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Switching Careers Advice

Karl Barek
Greenhorn

Joined: Mar 03, 2012
Posts: 28
Been a lurker here for sometime now, but I do believe this is my first post. Sorry for the not so good subject title, was at a loss to what to label it.

I'm looking for some advice/suggestions if possible.

My situation is:
  • I'm a 37yr old married guy with a 1yr old daughter, own a house(well, the bank does.
  • I've currently been doing 3D Modeling/Animation and multimedia (video/flash/2d graphics) for the last 12 years. Being the age that I am, I've experienced a good deal during my professional career. Currently, I'm the Art Manager for the company.
  • I do not have a 4yr degree. I went through a 5 yr Apprenticeship program as a Millwright/Mechanical Marine Designer (I was a millwright for 3yrs, then a Marine Designer for 5.5yrs) During that time, I self-taught myself 3D and switched careers.


  • My goal:
    To switch from being an artist to a software developer.

    The steps am I taking are as follows:
  • I'm currently teaching myself Java at night/weekends. Utilizing books, online resources, etc.
  • Currently, taking the CS101 Programming class @ Udacity.com. (This class is in Python, so I'm beginning to spend some time learning Python on my own as well). I have signed up to take 3 more Udacity programming classes that start April 16th.
  • I'm peer programming with the lead software developer here at work for 2hrs a day (these are on my own time,as I work my 8hrs beforehand everyday.) This is an Eclipse Java environment. I am very grateful for this opportunity as it's verifiable real world experience.


  • My dilemma:
    So, with all that said. I've been struggling with the idea of going back to school and getting a 4yr degree. When I ask people around me, I get mixed replies.

    The lead software developer (he has a BS and MS in CS) tells me it's not needed, it's all about if you can code and do the work. While I agree that's what it should be about, but looking at a lot of job listings, a lot of them request 4yr degrees or "X" amount of experience in lieu of a degree.

    Given my family constraints, going to a classroom at a local university is just not real option. I just will not spend my nights for the next 4-8years away from my daughter and wife. So, online is really my only option. With online, I will at least be home and factoring in all the travel time, etc it enables a lot more time to spend with my family.

    I was looking at the Strayer/University of Phoenix, but they are crazy expensive. I simply do not want to go into $40-65k in debt for a degree from them. I recently discovered, WGU - Western Governors University (http://www.wgu.edu/). Their prices are realistic to me and if I understand it correctly, you determine how fast you will finish. I was looking at their software program - ( http://www.wgu.edu/online_it_degrees/information_technology_degree_software ) I do have some college coursework completed (If I had to estimate...1.5yrs worth).

    I'll be honest, my main reason for wanting a 4yr degree is really just to have the piece of paper. It just seems not having an "official" 4yr degree closes a good amount of doors.
    I'm sure I'd learn as I went through and earned it, but I've been self teaching myself for the last 15yrs. Regardless if I go back to school or not, I'm not going to deviate from my current path and will still learn as much as I can.

    My Question(s):
  • Do you think it's worth it for me to worry about the lack of a 4yr degree?
  • WGU - any thoughts on that particular school?
  • I know as time passes, the perception of Online Schools are getting better, but is it at the point that it would be worthwhile for someone in my situation, or should I simply continue on my self learning path? I'm thinking I can power through WGU in 2-2.5yrs or less. (I could be wrong though, as I've never taken a class there.)


  • That was a lot of text...Thank you in advance for taking the time to read it and respond.

    -Karl
    Jeanne Boyarsky
    internet detective
    Marshal

    Joined: May 26, 2003
    Posts: 30293
        
    150

    Karl,
    If you could get a job in software development at the company you currently work with, you'd probably be ok without the degree. It's harder to do that when people don't already know you. I'm not sure what I millwrite is (I could google it, but that's the point - someone looking at your resume is likely to no know either.)

    One of the moderators here went to WGU for undergrad. Based on what she knows, I think it is a good program.


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    Karl Barek
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Mar 03, 2012
    Posts: 28
    Thanks for the reply Jeanne.

    I just listed my experience so people knew where I was coming from. I've read that for career switchers it's important to not under value your past experiences as even though it might not be directly related to your new career. But, a Millwright is basically an Industrial Mechanic if you will.

    Ya, that is my goal, to try to move over into software development where I'm currently at. If it was up to me that's what would happen and I could get at least a couple years of experience. However, it's a very small company and I really don't know if it'll be around in a few years.

