My journey into tech: from finance to frontend engineering
Discover Alex Marshall's journey from finance to frontend engineering. Learn how passion and community involvement can reshape careers in tech.
The Frontend Mentor team·
30 Oct 2023
Meet Alex Marshall, a former corporate finance and risk management professional turned senior front-end engineer after 15 years. Alex was seeking more creativity and job satisfaction in his life. This motivated him to teach himself how to code, eventually leading him to enrol into a coding bootcamp and ultimately securing a role at a tech scale-up!
Alex did not just seek personal and professional growth but also dedicated his spare time to advising other developers and giving them feedback on their projects. His desire to help others and guide them through their tech journeys made him a notable member of the Frontend Mentor community and a moderator of the Discord community.
Alex’s story is inspiring to any person looking to get into development, no matter their background or current career path. Read Alex’s full story below!
Four years ago, I made a bold career move. I left behind a 15-year corporate tenure to step into the world of frontend engineering.
My career journey took me through various roles – quality assurance, software implementation consultant, business analyst, and finally, product manager in the traditional and slow-moving world of commodity finance and risk management. I wanted to be in a more creative industry, one I could take pride in, but I had no clear direction. Then, I discovered web development, particularly frontend, and realised it was the change I sought.
Today, I'm a senior frontend engineer in a fast-paced scale-up, and I'd like to share my journey and the lessons I've learned.
Discovering a new passion
My previous career was something I stumbled into rather than something I was genuinely passionate about, but I became proficient at it, and it paid well. For 15 years, I navigated the world of legacy software, witnessing minimal change. Much of my time was spent interacting with the software's users, experiencing firsthand their frustrations. Despite hours spent writing improvement specifications, there was often no time or budget to implement changes. Software releases, when they occurred, often merely patched existing issues, stifling innovation.
However, in 2019, a pivotal moment arrived when we had an opportunity for a greenfield project, a chance to build a new proof of concept. Unfortunately, there was no engineering capacity available. My boss and I decided to take matters into our own hands. He had a background in engineering from 20 years before, and I had dabbled in coding occasionally, working with SQL and some Java. Another business area had just begun experimenting with Angular, a new way to build user interfaces, and we decided to follow suit.
For about a year, I devoted my free time to honing my development skills whenever possible. I revisited all the freeCodeCamp courses and delved deeper into Angular, exploring every article I could find. My drive for professionalism led me to study software engineering books, particularly focusing on software design, unit testing, and test-driven development. While I was far from mastering these skills, I was determined to prevent the creation of buggy software, having experienced its frustrations firsthand.
During this period, I made progress in my coding proficiency. However, I lacked a clear plan to transition from someone with basic coding knowledge, confident in my ability to learn quickly, to a full-time software engineer.
The bootcamp experience
I devoted a few weeks to researching the bootcamp, scrutinising its curriculum, and attending a final presentation by a cohort of students. Their projects, built after just a few months of coding experience, were impressive. Conversations with these students highlighted their positive experiences and anticipation of becoming software engineers. The projects struck me the most, as I had always struggled with coming up with exciting and manageable ideas. The prospect of assistance in this area was highly appealing.
With my decision made and sufficient savings to sustain me for up to a year, I enrolled in the course, planning to start in April 2020. However, less than two weeks later, the UK entered its first COVID lockdown, causing me some panic. I was leaping into the unknown amidst unprecedented global change. My original bootcamp was cancelled, and I scrambled to find an alternative. Fortunately, I found one that had transitioned to a fully remote format beginning in June.
This course differed slightly because it didn't promise to start from scratch; it expected participants to possess a reasonable coding foundation. This suited me perfectly, as I preferred not to spend money learning the basics of variables or for loops.
Following a brief two-week break, the second half of the course shifted focus to projects – one solo project and two group projects. These projects showcased our full-stack development skills to potential employers. They provided valuable experience working in teams and implementing professional engineering practices like git workflows, agile project planning, and test automation.
Transitioning into the workplace (job hunt experience)
In the final week of the bootcamp, our focus shifted to job preparation. We polished our resumes, updated our LinkedIn profiles, and underwent mock technical interviews. With preparations complete, it was time to dive into the job hunt.
