My Journey from a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry to Software Developer

These days there a lot of people transitioning from other careers into Software Development and Engineering. There are some general themes in all of them but each story is unique and we can learn something from each of them. I have certainly learned a lot by reading other people’s stories. Today I want to tell my story, or journey, from a career in science to Software Development. I hope it can help others who are possibly making a similar transition.

Migrating from Iran

I was born in Tehran, Iran and my family migrated to the United States when I was 9 years old. It was during the Iran-Iraq war and there was bombing in Tehran. My parents realized that they had to make a move in order to help us have a better future. My dad used a sabbatical to Seattle Washington as a Linguistic professor to get us out of Iran. Once we arrived we stayed while my dad had to go back to Iran for a while. We were illegal immigrants and it was tough but that’s a story for another day. Eventually we became legal residents and started building our life.

College Years

Iranians are a proud people with a long history, culture and high standards. Most parents want their kids to have high prestiges job like doctor or lawyer. Following in that footsteps I though I wanted to be doctor and majored in chemistry in college. But in reality I knew that really wasn’t what I wanted in life. But when I took sophomore Organic Chemistry something clicked. Unlike most people, I loved the way Organic Chemistry challenged my brain. It was like a puzzle that required imagination to solve without completely clear outcomes. I loved it and decided to major in Chemistry. I looked into career options as an Organic Chemist and it was plentiful.

Becoming a Chemist

After college I got a job at Merck as an associate chemist. I wasn’t really sure yet if I wanted to do the Ph.D. route and wanted to make sure by working first. Merck in 2000 was a great place to work as a scientist. I was surrounded by some of the brightest people from places like Harvard, Stanford and MIT. The focus on science and research was amazing. It was clear after my first year that I wanted a career in chemistry and I had to get my Ph.D. to do it. Merck offered a Ph.D. sponsorship program and after 3 years I took advantage and started my Ph.D. at Columbia University.

My 5 years earning my Ph.D. was an amazing experience and very tough. I loved living in New York and met some of my lifetime friends. The research was very frustrating and difficult. There were many months of low self-esteem and being unsure of my direction. But I continued and kept pushing. During this time two other things peeked my interest. I realized that I was more interested in academic then pharmaceuticals specially since pharma started heavily outsourcing jobs. It was also during this time that the iPhone and Android came out. Android really peeked my interest and I started buying phones and tinkering. At some point it become my other passion.

After my Ph.D. the enthusiasm for chemistry had waned a bit. The Ph.D. had beaten me down more than I wished and I wasn’t as successful in publishing as desired. I returned to Merck as part of the sponsorship program and found the company to be completely flipped. Most of our jobs were outsourced to India and China. The focus on science and research was no longer there and management was all concerned about investors. It further helped to push me away from chemistry. After two years at Merck I was laid off. It was tough at the time but in reality it was a blessing.

The Final Years of Chemistry

I took this opportunity to try my final hand at academics. I got a post-doc at U.T. Southwestern Medical center with hopes of becoming a professor. While in Dallas, Texas I met an engineer friend who was into web development. He had built some successful sites and we got talking about what I can do. My passion for Android was at an all time high and he encouraged me to build a site. Eventually I started the Android Cowboy blog focused on Android tablets. It was my first real foray into the web. I loved it and started building a following which kept growing. I was writing blogs on new tablets, jailbreaking them and doing videos. Eventually my tinkering with the Kindle tablet got a good following. There wasn’t that many people talking about the Kindle tablet and I was one of the few showing people how to add Google apps to it. I was even making some descent money through the site with Google ads and YouTube.

After 3 years of my post-doc in which I was able to publish 2 successful papers I applied for academic position. The market was very tough as few Universities where hiring and academic funding was at all time low. It was clear it was going to be tough. I got a few interviews but nothing came through. I was at a clear junction in life. Continue with the chemistry career path or think about some other options. I was disillusioned with pharma and it seemed clear that to get an academic position could take many more years. I was getting older and if I was going to do something else it was now or never.

The Road to Software Developer

I made the decision to move back home to Maryland and make my life there around my family. My parents were getting older and I realized that spending time with them was important. I would look for chemistry jobs if I could find them in Maryland and also look for web developer positions as well.

I came across an ad in Indeed that intrigued me. Clearly they were looking for a junior position and someone with Wordpress experience which I had building my blog. It was a small company which I liked after my experience working at large company like Merck. I also clicked with the CEO as someone who was straight forward and honest. I was offered the position and after some thought I took the leap. I wasn’t yet sure of anything but I knew that at least this was my chance to get into the business.

Working at the small company of about 10 people gave me the chance to really grow. I started to grow my skills from just Wordpress to building application with Python. The first year was a bit tough getting used to new tools and nomenclature. But it was clear I had made the right decision as I truly love Software Development. I slowly grew my skills and became more confident.

The Common Traits of Science and Software Engineering

Something I came to realize as I learned Software Development was that my Ph.D. in chemistry came in handy. In fact I realized that the process of writing software wasn’t that much different than chemistry. Yes, the tools are different but the scientific method could be applied to both. At the end of the day it’s all about problem solving. In chemistry I had to solve chemistry problem trying to bend molecules to my will. Now I was solving software problems trying to make the code do what I want.

Here is the outline of the process as I see it.

  1. First identify your problem.
  2. Research the problem and what has been done previously in that area.
  3. Based on your research and your own expertise form a hypothesis for the solution.
  4. Use the necessary tools to execute your hypothesis.
  5. Get feedback on execution and progress.
  6. Repeat steps 2, 3, 4 and 5 as needed to refine the solution.
  7. Eventually come to a solution.

These are the same steps I used in chemistry and that I use today to solve software problems. The scientific method applied to both disciplines. This realization gave me confidence that I would make it as a Software Developer.

I hope that this story is useful to others that might be deciding to transition from a career in science to software development. I think it’s probably an easier transition than possibly other fields. But regardless it requires hard work and discipline. Nothing worthy is every gained without dedication and passion.