Changing careers. It’s not always pleasant.

I’m willing to bet that every day, at least one person reorients their career. It’s just a certainty of life: some people are initially going to choose the wrong field. Yet, when it happens to us, we feel alone. It almost feels like we ended up with the wrong career by mistake, or that we wasted time not working on things we really enjoy. Or both.

You are not alone: I was also on the wrong track for some time (and I’m still not exactly sure of where I’m going!). My resume says I am a physicist. I even have a master’s degree to prove it. However, for the past 2 year, I have been developing software at CONTXTFUL Technologies inc., a startup based in Montreal. How did this shift happen?

Here is my story.

# The Tender Years

Back then, all that mattered were friends and video games. My father was (and still is!) a system administrator at a bank, my mother was a dental hygienist. I played The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages on my Game Boy Color on road trips. I don’t remember much from that period, but I remember I didn’t want my dad’s job: he was not exercising, his back hurt, his knees hurt, and his sleep schedule was out of funk because he kept getting calls in the middle of the night. It seemed like the worst kind of job possible.

As you might expect, this worry-free period didn’t last very long.

# Getting a Diary

On my 8th birthday, I received the “usual” gifts: a backpack, educational PC games, etc. However, my grandparents sneaked in a blank diary. The cover was made of metal, with a big red heart on the front. It had a heart-shaped padlock. It came with a green mechanical pencil equipped with green lead. The gift caught me by total surprise.

I wasn’t immediately sure what I was meant to do with it and, let’s be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see me holding this thing. This is probably the second picture of it I have ever took. To this day, there is no picture of me holding it my hands in any photo album. “Write anything you want in it. You can draw, you can write about how you feel, you can write about your day. Every page filled in this book is a gift to your future self.”, my grandmother told me in French. So I started writing!

That day, I wrote about the birthday I just had, time stamped and all. And thanks to this gift, I can now remember everything.

More than any educational game, that empty book taught me how to write and how to learn from my mistakes. I learned the value of written words, safely guarded in their pages. I knew that whatever I was looking for, that book was the place to look. I knew that whatever I would write today, as insignificant as it seemed, would be cherished by future me for enabling myself to remember.

It honestly reminds me about the principles of documenting software: this diary was my SSOT, my single source of truth. But I digress!

I wrote about all the insecurities I had over the years, the thoughts and reflections. They mostly seem childish now, traces of a different chapter of my life, but at the time they sometimes felt like huge milestones. High school. My first girlfriend. University. Changing careers. Writing is still my best tool put things in perspective, both in space and time.

# Physics in high school

So I enjoyed writing. Big woop. I still had to attend classes every day, where daydreaming was not allowed. Luckily, I really enjoyed my classes. I was fortunate enough to attend a private high school on the South Shore of Montreal. I liked French classes, because I enjoyed writing. I also was interested in Math as well as Science and Technology classes. However, my first Physics class in grade 11 completely rocked my world (in a good way). I was more than enjoying this class, I was invested. I craved learning. The then new concepts of vectors and forces in particular changed my view of the world. I was consumed by the love of Classical Mechanics, thanks to our teacher who did an incredible job at easing us into this revolutionary world.

$$\frac{\vec{F}}{m} = \vec{a} = \frac{\Delta \vec{v}}{\Delta t} = \frac{\frac{\Delta \vec{x}}{\Delta t}}{\Delta t}$$

$$\Delta x = \frac{a(\Delta t)^2}{2} + v\Delta t$$

$$v_f^2 - v_i^2 = 2a\Delta x$$

My desire to apply the new formulas I had learned in class was such that I was inventing problems for fun and showing them off to our teacher. To everyone around I was surely being annoying, but I could not help it. I felt as though, for the first time, I had connected with what I would enjoy doing for the rest of my life. This class, which had become a hobby, could lead into a real career! I was excited. I now wanted to teach physics.

When the time came to choose our study program for Cegep, I chose Health Science, because… I didn’t know Pure Science existed (do your research, kids!). Two biology and an organic chemistry courses later, I quickly realigned and selected a bidisciplinary mathematics-physics program for college. I figured, since I’d had my fill of labs with the biology and chemistry courses, the right choice for me was to opt for a program grounded in fundamental theories (I don’t know how I was so careless during this period. Again, do your research, kids!).

The fun was about to begin.

