By Vojtěch Šanca | 26.4.2023

A pedagogue-turned-developer: how did I find my way to IT?

Culture – 15 min read

Software developer Markéta Willis has paved her way to IT through what may appear to be an unexpected journey that had her studying pedagogy, working in the service industry, or undertaking a diplomatic internship in Moscow. The soft skills she gained from this experience are now proving useful for coaching junior developers at Czechitas, creating educational content on Instagram, and communicating with clients at Applifting. Markéta opened up to us about the insights and advice she would share with her past student self.

How does a pedagogy student become a software developer?

I studied pedagogy not because it was my dream to become a teacher but rather because I enjoyed languages and literature. I also found math interesting, but people at our high school assumed that if you were into math or technology, you’d be going to matfyz (Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University). It was considered more of a field for “nerds”. I didn't know that there were so many opportunities in the world of technology, so I wound up choosing pedagogy for its focus on languages.

Nearing the end of my studies, I realized I didn't want to teach. Instead of getting a master's degree, I went to London to gain some experience. I worked in cafés, then spent some time doing an internship at a Czech cultural center in Moscow, and after that, I returned to Prague and worked in recruiting and other office jobs. I was trying to figure out what I enjoy.

Something changed when a former colleague of mine went into IT. She showed me that it wasn't just for guys, that I could also make that change. Until then, I hadn’t known anything about the IT community. It's a shame that the IT industry isn't better marketed.

You mentioned London and Moscow. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

It was during my studies that I had my first international experience. In my second year of university, I did an Erasmus in Ireland. There, in Dublin, I studied pedagogy and literature. It was very typically Erasmus-like. I didn't think of it as an international experience, more of a long vacation.

After my exams, I still had to write the bachelor's thesis. I didn't have any classes anymore, so I moved to London to stay with a family friend and write my thesis there. My supervisor was very accommodating, we did everything online. I spent two and a half years there, earning money by working in cafés. I really enjoyed that. It was an interesting job, working with people and creating a cozy environment they liked to come back to.

However, I wanted to move forward. I was looking for what to do next. I got an opportunity to do an internship at the Czech House in Moscow—one of these cultural centers for Czechs abroad or for foreigners interested in Czech culture. I spent three months in Russia. This experience didn’t set me down the right path either, so I returned to Prague and started working in recruitment, where I finally met the colleague I mentioned earlier, who showed me the way into IT.

You enjoyed working with people when you were abroad. Do you miss that in development?

I think if I were doing just development, then I would miss it. But I also took up teaching at Czechitas, so I still come into contact with people. Working in a café is different, and I’d still enjoy it, but there is a lot of communication in development as well. It's not just for introverts as some people think. You need to have well-developed communication skills.

When you were studying, IT seemed like a field for boys only. Do you think this idea still persists among young students?

I’m not in touch with young people who are about to go off to college. I know that there are organizations that introduce programming to children from the age of six or seven, where they make programs with Scratch—a child-friendly programming language that is more visual, where the individual components are put together like a puzzle. Parents are also quite involved in that. I think the ratio of boys to girls is balanced in these courses. But I don't have any data.

Was there any internal change in your philosophy that led you to these dramatic changes in fields?

I never wanted to go in one direction. I studied the humanities, but then I worked for three or four years in all sorts of positions, countries, and companies. I was open to almost everything. And perhaps it was hiring design engineers back when I worked in recruitment that inspired me. I asked them what kind of job they wanted, and they talked so enthusiastically about it. They had specific requirements for which program they wanted to work in or what they wanted to do. They were incredibly passionate about their craft. I thought it’d be great to have such a hard skill to pursue as well. At that time, I didn't know what it should be, but I did figure it out during the first course at Czechitas.

If you could turn back time, would you study pedagogy and work in the food industry again, or would you go straight into development?

It's hard to say in hindsight. All the college and work experience got me to where I am now. It's not like two years ago, I started from scratch. I could speak English and Russian perfectly, I was well-versed in culture and history, and I had good organizational and soft skills.

But it's definitely a shame that high school teachers don't think about what their students will do for a living instead of just focusing on where they will go off to college. It's possible that if they had shown us in school that IT isn't just programming, that it includes many other positions, I would have studied that field.

Markéta Willis

What advice would you give to young students who want to follow in your footsteps?

First, you need to figure out whether it’s the right thing for you. Going into IT just for the money isn’t the right approach. It's good to be open and make connections with people in the field. They don't necessarily have to be developers. Recruiters, marketers, project managers, and product designers make for great connections too. IT is great in that, for most people, it's not just a job. It's something they enjoy. They are open to helping you if you reach out to them on LinkedIn or Instagram, for example. It's important to do that before you start digging deep into courses and tutorials. Getting in touch with people in the field is the best way to find out what it's really like.

Do you think developers can benefit from networking on LinkedIn? Do you use it yourself?

I do use it. I think that for people from other fields or self-taught individuals, it's necessary to actively work on their personal brand. Everybody has one, even if they’re not actively building it. It's how other people perceive you. When you change fields, you have to put a lot more work into how you present yourself. And LinkedIn is a part of that. It's the first place recruiters and bosses go to when getting info on someone new. If the only thing they find is information about where you studied and where you work, but no photo, it’s not a good look.

Do you think people who are experts in other fields have a good chance of getting into IT?

There's no reason why not. My position was a bit different in that I didn't have a long career in another field. I had a little bit of everything, and then I jumped into programming. But I know people who’d had a job for 15 years—financial auditors, controllers, or translators, for example—who decided to make a career switch to IT because they burned out. And they definitely have a chance to succeed if they enjoy it. It's important that when a person goes to an interview, they don’t try to hide their previous experience but rather use it to their advantage. They shouldn't rewrite their resume to make it look like they’re a junior developer without experience. Instead, it's good to leave their experience from other fields in and explain why they decided to make a change. When we describe that as a story and show how the skills we have transfer, we can benefit from it in IT too.

