From TV sets to pull requests: How 5 Chicago developers pivoted to careers in tech

March 23, 2017

Some developers discover their passion for technology at an early age, but spending your teenage years building websites and custom software is not a prerequisite for a career in coding. In fact, many successful developers have been well underway on different career paths before getting involved in the tech scene.

We spoke with five of them to hear more about their journeys from careers in music, photography and television production to programming at some of Chicago’s best-known software companies.

 

To SpotHero lead mobile developer Ellen Shapiro, parking troubles are not a distant hypothetical. But before she became a developer for the booming parking app, Shapiro lived in the world's traffic jam capital while working in the television industry.

What did you do before becoming a developer?

I majored in radio, TV and film production, and I moved out to LA shortly after I graduated from college. I started at a talk show and then wound up moving into scripted television, clawing my way from internships up to being an assistant production coordinator. My day-to-day job was to make sure that everybody knew where they were going the next day, that they had everything they needed to do their jobs when they got there and then to hang around and wait for things to catch on fire so I could put out said fires.

Why did you decide to switch career paths?

There are times during the television season when you are generally unemployed: between seasons of a show, if a show gets canceled, if a pilot doesn't get picked up and so on. All my friends who were really passionate about staying in the entertainment industry would use these times to create their own stories.

At a certain point, I realized I was spending all my free time not trying to create stories, but trying to figure out how my phone worked. So I decided to follow what I was clearly already interested in, and learn to program.

What is your favorite part about the work you do now?

I love being able to combine my creative energy and my get-things-done training to make really awesome apps. I get to partner with really talented designers and help them bring their ideas to life in a way that I think would have been a lot harder if I'd stayed in the entertainment business. You can have a far bigger impact on a smaller team in tech, and be a significantly more direct contributor to the success of a project.

What is your favorite thing about working at SpotHero?

We have an incredible opportunity in front of us to do all sorts of interesting things with technology. The way that people interact with both their mobile devices and their vehicles is changing incredibly rapidly, and I'm excited to be working with a team that is trying to figure out how best to work with these changes.

 

As an advanced software engineer at kCura, Peter Bondarenko makes it easier for lawyers to deal with oceans of data. A former academic, Bondarenko discovered his passion for programming because of the coding he did for his research.

What did you do before becoming a developer?

After graduating from Princeton University, I was serving as a faculty member at the University of Chicago where I was teaching economics classes and doing research in macroeconomics and statistical analysis of time series. My research involved creating statistical models using gross economic production data for multiple countries and predicting periods of high volatility in production levels.

Why did you decide to switch career paths?

I was doing a lot of coding as part of my research work. To advance my knowledge of programming, I enrolled into the computer science program at DePaul University. It was a life-changing experience when I understood that software engineering is what I am truly passionate about. In the academic world, it may take years to see any results of your work, while engineering allows you to create powerful solutions and see immediate results. Believe me, it is priceless.

What is your favorite part about the work you do now?

At kCura, I work on Relativity Processing, a robust solution that allows our customers to process, analyze and review data without moving between systems. What I like most is that no day is like another — we’re constantly involved in solving complex problems around tight deadlines. The work is challenging and it always keeps you on your toes. It is rewarding to see that our work enables legal teams to organize and process data volumes flawlessly while saving them time and money.

What is your favorite thing about working for kCura?

I would like to mention two reasons why I enjoy coming to work every day. One is the opportunity to transform the legal profession while solving complex data problems. Two is the people: kCura provides a fantastic sense of community that empowers you to learn and grow in the field of your interest.

 

With a degree in computer science and physics, it may seem that CSG International senior software developer Rick Gehrenbeck had his career path laid out for him when he graduated from college. But Gehrenbeck’s first career started long before that — and he’s still pursuing it alongside his developer gig.

What did you do before becoming a developer?

I was a musician. While my college degree was in computer science and physics, I played piano from an early age and joined a touring band when I was 16. I have since performed all over the world with various bands, including my current gig with Chicago’s Poi Dog Pondering. I have also built a pro recording studio and produced commercial and independent music for McDonald’s, Disney and lots of local artists. I produce dance music under the pseudonym Mr Egg Germ.

Why did you decide to switch career paths?

I have found the struggle to make a decent living in the music world to be difficult. Also, I have always found a balance between working both my creative and analytical sides to be helpful in both music and in the tech world. The satisfaction I get from successful coding often leads to more inspired music making, and vice versa.

What is your favorite part about the work you do now?

