Is This What a Midlife Crisis Looks Like?

I decided today I’m going to take a little tangent away from the self-driving car thing and talk about midlife crises. Maybe this topic ventures a little too far into the realm of the personal, but I feel that it’s a big part of my story - it’s important to understand where I’ve come from and where I’m heading.

And maybe the term “midlife crisis” isn’t particularly apt, seeing as I’m not quite mid-life (I hope). And, aside from my career, I’m actually quite happy with my life. So maybe I should call it a “mid-career crisis”. When I think of a midlife crisis I think sports cars, divorce, reinventing oneself - but that’s not what this is.

My career began in the middle of a divorce: I was about to finish my bachelor’s degree, but I was too preoccupied with personal matters to get on the ball with the university career services program. By the time I signed up there were only two employers still bidding for hires and, really, I was lucky to get a job at Tinker Air Force Base. Otherwise I would have had to wait for the next cycle.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of positives to working for the federal government, including the Air Force. But I’ve come to realize over the years (all fifteen of them), that maybe it’s just not for me. Maybe if I had gotten a rewarding, challenging job right out of school a cushy government job would be a welcome change at this point. I suspect it would be an easier transition to make, at least in terms of getting hired. Going the other way, I’ve found it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.

When I started at Tinker, my job was merely a means to an end. In the absence of a more rewarding career, I decided to focus my energy toward the bands I played drums in hoping to one day “make it” (though I never quite defined what that meant, or what it would mean for my career at Tinker). But the bands fizzled and faded, as they tend to do, and I was left with my old, dull government job.

That’s when I made it my goal to get into Tinker’s competitive, free* master’s degree program. After a couple of tries, I was accepted. I loved it. I rocked it. I got my master’s degree. Aaaaand before I knew it I was back to the government job again. It wasn’t long after returning, staring down the next twenty years of my life, that I resolved to do more with myself - going back to school gave me the confidence to do so.

I uncovered a passion for software around this time. And I’m not talking about the antiquated, highly specialized automated testing software that gets stored on nine-track, reel-to-reel magnetic tape and takes a full day to compile. I’d had enough of that. I’m talking about apps! I managed to get myself transferred to an organization on base that does application software for some time, but I was still keeping my eyes peeled for private sector work. The few personal connections I’d tapped seemed promising, but ultimately passed. The recruiters didn’t get me a single interview.

old school tape reel

What happened? I thought that my master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering would give me a major leg up trying to find work as a software developer, but maybe I overestimated the demand in the job market. It’s not an industry that requires a college degree, after all, and I’m probably a hard sell when an employer can hire someone without a college degree at roughly half what I currently make. Not only that - it had been fifteen years since I’d last been on the job market. Still, after a few months of really trying, and failing, I needed to regroup.

I considered maybe quitting Tinker and going to a coding bootcamp. I don’t necessarily think I have a lot to learn from a bootcamp, but it would be a good opportunity to put together a portfolio and make some connections. I could rock the hell out of it, impress my teachers, and get some awesome references and testimonials. That was kind of the plan, until the self-driving car thing came along.

I think machine learning and artificial intelligence, even though it’s tougher to pick up than application software, is a better avenue for me for that very reason. I just can’t imagine many programmers with a non-technical background aren’t scared off by the math. And nor can I imagine that a master’s in electrical and computer engineering is frowned upon in the field.

So… this is my new path. Crisis averted? We shall see.