Everyone is quite surprised when I tell them that I once was a secretary. That is why I decided to write down my story for those who want to switch careers and get into the software development business. I was a secretary who did a lot of MS VBA coding, started to study and ended up being an ABAP developer. Currently, I am a Swift/SAPUI5/JavaScript developer at SAP in Germany. This is my story, how I went from secretary to software developer, the hard way.

Teenage years: secretary apprenticeship -> got hooked with coding

As a teenager, I really enjoyed sitting at the computer. I wrote a story about me and my friends being a famous girl band in Word, calculated all things in Excel, drew in MS Paint and played a lot of games. We had a subscription for a computer magazine where they taught you everything about computers. For me it was crystal clear: I want a job with computers! Selling computers, installing things and configure them was my dream job. Unfortunately, my parents were not as excited as I was, so we made a compromise. I started my apprenticeship as a secretary. There I could at least work with computers all day long!

I really liked my job, I was a real pro computer user! Due to my job I tapped into website creation. I really liked it and I took the opportunity to maintain the homepage of our Karate club. At our financial department I had the opportunity to “convert” some MS DOS programs into MS Excel. Those programs did not work anymore because of the Euro introduction. I really hate it when you have to do repetitive, boring tasks over and over again. Can I automate those things? Yes, I can — MS VBA for Excel FTW! I really loved it! Writing my own computer programs! I drew them down on paper and visualised the program flow. It was gorgeous!

During the school part of the apprenticeship I  was reading a computer magazine and I first heard about Delphi programming. In this magazine they started with teaching you the basics of programming and GUI development. I bought some books on that topic and I was hooked! During the included school time of the apprenticeship I coded several small Delphi programs — because doing small calculations in MS Excel is boring. At the end of the six-month series there was a developer competition: writing an editor with multiple tabs. And guess who won! Me winning a developer competition, who would have ever thought that? The first ten prizes were a full Delphi 7 professional license including all the CD-Roms. Ha, now I can get myself a developer job! But wait, studying the job offers — oh well, no one writes code in Delphi…

Early 20s: secretary + general qualification for university entrance

After my apprenticeship was over I stayed at the company and continued to work as a secretary. I automated everything within my MS Excel spreadsheets. I was fascinated by the work a colleague did with all those networking stuff in our company. I got to know some cool people who did a lot of computer stuff at home and one off them working in IT. If only I got a formal education to work in such a job…

With my best friend I had a deal: whenever one of us wants to do the “general qualification for university entrance” evening course — we will do it together! So we both started with this course in the same year we finished our apprenticeship. I was able to skip one year because of my advanced English skills and I did not need to attend the IT course. For my IT project I chose a MS Access database — and as you might have guessed — yes I automated it with MS VBA for MS Access.

All the other people built a website with frames — which I found boring, since I already did thatseveral times. At the end of this course it came to my mind: with this qualification I would be able to study Computer Science — so that I could finally get my formal education and get a new job! Brilliant idea! I attended some events which were exclusively for girls and tech. At those events you visited universities, had some guest lectures and you were able to talk to girls who are studying Computer Science. Wow, awesome stuff — exactly what I wanted.

Mid 20s: part time study, getting an IT job: turning into a developer

Finally, I was able to study and I found a University of Applied Sciences which offered a part time study. It was not 100% Computer Sciences, it also included network and automation engineering, lots of signal transmission, mobile phones… — but it included the essential parts like programming, OOP, algorithms and data structures, databases, software engineering, patterns,… And it was part time! So I worked the whole week and attended the lectures on Tuesday and Friday evenings and on the whole Saturday. What a brilliant idea to study such technical things when being a secretary… I had a very hard time keeping up with all those things I had never heard of and had to invest a lot of time fill my knowledge gaps in my Bachelor studies.

I quitted my job as a secretary and moved to the city where I studied. I was hard to get an IT job without experience and I had several drawbacks. Luckily I did not have to work because I had a scholarship — but I wanted to work. Through a fellow student I got to know what SAP is all about. He was the project manager for their internal SAP projects. Wow — that sounded interesting. So many things happen automatically within an SAP system. Goodbye manual MS Excel spreadsheets!

With that knowledge in mind I was able to get a job as a project assistance for SAP ERP and CRM rollouts. I was still more or less a secretary, but SAP sounded promising! It was a great experience, I learned how the whole ERP & CRM processes work together, gave trainings, created training material, tested our E2E process, did a lot of travel, maintained translations and helped wherever I could during the rollout phase.

After two years I asked my boss if I could be a developer — and he said yes! So I was able to do ABAP development all day long. A dream came true! I had a very experienced developer colleague which acted as a mentor, it was a great time. I reached my goal “becoming a developer” in 2010 and finished my Master Studies two years later.

Master of Science 2012

“Fast track” vs. “the hard way”

The whole journey from “Secretary to Software Developer” took me several years. Because I was “just” a secretary I was not allowed to study, I had to take the “general qualification for university entrance” course, which took over three years. I did all my education part time, which is very time-consuming and you have to put a lot of effort in. Most of my holidays were used for project work, my bachelor/master thesis and exam preparation. Not having a technical background made my studies extremely hard in the beginning. So my journey was really “the hard way”.

Today you can take a lot of programming and Computer Sciences courses online. Everyone can be a developer! There are also a lot of developer bootcamps: within 8–12 weeks you can become a developer. I think this is great if you want to become a developer within a small agency or working in-house. Those “fast tracks” mainly teach you how to code, but not other important stuff like software engineering, algorithms and data structures, patterns, databases, theoretical stuff about computers and so on which you would need in bigger projects. Bigger companies mostly want you to have a formal education. The same is true when you want to climb the corporate ladder. Universities don’t really teach you how to code, but they teach you timeless things. I never regretted my hard way, because I learned so many different things.

Summary

As you can see from my story: it is possible to switch careers if you are willing to put time and effort into it. With today’s possibilities I would recommend the “fast track” first to see if you really like it. Codecademy is a great free option, for paid ones I can recommend Codeschool and Treehouse (they have a bunch of inspiring stories). Build a portfolio, put your stuff on Github, learn as much as possible and get yourself a new job! After that you can still decide if you need the formal University education and doing so part time is a great option.

All the best for your upcoming journey! I would like to close this article with this quote:

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them”, Walt Disney

If you are interested in my developer life, follow me on Twitter @denisenepraunig and have a look at my feminine developer shirts at NERDpraunig.

This story first appeared on the SAP Community Network. Denise Nepraunig is a (guest)blogger for RightBrains.