Why I left my nonprofit marketing job to learn full stack development
I pursued a career in the nonprofit field because I wanted to solve social challenges alongside a group of passionate people. I just left my nonprofit job after 8 years to study software engineering for the same reason.
From prioritizing passion to prioritizing problem solving
Many people enter the nonprofit sector with the hope of aligning their career with their personal passion to better society. I was one of them. When I finished college with a communications degree in 2013, I believed my career would only be meaningful if my job directly supported an important social cause. I felt strongly that working for a nonprofit was the best way to achieve this goal. My post-college career journey began with the assumption that my motivation and excitement about work would naturally arise from knowing each task supported an explicit social mission.
As I gained experience and took on more nonprofit roles, from managing volunteers to marketing initiatives, I realized that personally connecting to the mission wasn’t the determining factor in meaningful work. The specific mission mattered on a high level, but what motivated me more were exciting, difficult problems and the process of figuring out how to solve them.
While working on projects like planning a summer camp and developing an annual communication plan, the drive and sense of meaning primarily came from overcoming concrete problems and helping others achieve specific goals. It was much less mission-dependent than I expected, which challenged my view that I would only find meaningful and impactful work in the nonprofit sector.
In 2020 I started to look beyond my nonprofit marketing role and explore a wider range of career paths. Web development stood out; the field involves life-long learning, problem solving, and collaboration — with the potential for large-scale, positive impact.
Software as a tool for good
Technology makes it possible to build and scale solutions to social challenges in powerful ways. When COVID-19 arrived in early 2020, I was working at a nonprofit that provides job training and employment services. As the pandemic caused widespread unemployment, these services became even more important. Applications like Zoom and Google Drive made it possible for us to quickly shift our in-person trainings to a safer online format.
Beyond providing practical services for daily work, technology can inform decision making and planning through data access and analysis. For example, the LandPKS mobile app provides tools and resources to help users practice sustainable land management. Users can monitor data on their land’s soil health, vegetation, and other key factors to evaluate the effectiveness of their current practices. LandPKS also created a habitat module in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Colorado that helps users learn how to foster habitats for local species on their land.
If you’re interested in a creative example of how tech is being used to address social challenges, check out Project Owl. They developed both hardware and open source software that helps restore communications in areas impacted by natural disasters like hurricanes.
The nonprofit field tends to attract individuals who value collaboration and community. As I’ve started learning about programming and web development, I’ve seen these same values on display, especially in the open source community. There are also an incredible amount of free resources that help people learn to program. As a newcomer to the field, I have felt welcomed and encouraged.
In the spirit of supportive community, here are a few of the resources I’ve found helpful while starting this journey:
- CodeNewbie — Community for people learning to code that offers helpful articles and podcasts geared toward newbies. >> I learned about the Owl Project mentioned above through a CodeNewbie podcast episode!
- Harvard’s CS50 Course — Harvard makes their CS50 Intro to Computer Science course available online, including lectures and problem sets. This introduced me to core CS concepts like memory, data structures, and algorithms.
Making the move
After spending the summer diving into coding concepts after work, I started to consider next steps. I ruled out pursuing another university degree because of the time and cost involved. Instead, I researched immersive bootcamp programs designed to help people like me make the jump to a new career in web development. I considered a few different options, but Flatiron School’s prep work and philosophy around pursuing mastery and viewing coding as a craft solidified them as my top choice.
In late November, I left my job in nonprofit marketing to start a 5-month software engineering program through Flatiron School. I’m a little over a week in, and I love it. The work is challenging and engaging, and my fellow students have already fostered a culture of support and growth. I look forward to learning alongside them in the months to come.