From Administrator to Web Developer, Speaker, And Lifetime Learner

“Undervaluing myself was my biggest mistake.”

Image of Gem Barrett

From Administrator to Web Developer, Speaker, And Lifetime Learner

When she signed up for a programming course, Gem Barrett never dreamed it would form the basis for a career that makes her "indescribably happy". She's overcome negative opinions, learned some tough lessons, and discovered that work can be so much more than just paying the bills. This is her story.

What work were you doing previously?

My previous roles included administration, security, and graphic design.

What are you doing now?

I'm a web developer, about to start a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship at the Open Tech Institute in Washington DC.

Why did you change?

I just tried something new, found that I loved it and wanted to carry on doing it.

I discovered that work didn't have to be something you just do to pay the bills – it could actually be something you enjoy doing. I think I really needed a challenge in my life, an opportunity to succeed and show myself that I could achieve. Now I'm constantly seeking the next challenge.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

My father had recently died, I was between jobs and I was very depressed.

My mother encouraged me to take an Open University (OU) course to learn some new skills. We took a basic web development course together and I fell in love with programming – the idea that I could build something new and unique using a logical combination of words had a profound effect on me.

Are you happy with the change?

Indescribably happy.

I could never go back to what I was doing before. Because of my career change, I've worked on the websites of global brands, built up a reputation as a speaker and I'm about to move to another country to use my skills to improve people's lives. I would never have had those opportunities if I'd stayed on my old career path.

What do you miss and what don't you miss?

I sometimes miss getting enough sleep!

Other than that, I don't miss any of it, particularly not the boredom, lack of challenge, or doing the same thing every day (and the prospect of that happening for the rest of my working life).

Technology is a huge part of my life now – I don't just work in tech, I learn in my spare time. I'm just about to finish my BSc in IT, Computing and Design through the OU, and my social interactions both online and offline are usually related to tech in some way.

It's such an exciting and fast-paced field to be in, I can't help but be involved in it to that extent.

How did you go about making the shift?

It started with a three-month OU course in basic HTML and CSS.

I decided to try something a bit more advanced with my next course, which taught me Javascript and algorithmic thinking. I'd never been very good at maths, so the realisation that programming wasn't beyond my capabilities was astounding!

By that time I was picking up the occasional graphic design freelance project, so I started to use my skills in real-world projects by offering website design and development to my graphic design clients. After a few months, I became overwhelmed by the amount of work coming in, so I started running my own business part time.

Working on real projects, learning through the OU, and other online resources helped me to improve my skills quickly and gain momentum in my career. After running my business for a few years, I decided to go back into full-time employment as a web developer and designer in London. Soon afterwards, I decided to take the plunge, dropping the design side of my work in order to focus wholly on coding.

I still design occasionally, but only for personal projects – having that focus on coding has enabled me to hone my skills and boost my learning even more.

What didn't go well? What 'wrong turns' did you take?

Undervaluing myself was my biggest mistake.

I wasn't very good at charging people for my time; I allowed myself to get walked all over in some situations – to the point where I was working through the night for free.

As I got more confident, the situation improved, but it was definitely a stumbling block that took a while to get past.

How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?

In order to keep myself afloat at the beginning, I got help from my family, a small bank loan for my business, and worked two part-time jobs alongside studying and getting my business going.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

The most difficult part has been trying to get support from other people.

I've had to distance myself from plenty of people who didn't see why I was working so hard for this change. Recognising the negativity for what it was, and removing myself from such draining influences was a hard thing to do, but necessary if I was going to achieve what I'd set out to do.

Equally difficult was remembering to look after myself. The momentum got very addictive; it was too easy to eat and sleep badly and feel guilty for taking time out for myself. Related to this was a feeling of having to make up for lost time spent on my previous career, so I pushed myself extra hard to get further along my new path. While I was able to achieve extraordinary things in a short amount of time this way, I soon realised it wasn't a sustainable or healthy way to live.

What help did you get?

My family and close friends have been extremely supportive and a great source of positivity during the hard times. Their enthusiasm really helped me to stay on track when others were telling me to give up.

Learning to take breaks to refocus and look after myself has been a hard lesson to get help with. Whenever people would tell me I was doing too much, I would assume they were being negative and simply didn't understand my motivation. It wasn't until I was four years into my career change that I realised I was burning out.

That was a wake-up call. I forced myself to go 'off the grid' for a few days to rest and recuperate. Since then I've been eating more healthily, exercising regularly and learning to take time to relax. I still have to check myself from time to time to avoid another burnout, but I've definitely improved.

What have you learnt in the process?

Aside from the technical skills and greater awareness of how the technology that surrounds us works, I've learned a lot about myself and others.

I've learned to recognise the difference between advice based on experience, and negativity that has a fear of change at its root.

I now understand that I can get very obsessive over work that I enjoy and that there doesn't seem to be a limit to how much I want to learn – I certainly won't get bored in future!

I'm still in the process of learning how to balance that passion for my work with taking time for myself, but I think that's something everyone has to deal with when they find a career that they really enjoy.

What do you wish you'd done differently?

I wish I'd met up with other developers earlier in my career.

I think I attended my first meetup around two years after starting on my career change; that was such a great evening for me – being around all these other people who spoke the same language and were excited by the same things was fantastic. Because I'd been studying on my own and only knew one or two people who had any programming experience, it was easy to become isolated.

I think if I'd gone to more meetups and conferences early on then I would've learned a lot more a lot faster and wouldn't have struggled so much with issues like confidence, access to additional learning resources and how to keep up to date in such a fast-paced industry.

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

I would advise others to get to as many meetups and conferences related to their new career as possible. The more people you meet from whom you can learn, the better. People generally love to share their expertise on a matter, so don’t be shy in asking!

I'd also recommend sharing the knowledge you gain (whether it's through speaking or writing) as you go along, too. It not only encourages others but it builds your confidence by helping you to realise how much you've learned.

What resources would you recommend to others?

There's so much to be learned from the experiences and skills of others; I really can't recommend attending meetups and conferences highly enough.

I'd also recommend seeking out other opportunities for immersing yourself in your chosen industry – online blogs, magazine articles, courses and mentoring.

Without the OU I wouldn't have found my passion for technology, so I highly recommend looking through its course list and trying out a few which pique your interest – you never know which direction a new course could take you in.

There are also plenty of online learning opportunities for trying out new things – Codecademy and Code School are brilliant for an introduction to programming, and Udemy also has a huge range of great introductory courses for learning a wide variety of skills.

What lessons could you take from Gem's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at hello@careershifters.org.