live in, and I need some sort of network.

Thoughts?

Quincy’s Coding Bootcamp Handbook has a lot of good points to consider when researching bootcamps.