From Scientist to Developer: Why I Restarted my Career as a Big Nerd Ranch Intern

Blithe Rocher's Headshot
Blithe Rocher

How many interns do you know with a Ph.D.? This summer, I may have become the first.

A passion for learning and teaching

I’ve spent most of my adult life patiently and diligently earning higher education degrees: first a bachelor's in chemistry, then a doctoral degree in physical chemistry. Growing up, I loved solving problems and building things, and studying chemistry and going to grad school allowed me to nourish those curiosities. I felt like I never wanted to stop learning. Along the way, I also developed a love for teaching. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to share something new with others and in some way change the course of another's life through knowledge. And so a career as an academic professor seemed like the perfect fit for my love of tinkering and teaching.

But when I finished graduate school and the time came to find a tenure-track position, I began to really assess my priorities. As much as I loved teaching bright students and solving hard problems in the lab by designing and running experiments, fulfilling this career goal would require serious compromises: most tenure-track positions require relocating to a new state and a lifelong commitment to one university. The inflexibility and relocation requirements helped me realize that academia might not be the ideal path for me.

A New Path

In the meantime, I started learning to program, first by building my personal website, and then for fun while working on a side project to help dog owners find dog walkers in their neighborhoods. The quick progression of my technical ability and the serious shortage of skilled developers led me to consider a new career path as a programmer, especially as the quality of life for developers and the flexible work environment seemed to align well with my priorities.

Because Big Nerd Ranch plays such a significant role in the Ruby on Rails community in Atlanta, it wasn’t long before I was introduced to the Nerd way of life. My first encounter with Big Nerd Ranch was at the Rails Girls workshop in Atlanta. The feeling of being in a room full of women learning to code was inspiring. Although I already had some programming experience, the Rails Girls event at Big Nerd Ranch gave me the encouragement I needed to finalize my decision to leave academia.

In the days following the event, I began to plan my transition from scientist to developer. I continued working on my personal side projects and I attended Big Nerd Hack Nights and the local ATLRUG meetup. The Ruby community in Atlanta and the developers at Big Nerd Ranch were extremely supportive; it seemed like everyone I met wanted to help. I started to feel like part of the community and I gained enough confidence to begin looking for developer positions in Atlanta.

Building skills

Due to my lack of a formal education in computer science, I assumed it would be difficult to make the switch. Luckily, Big Nerd Ranch gave me a shot at becoming a developer by hiring me as an intern. A summer internship was just the opportunity I needed to build confidence and to prove my skills as a developer. During the internship I was able to work on internal projects as well as external client projects. I worked closely in a team of other developers to ensure that I was shipping excellent code and that my clients were happy with the results. Even though I was just an intern, I was already starting to feel like a real, professional developer and part of the Big Nerd Ranch team.

My internship has nurtured my progress towards becoming a professional developer. Every day I get to tackle new challenges and build awesome things. I’m constantly learning from those around me and I also get to do a little teaching. When I was offered an opportunity to follow up the internship with a position as a full-time developer, I enthusiastically took it.

Big Nerd Ranch feels like home to me. I can’t imagine a better place to grow and learn and I am looking forward to starting my career as a developer here.

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