Career in IT and Computer Programming with zero knowledge?
May 28, 2016 3:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm fascinated with computers, robotics, and photography. Yet, there's something captivating about IT and Computer Programming. I'm almost finishing up my Social Science bachelor's degree (Sociology), which is pretty worthless from a marketable angle, little job offers. I would like to learn more about IT (Support Services for software) and Computer Programming as well, but I have no background in these two fields. Should I pursue a degree in either of these fields if I have no experience with math and computers?

Furthermore, I would love to learn more about IT (Support Services) and Computer Programming, but I have poor math skills, in fact, algebra and division are difficult to do. What is IT and Computer Programming like in terms of mathematics? Are these difficult careers? I know that the two are a little different from Computer Science, which is more theoretical, similar to pure mathematics in a sense. Can someone who struggles at math pursue these kinds of careers? I'm willing to work extra hard to tackle the math bit, but I believe I might have a learning disability with math as well. I'm a gifted creative writer as well, but this isn't important when it comes to computers. I love to write essays, creative writing, think critically, be analytical, problem solve, which I think might help with this kind of career on some note. Does anyone have personal experiences with these careers, where math was a challenge? I originally wanted to be a Professor, Creative Writer, or a Research Librarian, but those jobs are difficult to live by, pay to pay, so to speak. I'd love to teach Philosophy, but the odds are slim, and road to a phD tenure and grad school is bloody tough, I have been told.

Are there excellent books for beginners on these topics and fields?

Any positive and constructive feedback would be most worthy and welcome -- it is good to look at both sides of the coin. Should I pursue this career route? Yes? No?
posted by RearWindow to Education (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Look into being a program manager (PM) at a big software company. All the fun of working in hi tech, no need to do any actual programming.
posted by w0mbat at 3:23 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely learn to code and figure out whether you like it or not. It might tap into your creativity, or it might drive you insane in its detail-orientedness or abstraction. There are a lot of resources on the web for learning coding, so I'd work through some of those and then try to build a project or two before beginning an academic program. (Actually building something is very different from learning how to solve predefined problems like the ones you'll encounter in learn to code programs.) Building a web app might be an approachable project after awhile. (It doesn't have to do anything groundbreaking, just for educational purposes.) It would also help to figure out what you like the most-- hardware, web programming, theory, etc-- or if you don't like any of that much but want to work in some way tangential to tech.

Math concepts are useful to know in programming, but you don't have to necessarily be a math adept. Someone else can possibly speak to IT, but I have a feeling it relies more on the analytical skills you talk about than too much mathematics.

I agree that project management might be up your alley, and a good way to leverage an interest in technical careers without actually being in the trenches.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:27 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

as a programmer i've always thought of it support as a thankless job. as a programmer you may be able to hide away and focus on getting shit done. as support you spend all your time trying to appease people. they're jobs for very different types, imho, so it would be worth figuring out what type you are in more detail. learning to program might be one way to do that.

also, knowing something about social science might play into being a good manager somehow?
posted by andrewcooke at 3:31 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

To me, this:

> Should I pursue a degree in either of these fields if I have no experience with math and computers?

Is the same as:

> Should I do something that is really fascinating to me?

So I think you know the answer to that.

> What is IT and Computer Programming like in terms of mathematics?

Easy. And if difficult math comes up, you'll simply have to learn it one time the easy way (usually a crash course of some sort) and then you'll just spend the rest of the time riffing off what you learned. You almost never have to go deep as a requirement, and if you get to that point, people already Believe In You so you're probably made anyway.

> Are these difficult careers?

I found IT difficult in the "oh shoot now I work in a cost center instead of a profit center" sense. Felt like I was constantly working myself out of a job. But when I transitioned to freelancing it, it was fun and I was my own boss. Very good stuff.

> but I believe I might have a learning disability with math as well.

No biggie, friend. I hang with IT dudes who have what I would call a learning "inability" and as long as they're nice people and take responsibility when/if the time comes, nobody cares really.

> I'm a gifted creative writer as well, but this isn't important when it comes to computers.

The heck it isn't. Do you know how many IT people can craft a warm, comforting email? That line is very short.

