"You're all tiny little babies." That's a phrase I've been known to say to my coworkers and teammates (jokingly), most of whom are varying degrees of younger than me. I'm in my 30s and I work as a software engineer at a startup - so it's entirely surprising that I'm one of the older people in the room. All of my younger coworkers are smart, dedicated, talented, and passionate, and I'm fortunate to be able to work with every single one of them ... but I still sometimes feel a little old when my coworkers talk about being in their 20s.
In the coming weeks, I will be getting a new manager, and there's a chance that my new manager will be younger than me. While I know that whoever my new manager is, I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from that person, it has still been difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea. When I mentioned this to my (then) manager, he reminded me that everyone has a different journey. My teammates, despite being younger than me, have been in the field longer than I have, and their journies to today have been very different than mine.
In a recent conversation, someone asked me if I wish I had studied computer science in college. The answer to that is, surprisingly, no. While I'm not entirely convinced that biology/pre-health was the right field of study for me (I found the subject matter interesting, but I probably could have guessed that I wouldn't love direct patient care), I am glad that I studied something that's considered a more traditional career in my social circles. I've made some decisions in life that were not traditional in my community and I later wasn't sure if I regretted, and I know that had I not at least tried a more traditional career, I would have spent a lot of time wondering if I had made the wrong choice. The fact that I tried some more traditional careers and they were not right for me has given me a lot of confidence that it wasn't wrong for me to go into a career that isn't very common in my social circles.
I do sometimes wonder how my career would look had I gone into software engineering directly after leaving graduate school. When I left healthcare, software engineering wasn't even a thought that crossed my mind. I knew at that point that I was interested in graphic design, and that was the avenue I decided to pursue (even though it took me a few years to get there). While graphic design is eventually what led me to software engineering, it was a long journey, and sometimes I wonder if I would have found my way to software engineering earlier had I not settled on graphic design so quickly. But the truth is, I'm glad I started with a design background. I went from print design to learning HTML and CSS, which gave me an understanding of and appreciation for the visual design aspects of front-end engineering.
Even my first "developer" job was something that, in hindsight, doesn't feel like it was part of my journey towards where I want to be. While I started that job under the assumption that the QA automation project would be a short-term project that would lead to the job I truly wanted, which was full-stack feature development. Unfortunately, the information I had been given was either incorrect or misleading, and the QA automation project wound up being a long-term project. I didn't enjoy the work I was doing and felt that I had been betrayed and lied to by my company, and the situation left a very bitter taste in my mouth. After this job ended and I started to look for my next opportunity, I knew that I didn't want to be in the same situation again - I knew that my next job needed to be one where I would be I was doing the work I wanted to do from day one.
Armed with the knowledge that I needed to be much more diligent in my next job search, I started exploring new companies and opportunities. And kept exploring. Every time I found what seemed like a great opportunity, I either discovered that it wasn't as great as I thought or I discovered that the company just wasn't interested in me. I spent a lot of time disappointed in my search and wondering yet again if I had taken a wrong turn. I kept searching and kept applying, and after 9 long months, I finally found my fit and accepted the offer for my current job.
It took me a long to get to where I am today. I tried other careers, had some frustrating jobs, and survived a long and difficult job search. At the end of the day, these experiences made me a better person and a better advocate for myself. I may have taken longer to get to where I am than most of my teammates, but I don't believe that had I not gone through that journey I would have found myself at a supportive and caring company where I have the opportunity to learn and grow from a great team full of young talent.
There will always be days when I feel old at work. When my teammates talk about growing up and I realize that they were in elementary school and middle when I was in high school and college. Had I taken the most direct route in my career, I might be a team lead or senior engineer by now. But I also might have regretted my choice of career or wound up working at a big company where I'm just one cog in a wheel instead of working for a small startup where I feel supported and understand my contributions. My road to get to where I am today was far from simple - but now that I am where I feel I need to be, I know the long road was what was right for me.