Career change: realistic expectations and risks

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warner25
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Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by warner25 » Thu Oct 30, 2014 3:27 am

Long-time lurker here looking for help in framing a personal finance/career/life decision, especially from people who work(ed) in the tech industry. I feel vulnerable in my current career as a US military officer due to downsizing, and I have lost enthusiasm for my particular career track. But I do have other interests and possibly skills, so I wonder if getting laid-off, or choosing to leave earlier on my own terms, to begin a career in software development would ultimately be for the best. However, it is difficult to gauge the risk (financially) of a career change.

Facts:
1. I have a BA in computer science from 2008.
2. Since then, I've been on active duty doing nothing related to software or IT.
3. In the last couple of years I've gotten back into my college textbooks, kept up with tech news, and spent free time working on toy-projects to update my skills. I recently opened a GitHub account to start building a portfolio, and I eventually want to contribute some bug fixes to a larger open source project.
4. I plan to get an MS in computer science, either while still in service or afterward through the GI Bill, in order to restore my status somewhat as a “recent graduate.”
5. I'm looking ~4 years into the future, so I would be ~32 years old looking for my first real developer job.
6. We'd like to live in the Boston-New York region.
7. I think our spending in a HCOL area would be about $50k/year (assuming $2k/month for rent). We've spent much less in LCOL areas. Current net worth is approaching $400k, and might be over $600k in another 4 years at our savings rate.
8. My wife is currently a SAHM, but has worked previously as a high school math teacher, and is also interested in developing curriculum or teaching materials for companies that do such things.

Concerns (trying to keep this strictly about personal finance - I think we have to weigh the non-financial factors for ourselves):
1. If I fought hard to keep my current career and succeeded, we'd almost certainly be financially independent by our early 40s, even if my wife remained a SAHM. Military retirement pay alone would cover our current expenses. If I changed careers, I have no idea. How do we figure a realistic earnings trajectory?
2. Maybe this is because I actively seek out tech news, but there seems to be a lot of buzz... multi-billion dollar acquisitions of start-ups, major IPOs, "hacker boot camps," initiatives to get more kids into programming, booming enrollment in CS programs... I'm feeling left out. But if this is a bubble, how tough might the job market be for someone like me (neither "experienced hire" nor typical "recent graduate") in a few years?

warner25
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by warner25 » Thu Oct 30, 2014 5:08 pm

No replies so far; maybe I need to restate what I'm asking more concisely... Should I reasonably expect to make a career change to software development (starting at the bottom as an individual contributor) without setting us back many years on the road to financial independence? Or do you think I should plan instead for the more typical (for people in my shoes) defense industry contractor or general middle-management job?

livesoft
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by livesoft » Thu Oct 30, 2014 5:25 pm

It is hard to predict the future. I read the newspapers about the need for more STEM graduates and how we should increase teaching in the STEM fields. On the same pages as those articles are reports of all the layoffs at places like Merck, Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard, etc. So which is it: We need more STEM folks or we need less STEM folks?

Although I have made a career by developing application specific software, I am not sure where the field is going. Do you have any idea of the kind of software that you would like to develop? Banking? Finance? Retail? Big Physics? Cell phone apps? Molecular Biology? Big Data? All would be very different and have different prospects.

But don't forget: There is always room at the top.
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Calm Man
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by Calm Man » Thu Oct 30, 2014 9:43 pm

OP, I do not know much about the military or work in IT. I for out of going to the military because so student deferments. I use IT of course. I would figure that computer companies want people current in software. It's almost like the younger the better. Every day you spend in the military, while it might add to your physical fitness, would not in my opinion help you for a future IT position, and it might hurt you as you lag further. I'd make my move sooner than later. I also would get the work back to the workforce before it passes her by. I also had no clue that there were layoffs in the military for anybody including officers, I thought it was tough to keep people in the military.

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market timer
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by market timer » Thu Oct 30, 2014 10:04 pm

Is it possible to transfer in the military to a role that uses your background in CS?