> I love to write essays, creative writing, think critically, be analytical, problem solve, which I think might help with this kind of career on some note.

Yeah, for sure. You remind me of Cliff Stoll. He came from science, sure, but if you ever read The Cuckoo's Egg (highly recommended) you may discover how valuable your gifts are in IT.

> Are there excellent books for beginners on these topics and fields?

I'm not really sure but I've been doing professional IT for 20 years and professional computer programming (as a business owner) for 10 years. And I'm pretty sure that your next step should be diving in and doing stuff. Getting things done is one of the highest values of the type of people who work in IT. (And if that sounds intimidating, don't worry, most of them aren't getting it done as well as they want to)

I would really focus on finding the kinds of problems you like to solve. If you can weed out the stuff you hate early on, IMO you'll have a more successful career, faster.

There are also a ton of people like you in the IT field--switched over from something else, something way out there. It's really common. No worries.

Dive in.
posted by circular at 3:33 PM on May 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Interestingly, I'm almost precisely in the same situation. I've done a module in Programming, and have enrolled in a few courses on Programming and Robotics. So, far, it seems that, for Robotics, yes, maths is important. Programming, not so much. Obviously, you need to understand concepts like matrices and stuff, but, really, you're not required to do actual calculations yourself. You just have to understand the basics about how things work (like dimensions of matrices). I think being able to think analytically and solve problems is more important.

You're asking whether you should do a degree in IT/Programming, but maybe you'd want to try these things out first? There are lots of quick, free and fun ways to understand what they are about without getting a formal education. Try Coursera, for example - they have lots of courses on coding and various computer science-related stuff. There are also some specialized websites for this, like Code Academy.
Also, Youtube has lots of videos for beginners. Just google something about like "how to become a hacker" (and just in case, no, it doesn't mean anything illegal - I've found great resources this way), and you'll find websites and videos about what all this stuff is like and what resources and options there are if you want to get into programming.
posted by Guelder at 3:34 PM on May 28, 2016

The short answer is sure. It's a big world, and there's a place for you if you can find it.

Programming is logic, not math. Though any particular project might require math skills, most don't require math beyond ordinary bookkeeping, dollars and cents stuff. And maybe percent. And if you do graphics, some x/y (or x/y/z) axis stuff. So yeah, you should be able to learn to code if that is the part of IT that you find fascinating.

IT also includes lots of stuff that happens before coding, such as scoping the project, asking users what they need, etc. For this, you have to learn enough about how computers work to ensure the project is doable.

Also, there is lots of stuff after the coding which mostly involves knowing how the program works, so you can find bugs, teach users, create advertising, do sales, etc. Lots of people who do these things are not programmers at all. Like all the folks in the stores selling smartphones.

Think about choices. Software company. Hardware company selling fascinating gizmo, e.g. 3D printer. Corporate IT Dept. Training. Sales. Many possibilities.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:56 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

on the maths front - i make money (as a programmer) largely because i "can do maths". but the flip side of that is that most programmers don't know squat (thank goodness - for both me and you) (no offence fellow coworkers - i'm sure your UIs and UXs are much nicer than mine...).
posted by andrewcooke at 3:56 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you are 'almost finishing' your degree, and that means you are not done yet, then you should take an introductory programming class, a remedial math class, and a technical writing class.
posted by bq at 4:15 PM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

I do software support, after majoring in ancient Greek history. I had no background in any sort of IT when I got my first job. I did have some call center experience, and I had mad problem solving skills, and that's the key. Support is about figuring things out, then talking to people about it. I've since taught myself some programming, but I didn't know any at the time I was hired.

Hardware support is different; you'll probably need a little more background. There are certifications (MSCE or whatever) that you can study for on your own to prove your credentials.

If you want to get into programming as a career, you'll need to know a lot more, but you should be able to find a pretty decent-paying support job without a ton of experience. You can then parlay that into a PM, account management, or testing/WA promotion.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:29 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

You need to determine what your problem is with algebra.

