Going from CrossFit Coach to Software Engineer

How I Pivoted and Changed My Career at Age 28

It took me a while to figure out what I want to do with my life. I’ve changed my mind a few times. I might change it again. Right after college I went corporate, left that job to work in a restaurant while I got certified as a personal trainer and CrossFit coach, became the head coach of a high school volleyball program, and then decided to do an engineering bootcamp. I didn’t feel like I did any one thing for enough hours to call it a career. I had many hobbies that I did for a little money. Plus, I had to do other things on the side; I’ve been a babysitter, personal chauffeur, Lyft driver, and gym admin. I was always working more than one job to barely make ends meet. Exhausted, I decided I needed a change.

Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

Morning after morning I awoke at 4:45 am to head to the gym and open for the 5:30 am class. Sometime in 2019, I realized that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to (this was hard for me to admit after chasing a passion career for the past 4 years). My financial needs were not being met, plus I had to nap for 3 hours a day just to feel semi-functional. I have always loved fitness — that’s what led me down the path of CrossFit coach in the first place. But somewhere along the line, I realized that coaching was not going to provide me the freedom I was seeking. With no paid time off or health benefits, it was tough to imagine coaching as a lifelong career. I will continue to love fitness, and it is still a huge part of my life, but I realized I was no longer happy working in a gym in the capacity that I had been.

A few years ago, one of my best friends mentioned software engineering to me. Honestly, I didn’t know what engineers did, I thought they just built websites. I never really thought about the technology I used on a daily basis or who created it. Having never written a line of code in any language, I decided to sign up for a bootcamp. I was rejected from the first one I applied to and was honestly a little offended— I had never really been academically rejected from anything before. That sounds pretentious, and maybe it is, but it’s true. I did well in high school and got into the university I applied to through an early decision process. I had never heard the “you’re not what we're looking for” from an academic institution. So, I looked into other bootcamps. I could have reapplied to the one that turned me down, but I figured that it just wasn’t meant to be. I found one that suited me and applied. Since the entire school was online, I was able to get started right away.

I had no idea what I was doing. None. HTML and CSS were foreign to me. JavaScript made my brain spin. It took me days to figure out how to write and run a function. I had to Google everything (ha, still do!). I looked at other engineers and assumed they were better than me. I thought that because I had come from a completely different background I didn’t stand a chance. I had no idea how I was going to do this as a career. I worried constantly about what would happen after the bootcamp. These thoughts circled my head at night when the doubt crept in. Would I ever get a job? Could I get past the infamous “coding interview”? Would I even finish the program on time? That last one was up to me. I was doing a flexible program, meaning that the scheduling was my own doing. It was my responsibility to devote time and effort to do the work and make my way through the modules and projects. I found a groove and found myself enjoying the challenge.

Enter COVID-19. The timing was almost too perfect. My original plan was to make my way through the part-time program and continue to coach CrossFit classes until the point where I would be searching for a full-time position. And then March 2020 happened. The gym shut down and when it did, I realized I wanted to focus on studying and made the decision to not go back when it reopened. I had more time to devote to finishing the curriculum, building my capstone projects and, trying to find a job.

I want to acknowledge that while the things I did were certainly challenging, there is a certain amount of privilege that comes with being able to take these steps to gain the skills needed for a new career. Attending a bootcamp and leaving a job is not possible for everyone. I’m grateful that the circumstances aligned for me in this case.

Photo by Fotis Fotopoulos on Unsplash

Bootcamp was hard. But getting a job proved to be harder. When I graduated I honestly did not feel ready to work. I mean, I was mentally ready. I needed a job. I hadn’t collected a paycheck in over 6 months. I was surviving on unemployment checks that had run out months prior. Still, I did not feel like I knew enough. I didn’t know how to reverse a linked list. I couldn’t always create a function that detects a palindrome on the first try. I compared myself to connections on LinkedIn, to techies I followed on Twitter. I rarely acknowledged how far I had come and started to feel like I wasn’t competent enough to gain employment anywhere. I met with countless people that said “keep going, you got this,” and had a hard time believing them. I had first-round interviews that never turned into anything. I received more rejections than ever before. I started to get used to opening my email first thing in the morning and seeing the familiar, “thank you for applying,” “we had a LOT of qualified candidates,” or “we’ll keep you in mind in the future.” At some point, I just started swiping left and sending them to my trash bin.

Should I go back to coaching CrossFit? Was this whole thing just a stupid waste of time? Maybe I should find a job in a restaurant. I could be a personal assistant. Or a nanny. These were all very real thoughts I had when, day after day, I still didn’t have a job. I was approaching two months post-graduation and nothing had panned out. I was frustrated with myself, with the pandemic, with the fact that the holidays slowed down hiring. My career coach told me I was doing everything right. I was tired of submitting applications; tired of trying to learn new things with no structure. But then I got the opportunity to intern, which would allow me to meet some pretty cool people and gain experience that would, eventually, help me land a paid position.