People always think the grass is greener, but you should appreciate how good you have it right now: only six years out of school, kids, can afford for your wife to be a SAHM, $400K net worth. Very few in the private sector in Boston or NYC are doing as well as you. Your $2K/month rent estimate seems awfully low for a family in NYC (not sure about Boston). I'd do what it takes to stay in a LCOL area, continue your current savings rate, and retire on a military pension. The job market is cyclical, and it wouldn't surprise me to see the bubble pop in CS/IT, like it did in the early 2000s.

mentalGen
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by mentalGen » Thu Oct 30, 2014 10:39 pm

Look into a job in the defense industry. The software work may not be as exciting as commercial stuff, but you'll definitely get preference for as a former officer and the fact that you probably have a Secret Clearance. In general, unless you're targeting a top commercial company to start at, you will be taking a pay cut to make this career change and it probably isn't going to be worth it imo.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by tibbitts » Fri Oct 31, 2014 7:59 am

If you leave the military before your planned retirement, stick with a job for which you are already somewhat uniquely qualified (defense industry.)

If you can hang on, remember that defense spending also has a business cycle, although it's more of a political cycle, and that could shift in the future, as it did in the early 1980s, when even I was able to get a defense-related job.

feh
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by feh » Fri Oct 31, 2014 11:45 am

Can't suggest which road to take, as I can't predict the future and know nothing about military careers.

One thought I did have reading the OP - if you leave the military, I'd skip the Master's degree. You'd be better off getting on the job experience.

wxz76
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by wxz76 » Fri Oct 31, 2014 11:51 am

Do you have a security clearance with the military? If you do it should be easy finding a job in the private sector. And with your military background I doubt you'll have any problem finding a job within the goverment.

Afty
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by Afty » Fri Oct 31, 2014 11:58 am

feh wrote:One thought I did have reading the OP - if you leave the military, I'd skip the Master's degree. You'd be better off getting on the job experience.
I disagree. A Masters would refresh his comp sci knowledge from undergrad and also give him the opportunity to do an internship. If he's been out of school for 6 years and has no work experience in software, he's going to have a hard time getting hired anywhere to get job experience. If he can get the Masters paid for by the GI Bill or some other means, I would go for it.

Busting Myths
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by Busting Myths » Fri Oct 31, 2014 12:02 pm

livesoft wrote:It is hard to predict the future. I read the newspapers about the need for more STEM graduates and how we should increase teaching in the STEM fields. On the same pages as those articles are reports of all the layoffs at places like Merck, Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard, etc. So which is it: We need more STEM folks or we need less STEM folks?
Companies want well educated, highly experienced, and value producing STEM workers that cost less than the current supply of workers.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by Globalviewer58 » Fri Oct 31, 2014 12:07 pm

I completed my Army obligation and coordinated my transition to the civilian world through the predecessor to Cameron-Brooks International many years ago. You might find it helpful to contact them and have a discussion with folks whose company specializes in placing junior military officers in industry. Their website is http://www.cameron-brooks.com/difference_team.html

Your value to many employers is based on the leadership skills developed through the experiences you have in the military. With a CS degree you may be surprised at the number of organizations interested in your skill set to manage, coach and lead others rather than perform the actual programming.

livesoft
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by livesoft » Fri Oct 31, 2014 12:17 pm

Busting Myths wrote:
livesoft wrote:It is hard to predict the future. I read the newspapers about the need for more STEM graduates and how we should increase teaching in the STEM fields. On the same pages as those articles are reports of all the layoffs at places like Merck, Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard, etc. So which is it: We need more STEM folks or we need less STEM folks?
Companies want well educated, highly experienced, and value producing STEM workers that cost less than the current supply of workers.
No kidding. This is on the LATimes web site yesterday ( http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-c ... story.html ):
"If HR people want something very specific — like an MIT grad with five years of experience for $15 an hour — you have to take it with a grain of salt when they report it as an unfilled opening," said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.
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Watty
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by Watty » Fri Oct 31, 2014 12:51 pm

wxz76 wrote:Do you have a security clearance with the military?
+1

Try looking at the current job postings that require s security clearance. For many positions it is easier to find someone with a security clearance and train them to fill some gaps than to find a person with the exact skills you need and then get them the security clearance.

