Colt Steele offers 5 tips to build a second career in software engineering

He’s taught would-be startup founders, stay-at-home parents and members of the military, but when Colt Steele looks back at some of his top students, he immediately thinks of a pair of senior citizens from Berkeley, California.

“They were some of the best in the class at that time,” Steele, an instructor who says he has helped train an estimated 750,000 developers around the world, told CourseCompare in a recent interview. “They were so eager and so diligent, and now they have their own company.”

Colt Steele Springboard
Colt Steele

Steele hopes to see similar success stories through the recent launch of a Software Engineering Career Track program he developed in partnership with Rithm School, and which launched through San Francisco-based Springboard in January.

The online, self-paced program is not only aimed at students who want to enter the workforce as developers but those who see software engineering as a second career.

Steele suggested that, despite all the opportunities the field offers, few programs have been able to provide an experience that recognizes the unique personal and professional pressures that come when you’re considering a career change.

“Not everyone can just stop their current job and move across the country to stay at a super-expensive San Francisco apartment for five or six months,” he pointed out. “Our goal is to make sure that people can still work in a job. They can still be a parent.”

Steele offered some lessons learned that could help others who are mulling a second career ensure they’re on the right track from the very beginning.

1. Be Ready to Adapt to Changing Market Needs

Although he has a long track record as an educator, Steele and his team took time to conduct detailed interviews with those in industry, recruiting professionals and developers who were already well established. It became clear that HR departments can’t always keep up with the pace at which technology is changing.

“I still think a lot of job descriptions are inadequate,” he says. “Software engineering is a relatively fractured discipline, with so many different languages, frameworks and tools that each company can use. Add into that the disconnect between the engineering teams and the hiring team or the recruiting team and then trying to boil (all the job requirements) down.”

The answer, he says, is being ready to prove you can solve problems rather than match a series of bullet points in a particular job posting. This is why the Springboard course is so project-focused, he says — giving students plenty of work to show as a portfolio to potential employers.

2. What You Learn For A Second Career Should Take Your Farther Than Your First

While the course Steele helped develop with Springboard covers Python, SQL and the latest JavaScript frameworks, the ideal outcome is to develop a student’s versatility. That’s why he says he has no problem surprising students with an assignment to create something in a language they’ve never studied before.

“We want students to be ready for anything,” he says, adding that there is always support for students so that they don’t go into such assignments feeling helpless. “Once you get to a certain level of experience, you can be a JavaScript developer who knows React.js front to back, but then you can take a job where you’ll also need to learn Angular. It’s not just about teaching software engineering, but a process of teaching people how to learn.”

3. Find Teachers Who Love Listening As Much As (Or More Than) Lecturing

“When I first started teaching software engineering, I used to think, ‘I gotta talk about every possible thing, I gotta keep going, because people are paying to listen to me talk and teach them something,’” he says. “Today, I realize that I need to talk the least amount possible, because people really learn the most whenever I’m not talking.”

Given that those pursuing a second career may need to prove themselves early on, Steele says two-thirds of their time in a course should be spent on the kind of things everyday developers do. This includes managing projects, fixing buggy code and so on.

4. Don’t Count On Willpower Alone To Make Your Second Career A Reality

As productive and effective as he is, Steele admits he has good days and bad days. So do his students, which is why many dreams of a second career never turn into anything more.

“If you are enjoying (a course) enough to make it through the content, a lot of people will, but there’s nothing really keeping you there other than your own interest,” he says. “It’s easy to have tonnes of motivation one day or wake up a week later and not feel into it.”

That’s why Springboard’s program includes weekly check-ins with mentors, who not only review code but students’ overall progress. 

“If we notice someone hasn’t completed a project or watched a video in the last week,  or if there’s a pattern of spending every Monday-Tuesday on the program for three hours and then there’s a week where they haven’t done anything, we reach out.”

5. Consciously Cultivate The One Quality The Best Second Career Software Engineers Possess

Steele says he makes sure every exercise he offers in a program includes an area for further study at the end. Most students may decide to ignore those sections, but not all. Students who tap into their innate curiosity may have the best long-term job prospects of all, he says, whether they’re studying software engineering or anything else.

“Even if they don’t get it right, the students who are interested in attempting those extra things are adding to their skill sets,” he says. “Those are the ones, in my experience, who go on to find the second career they really want.”

Learn more about how governments like the Province of Ontario help with financial support for students through the Second Career program, and visit Springboard to get more details on its Software Engineering Career Track program.