Fluent in 3 months: academia to software engineering
I thought this might be a good time to elaborate on my reasons for choosing to pursue a coding boot camp versus continuing with academia and becoming a professor, which most of my relatives had visualized as my future. I think my passion for foreign languages is clear merely by the title of the blog, but I’ll go so far as to convince you further: Since I was six I wanted to be fluent in at least three languages. I used to study random languages like Old Norse on school nights in high school. I dreamed of documenting an endangered language, and I was on my way to fulfilling it when I did field research in Myanmar and wrote my thesis on a linguistic introduction to the un-described language, Tangkhul. I didn’t leave this “dream” to become a software engineer. My decision to leave academia was completely independent and subsequently left me wandering for a few years since, like my relatives, I too had seen myself pursuing a thesis, working in research, and as a professor since I was in middle school. The only variable that changed was the subject (biology → linguistics).
I recall affirming my decision to quit during one of my morning bike rides while I was writing my master's thesis in Aix-en-Provence. It can be summarized in the following points:
- In truth, academia and research are more competitive than collaborative.
- “Publish or perish.” Need I add more?
- The need to niche in a field and be an expert vs generalist.
- Despite being an expert, you have to pine over jobs and live wherever you are blessed to find one.
- After becoming an expert and slaving over your thesis, it’s usually only read by a small group of academics. There’s little reach to the larger world.
Software engineering is turning into a passion for the same reasons why I left academia and why I loved it:
- You are constantly learning — so many new technologies and you need to be up to date
- The ample amount of research that needs to be done — to learn these technologies, to problem solve, to discover, to build a product, etc.
- It tends to be collaborative
- It’s the most portable profession that comes to mind.
- Most developers I know are generalists, rather than being experts in a random niche feature of one — its an ecosystem and you need to at least be familiar with how the parts work together
- The world is your oyster — you can make small applications in days and have a visual product to share with the world.
The last point resonates with me most deeply. I hope my work can touch more people than would have been possible as an academic. I remember the Tangkhul community I worked with, and how eager they were for a linguist to document their language. I felt a responsibility for them and simultaneously felt guilt for not pursuing a Ph.D. to document their language and guilt for knowing that even if I did continue documenting their language, my thesis would forcibly be my primary focus while developing educational resources for use in their community would be secondary volunteer work. The gamble I took by quitting was not just so I could live anywhere I desired (although that did play a major role), but primarily to develop or collaborate in technologies that would have a bigger impact on the Tangkhul or similar communities than a 500-page thesis ever would. For even if their village didn’t always have electricity, the elders I met had smartphones. Technology has infiltrated even rural communities without a dictionary to their language. Would they use a 500-page thesis in English? Or would they rather applications that they could write in their language and story games for their children? I’ll give it a few years and get back to you.