Are You Smart Enough to be a Software Engineer?

Interview with Carla Stickler, Software Engineer at G2
February 21, 2023
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Carla Stickler is a Software Engineer at G2 in Chicago and is a champion for artists looking to make a career change into tech. Carla spent over 10 years performing in Broadway musicals, most notably as Elphaba in the hit musical Wicked. Her writing is focused on helping those who are interested in shifting gears from the arts to programming and is passionate about reframing the narrative of the “starving artist.”

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Carla and I were discussing the phenomenon that women in engineering often get asked, "How did you know you were smart enough for this?" We hypothesized it's because society is still getting used to seeing females dominate such a traditionally male-dominated field. In any case, we had quite an entertaining chat!

How did you know you were smart enough to become a software engineer?

As a former actor and woman in tech, folks seem to be genuinely curious how I knew I was smart enough to be a software engineer. I mean, I get it, actors aren’t really known for their IQs and women don’t take up a lot of space in the field. The real reason they ask though, is that they want to know if they are also smart enough. Can they hack it? Is it worth spending the time to pursue programming as a new career if it turns out that they’re not smart enough? There’s a lot of hubbub around the career path as a means to create stability and offer a sizable paycheck. But, with the price of bootcamps being as high as they are, I get why someone would want to know if they’ll be any good at it before putting down a deposit.

In my opinion, there isn’t a clean cut answer to this question. How do we define who is “smart enough”? Is it an IQ score? Is it how well you did on your SAT? Or if you were excellent in math at a young age? Had a 4.0 and went to an Ivy League? Can wax poetics in multiple languages? Ultimately, each of us has strengths that are unique to who we are. I know brilliant writers who have best selling novels who hate the thought of sitting behind a computer writing code all day. Does that mean they aren’t smart? I know incredibly talented musicians who didn’t excel academically, but can write full orchestrations and perform at a high level, but are they not smart enough because they weren’t straight A students?

I think a better question to ask one’s self is this:

“Do I enjoy this/am I interested in this subject enough to put the time and energy into learning it?”

Interest and determination can push through most barriers, if you ask me. If you want to be good at something because you really enjoy it, then you will struggle through the discomfort to gain an understanding when you hit a wall. Gritty-ness is probably a better determining factor into whether or not you will be any good at computer programming. How willing are you to stick to it when it gets hard? 

If not smartness, what should we think about before transitioning to computer science?

While smartness may not be a great deciding factor into whether or not you should pursue programming, enjoying complex problem solving should be. I love puzzles. All types of puzzles, but primarily 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles and Sudoku. What they have in common is the use of pattern recognition. For me, I love seeing patterns in things and how they fit together. I love packing the trunk of a car so everything fits in perfectly and don’t get me started on loading the dishwasher! When I was in music school I was drawn to music theory because I loved the way chord structures could be so predictable no matter how they were organized. For me, solving puzzles brings me immense joy. The struggle of having to figure something out and the dopamine hit when I solve it, is worth it everytime. 

When I first started learning programming, I fell deep into trying to find the patterns on my own. I spent a great deal of time using free resources to help me decide if this was something I could actually see myself enjoying for a career before shelling out thousands of dollars to go to a coding bootcamp.

I recommend exhausting free resources before deciding if you need a more structured learning environment.

What’s great about how easy it is to access educational content these days, is that you can try it before you buy it. If you play around with beginner programming and are like, nope, I hate this, then you don’t have to do it. Asking me if I think you’re smart enough to do this won’t help you make the decision. Do you like it? Will you follow through on it? Then that’s your answer. 

Do I think computer programming is for everyone? 

Probably not. That doesn’t change the fact that it is easier today than it has ever been to learn the skills necessary to become one if it’s something you want to do. Learning to code because it’s trendy and could potentially lead to a high salary should not be the only reason you decide to take it on. It can be the reason you start tinkering around, but if it doesn’t resonate, then get out as fast as you can and don’t waste any more of your precious time. However, if you’ve spent some time on your own and you’ve decided you love it, then fantastic! Check out my other blog post, So You Want to Attend a Coding Bootcamp.

Do you have to know how to code to change careers into tech? 

Absolutely not. There are tons of jobs available for people with all sorts of backgrounds. I hear stories of educators who become product or project managers. Folks who worked retail nailing it in sales. What’s important is that you evaluate the skills you already have and figure out how they fit into the jobs that are available. Then fill in the gaps. Maybe that means taking a Salesforce course, or learning design concepts, or becoming a Scrum Master. Don’t suffer through learning to code if you don’t like it. I do think having some knowledge of coding concepts can give someone a leg up in tech roles that work directly with engineers, but that doesn’t mean you have to be good at it or ever write it. Learning to code can act as a way to communicate within the tech world, but it isn’t absolutely necessary unless you want to be an engineer.

Read more from Carla Stickler on Linkedin.

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