The Case For Transitioning From Acting to Coding

Carla Stickler
From the Stage to the (Computer) Screen
8 min readJul 31, 2019

When I first began thinking it was time to make a major life shift, I spent a lot of time on google. I searched the internet for things like “actor skills that translate to real world jobs” or “things actors can do when they don’t want to act anymore”. I mostly got a lot of articles about why people later in life transition INTO acting, and a smattering of articles about how actor skills translate well into things like PR or business. But nothing I found really satisfied my itch for learning.

A little about my background, I am an actor. I have been acting professionally for 15 years having received a BFA from NYU in acting and jumping straight into the world of musical theatre immediately after. About 5 years ago I decided I was tired, my body hurt from dancing on a raked stage (a stage with a steep incline), my feet were sore from wearing heels, I was tired of being treated like subhuman at auditions. I was super burnt out from performing 8 shows a week almost nonstop for 10 years. My social life had dwindled to my physical therapist, my actual therapist, the people I saw at the gym, and my coworkers. I knew I needed a shift and at the time, a shift into education felt like the right move. I loved teaching because it took me out of myself. It allowed me to help other people and not focus on my struggles as an actor. I left my cushy Broadway gig to get my master’s degree in theatre education from NYU. While finishing my degree I picked up a bunch of concert gigs on cruise ships, doing homework while looking out at the Atlantic Ocean as the sun set. It was pretty awesome. It made me think I wanted to perform again. While building my private voice studio and teaching at conferences around the country I tried to get back into acting. I picked up adjunct faculty work at two colleges in NYC, and continued auditioning. But my heart just wasn’t in it. The mystic of being an actor was wearing off. I love performing. I always will, but as I began to find myself less willing to jump at every single small, low paying gig, I began to enjoy the business of acting less and less.

About a year ago a friend of mine, who also happened to be a musical theatre song writer, finished attending The Flatiron School. He seemed so excited about everything he had learned and had just accepted an offer to work at a great company that would offer him more money than he’d ever made in musical theatre and benefits to go with. I was intrigued. He told me that coding is like music theory, it’s a complex language and that if you can read music you can code. My father, an engineer, had always told me I should learn how to code since I had always been good at math. But I hadn’t touched math since high school. I hadn’t used my brain the way I thought engineers used their brains. I had however, spent some time in an honor’s music theory class in college and read music on a daily basis. My curiosity got the best of me. I began teaching myself basic HTML and CSS through FreeCodeCamp.org. I was hooked. Writing code and watching it magically appear on a page was just as exciting to me as finishing a 1000 piece crossword puzzle (a hobby I inherit from my musician mother and one that I spent a lot time doing while touring the country on a Broadway National Tour).

As I began to dive deeper into learning Javascript, I began realizing that this was something I was good at. But why was I good at it? It’s not like I had spent the past 15 years doing anything remotely similar. But maybe I had. Maybe my skills as an actor actually lent themselves well to learning a new language. So, why should actors that are thinking about transitioning from acting to another career consider tech? Here’s a few reasons I think our skill set make us fantastic engineers.

HARD WORK

No one knows how to work like actors. We spend weeks bringing life to something that only exists on a page. We memorize lines, choreography, music and then are expected to perform these things all at the same time while also smiling (and wearing heels). We are masters at quick learning and interpretation skills. We can take someone else’s words and make quick intuitive decisions about who this person is, why they are saying these lines and conjure up real emotions based on merely text. We are expert detectives in this way. Also, as I sit here writing this, I just finished a 3 week stint in coding bootcamp full time M-F 9am–6pm while performing on Broadway every night and doing two shows on Saturday, not to mention finishing my vanilla javascript project and learning React in a week and passing my code challenge. That takes hard work, lots of focus, major dedication… and maybe a little bit of crazy… but who’s judging.

Software engineers need to be hard workers and expert detectives. We can spend hours debugging and searching through lines and lines of code looking for a misplaced parenthesis or a comma. We need to know what it’s like to not give up on something because it’s difficult and see it through to the end. No one knows how to do this better than actors. Long hours are an everyday part of our lives.

CONSISTENCY AND TIMELINESS

The old saying “to be early is to be on time, and to be on time is to be late” really holds with actors. If we are late the show doesn’t go on. We must show up prepared and ready to perform in front of dozens to thousands of people. If we are understudies or swings, we need to know how to hold on to lots of different information at all times and be willing to jump into a role that we don’t perform everyone night in front of a live audience. We have to be bold and consistent. We have to trust what we know and be willing to execute it at a moments notice without insecurities. We must be consistent for the sake of the maintenance of the show.

No, software engineers don’t have to perform in front of thousands of people, but we do have to be consistent. We have to know form and keep our code dry so other developers can read it. We have to trust our skills and be willing to take risks in our code. There are many things that we won’t know and we have to be humble enough to ask questions and seek answers. We need to follow through on our projects for clients and be confident in the work that we do. Understanding deadlines and completing work in a timely fashion is a skill everyone should have.

ADVOCATE FOR OURSELVES

No one advocates for actors like actors. If we aren’t doing it, no one else will. Actors spend most of their free time taking dance classes, acting classes, networking with casting directors, agents, and auditioning. We know when to turn it on and how to present ourselves in a professional manner. I have spent hours learning how to walk into a room, read that room, and act accordingly before singing my 32 bar cut of a song and reading through audition sides. Auditioning is a job and you learn very fast what works and what doesn’t. You learn how to be positive and confident about your skill set without coming across as arrogant. You know the exact right thing to say that can cut the tension in a room. As an actor, you are your own business. You require maintenance, business cards, headshots, and a lot of perseverance.

Coding requires a lot of perseverance. We must be willing to advocate for our own growth and learning. We must be dedicated to the act of coding and debugging and be willing to spend endless hours learning new languages, libraries and frameworks. Our jobs are to constantly be bettering our abilities as developers. We are never done learning, and every good developer knows this. That’s why there is so much open source material on the internet. We want to share and learn as much as we can so we can be the best problem solvers we can be. Now, those great soft skills of being able to read a room that come with acting may not directly affect how we code, but it does directly affect how we interact with our coworkers. Who says developers have to fit the stereotype of the dude in the hoodie sitting alone in the dark coding til all hours of the night. Actors can can help change the way developers are viewed because we can be extremely personable and self-aware.

COMMUNICATION & COLLABORATION

This leads me to my favorite skill sets that actors have, communication and collaboration. We work closely with one another for hours, days, weeks on end. We have developed excellent collaboration skills and communication skills. I’m pretty sure every actor has at one time or another taken an improv class and learned how to “yes and…” a situation. We spend years developing the skill of being present and listening.

Developers need these skills more and more. With pair coding becoming more common in the workplace, the need for individuals who can “play well with others” and use their words to explain their code in a cohesive manner is becoming an extremely important skill. Pair coding involves sitting next to another person, bouncing ideas off each other, and having the ability to listen to their ideas and “yes and…” the situation. No one wants to work with someone who is consistently shooting down their ideas and is unable to explain their code.

Actors and software developers require determination, dedication and patience in their craft. While actors are artists of problem solving emotions and human nature, software developers are artists of problem solving ideas and concepts. Both must know how to be self motivated to continue honing their craft and be life long learners. They both spend hours doing detective work and paying close attention to detail. There are only two things in my life that I have completely lost sight of time and space while doing, and those two things are performing and coding. If you are an actor and you are like me and love the complexities that go with being an actor, you may also love coding. If you want a good place to start, I highly recommend FreeCodeCamp.org. And if you’re looking for a fantastic in person experience, The Flatiron School in NYC offers excellent classes and bootcamps!

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