Everyone is quite surprised when I tell them that I once was a secretary. So I decided to write down my story for those who want 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.

Teenager 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 visualized the program flow. Gorgeous!

During the school part of the apprenticeship I stumbled about a series in a computer magazine: Delphi programming. 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 build a website with frames – boring, I’ve done that several times.

At the end of this course it came to my mind: hm 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 want!

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 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 quit 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 sounds 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 who 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.

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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 seefrom my story: it is possible to switch careers if you are willing to put time and effort into it! With todays 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’d like to close this article with this quote:

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

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22 Comments

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  1. Christian Braukmueller

    Hi Denise,

    you make the “hard way” look easy .. therefore it is great that you wrote that down.

    Many others will take it as a motivation to go on .. and not to give up too soon.

    From an outside perspective I would suggest to rename the title:
    “From Secretary to Software Developer: A success story!

    But I guess you like to save this title for a later blog in some years.  😉

    Keep on coding

    Christian

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  2. Florian Henninger

    Hi Denise,

    I also got a other job before and turned into a developer. So your message is great and I also confirm it.

    It is never too late to become what you want!

    Thanks for sharing it.

    ~Florian

    PS: Have you heard about the blog it forward initiative here? I think this blog almost match the challenge? What is Marilyn Pratt thinking 😉

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  3. Joao Sousa
    Universities don’t really teach you how to code, but they teach you timeless things!

    They teach your brain how to think. My university course is electrical engineering which I don’t really use in my daily work, but I am sure I wouldn’t be able to perform at the same level without the abstraction skills that university taught me.

    Abstraction is critical, it enables you to see patterns, common ground, and it makes learning so much easier.

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    1. Bhanu Pamu

      Yes that’s true. I have graduated in Electrical Engineering too and I do not use it in my daily work. But the analytic and strategic thinking that I developed over the period of time has helped me a lot in my daily work and made learning new technologies easier.

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  4. Matt Fraser

    Denise,

    An inspiring story, and also written so engagingly with a light-hearted humor that keeps the reader reading. Thanks for sharing! So your parents really didn’t want you to study computers, but thought secretarial work would be better for you?

    Some seem to have their careers and lives mapped out from the very beginning, and they follow that path like trains follow a track, never swerving off course. Others take a more circuitous route, exploring many different possibilities, possibly arriving a little later but having a rich experience along the way and bringing hard-to-quantify skills and qualities with them that could not be acquired any other way.

    I too worked as a secretary for a while, long ago. Yep, that surprises people.

    Keep up the blogs! 🙂

    Cheers,

    Matt

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  5. Raphael Pacheco

    Beautiful story Denise, reminded me a bit of my past. When I was 17 until I was 19 I was an artisan and fisherman, had no prospects of turning any developer one day, although like computer (I was just doing small maintenance of PCs), that’s when my life took a boom”. I went to work on an Internet provider, I learned a lot and then I went to college to be a developer and I never stopped. 🙂

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  6. Soumyasanto Sen

    Really Great Denise. I have seen many people struggling with their career changes.

    Your story will definitely inspire those who have courage to fulfill their Dreams, specially as Software Developer 🙂

    All the Best for your next Dream!

    Regards

    Soumya

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  7. Tom Cenens

    Hi Denise

    Super inspiring story, really well written, reads super fluently, loving it 😎 .

    You’ve got something to add now even, “From secretary to software developer to SAP Mentor” 🙂 what a journey already I would say and the sky is the limit. Your passion will take you places for sure and indeed dreams can come through.

    Kind regards

    Tom

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  8. Denys van Kempen

    Great story, Denise

    Thanks for sharing.

    Inspired by the CodeAcademy and KhanAcademy, we have setup the SAP HANA Academy to provide free training tutorials to get everyone up and running with SAP HANA and related technologies.

    For those that are considering a career in this directory may find interest in one of our latest projects, which explains how you can build an end-to-end real-time social media analytics application using the SAP HANA Cloud Platform.