Do you think recruiters can go off of your motivation without you having the technical knowledge?

It's important for juniors to show recruiters their motivation, enthusiasm, and willingness to learn. But motivation isn't enough. A lot of people tell me that they're interested in and enjoy IT. But besides motivation, you have to have the courage to take the step, have a long-term plan, and be prepared that it may take longer than just three months—as some YouTube videos claim. When a person actually starts learning, motivation takes a bit of a backseat, and it's more about discipline and persistence. Being active in communities where you motivate one another helps with that.

So what are companies looking for?

Soft skills play a huge role. There's no difference between a junior who knows little and a junior who knows very little—their skills are still junior level. The transition to a medior is a bigger step. They must be open to learning and be very adaptable. And that's the most important thing in interviews, motivational letters, and resumes, just wherever a person presents themselves. That’s what they need to be selling, more than the fact that they know how to use Bootstrap.

How much weight do companies give to education? Does it make sense to study at a university or not?

I didn't study IT in college, so I don't really know if the students know anything extra. But people without a degree may be more susceptible to the imposter syndrome. They may ask themselves why they were even hired in the first place.

I think a team made up of only university students will be less creative than a team of people who found their way to IT by other means. Diverse teams are the best, and Applifting knows that.

Have you ever encountered the imposter syndrome in practice?

Yes, with everyone! Especially with myself. I struggled with it a lot in the first few years, and it’s still a struggle now. When I started opening up about it, I found out that the vast majority of people get it. There was this sense of relief in their eyes that they could also talk to someone about it. People are afraid that they will come to work one day and hear, "We made a mistake, you don't belong here."

Do you think it’s a topic people talk about?

I started talking about it, and the more I do it, the better I can put my feelings into words, and the better I can work with them and not feel guilty.

What are the reactions of the people in the community?

I found out that it’s not just juniors but also people who have been working in IT for like five years that can be grappling with the imposter syndrome. It’s possible this is more common in companies where developers work for external clients. There, you have to constantly focus on performing well in order to satisfy each client.

Markéta Willis

How’s programming going for you now? Do you have any goals you want to achieve or areas you want to develop in?

When I joined Applifting, I was a medior. This is what currently motivates me the most. A junior can get stuck in this mindset that it's okay not to know things and to ask questions. And they can stay there for a long time, which is not ideal. But when my team lead said I was a medior, I told myself that I could no longer be that frightened rabbit who asks about everything, that I have to learn to solve problems and errors more independently.

Applifting is also very supportive in the area of soft skills, like giving people the opportunity to be a team leader, so that’s another place where I’m growing. At the same time, I’m trying to get better at things in the long term by teaching people. A good teacher or mentor must be articulate, expressive, and patient.

Do juniors who are at the beginning of their careers come to you and ask what it's like?

When I was changing jobs, I had some free time, so I stepped out of my comfort zone and started an Instagram account. I focus on my programming experience in particular. And it seems that people are into that. That’s probably where most inquiries come from. And then, of course, friends and acquaintances come to me with questions.

What made you start an Instagram account?

Before I started working at Applifting, I’d burned out. I didn’t have a vacation in a long time, COVID was in full swing, and I was exhausted. So when I left, I wanted to take a break. But during that time, I didn't want to just work on my own projects. I was wondering how I could increase my chances of finding a good new job. And I realized that I needed to build a personal brand. That's why I wanted to create an Instagram account.

Do you enjoy it?

It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes, I enjoy it and I'm happy to put up a new post. But every now and then, I'm worried because I feel this great responsibility not to share any nonsense. I'm very cautious. For example, when I make videos with tips and tutorials, I take great care to ensure that all the information is substantiated and that I stand by it.

In addition to educating the community through Instagram, you also teach at Czechitas. How did you get into that?

I did one of their courses called Digital Academy. It is a program that spans three to four months. Students attend four times a week, so it is really intense. Czechitas offers several specializations, and at the time, I chose frontend development. And it was this program that helped me become a coach and, a year later, a lecturer. It’s now the third run in which I am part of the lecturing team.

How do you manage your time with work? It must be demanding for you as a lecturer.

The frontend Digital Academy is a once-a-year thing with a run from March through June. It’s always a very intense period for me, and sometimes, I take days off just for that. But I stay motivated. The great team of people that we have at Czechitas helps me a lot. Each of the lecturers is interested in making the lessons as good as possible, and they take pleasure in that, so they do quality work. It's a good environment to work in.

Do you have any ideas in mind for other initiatives, such as teaching people at Czechitas or your Instagram?

I'm right in the middle of trying to come up with something. I started by trying to find out what people are interested in. I made a questionnaire that I sent out to my network of contacts. That will help me get data on what juniors struggle with the most, which will become the basis for the kind of content I create. I can imagine doing online or offline meetings or workshops, for example.

What would you say to girls who want to get into IT?

I think it's a shame that girls don't believe in themselves. You can see this during lessons at Czechitas or React Girls. In my experience, every question comes with an apology. The girls comment on how they shouldn't be there, that they don't know how to do something, or that they just can't do it. It’s a real shame.

There was this one course where a girl praised us for being able to do things and admonished herself for not being able to. But by the end of the course, we found out that she owned a business, creating websites for clients in WordPress. She had built her own brand and was doing workshops. I explained to her that she was much further along than I was at the time. Just because I knew React didn't mean I was better than her. She had real business experience. It's pointless to put yourself down like that. When you struggle with such feelings, remember that you're not alone. The feeling that you can't do it is just that—a feeling. You just have to give it a try and realize that it’s only in your head. You’ve got what it takes.

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