“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”
Before I started my journey into a new career as a programmer I had eight years of primary school, four years of secondary, four years of tertiary, six years of postgraduate education, plus another six as a postdoctoral trainee before I landed my first job (that’s 28 years for anyone counting). After all those years, it has been humbling to accept that I’m in training once again. Especially when my teachers and fellow students are mainly a decade or more younger than I. The first step to any serious life change, however, is to do away with your pride and accept that you need help to overcome the challenges you face. This is a form of self-dissolution not unlike metamorphosis.
In metamorphosis, the caterpillar digests itself to jelly inside the chrysalis before turning into a butterfly. There are, however, certain elements of the caterpillar, called ‘instars,’ that survive the process. Fortunately, my training has provided me instars of my own that will continue to serve me into the future as a programmer.
Critical thinking: While my doctorate is useless to anyone in need of urgent medical care, it is very helpful in analysing problems and designing solutions. While I used a very different bag of tricks to solve problems in the brain, now I’m learning a new set of skills to solve problems with code. Underlying it all, however, is the ability to analyse a problem, imagine possible solutions and experiment to find the best solution.
Communication: It’s all well and good to be able to solve a problem, but if you can’t communicate it to anyone, there’s little point in doing so. I love teaching. It’s been one of the great joys of my life to guide a student down the path to enlightenment. To do so, however, requires not only a deep understanding of the topic, it also requires the ability to communicate that knowledge effectively. It’s one thing to recite facts in front of a class, it’s quite another to help them build the tools to discover the answers themselves.
Passion: The life of a scientist is full of disappointment. Experiments fail all the time, journal articles get rejected from publication, grants go unfunded for who knows what reason. The one thing that keeps a scientist going is their all-consuming passion for knowledge and understanding. To go beyond what is known and create new ideas, new understanding and new technologies that change the world.
In my metamorphosis, these are the three instars I intend to hold onto as priceless gifts from my past. I am humble enough to know that I don’t have all the answers or the skills and that I need help to get started. My toolkit is being refitted right now with the help of my mentors, colleagues and friends. Soon, however, I will master the fundamentals and begin to shape the future of technology in my new career as a programmer.