# Hello World

As I was studying physics for my bachelor’s degree, I was teaching Cegep level physics to adults at college. I was having a blast. Getting paid to do something you enjoy is like getting paid double time. But then, the cracks started to show.

You know that feeling? The more you zoom into perfection, the more you notice the imperfections?

I was feeling it hard. Tutoring is not as easy as it seems. If you give everything you have in each lecture, like I was doing, you are going to run out of steam quickly. I was not prepared for this realization: doing what you enjoy does not make you invincible.

Couple this with the fact that I was hearing left and right how limited the Cegep teaching opportunities were atthe time, my spark for teaching felt the rain. What if I didn’t want to teach physics to young adults for all my life? What if all of this is just one big mistake? How did I get here?

Changing careers. Or, in this case, changing fields. Here I was, faced with a choice. But what were my other options? I was soon about to find out.

In 2013, I attended my first laboratory course at college. Computational Physics. Our first lab was to compile a “hello world” program in C (as physicists, we had a lot to learn about programming). Cool, I guess.

The second lab was to compute gravitational interactions between the earth and the moon. The third one was to compute and plot fractals from a random walkers model. The fourth one was to simulate the spread of diseases in population of random walkers. The fifth one was to simulate cars in traffic…

Wait… My crappy laptop can do all of these simulations? Is there anything it can’t do!?

I was completely mind blown. I had seen the light. Pen and paper just wouldn’t cut it anymore. If I had to do any computations, from now on, it would be using a computer. Duh!

It truly was an ironic twist of fate, because I had sworn I would never follow my dad’s footsteps, but I ended up doing just that.

# Landing a Software Job

I quickly realized that a bachelor’s degree in physics by itself is not enough to land a decent job. So what did I end up doing? If you guessed “get a master’s degree in physics, despite the revelation that my future lied with computers”, you’d be right! For some reason, another degree in physics felt like the right path. I chose a field of physics that was completely dependent on computers: particle physics. Was it a mistake? Should I have studied software engineering instead?

Maybe. I will never know.

Hindsight is 20/20. Take it from me: you cannot feel bad for doing what felt like the courageous choice at the time. In defeat, better feel courageous than foolish.

As I was finishing writing my master’s thesis, the deadline for deciding my “next move” was also approaching. I tried to search in my network who could help me land a job in the software industry.

The first person who helped me out was my Introductory C++ teacher. He worked at Morgan Stanley and told me he could get me an interview. “Sounds like a plan!”, I said. I was handed study material, tried my best to absorb it all. In the back of my head, I thought it was a win-win situation. Either I got the job, or I would learn what an interview in the software world feels like. In the end, I completely failed the interview; I just didn’t have the necessary years of experience in software engineering to answer the interviewer’s questions. It was tough on the ego, but I moved on.

Fast forward a few months, a connection on Facebook posted that his startup was hiring. It felt like a perfect fit, since I knew and trusted this connection. The initial answer was the same as my previous interview: “Sorry, we’re looking for something with more experience”. This time, however, I really wanted the job. Every month, I would reconnect with this contact, ask him how everything was going at the startup, and reaffirm my desire to work with him. After 5 months, when an intern had to leave, I was asked if I was still interested. And that’s how I landed a job at CONTXTFUL in 2017, despite my apparent lack of qualifications.

# Writing this blog

And so, here we are.

I’m still not entirely sure what to do with my life, but I have learned to embrace this feeling. It is what gives me the curiosity to move forward and discover things that go beyond my own imagination. I now know how it feels when something feels right, like writing this blog for example. At time, some activities feel effortless, so much so that the true struggle is to wait until after work to do them! At that point, work stops becoming work and becomes a game. I’m all about games!

I have lots of friends in physics who are afraid they don’t fit in the current state of the industry. To them, I say: don’t be afraid. You are not a failure if you are not one of the 10% PhD’s who land a position in academia, etc.

I think I have found my niche, and yet, I still feel like an impostor at times. I guess it’s just a fact of life. Writing about it in this blog seems to be the cure I need.

# TL;DR

I think the dream of finding a job where “you like what you do” is naive. Choosing your hobby as your job is also risky. A job is a job; there is an uglier side to everything.

Everyone suffers the impostor syndrome at some point: that’s how you know you’re human.

In the end, I think the best you could hope for is to fall in love with your job’s problems.