Because computer programming is very similar to algebra.
posted by srboisvert at 6:34 PM on May 28, 2016

Have you taken statistics for your sociology degree? If you can get some experience working with data, that's another way to transition into a more technical role.
posted by yarntheory at 6:47 PM on May 28, 2016

I do software support at a university (instructional technology support specifically) and I too have a sociology degree (and an English double major so basically useless squared). My coding proficiency stops at HTML and CSS but I've always been really really good at picking up a new application and learning how to use it on my own to a high degree of proficiency. I've only been at my current job for about 2 years now (prior to that I was a research assistant on a research project with a technology component, though I wasn't the one actually creating the technology) and how I showed that I could do this job was basically to demonstrate that I had learned a ton of software on my own for my previous job. I have an online portfolio where I showed things I'd made using various software packages and when I talked about them in the interview I made sure to note that I had learned these things independently pretty quickly and no one was helping me with this stuff. If you are just supporting the Thing and not making the Thing, you need, as kevinbelt says, mad problem-solving skills. It helps if you're not only good at problem-solving, but love problem-solving. (Never come to me with a personal problem because within 10 minutes I will have your shit flow-charted and divided up into steps on a kanban board. I'm insufferable.)

Also? Writing is HUGE for being in support. Poorly written support documentation makes baby Jesus cry. There are entire huge companies whose documentation is completely useless because it is so poorly written. (Looking at you ironically, Turnitin.) At my job we write and maintain our own documentation knowledge base and writing that stuff is difficult to do well.

In my department right now we only have one person who actually went to school for computers. Aside from me and that guy, we have a former economics phd student who worked at the Dept. of Commerce for a while and then was a speechwriter, a dude with an undergrad degree in film, and a former journalist. I like to muck about with an Arduino in my free time and I am hoping to take some classes (which I can for free because I work at a university) in beginning programming, but I am 41 years old and suck at math so I have no illusions that I'll ever actually be a programmer. But I can explain the shit out of someone else's program. It can be a thankless job and all the glamour is in the engineering side of things, but anyone who has met the average user out there knows that without good support, most applications are uesless to 95% of humanity.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:13 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

~20 years in IT, and I'll put it this way: If you can write (and I mean really write) good documentation, you'll be welcomed on most teams. Documentation is often the woefully neglected corner of any project.

Doubly so if you can write training materials or manuals for people that will actually use the product or service.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:57 AM on May 29, 2016

I'll also say that with your gift for communication, one of your primary products for any employer will be explanation. For an example of how powerful that can be, I recommend checking out CommonCraft. They created a business that does nothing but create plain-english explanations for their clients.

Get your degree, take a class that will excercise your brain to think logically, and keep absorbing how people describe and explain things. I literally have a degree in IT, and the amount of math I use on a daily basis rarely goes beyond algebra. You're going to be just fine. :-)
posted by Wild_Eep at 10:23 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Should I pursue a degree in either of these fields if I have no experience with math and computers?

So ABET accredited CS degrees are going to require high level math. Earning a CS degree will require you to improve there. Integral calculus, matrix multiplication, statistics and discrete mathematics are all basically required courses.

In practice, much of the math we use on the job is simpler than that, but practitioners probably underestimate how much harder it is for those with numerical disabilities. As an example, as a Linux Sysadmin, math is sort of in the background for a lot of things. I have something like 2500 service checks; tuning the noisy ones involves a lot of statistics to verify that raising a threshold will reduce false positives. In a very real sense, I am hamstrung by Nagios plugin's inability to calculate first derivatives. Various web servers have tuning parameters that need to be adjusted based on available RAM, meaning we need a formula written, and adjusted based on average use per thread. In deciding how many people should be on support rotation, I need to know historical trends of ticket creation, and how individual student employees behave over time. In deciding where to place or move equipment, I need to know average server power draw, maximum draw, and how 120 vs 240 voltage affects the calculations. Purchasing a database server involves optimizing for a variety of mathematical constraints: performance, reliability and costs are all factors to be accounted for.

You can pursue a career, none of my full time employee colleages have a CS degree. But you should give extra weight to passing your math classes.
posted by pwnguin at 8:32 PM on May 29, 2016

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