Syk Houdeib is the quintessential transition success story: at 40, he decided to change his life around and pursue a tech career. And then went ahead and set what might well be a world record 🙂 by going from decision, from zero tech skills to the first day on the job in just 10 months. In this piece, he shares in detail the nuts and bolts of his experience to help you navigate YOUR transition into tech.
(Shhhh – just between you and me: plenty of good advice throughout & a summary version of his top takeaways at the very end. Read on & enjoy!)
Syk’s story is the first one I came across when I first decided to pursue this project – and it made a lasting impression on me, as his experience proved beyond a shadow of a doubt my whole thesis. But as I got to know him, I realised there’s much more to him than just the career change success – I found him to be an incredibly warm, friendly, patient and generous person. He was quick to say yes when I approached him for this interview (well, almost too quick, in fact – as I wasn’t anywhere near ready to follow through on my end… but that, that’s another story!). Anyway, as I talked to him, I understood: generosity is not only a personality trait, it’s also a conscious choice of paying forward help he’d received. Hear what he has to say:
Very, very early on, I had the guidance from two to friends who worked in the field. And I ask them questions. And to this day, I still remember the day they took the time… One of them was actually an ex-student of mine that I had taught in Madrid some, I don’t know, probably nine years earlier… and we stayed in touch and stuff, and I knew that he was a programmer. And I sent them a message one day and said, hey, I’m thinking of this crazy idea…What do you think?
And to this day, I am so grateful that he took the time to answer me and give me a very long and detailed answer. It meant a lot, it made the difference, for me, because he told me that he’s working with someone who was in his 40s who had changed from a completely unrelated career and that he’s working and he’s doing it… He just made it made me realise that, hey, it can be done!
Then he explained to me all the advantages and disadvantages and the differences, different kinds of things that you can do. And so all of that really started guiding me. And I had another friend who was also a programmer and asked some questions, and he gave me some very useful tips.
These were very useful things. And I kind of I’m always motivated to try and be as responsive as possible to people who are in that stage in their decision making. If anybody approaches me on Twitter or anywhere, I do my best, because I know how much that meant to me at that moment. If if I didn’t have this right guidance in the beginning, I would have probably been not sure about this whole thing that maybe the idea with the fizzled out… I don’t know.
So who is Syk Houdeib?
Syk [saɪk, rhymes with bike, as he put it], a former English teacher in Spain, changed his career in just 10 month. Born in Beirut, Lebanon 🇱🇧, he changed careers multiple times, throughout his life – which almost made him a pro at the game, as illustrated in this tweet:
And wait, there’s more! There’s also a music degree in there :), moving to a different country (twice!), and learning the respective languages…
I asked Syk if he saw any signs pointing to a career in programming. Had he been a geek all his life? Was he the go-to person for everything tech? Had he developed any relevant skills in his previous positions? Listen to see if you guessed right:
I would say none, none at all, really… none of the ‘direct skills’, the technical skills… Soft skills – of course! But the technical skills… none of it was pointing in that direction in any way. And as I said earlier, I had never even really tried my hand at programming. My only vague connection to the tech world was that I was a user of the internet 🙂 – and from the early days I tried things out. I was always curious, but always from a user view, never from a developer, or programmer point of view… So there’s nothing in my previous careers, at all, to suggest that I was gonna end up programming, or to even open that door for me. At all. Even my skills using the computer were very basic; I was not the guy that you’d go to to fix your computer, if it broke down – I wasn’t that guy. I didn’t know how to do most things with the computer!
This, to me begged the question: why then, oh why??!! Turns out, this is a two-answer question.
First, why change career in the first place. Hint: this story involves a skater. Yes, you read that right:
Well, I think I wanna go to a slightly weird place to begin the story… It might not sound like it’s related to programming or to the change of career, but I promise you it is :))
So, I had just moved to a new house in Granada, and that was in 2017, and on my first night there, when I went to bed late at night, it was 1 o’clock or something, I could hear a very weird noise outside… And it wasn’t scary or anything, it just… it was a noise I couldn’t understand. It had a certain rhythm to it, it sounded like it was coming from my patio, and so I got up, I opened the door and looked outside, and I realised it was just an echo from the other side of the neighbourhood. And then I realised what it was: there was a skateboard rink. And there was someone there, at 1 o’clock at night, just going up and down, and up and down, and doing tricks, and falling… And it was just the sound of that skateboard. And I could hear that person every day, almost every day at least, up until 2 o’clock in the morning, practicing their tricks. And that kind of just sets the tone for where I was at the moment. I realised that I really needed that kind of passion, that kind of something to throw myself in… Because when I was a teenager, I got into music, and I picked up the guitar and I didn’t know anything about playing the guitar so I just threw myself into it… and it was the most exciting thing – to start from zero, and start learning, and learning and putting in hours, as there’s so much to learn!
