Why teachers make good software engineers
By Paula Aven Gladych for Hack Reactor
Evelyn Binkard was a public school band director for nine years before deciding to change careers and become a software engineer.
“I was not a typical classroom teacher, but I was still going through pretty similar challenges there. I realized that what I was doing was very repetitive and, while emotionally challenging, I did feel like I was solving the same problems day to day and starting over again every year,” she says. “The problems were very similar and I didn’t feel challenged on an intellectual and logical level.”
She wanted to get out of teaching because she wasn’t sure she could handle the emotional challenges until retirement- she wasn’t sure she would even be able to retire with the way education was going in her home state of Texas.
Binkard decided to take the Hack Reactor coding bootcamp over the summer and now she is gainfully employed as a software engineer.
“While I do miss my students and colleagues a lot, I’m having a good time in my first few months of a new career,” she says.
Teaching helped prepare her for her new career. The Hack Reactor program, which is three months of intensive work, didn’t phase her because she was used to spending that amount of time honing her craft and becoming the best she could be in her profession, she says.
“Eleven hours a day, six days a week wasn’t super strange to me coming from the public school band director world.”
Teachers are used to bringing work home and having grueling after-school schedules.
“From the bootcamp side of things, being willing to be present in the moment and focus on the task at hand is something teaching sets you up for really well,” Binkard adds.
In software engineering, like teaching, you have to plan with the end in mind. Once you have a goal, you need to break that goal into smaller goals. In teaching, Binkard had to decide what she wanted her students to be able to do by the end of the school year and then figure out how to fit those skills into the weekly and monthly schedule.
“I feel that software engineering kind of follows a similar method of problem-solving,” she says.
In software engineering, people have access to gigantic code bases. If the end goal is building an application to upload files you then have to figure out what the data has to look like to do that and how to configure the front end to send that data to a database, she says.
“It comes down to a really good problem-solving strategy. All the languages are secondary to just being a really good problem solver,” she says.
Matt Winzer, a Hack Reactor Software Engineering Immersive instructor, says that the three-month intensive bootcamp seems to attract life-long learners, like teachers, who are unafraid of continuously honing their skills.
“In technology, everything moves and changes so quickly. If you are not actively learning, you are falling behind,” Winzer says.
He adds that teachers value education and learning and already spend time investing in their own continued development. “I think software development matches that natural tendency,” he says.
“I’ve observed that a lot of teachers or former teachers make good software engineers because they are attracted to the idea of continually learning but are generally cognizant of the value of being able to explain a topic to someone else,” he adds.
One common stereotype that persists, because it might be true, is that many people in technology fields are not natural communicators.
Teachers have to have good communication skills, which gives them an edge over their competitors.
Software engineering, in general, has changed. No longer do individuals work in isolation developing their own programs without having to speak with anyone else. Today, companies promote teamwork and collaboration and former teachers’ “interpersonal skills are a benefit in scenarios that require those skills along with technical skills,” Winzer says.
Teachers are great at verbalizing and communicating their thought processes and justifying the choices they’ve made in how they’ve written their software.
“Teachers have a natural curiosity. They desire that depth of understanding to talk about it and communicate about it,” Winzer says.
Teachers also know how to get along with a variety of people.
Teachers are good managers of their time. Being able to juggle a number of different things at once is definitely a skill, he adds.
Meg Viar, a senior software engineer in Richmond, Virginia, was a middle school earth science teacher, working with seventh graders until she decided to make the switch to software engineering. A graduate of the Hack Reactor software engineering bootcamp, Viar agrees with Winzer in that a teacher’s experience with learning is one of the best skills they bring over to the software engineering side.
Her current job mirrors project-based learning in the classroom, she says. As in teaching, she currently fills out KWL charts on every project she works on listing what she knows, what she wants to know and what she learned.
“Using all those different techniques for formalizing learning in that informal learning space at work has been really beneficial and helped me to grow pretty quickly,” she says.
Another benefit of her teaching background is her comfort with iteration. If she had a new lesson plan that she taught throughout the day at her school, by the end of the day, she had tweaked the curriculum and changed how she taught the subject matter based on what she learned from her earlier classes. The same goes for software development.
You have a design, user feedback in the form of comments, behavior or performance on tasks, she says.
If you have the time and the means, you can change your approach based on this feedback.
“The people element is so underemphasized sometimes, particularly in technology. There can be this idea of rock star lone wolf developers going off and building an app on their own. In reality, being able to communicate and empathize is very important,” Viar says.
Teachers are also very aware of the varying abilities of their students, from exceptional to facing challenges.
“As a teacher, I think about how people of all abilities will use software. I’ve talked to other engineers and that is not something they think about, keeping in mind the breadth of the user base,” she says. That means being able to accommodate someone using a screen reader or have tags on everything so that someone who is color blind will know which box to click.
“If you have an icon, you should have text associated with it to say what the icon represents,” she adds.
Software engineering revolves around the extensive planning that happens before a project begins. In a classroom it is very similar, Viar says. In a science class, for instance, the teacher works beforehand to set up labs and create activities and spaces conducive to exploration and learning. Once all that is done, all the teacher has to do when class starts is walk around and interact with students, asking probing questions.
“I kind of now see parallels in creating an app, which is an environment that is meant to encourage users to behave in a certain way or interact in a certain way and certain experiences or outcomes,” she says.
Teachers are also great at dealing with pressure and stress, Winzer says. The ability to manage their feelings and emotions and regulate stress is very “relevant to a bootcamp style program and is also relevant in the industry,” he says.