How Music and Libraries Steered Me Into Software Engineering

ptown_library copy.JPG

TL;DR -- I worked in customer service at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh for nearly 7 years prior to moving up to Massachusetts earlier this year. Prior to that, I majored in vocal performance from grades 6-12 at two distinguished creative and performing arts public schools in Pittsburgh, Pa. After leaving my full-time job at CLP, I began a 4 and a half months-long coding bootcamp with the Flatiron School and I recently passed my final project review!

Now, at this point in my coding journey, I can look back and realize how far I've really come. But I also look back and appreciate how those two big chapters of my life prepared me for this one.

Pictured Above: Recently, I was in Provincetown and I'd passed by their public library! Seeing this awesome building simply reminded me of how much I miss exploring a library's vast array of resources. *

My Origin Story

education-capa-exterior-small.jpg

The Mechanics of Music

Prior to making the switch into tech, my background was originally in music (vocal performance, specifically). During my teenage years, I attended two of the City of Pittsburgh's creative and performing arts public magnet schools. I majored in vocal performance; my voice-type was tenor.

My first time ever playing a musical instrument was when I took my first piano class in 6th grade. After seeing that grand piano up close, I got to see what was going on inside and how the hammers were striking the strings to produce the sound. My family didn't own any kind of piano or keyboard at the house, so coming to this class was like a treat for me. While the mechanics of a piano were mysterious to a younger me, I was fascinated by how creative one could be with it.

Starting in 9th grade, I began taking what became two of my favorite classes in high school, piano and music technology. While both involved using keyboards, music tech focused more heavily on composing music with computer programs like Sibelius and Reason . What I remember most strongly was the first time I played the keyboard and the computer "composed" what I was playing in real time!

Besides singing at school, I was teaching myself to play guitar and learning to record my progress on my phone (or tablet or computer or whatever) using either a simple recording app or a recording software like Audacity or GarageBand. I was constantly interested in listening to new music, but I didn't have a job for most of high school so I couldn't buy it. One way I got to it, however, was by checking out CDs from my local public library!

The main Carnegie Library in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh had a vast amount of music CDs, vinyls, scores and other resources. They even had a baby grand piano available for use (with headphones, of course). What started as trips for new music to the Library became frequent visits as a regular patron, usually at the West End location (pictured below).

WestEnd-Exterior.jpg

Sifting Through The Stacks

Libraries are special to me because they essentially raised me and kept me interested in learning about the world. My earliest memory of being in a library was going to swimming classes with my brother at the Carnegie Library of Homestead's underground pool. While waiting to be picked up after class, I'd get lost in the dinosaur section in the kid's area or go read about ring-tailed lemur's in Madagascar.

I started going to the library right after school to keep reading about anything that interested me. I've never been exposed to such a large collection of worldly knowledge and resources before. It was no surprise that shortly thereafter, I got my first library card.

When I was a high school senior, I ended up getting a job at the West End library working as a shelver. Like most people who were about to graduate high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew was that I loved working at the library because it wasn't too labor-intensive and it required a minimal amount of problem solving ("Where does this book go!?", "Where can I find this book?"). What started as a simple shelving job in November 2010 blossomed into a senior clerk job by February 2020 at the Squirrel Hill location (the cover photo for this post). I enjoyed being exposed to vast amounts of books, ebooks, learning resources and other media. I also learned a bit about JSON format because it was used when we would use our library system to make create lists for tasks such as withdrawing old materials.

A rough example:

// some variation of the JSON-formatted lists we'd create using JSON-formatted inputs

// the inputs
return { 
  recordType: "bibliographic",
  maxAmount: 100,
  properties: [
    id,
    title,
    author,
    createDate,
    checkoutCount
  ],
  status: "AVAILABLE",
  sortBy: "createDate",
  before: 08/03/2020
}

// the list
{
  // list of item records according to the input
  {
    id: 0,
    title: "A Title!",
    author: "An Author!",
    createDate: 03/11/2008,
    checkoutCount: 201
  },
  {
    id: 1,
    title: "Another Title!",
    author: "Another Author!",
    createDate: 04/11/2008,
    checkoutCount: 201
  }
  // and so on, and so on up till length `maxAmount`
}

While I didn't know it, I was becoming more accustomed to working on a computer. I became more familiar with text editors and spreadsheets. When it came to helping customers on the computer, I had to learn to be somewhat good at googling. I even once attended a special series of staff training sessions that taught us about how to use the R programming language to create more efficient stat workflows for understanding how our public collection was being used by patrons.

Time To Make a Change

One of the most common book genres I saw being checked out at work were ones about different programming languages and technologies. While living in California, I began to learn about Silicon Valley and how influential its contributions to tech were for the world. At first, I didn't understand most of what was in those books. But I had an itch that I couldn't ignore and I kept reading. Eventually, I started learning more about programming on platforms like Khan Academy, CodeCademy and edX. Python was the first programming language I ever learned how to code with.

At the beginning of 2020, I'd decided that I wanted to take the leap and jump into software engineering full-time. I became burnt out from my full-time work at the library. After a near-year of teaching myself to build websites, I wasn't closer to feeling ready to apply to jobs. So I decided to enroll in the Online Software Engineering bootcamp at the Flatiron School.

ridgevale-beach-at-sunset.jpg

Next Chapter

Flash-forward to today and I have just recently passed my final project review! Looking forward, I can't help but reflect on how far I've really come since I first started getting serious about software engineering a year and a half ago. When I look back now, I see my life divided into three major chapters lived thus far:

  1. Learning things like basic music theory helped me with skills such as pattern recognition. Behind any creative endeavor, there was a process that had a mix of tried-and-true strategies mixed in with the production's unique approach.

  2. Going from being a regular patron to a staff-member of the Library exposed me to many interesting software tools used for a library's workflow. Because I was handling so many materials, I came across more tech-related materials that gave me that push to pursue it.

  3. I'm now in the third and current chapter of my life where I'm fresh out of a bootcamp and ready to learn more than ever before. The job search is going to be hard and frustrating. There will be days, maybe weeks, where I'm not yielding any callbacks or succeeding in interviews, but I have to keep believing that everything is a learning opportunity.

I first learned how to code 6 years ago, when I came to Pittsburgh from California and went back to my job at the Library. While I was happy to be in a comfortable position with the Carnegie Library, I was ready for a change of course in my life. Now, with the endless help and support from my partner, Kristin, I feel more ready than ever to break and bring value into this industry.

Happy Coding!

Brandon

No Comments Yet