I enjoy working both sides of my brain in my work as a musician and as an engineer. My day gig is rewarding, both financially and mentally. I work with a great team and for a company that understands that a fulfilled employee is a happy employee.

What is your favorite thing about working for CSG International?

The culture at CSGI is both technically inspiring and relaxed. I work with people who can code their asses off and know how to have fun. From well-implemented agile development practices to weekly community of practice (COP) meetups, I feel part of a team that is serious about its work and serious about our quality of life. The unlimited vacation policy is another example of the employee-centric culture that is felt throughout the entire company. And it allows me to do an occasional tour with Poi Dog.


As a junior mobile developer at Earlybird Software, Rachel Schneebaum builds apps for growth-stage businesses. The path that brought her to that job involved more career pivots than many of us will make in an entire lifetime.

What did you do before becoming a developer?

I spent a year working as a horse trainer in North Carolina before moving to Tucson, AZ to begin a PhD in philosophy. I completed all program requirements except the dissertation, at which point a lot of things I’d avoided dealing with up until then came to a head (including breaking my neck), and I took a soon-to-be-permanent leave of absence.

I worked as a freelance writer for about nine months, specializing in reports for B2B tech companies. At some point, while doing some research for a client, I stumbled upon a website for the now defunct Mobile Makers bootcamp. I moved to Chicago for two months and invested all my savings on a whim. And I guess it worked!

Why did you decide to switch career paths?

Ever since my second year as an undergraduate, I assumed I would end up in academia. When I learned that professional academia bears no resemblance to my starry-eyed college imaginings, I was terrified: academia had been the only future I ever saw for myself. I finally fell into freelance writing because after eight years of higher education, writing was my only marketable skill.

Then I discovered coding: during the Mobile Makers bootcamp, I inhaled a daily firehose of knowledge and recaptured the joy of learning more every day, and in feeling my skills improve every day. And I discovered a new joy in building things from the ground up. 

What is your favorite part about the work you do now?

Coding combines my favorite aspects of philosophy — critical thinking, problem solving, logic and so on — with the personal and intellectual freedom I valued as a freelance writer. As a developer, I’m always learning and always improving. I can even see that improvement when I look back on the code I wrote for past projects. And unlike professional academia — which encourages competition among colleagues for research money, tenure, class assignments and so on — my developer team encourages collaboration, continued learning and sharing of knowledge.

What is your favorite thing about working for Earlybird?

One of the most important things for me, as a relatively new and inexperienced dev, was the immediate high level of trust and confidence placed in me by the company and by my team members. From day one, I was put to work on real client projects, and by my second project I was writing the entire iOS codebase. It was nerve wracking of course, but it also meant I had no choice but to learn fast and step up. Thanks to Earlybird, I now have confidence in myself and my own abilities. (Plus, I get to spend all day every day doing what I love most: writing Swift code!)

 

As a design consultant at DevMynd, Jane Stanton does front-end coding work and visual design for the company’s customers. Stanton was a freelance photographer before enrolling in the Starter League boot camp program.

What did you do before becoming a programmer?

I worked in photography during most of my 20s and realized I didn’t want to freelance anymore. It was getting hard to work multiple jobs throughout the week and I didn’t want to continue working as a photography assistant. During this time, one of my freelance jobs was to teach photography to high school students. Teaching was fun and rewarding and I enjoyed working with students. I took a break from freelance and worked in a school.

After I spent a few years as a teacher, I decided to start a graduate program in education. As I was about to start the program, I knew I wasn’t making the right choice. In the back of my mind I knew that I would burn out after just a few years of teaching. I needed to take a step back and figure out what I really wanted.

Why did you decide to pursue coding?

A college course a while back sparked an interest in web design. I started the web design program at the Starter League and it was a perfect fit. I took advantage of every resource they provided and was challenged and motivated to continue to build my skills.

What is your favorite part about the work you do now?

My favorite part of my job is working as a consultant. Each project creates a new learning opportunity to explore different skills within design. Some focus more on research and information architecture while others are visual and interactive. Either way, I love to always be working on something different. Also, I enjoy working with a team of designers. We all have different backgrounds and specializations within design, and it helps all of us to grow as a team to learn from one another.

What is your favorite thing about working for DevMynd?

We have a small team at DevMynd and I really enjoy how we collaborate together. Working with developers gives me the opportunity to work on projects that involve front-end coding as well as dabble in jQuery and JavaScript.

 

Images via participating companies. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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