    That's part of my dilemma. If everything goes well and I am still with my current employer then I agree a degree isn't such a factor. It's the possibility of not being here in 6months..1yr, etc that has me thinking I probably need to plan for worse case scenario.

    Maneesh Godbole
    Saloon Keeper

    Joined: Jul 26, 2007
    Posts: 10246
        
        8

    I am 41 years old today, work as a Technical Architect for a big company, am a Java developer and am not a graduate.

    I have always believed one should know, really know the stuff. If one does, the paper is not that important. Unfortunately, the recruiters most probably will not think the same. In my experience, you will get rejected most of the times because of the lack of paper. The question you need to ask yourself is: Are you strong enough to take this rejection. Will your family support you. How do you plan to raise your daughter. Are your principles/ideals/morals worth all the trouble? For me, all the answers were yes and here I am today. It was not easy, on the contrary, sometimes it was even humiliating. But today, when I look back, I know it was worth it.

    You mentioned your age. I too shifted to software development 11 years back. Before that I was trying to run my own business manufacturing thermal cooling systems. I have had hands on experience like you working on lathes and milling machines (really good times!)

    If I were you, I would approach it this way
    1) Ensure I have a regular predictable income flow (read current job)
    2) Decide if I should go for a degree. Factor in the expense/time
    3) Start self learning. Forums are a very good place. Books too are helpful. And lots and lots and lots of coding.
    4) Look around you. Try to get create something based on your skill set. I designed a hardware (and a software to run it) which can convert text to Braille. Though it did not make millions, it did get me my 1st job. At your age and lack of formal education (not to be confused with knowledge), thinking out of the box and innovation are the way to go in my opinion
    5) Once you feel you have sufficient knowledge, start trying for software jobs. Use these as opportunities to evaluate yourself and improve if required. Repeat.

    On a side note, since you are an artist, you might also want to consider a career in Usability and User Experience Design, if that interests you. If it does, the way I look at things, you will have a far superior edge, considering your 12 years experience as an artist.

    Keep the faith and best of luck finding something which you really love doing.


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    Karl Barek
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Mar 03, 2012
    Posts: 28
    Thanks for the reply Maneesh.

    The most important aspect of it all is my daughter and wife. While I would love to go to a brick and mortar local university, the time sacrifice in missing her growing up just isn't worth it. I also don't see the purpose in my situation of getting a degree if it's going to take 4-10yrs. I'm already learning it on my own and everything. If I'm not working within the software development world way by then I probably need to stick with drawing pictures

    I plan on talking with the people over at WGU, have sent them a laundry list of my questions. Assuming I get a good vibe once I talk with the folks at WGU, I'm starting to lean towards trying it out for 1 semester and then I can accurately estimate the time requirements, the skills I'm getting out of it and how quickly I realistically see myself completing the program.

    There's something to be said about creating something with your hands. I enjoyed the engine lathe/milling machine work while I did it, but I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do all the time. Luckily, it was just a small part of the actual job. I did more maintenance, rebuilding gearboxes, pumps and stuff like that. Being at the end of a windy and below freezing pier gets old fast. Traded my hard hat in for a computer and haven't looked back since

    Thanks again Jeanne and Maneesh for sharing your experiences and thoughts with me.

    Jimmy Clark
    Ranch Hand

    Joined: Apr 16, 2008
    Posts: 2187
    Karl, if you have management experience, it may make more sense to puruse a managerial position. Your age could present a significant obstacle regardless of whether you possess an academic degree or not. I would suggest that you explore Six Sigma. There are many opportunities for certified BlackBelts and Master BlackBelts. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) and Villanova University have strong training and certification programs that are very flexible in terms of time, cost, etc. A widely recognized certification from a reputable organization such as ASQ or Villanova would provide more "bang for your buck" when compared to a generic academic degree. BlackBelt certification will immediately make you eligible for positions where it is "required" and since these positions are managerial, your age would not be a factor, i.e. you would most likely be competing with individuals close to you in age and salary requirements.

    Good luck!
    Paul Anilprem
    Enthuware Software Support
    Ranch Hand

    Joined: Sep 23, 2000
    Posts: 3285
        
        7
    Karl Barek wrote:

    I'll be honest, my main reason for wanting a 4yr degree is really just to have the piece of paper. It just seems not having an "official" 4yr degree closes a good amount of doors.
    My Question(s):
  • Do you think it's worth it for me to worry about the lack of a 4yr degree?


