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Don’t go broke learning to code

Coding schools and college degrees are great. Consider alternative routes if you have them.

This morning as I was lurking on Reddit, I was struck by a post in r/financialindependence. The user, a mechanical engineer, hated his job and wanted to quit to seek out a new gig as a programmer. He had enough savings to get by in the mean time, but he was afraid that quitting and spending a year unemployed while learning new skills would prevent him from his goal of financial independence.

This idea isn’t unique to programming, of course. Learning new skills is time consuming and often requires some sort of investment. The binary set of choices in the user’s mind is also not unique to this user. So many people seem to believe that you have to give up your paycheck to pursue a career change.

My experience and my general philosophy of work tell me otherwise. But before I defend my position, I’ll start with a mea culpa. In many cases, you might find that taking a break from your full-time job does cost you money, and you should accept it and be ok with that (if you can afford to take the hit). I’d suggest that if you really hate your job and quitting brings you more happiness, then perhaps that is the right choice for you if you have the resources to deal with the shock. But that doesn’t mean you stop working and stop earning an income.

Answer the question: how much money do you need to survive and nothing more? Can you live a lean lifestyle on, say, half of what you make currently? I believe that many people can if they are willing to sacrifice and accept it as a short-term solution. If so, you may find that replacing your job with something that requires fewer advanced skills and is more flexible in the short term (waiting tables, for example) is the right choice. But you need to do this with an action plan, and the end of that plan should be a more fulfilling role that starts you on the path towards a more fulfilling career.

It’s not the end of the world if you stop investing in your retirement for a while and invest a little in your skills.

That said, you probably have other options. This is my story, and while it may or may not work for you, don’t write it off completely without seeking out opportunities.

I’m a web developer, and I’ve been doing this thing for about two years now. I previously worked in public relations, and a few years ago I took a pay cut to join a startup. I taught myself the basics of code on my employer’s dime because he needed me to do it; clients had needs, and it was cheaper for my boss to train me rather than hire a real developer. I eventually found another job in the web space working as a project manager. At this job, I was lucky enough to work with real programmers who I could learn from both at work and after hours. After a year of that I convinced the partners of my company allow me to me prove my skills as a junior developer and make a transition to that team.

The result? I’m a gainfully employed developer with no debt from code school, no gap year, and no regret related to my financial situation.

Financial independence is a great mindset and early retirement a noble goal, but you don’t have to work at a job you hate to attain it. It’s also not the end of the world if you stop investing in your retirement for a while and invest a little in your skills. If you are creative enough to find jobs in the tech space using your existing skills but are somewhat analogous to the job that you want, attack those opportunities with vigor, provide real value to your employer, put in the extra time to learn, and then make the case for a change when you feel like you’re ready. If your employer is smart and understands the value you provide, they may be convinced to support you every step of the way.