And towards the end of my 30s, I was at that point and I thought: that’s EXACTLY what I need! My life is good, everything is fine, I wasn’t having a crisis or anything, but I needed something that would get me REALLY passionate. So that was… that kinda just sets the stage for my state of mind at that moment. But I didn’t know that programming was THE thing, at that point. That came a little bit later…
As to why tech, of all things: this part of the answer takes us in the realm of love, outrage, long walks in the park… all sprinkled with a healthy dose of feminism 🔥 💪 👏
Here is where my wife, Elena, comes into the story, and changes everything, really. Because there was a conversation that we had, that started with her questioning why some of the little girls in our circle of friends and family were already having aspirations, even when they were 3 or 4 years old, that were typically what is expected of a woman to have. And she was really upset about this, like why wouldn’t they consider different kinds of careers – like science, or tech, or things like these. And obviously she realised that the reason was that they didn’t have any role models within their circle of family and friends that would be like someone that they could look up to and aspire and say ‘Oh, this is my aunt who does this, or my mom who does that, and I could do that as well. And my wife was looking for information about women in STEM, and she was getting scandalised and telling me about all this research that she was reading about how the numbers were really little for women in all of this. And in tech, then she discovered that it was even worse. And so we had – I remember very vividly – we had two weeks of these strong, big conversations. We’d be walking down in the park just talking about it and talking about it… And one day she turned around and said, ‘Well, it’s not enough for me to just talk about it… I need to DO something about it… I want to become one of those models, you know, that’s the solution to the problem! And one day she was like ‘I’m gonna study biology, I’m gonna be a biologist’… The next day she was like ‘I’m gonna by a physicist, I think’. And then one day she disappeared into a hole – she was reading things and then one day she came back really excited and she’s like ‘I know, I’m gonna become a programmer!’ And I was like ‘OK, if anyone is gonna do this, it’s gonna be you – go for it, you know!’ And that was it – she really decided to get into it; she started looking it up, seeing information about it and she was excitedly telling me all about it and started doing a few things and then I suddenly realised that hey, this is accessible, and and not as terrifying and far-fetched as I thought it would be, and I started dabbling with it, with Elena, as well, and then I realised that it’s really exciting and interesting… And at some point, in this process, we decided ‘Hey, let’s do this seriously’. And that’s basically how programming entered into my life.
Ok, we’re getting the picture! A family project – great idea. However, as all projects, you need a solid plan to guide you. Wonder if you had a plan, Syk; did you?
I did scribble on a new notebook a kind of timeline with a few objectives on it, which – looking back at it – it was HILARIOUS! It bears no resemblance to reality whatsoever… Some things I completely underestimated, others I completely overestimated. But it was good – it was an idea, something to get me started – I mean, you gotta start somewhere… And also because I had a job and I was working full time and I had a job, I had a career, I had to make some real decisions there – you know, like… I’m doing this course, I’m gonna finish this course and when I do, then I’m gonna have one more course and I’ll do that, and that will be the final one. Just to kind of set a signpost of where you wanna be and how you’re gonna do it. And as I said, I ended up getting a job much earlier than I had expected. But yeah [I did have a plan].
Boy would we all love to see that scribble!!! (Quick challenge for you, Syk: let’s see it on Twitter!) Anyway, so he mentioned it happened faster than he had imagined – how fast are we talking?
From taking a decision of ‘I wanna do programming’ to the first job, it was around 10 months – which was mind-blowingly fast in my opinion. I was not expecting that at all I had set myself a much longer timeline, but it kind of just happened… But yeah – from taking the decision seriously and saying, ‘OK, I’m gonna do this’ – it took me 10 months. That’s starting from zero background; NO programming experience, NO knowledge about it AT ALL.
Wow! That is lightning ⚡ fast, indeed! This is where I made a quick note to self to try and find out if someone beat him to it; turns out I didn’t need to look far… It was Elena, Syk’s wife, who got her first offer a few weeks before him. Way to go, Elena 🔥!
So, to recap: so far we have a strong motivation, a family decision, and a
plan scribble. This is where it all gets serious. Read on for insights into the actual transition; join me on the next page to hear how he build the skills he needed to make his transition a success story.