  • -Karl


    I think you are right about having a degree. Having a degree does help quite a bit. Besides being a verifiable currency of education, it makes you acquire knowledge in a more structured format. Given that and based on what you mentioned above, here is one thought:

    How about going for a 4 yr degree from a non-accredited university/college? It may sound non-sensical but if you are not planning on doing further studies and you only want something to put on your resume, it might give you what you need at a much lower cost. Employers do verify degrees but I doubt if they verify accredition.

    How about going for online degrees from another country? In this case, you might even find something that is accredited (in that country) and you can get it evaluated for US equivalency.

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    Karl Barek
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Mar 03, 2012
    Posts: 28
    Thanks for the reply Jimmy.

    I do have management experience, but it's not where my interests lie. The way I look at it is I have a good 20-30years of work left. I know that my age will be a negative to some and there are 18-20yr olds that are further along than myself at the ripe age of 37. There's a really healthy software development market here. I do a search for "3D" jobs and I get like 8 hits. I search for "Java" and I get 150+.


    Paul,

    I never even considered your suggestion. Like you said, if I'm not planning on getting a master's, then accreditation really doesn't come into play. I will have to do some research in that. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for non-USA, but an english speaking online school?

    One aspect of WGU is it's affordability. $6000 a year I consider quite affordable, especially if you can power through it in 2yrs or less.

    Thanks again.
    Bear Bibeault
    Author and ninkuma
    Marshal

    Joined: Jan 10, 2002
    Posts: 60991
        
      65

    Even if you think you current company is short-lived, if you can get into a development position there, do it. Having the most recent position on your resume a development position (even in a company that went belly-up) will open some doors.


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    Karl Barek
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Mar 03, 2012
    Posts: 28
    Bear Bibeault wrote:Even if you think you current company is short-lived, if you can get into a development position there, do it. Having the most recent position on your resume a development position (even in a company that went belly-up) will open some doors.


    That's my goal for sure. That's why I devote pretty much all my free time to learning Java. I've shared my desires with my boss (who happens to be the owner of the company), so he's aware of what I want.

    I'm actually starting to do some development related tasks outside of the peer programming. We are currently developing a web app utilizing GWT. I'm designing the UI and getting it to work within GWT and everything. Very exciting stuff!

    Thanks again.

    Bear Bibeault
    Author and ninkuma
    Marshal

    Joined: Jan 10, 2002
    Posts: 60991
        
      65

    Be sure you talk to your boss about changing your title to reflect what you are actually doing. Also think ahead to who would serve as a good reference with respect to any development activities you are undertaking.
    Karl Barek
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Mar 03, 2012
    Posts: 28
    Bear Bibeault wrote:Be sure you talk to your boss about changing your title to reflect what you are actually doing. Also think ahead to who would serve as a good reference with respect to any development activities you are undertaking.


    I guess I'm a little to passive or lack the necessary self-esteem sometimes. I knew I would eventually bring that up to my boss. But, if I'm doing that kind of work now, I should bring it up now, not later.

    Thanks for excellent advice!
    Jeanne Boyarsky
    internet detective
    Marshal

    Joined: May 26, 2003
    Posts: 30293
        
    150

    I'd be wary of the non-accredited school route. There are tons of "degree mills" out there. They aren't respected and seeing one on a resume could hurt you. WGU is real degree program. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about "Joe's degree in a box."
    Janeice DelVecchio
    Saloon Keeper

    Joined: Sep 14, 2009
    Posts: 1659
        
      11

    Karl,

    I am glad you PMed me. I like to share my experience with WGU.

    I started WGU with an associates degree in veterinary technology from a community college. They were able to take that degree and waive all the first two year general education requirements. I still had to take the lower level IT requirements. I had a full time job at the time, working third shift... three long shifts a week. I had a lot of time to dedicate to my studies.

    I'll be honest. I had a mixture of working hard and slacking off. Everything is self paced, and they only "make" you get 12 or 15 credits a semester, which lasts for a full 6 months. That would have been easy street.

    I worked hard and got everything done in 4 semesters. Two years to get all the upper level requirements, and the IT lower level requirements. There are some really easy classes, like their management class, the critical thinking class, the education without bounds class, and any other general ed requirement. Most of the classes you take there are proctored exams. Some, however, have real deliverable work. This work gets uploaded to a system and someone picks it up and grades it. As long as you follow the rubrics (I recommend adding helpful titles to things so the graders have no doubt), you pass the class.

