Money How a laid-off woman in her 50s learned to code and launched a whole new career

09:55  10 august  2017
09:55  10 august  2017 Source:   Business Insider

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Gillian Reynolds Titko © Provided by Business Insider Gillian Reynolds Titko

Gillian Reynolds-Titko's 20-year-long, high-paying career as a research physicist for DuPont ended when she got caught in one of DuPont's big layoffs in early 2016.

She spent about a year looking at options in her existing career and thought, "meh."

So she decided to become a programmer. In May, after graduating from a intensive coding boot camp, she landed a job as an IT business analyst at JPMorgan Chase.

"It was much more important to find something I wanted to do next than to jump into the first something that came along," she told Business Insider on Wednesday.

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Reynolds-Titko had always been curious about programming. During her years as a physicist, she had "tinkered" with coding by watching some YouTube videos and working her way through the occasional online class. But she had never done anything more substantial, like coding a website or releasing an app in an app store.

As for becoming a programmer at her age, "I knew I was taking a risk. I didn't know if anyone would want to hire me. But it was a risk worth taking."

From self-teaching to boot camp

Initially, Reynolds-Titko went the self-teaching route, taking free online courses, watching videos, and reading books. But she soon realized she needed more hands-on training. 

So she opted to enroll in a programming boot camp called "Zip Code Wilmington," near her home. Through the immersive 12-week program, she learned Java, a popular programming language for building web apps.

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She would have preferred to learn Swift, Apple's young programming language that's growing in popularity. But ultimately, her top goal was to learn "how to think like a programmer, how to break problems down," she said. And she discovered it didn't matter what language she started with to learn that. 

woman computer keyboard hands typing © Provided by Business Insider woman computer keyboard hands typing

The boot camp industry has a poor reputation these days, with many programs being accused of being frauds. But Reynolds-Titko felt that the program she chose, called Zip Code Wilmington, would be a reasonable bet, because it was focused on job placement. It only required her to pay $3,000 of the total $12,000 fee; the other $9,000 would be paid by the company that eventually hired her.

Even though Reynolds-Titko had a strong background in math and science — often important prerequisites for learning to code — she was shocked at how hard it was to learn programming.

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"It was, on average, 100 hours a week, for 12 weeks," she said.

And while her background in math and science was helpful, it wasn't mandatory, Reynolds-Titko said.

"In our cohort we had everybody — restaurant managers, retail backgrounds, people like me who did science," she said. "If you could think logically, you could learn this. It was more about, do you have the grit to stick to something and figure it out?"

The tech industry has long been tainted by ageism and sexism. But even though Reynolds-Titko is a woman and was the oldest person in her boot camp, she didn't experience either there. 

"I didn’t notice that. I think we were all in too much pain," she said, laughing.

Employable, not expert

The boot camp course didn't turn Reynolds-Titko into an expert coder. But it did give her a good idea of the types of programming she could explore for further study, she said.

Zip Code Wilmington 2017 class © Provided by Business Insider Zip Code Wilmington 2017 class

Although the course prepared her for her new job at Chase, she doesn't actually do much coding in her new position. Instead, she primarily oversees other programmers on the staff. 

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Her main focus is project management, translating business needs into tasks for the professional coders on staff. Reynolds-Titko does only enough coding to sketch things out for them.

The job didn't just mark a career change. It also meant starting over. In her previous job at DuPont, she was at the top of her field. By contrast, her new position is an entry level one and came with a 40% pay cut.

But Reynolds-Titko is ok with that. She's happily landed in a new career doing work she likes where her years of project management are already helping her succeed.

And she's still determined to write apps in Swift that eventually get used by people. She's spending her evenings working on a gardening app she dreamed up.

Her advice to others contemplating coding as a mid-life career change: You can do it — but only if you're really interested in programming.

"See if it's something you really want to do," Reynolds-Titko said. "If it is, commit to it, because it's going to take a lot of work to make the change."

She added: "It's not going to be easy."

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