By gaining experience with a real company and working on a team, I was able to increase my confidence in my skills and simultaneously realize that no one knows everything. I got to collaborate with some incredibly smart engineers and they still didn’t have all of the answers. Working somewhere new is intimidating. Especially when the job is in a brand new industry. I truly did not know what a job in engineering would entail; I couldn’t visualize it. I knew what coaching jobs felt like, I knew what retail and restaurant jobs felt like, but I couldn’t imagine what I would be doing day to day as an engineer. Would I be frantically writing code behind one of those new 34" curved LED screens, my fingers click-clacking at a mechanical keyboard? Listening quietly in Zoom meetings with my microphone muted, trying to absorb as much information as possible? Pair programming with my bosses? Fear of the unknown is very real. After the first week, I got into a flow and started making contributions to the code base right away.

After three months as an intern (while still applying to other positions), I received three job offers in the same week. Finally, after what seemed like endless outreach, cold emails, interviews, and rejections, I had a choice to make. I agonized (as I do, decisions are not my strong point) and polled all of my close friends and family, wishing someone would tell me what to do. When all was said and done, I had a job. I made it from coach to software engineer, something that I had doubted countless times over the last 15 months.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

So, how exactly did I go from teaching people how to squat correctly to building APIs? Here are my key takeaways if you’re considering doing the same thing (or something similar):

  1. I went at my own pace through my bootcamp. I know myself well, and I knew that I am really not able to do anything for 60 hours a week (the time they estimated for the immersion option). I tried hard to understand the concepts, even if it took me a bit longer than I had anticipated. Balance has always been something I need in my life and I was able to have some free time to enjoy my other hobbies with the flexible program.
  2. I built projects that meant something to me. One of my capstone projects was a fitness app. I combined my passion and my previous career with my new skills to create something that I enjoyed working on. It took me 3 months to do (I think capstones were supposed to take 3 weeks — oops), but it was definitely worth the extra time for a product I was proud of.
  3. I networked. Do you get uncomfortable reaching out to strangers? Me, too. Or, at least I used to. When I was a kid I wouldn’t even pick up the phone when it rang. It drove my parents crazy. When you enter a new field and job market, you have no choice. I asked for informational meetings with other engineers at companies I thought looked interesting. I reached out to job-posters on Slack. I wrote to old connections and informed them of my career switch. And it paid off. People were friendly and helpful. Most of those meetings did not lead to jobs, but that was okay. I continued to gather information and insight from others who had gone through the same process.
  4. I didn’t overwhelm myself with trying to learn every new technology. It’s tempting to try to dabble in 4 different languages and sign up for 11 Udemy courses once the bootcamp ends. I personally would not recommend that. Instead, I collaborated with a friend and re-did my fitness-focused capstone project. We changed the entire design. It gave me a chance to revisit the code, remember what my logic was in the first place, and re-do some things — proving that I’ve learned something since my program ended.
  5. I interned. I was connected to a company that needed an intern (ironically, the connection came from the same friend who suggested I get into this field in the first place) and was able to gain some professional experience working on a real team in a codebase that was actually being used in the real world. I was forced out of my comfort zone (in the best way). I was able to contribute and push code to production within my first few weeks of being there. I now had some relevant experience to talk about in future job interviews.
  6. I stayed true to myself. This sounds silly and cliché, but I think it’s important. I searched for companies in fields that I was interested in. This allowed me to connect with my interviewers over more than just the fact that I wanted a job. I reached out to people in the environmental sector, citing my senior essay about the agricultural system in the U.S. as evidence that I was interested in that particular field. I applied for jobs at companies in the health and fitness field and when I did, I realized that my impact could be more than just as an engineer. I would be able to add to their business in a meaningful way because I’ve had previous experience in the industry and although I no longer want to be a full-time coach, the enthusiasm is still there. Two of the offers I received were from companies in the fitness/sports industry.

It took me a little over a year to make this transition. When I first came up with the idea, I thought I would have a job by September of 2020 and be earning a comfortable tech salary. I gave myself 6 months to learn and join a whole new industry. In retrospect, that was crazy. In reality, it took me longer to complete my bootcamp than I predicted and even longer to find a paid position. That’s life. It doesn't always go according to plan. I am proud that I made it given how many times I thought about quitting out of sheer frustration. I definitely do not know it all, but I’m eager and willing to learn. I’m excited to join a new team, further my skills, and continue to grow in this new industry. Should you decide to enroll in a bootcamp, or change careers in general, I wish you luck. Nothing is impossible, and even if you can’t see it yet, there is a place for you in whatever industry you feel is calling your name.

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Software engineer (looking for work!), fitness enthusiast, volleyball coach, novice piano player.

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Sara Warnock

Sara Warnock

Software engineer (looking for work!), fitness enthusiast, volleyball coach, novice piano player.

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