Q+A: Front-End Developer

Eric Berndt on self teaching, changing careers, and writing a space opera.

~ 7 minute read

The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Eric in a live, fireside Q&A.

Eric is a front-end software engineer at Sokanu. In a past life, he worked as an HVAC + Refrigeration technician. After a few years, he decided to go back to school for publishing and ended up finding his passion for the web. That inspired him to become a self-taught engineer, specializing in JavaScript. In his free time he likes to write — he’s spent the last seven years writing a novel as a way of battling his Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.

Career History and Transition

What prompted you to go in the direction of HVAC/trades originally?

My dad prompted me to go in that direction. He had spent his life in construction, and when I was little I looked up to him and wanted to be a carpenter just like him.

When it came time to go to college, I didn’t know what I should do. He insisted that I not do carpentry since he thought I should shoot for something higher-paying. I originally attended Trades Discovery at BCIT, which touches on a lot of trades. In it, we did a bit of HVAC, and after talking it over with my dad I came to realize that although carpentry could be a great path for some people, ultimately HVAC was a better fit for me.

How did you know it was time to change careers? Was there anything that you did to make transitioning easier?

I remember the day I decided enough was enough. I had just finished a day where I was working a service call (my least favorite type of call) where I had suffered cold burns on my hands and was exhausted beyond belief. I walked away from a well-paying career just before reaching full journeyman status.

The transition was sudden. I left my job in mid August with no plan, signed up for school, wrote the entrance exam, and started college in September. Thankfully, one seat in the program had opened up!

Before you transitioned into web development, what was your plan after you finished your publishing program?

I fell into publishing on a recommendation from a friend who had also taken the program. I had originally thought that I would move into graphic design afterwards. At the end of my program, however, I was exposed to web development through WordPress and decided that was much more interesting, so it was a last-minute switch.

How did prior work experience and academic credentials help you transition from being a technician to your current profession?

My prior credentials from my HVAC work didn’t really transfer over into software engineering. However, what did transfer were certain skills that are now ingrained in me.

I am now geared to think technically, and can troubleshoot an issue while looking at all constituent parts. During my time working as a foreman on a job site, I was also able to gain leadership and task management skills.

Your job title is ‘front-end software engineer’ — how is that different from a ‘full stack’ engineer? Are the job titles more or less interchangeable?

My title is officially a software engineer, where I have chosen to specialize in front-end technologies, which differs from full stack in that full stack includes both back-end and front-end. I do dabble in the back-end sometimes, though not enough where I would consider myself full stack.

What was the most challenging aspect of your career transition? And the most rewarding?

The most challenging part of my career transition was the first few years working in the industry. I was earning a salary far below the industry standard. It took a long time before I realized what I was worth.

The most rewarding aspect would have to be that I get to wake up and do something I love every day. My wife still finds it annoying when someone says “I have to work tomorrow” and I reply, “I get to work tomorrow!” (cheesy I know).

Being Self-Taught

How did you teach yourself to become a software engineer? Did you take classes online?

I actually did most of my learning through Udemy.com and similar online tutorials. YouTube is also great for quick explanations. I have spent many hours combing through documentation as well. I highly recommend https://javascript.info/.

Do you recommend the self-taught approach to software engineering or the college route? Do employers prefer one over the other, or does it not matter?

I can’t say for certain, being biased towards being self-taught. I can say that I might have liked the college route, as I may have been able to gain more connections to people in the industry (none of my publishing comrades went into software). I feel some employers do look for those credentials, especially large corporations.

As a professional who is self-taught, did you find it difficult to find a job in your desired field without going through traditional school?

Absolutely. I still find it difficult, but that may be largely due to what is known as ‘imposter syndrome’. I find it mind boggling sometimes how I ended up where I am. What I do to overcome this feeling is constantly learn — whether that’s by reading, taking online classes, or tutorials.

Do you have to keep up with trends and use a lot of different frameworks and libraries in your work? How hard is that? Also, regarding version control systems, like Git, do you have to use command-line instead of a GUI interface?

Yes, absolutely. Staying on-trend with technologies is very important. For example, in an old company I worked mainly with Vue.js. Now, with Sokanu, we use mainly React. For Git, I almost always choose command-line, because that’s how I learned initially. It’s more preference, really.

Writing a Novel

It sounds like you’re into writing fiction. What advice would you give to those wanting to get into writing?

I am just starting out myself, really. I did have some exposure to the writing and editing process during my time in publishing, which has helped me to keep my thoughts straight. What I tend to do is start with mountains of incoherent notes. Then, if I notice that I’m starting to come up with a story, I’ll start to piece things together on a whiteboard or with post-it notes. If that pans out, I move onto chapter outlines.

Currently in my novel, I’m just past that stage. I am revisiting the chapter outlines and filling them in one-by-one with rough chapters. I’m 150k words in and still have 50k left to go. One thing I can suggest is to put aside time to write. Part of the reason it has taken me so long is that I didn’t make the time. Most of the writing I have done has been in the last two years, and the majority of that has been done in the last six months. Everything seems to be accelerating now.

Can I ask what your book is about, or do we have to wait for its release?

Of course you can! It’s a space opera, which means there are a lot of stories co-mingling. In short, it’s about a group of strangers uncovering a new scourge as it returns to their galaxy. And about overcoming their own personality downfalls (or succumbing to them) along the way. You may have to wait a few years to read it though. Seven years in so far, and I’m only at 150,000 words.

Which books/authors would you say are a big influence on the book you’re currently writing?

My book influences are: The Expanse; The Saga of Seven Suns (not great, but was my first space opera); The Lost Fleet; anything written by Joel Shepherd; and of course We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor. Also I am required to mention The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Advice for an Unconventional Career Path

You’ve had a pretty unconventional career path. Do you have any advice for those trying to figure out how to find what’s right for them? I think you’re the perfect example of someone not finding their career path right away.

It has been a wild ride, that’s for sure. My only advice is to just get out and try something. If I hadn’t fallen into, and then out of, HVAC, I wouldn’t have made the decision to go back to school. And I wouldn’t have discovered web development.

It might sound like an accident, ending up where I am, but it took years of soul-searching and trying things out before I found what I truly love to do.


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