It doesn’t matter what you majored in*

I’ve encountered a few people recently who have been trying to personally pivot. These people are largely in my age group, and mostly seem to have spent the last several years in an academic setting studying various non-computer-related subjects. And they all seem to be trying to get into computers.

My sampling bias is sky high on this one, especially given that I’m currently attending Hacker School, which more or less says “Come here if you’re interested in learning more about computers” on the tin. But Hacker School aside, I think the trend is something wider-reaching. People want to get into tech. Programming. CS. Hacking. Software Engineering/Architecting/Gardening. Really whichever aspect of computers you could feel like referring to, there seem to be a lot of people kicking themselves for not having been in tech already.

It’s through the maybe sound-bite tech-pop mantra that “software is eating the world”, or an interest in exactly what lies beneath this ocean of complexity in the technology we use today, or even a taking-notice of the sheer profitability of the tech space at-large.

I can relate to this predicament. I started my undergrad intending on studying mechanical engineering. I wrote my first lines of real code (save MSLogo and some basic HTML) during my second semester freshman year mandatory CS course, mandatory for engineering undergrads. I met a group of great people in college, all of whom seemed to be CS majors (or close enough to it) and I began to learn huge swaths of information just through my fantastically nerdy friend group. After some time I switched my major to neuroscience, all while continuing to learn about computers. And finally I switched again, to computer science, and stuck with it long enough to graduate. For me it was in large part through my interest in the brain, in building software that interacts with humans more optimally, and constructing software which ‘thinks’ the way we do. It was also a general disenchantment with academia, and the slowly dawning realization that having programming and computer skill can mean skipping grad school, wielding a powerful, arcane, and conveneintly marketable craft, and importantly (for someone who loves travel) being able to work from anywhere in the world.

Whatever’s gotten us here, I’d really like to say: It doesn’t matter what you majored in. As long as you, and your personal, mental operating-system is installed and ready to go, you’re in the perfect place to learn more about tech.

The whole history of subject-specialization has been one where people from seemingly unrelated backgrounds pivot into new fields, and quickly rack up major contributions because they see things in a different way from the homogeneity pervading the field before their arrival.

Tech is possibly the best example of this, for a couple reasons. The first is an idea I encountered while reading the always-wise ramblings of James Hague over atprog21.dadgum.com. In short, programming knowledge has more potential growing in the fertile substrate of a mind trained in a non-pure-CS field. Hague goes so far as to say that CS shouldn’t be offered as a major in undergrad, and people should only be allowed to minor in it, with a real subject as their major.

The other main key feature with pivoting into tech is the availablility of resources. Learning about computers is one of the best things that can be done with a computer. With other fields, biology for instance, the experts don’t spend all day sitting in front of the internet, so there’s inherently less of their accumulated knowledge available online in the form of blogs, tutorials, and git repositories.

All I really mean to say, at the risk of sounding patronizing, is: don’t beat yourself up for being in your 20s, or 30s, or 40s, or whatever, and feeling sad about not having started learning about computers or programming. There’s definitely a boatload of information to learn and grok. But there’s also plenty of time and resources available and waiting for you. You’ve figured out that you want to start learning about tech, so you’re already on that path. Assuming you’ve done something you’ve found interesting with your past several years on this planet, you will have insight both new and powerful to contribute.

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. I’ve been trying to pivot myself from computers into synthetic biology, and I have an experiment to attend to… maybe I should’ve majored in biochem.

(* It also doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to or didn’t finish university.)

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