    The best part of WGU is the certifications. I have something like 11 industry standard certifications in topics ranging from desktop support, project management, sql, javascript, perl, networking, security and java... there is a caveat to this. DO NOT put all your certifications on your resume. Only put the certifications that apply to the type of job you're applying for. I applied for a server support job, and I got this question "I see you've gotten a few hardware and security certifications, but why did you start getting programming certifications?" The truth is I wanted a job, but they look at it funny.

    I was able, in an average semester, to crank out about 20-24 credits. There were times I felt rushed, but also times I slacked off. I was unemployed one semester and I was able to get 34 credits. I didn't really follow the suggested learning guide because it was too slow for me... I kindof got an idea of what I needed to do/learn and just did it.

    There are things people complain about in the reviews. Those things are mostly legit. No one is going to hold your hand. You get a mentor whose job it is to call you every week, then every other week after a while. You need to take their call. They don't really know a ton about the subject matter, but they are REALLY helpful. They are also there to get you signed up for classes and help you keep track of your goals for graduation. My guy was Marcos Giraldi. Best mentor ever. You can email the course professor if you have an issue or chat in the forums. I found the forums to be filled with people I was not interested in interacting with. The JavaRanch forums were my saving grace during my Java, sql, perl, and JavaScript classes. There are also really few classes who require real time interaction, unlike Regis, Walden, Phoenix, etc where they require "x amount of forum interaction per week, stuff due by x day, etc." Everything is done, or not done, on your time.

    As for signing up for classes, they let you sign up for 12 credits every term, then once you finish, they add one at a time. Adding a class takes a bit of time because it takes a couple days to get the materials to you. The materials are like gold and INCLUDED in your tuition. They typically have practice exams for the certification exams that are pretty good at determining how well you'll do. If you're interested in spending a bit of cash, you can always buy more materials, but mostly for what I took I was able to get by with their materials. I think I bought extra stuff a couple times, and I can't tell you how good Enthuware is for SCJP study.

    You cannot beat the price of WGU. It's completely accredited. You get as many credits as you can take in one semester for a flat rate. No one does that.

    There is something to be said though about Jeanne saying "Janeice knows stuff." Or whatever she said in paraphrase. I know stuff because I WANTED to learn the material. I didn't just do it so I could get a certification and then instantly forget (although I did a bit of that for the Project+ and Perl classes). I knew I wanted a job as a Java developer, and I did what it took to follow that course. I wanted to learn more stuff than what was required because I had the real desire to understand it. There is a way to do a "bare minimum" and get a degree without learning much. I don't recommend it.

    WGU was hard work, but worth it. The only reason I didn't do it for my current MS program is they don't offer a software engineering graduate degree. Regis University has a program where you get your MS and BS at the same time with some sort of credit reduction. You might look into that if you don't car that you have a schedule.


    When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
    Janeice DelVecchio
    Saloon Keeper

    Joined: Sep 14, 2009
    Posts: 1659
        
      11

    Also, as far as worrying about the perception of an online degree, I don't give it a thought.

    I've considered what field I want to work in. If people in a technical field can't approve of a degree I have gotten through the beauty of technology, shame on them. I do get questions about what it's like, and I usually say things like:

    "It was harder because I was my own support system"
    "I had to schedule my own studies and exams and I finished 3 years of coursework in 2 years"
    "I was able to learn at my own pace, meaning if I wanted to take time to learn more about something I was interested in, I had the ability to do so"
    "This program allowed me to get several industry standard certifications, which in turn could make me more valuable to an employer who requires certifications"
    "I am more likely to get an interview because HR people are drawn to certifications"
    Karl Barek
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Mar 03, 2012
    Posts: 28
    Thanks for all that good info Janeice. I sent you a PM.

    Thanks again to everyone that has shared their advice and experiences.

    -Karl
    Jeanne Boyarsky
    internet detective
    Marshal

    Joined: May 26, 2003
    Posts: 30293
        
    150

    I went to Queens College (part of the City University of New York) for undergrad and online for my Masters. When I was interviewing, I got questions asking why I didn't go to "a better school" for undergrad. I answered that Queens College had a good computer science department and we moved on. Ultimately, it shouldn't matter where someone went.

    And my thought on Queens was that even if it did matter when I graduated, it wouldn't two years later after I had time to prove myself. It turned out not to matter though. As an intern, I spent a summer as the only City University of NY student. Everyone else went to a "better" school and I was able to accomplish just as much as them. As an employee, it has never mattered.
     
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