Love tech but not sure if you should switch careers? For Toh Hui Min, what started out as a side interest in coding eventually led to a new career. She shares why she made the jump from finance to front-end engineering and how she picked up the skills needed. (Hint: Don’t self-learn alone)
Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be a front-end engineer at Pebbleroad?
I was not anywhere near the industry five years back. I studied Economics and Philosophy in college. During the last semester in my final year, I took a course in programming for one of my electives. That was how I got exposed to programming.
I came out of that intrigued and interested, as I liked the challenge of picking up something completely new and foreign. Post-graduation, I decided to continue with programming on the side. At that point in time, I wasn’t thinking I was going to become a developer. It was more about exploring my interests, like solving simple algorithms and building simple websites.
I was learning on my own and attended meetups, workshops to get a feel of the tech landscape. In 2016, I got exposed to TechLadies, an organisation similar to She Loves Data. I attended one of their meetups where they were advertising for a three-month part-time bootcamp. In the bootcamp, learners get paired with coaches to develop projects for NGOs. I thought it was really cool, because it was like a win-win-win situation, for the NGOs, the ladies, and the coaches. I applied and got accepted into the bootcamp.
On Mondays and Fridays, I would be doing my usual work as a portfolio management analyst. Then on Saturdays from 1-6pm, I would be at the bootcamp. Our project was to build a web application on Ruby on Rails to streamline the TechLadies bootcamp application process. Even though the learning curve was hard, I came out of the experience a little bit more confident, knowing that it was doable. So I started practising with more complicated projects.
Late last year, I found the Thoughtworks Jumpstart! Programme. This one was a full-time bootcamp, and it took me a little bit of consideration to get into that because I had to leave my job of four years. I thought, should I really just quit and dive into tech without fully knowing what’s ahead? In the end, I decided to take the plunge as I knew I would regret the time lost if I passed on the opportunity. In hindsight, I’m so glad to have taken that step of faith.
I’m now in my first job after the bootcamp. It’s been challenging but very exciting. I focus on front-end development where I get to build the user interfaces that our clients see and interact with. Having worked with our design and content teams to build a product together has helped me better understand the human/user aspect to a tech product. A good product is not just about its features. It is equally, if not more important, that the product is designed in a way that is clean, intuitive, and empathetic towards the user.
When did this career choice click for you?
I don’t think I was ever 100% certain, and there are definitely risks (time, finances, etc.) involved with doing a mid-career switch. I was fortunate to have had favorable circumstances where I was willing and able to take the opportunity cost.
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking to switch careers but is unsure?
If circumstances allow and fear is the only thing that’s stopping you, I’d say take a year and try it out. The worst-case scenario is that you lose a year off your previous career path. The best-case scenario is that you make the right decision and never look back.
The tech industry might come across as intimidating for various reasons. It will continue to be until we start stepping in and changing perceptions. By stepping in, you have a part in changing those perceptions. In time, your story might just encourage another career-switcher who is at the same crossroads as you were, to take that plunge.
What did you find helpful to the process of picking front-end skills?
My personal learning style is to get dive in head first and find people to work with. While I think self-learning is important to build knowledge, I find that building things and discussing them with others not only helps refine and solidify my knowledge, I could also pick up soft skills like collaboration and teamwork. That’s part of the reason why I chose to do bootcamps. I would definitely recommend bootcamps over self-learning.
I’m a visual person so when I’m self-learning, I prefer to semi-hack my way to a working prototype first, then find ways to refine and improve. I always have a side-project that I am working on that acts as a sandbox for me to play with new ideas and technologies I have picked up from reading.
What’s a common misconception about being a developer that you would like to correct?
I think people might think—and I also thought the same in the past—that to be a developer, you must know everything. This is not true and unless you have a photographic memory, it is impossible to know and remember everything. Personally, I find that the true skill of a developer is to know how to problem solve (with lots of Googling!) with the right tools.
The more I learn about software development, the more I notice the things I don’t know. When I first started coding, I thought there was one ‘right’ way to a solution. Now, when I see a problem, I know there is no one right way to solve it, and that each solution comes with their own pros and tradeoffs. It’s like the more I know, the more I’m aware of what I don’t know.
In hindsight, the confidence that came with the ignorance pushed me to find a job. Now that I’m in software development, I am just in the beginning of an upward journey of learning.
What are the challenging parts of your work and how do you deal with it?
I think it’s a very humbling thing to start out without any traditional Computer Science training as I’m constantly learning and being challenged. I have to constantly tell myself, that I don’t know everything but I can get better. That’s the personal part.
The tech industry has predominantly been male. Although the gender scales are slowly but surely balancing, perceptions are still catching up. It’s a struggle we have to overcome and I try my best to bring more awareness that our input, opinions, and contributions are equally important.
What’s a passion project that you want to share?
Outside of work, my main interest is coffee. It’s such a beautiful craft, fluid and creative, yet logical and systematic at the same time. I feel the same way about coding. To me, coding is a creative pursuit. While math and logic set the framework, creativity gives me the freedom to build solutions that are designed well and fit for purpose. This is exciting because there are multiple solutions to a problem. It is also empowering because (within the defined structures, of course) we all have creative freedom to build anything we want, in any way we want.