The most significant challenge during this phase was battling the fear of rejection. The job market was particularly volatile due to the ongoing impact of COVID, intensifying anxiety and making it difficult to concentrate on job applications.
I turned to LinkedIn, where numerous job listings awaited, each offering a convenient one-click Easy Apply option. Unfortunately, I didn't get any replies from these applications. Even though I didn’t have direct engineering experience, I have worked with engineers for 15 years and have collaborated with software users. I recognised these skills could be an asset in an engineering role; I just needed to convey their value effectively.
Moving away from LinkedIn's Easy Applies, I turned to more specialised job boards that allowed direct communication with hiring companies, bypassing external recruiters. A company noticed my profile on one of these platforms and appreciated my previous product experience. They were looking for engineers who could also work on driving product requirements.
I went through a short interview process with them, and a week later, they extended a job offer.
While some of my friends from the bootcamp were having a lot of success finding jobs and dealing with multiple offers, I saw my first job as a way to start my career. I was happy to accept the offer and begin my journey into the field.
Lessons from my first job and teaching
In December 2020, I started my first engineering role, marking a significant milestone after nine months of transitioning from my previous career. The initial week presented challenges due to the company's inexperience with remote onboarding. It took several days to establish a functional development environment. However, once I was set up, my learning and preparation gave me the skills to contribute substantially to the codebase.
Early on, a vital lesson emerged: the importance of setting ego aside. I entered a sizable legacy codebase that had evolved over the years, often deviating from React best practices. Initially, I tried to refactor and modernise the code. However, I soon recognised the enormity of the task, especially without the aid of TypeScript, and the minimal business value it would bring. Instead, I learned the value of making smaller, more practical changes while adapting to the existing code.
Simultaneously, I took on a teaching role at the bootcamp, which started during my job hunt on Saturdays and continued for two years. I found that teaching was an effective way to learn from one's mistakes and those of the hundreds of students I interacted with. Their diverse errors and challenges broadened my experience and perspective, enriching my career journey. Furthermore, sharing insights from my industry job gave students valuable alternative viewpoints.
My first job was a great chance to learn what worked well and what needed improvement. This applied not just to the code but also to how things were set up and organised. It influenced what I looked for when finding my next job, which I've been really happy with for the past 18 months.
Advice for aspiring frontend engineers
Based on my experience transitioning into frontend engineering, here are five crucial insights:
- Continuous Learning: Embrace the ever-evolving nature of the field. Stay updated by engaging in developer communities, following experts on social media, and consuming relevant content like articles and podcasts.
- Project Practice: Gain practical experience by working on real projects. Frontend Mentor projects closely mimic real-world development, providing an ideal practice ground.
- Networking: Build a network of fellow developers. Seek assistance and share knowledge within communities like the Frontend Mentor Discord. Attend local meetups or online conferences to connect with peers and learn from their experiences.
- Transferable Skills: Recognise and leverage non-engineering skills from your previous career that can enhance your engineering role. Highlight these skills to make yourself a more appealing candidate.
Above all, remember to enjoy the journey. Frontend engineering can be a fulfilling career; maintaining your passion, especially during challenges, is key to success.
In less than four years, I transitioned from a 15-year corporate career to a senior frontend engineer in a dynamic scale-up. Though not easy, this journey reflects the possibilities for those seeking a fulfilling tech career change.
From dealing with legacy software, I found a passion for web development, driven by the satisfaction of seeing my code changes directly impact the end user. This made me even more determined to turn this newfound interest into my profession.
Continuous improvement and project practice were vital during the self-learning phase. A clear plan emerged when I discovered a web development bootcamp.
The bootcamp experience was intense and transformative, challenging me to explore various facets of web development. It was a period of immense growth, individually and as part of a supportive group.
Transitioning to the workplace brought challenges, notably the fear of rejection. Persistence and the recognition of my unique skills led to landing my first engineering role.
Teaching alongside my job provided a rich learning experience and the opportunity to share my journey with others. Lessons from my first job laid the foundation for identifying what I sought in future roles.
I offer aspiring frontend engineers five essential insights: embrace continuous learning, build a strong foundation, practice through real projects, nurture your network, and leverage transferable skills from your past experiences. Throughout this journey, remember to find joy in the process, as it is the key to a rewarding career in frontend engineering.
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