    We also have blogs on how to get certified on SAP HANA, e.g. SAP Certified Technology Associate: SAP HANA – by the SAP HANA Academy

    Success and good luck to all of you pursuing a career in (SAP) IT!

    Kind regards,

    Denys van Kempen

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  9. Marilyn Pratt

    Hi Denise!

    Since both Matthias Steiner and Florian Henninger pinged me to take a look here during my “vacation”, I headed over to read this piece.

    I’ve often maintained that in professional areas where women are a minority, they sure can use female role models and be able to hear stories from people they might more easily relate to.  Lots of us seem to “listen better” to people who look like us or who we believe understand us, or share our experiences.  It was refreshing, for example, to read Matt Fraser ‘s comments and to learn that he too experienced being a secretary.

    It’s great that his story helps us cross a somewhat gender divide of stereotypical job allocations that women have been trying to traverse for many years but especially since the 50’s (when I was a young kid).  In fact the first thing I thought of when hearing “secretary” was an involuntary cringe and visions of “Mad Men” characters and power struggles.

    On second blush, the message you embed here is more subtle: namely, one can arrive at a professional destination via many routes.

    I began my developer career with a transition as well: from professional theater to coder.

    I tasted programming concepts when I took a course in a community college back in the early ’80’s.  I also took a course in being a travel agent.  Bits and Bytes won me over. I think my experiences writing and reading professionally actually enhanced my ability to code and my love of code.  And structuring a production with many moving pieces gave me insights into other aspects of development.  I’m not sure if I would label those paths “hard” vs “easy”.  I see those who are able to be agile and switch course and evolve their interests and passions as being more likely to survive in times of momentous change. 

    What I like most about your story is that part: the agile, open, evolving one.

    I agree that having access to “free” education in the form of Open Academies and concepts such as Coursera help provide great access to taste and experience and learn.

    Thanks so much for sharing and do please add this as a “Blog it Forward”.  Might encourage others to write and share their journeys and transitions to developer.

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  10. Sven van Leuken

    Finally I’m back at SCN…(had some troubles with my account being deleted by my prior employer)…and therefore wasn’t able to respond earlier.

    But, as many have already mentioned, a very inspiring story indeed!

    Gr

    Sven

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  11. Ricardo dos Santos

    Hi Denise ,

    I am an IT professional , but not exactly work with the SAP , and I want to ‘ migrate ‘ and being a SAP Basis professional.


    Your story is so inspiring , thanks for sharing !

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  12. REKHA D R

    Hello Denise,thanks for sharing your success story.Blogged well.How inspiring it is . There is a total career Shift .

    You chased your dream and look where you are , at SAP 🙂   !

    You are a Dare Angel . Your passion towards programming is a true motivation

    to other developers / students / people who have dreams to become developers.

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  13. Hasnaa Abdelghani

    Do you know how important your post for me?!! Everyday I ask myself did I made the right decision when I considered Management Information System Major? I study In Business School and I am always afraid I might be very weak candidate in the IT industry this is my senior year and I never made a full app! whenever I have those feelings I just say it is ok I will shift to any other career if i Failed ..

    I really like the way you made your career as a developer !! 😀

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  14. Jelena Perfiljeva

    Such a cool story, so glad it was highlighted by Colleen Hebbert. One might be surprised to find that when I was in high school I also worked as a secretary in summer time. We did not have any computers back then, only an extremely noisy typewriter. 🙂   

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  15. Chris Haderer

    Hi Denise,

    Thank you very much for sharing your story.  It’s refreshing to read how you overcame limitations early in your career and set yourself up for success in the long run.

    My formal education is in Business Management and Leadership, and only included a course in Excel and Access.  Working for my company, I’ve had many opportunities to move into other areas that interest me, and right now, that is Master Data Management.  I understand how difficult it is to start learning without having formal training, but have found there are wonderful apps available to assist in learning various coding languages.

    Thanks again,

    Chris

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