I work in IT and there is a lot more to IT than just heads down programming so be sure to look at all the other types of jobs that might be related to the skills you have already developed in the military.

Be careful about the masters in CS since they really are not all that common. That might make you overqualified for a lot of positions but without related experience you might have a hard time getting a more senior position.

Along with your BA in CS getting a related Masters, or Bachelors, in something like Logistics or Supply Chain management or something like that might fit in well with your military experience and combine to make you a strong candidate for many positions and some management training programs. I am not a big fan of MBA's but that might just be me.

If you don’t finish your degree by the time you leave the military then while you are in college be take a hard look at doing work and an intern. One concern about ex-military people is how well they will fit in a civilian workplace and having worked as an intern will help you show potential employers that you can work well in a civilian environment.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by 3CT_Paddler » Fri Oct 31, 2014 1:19 pm

I would second looking at other opportunities in the military if possible. I was talking to another civil engineer, and her spouse has better overall pay+benefits+pension doing engineering as a member of the Air Force than she does in the private sector. And the work life balance is better for him to top it off.

Also github sounds like a great option to if nothing else find a fulfilling hobby. I don't think you necessarily need a masters. Lots of programmers don't have a computer science background period (which you do). I would spend more time actually contributing to some open source projects and see if its something you would actually stick with. With a comp sci background originally, why didn't you do programming out of school?

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by friar1610 » Fri Oct 31, 2014 1:27 pm

Caveats: I have been completely retired and out of the defense industry for >10 years. I am not nor was I ever a "techie." I am a retired military officer (28+ years) who worked in the defense industry for about 7 years before retiring for good.

You didn't say what your specialty is in the military. As others have noted, if you have a security clearance, a technical degree and "subject matter expertise" in any field for which the military contracts out, you should be in good shape to get a job in the defense industry. From what I saw, intelligence, IT/telecommunications and logistics were 3 big areas. Things like avionics and ship construction are also good. There are probably many other areas that I am just not personally familiar with. The higher your clearance is the better off you will be. I don't want to get into specifics, but let's just say that the more rigorous the process is to obtain the clearance, the better off you will be.

Your job opportunities should be more or less equal whether you'd be getting out short of retirement or as a retiree. You might be shooting for somewhat higher level jobs as a retiree as, presumably, you'd be more senior and would have had more responsible management/leadership jobs in the military. The advantage of having the military retirement is that, if you find you don't like defense contractor work, it is easier (financially) to say "screw it" and move on to something else. I, in particularly, did not enjoy my "career" after the military. I made good money and was able to sock a lot away which ultimately lead to my being able to retire completely at age 58. (In retrospect, I could have afforded to retire sooner, but I used fairly conservative financial projections to determine how big a nest egg I needed.) I would not have been a happy camper doing that sort of work for 20 - 30 years.

I have many friends who are still working in the defense industry (mainly in the DC area) and who are making very, very good money on top of their pensions. Presumably, they find the work more enjoyable/less unenjoyable than I did as they are still at it. I know that some of them have allowed their lifestyles and expenses to grow along with their incomes so they may not have any choice about whether or not to keep working.

Only you can decide whether or not you want to stay in the military to complete a career. I enjoyed my career but it did have its downsides. At this point in my life, with a generous pension (free from state income tax in my state), a free supplement to my Medicare, a pharmacy benefit and a survivor benefit plan for my wife, I'm glad I did it. Depending on what would be in your military future (not always foreseeable), you may or may not want to stay in to get those benefits. If the benefits are the only or primary reason for wanting to stay in, I would advise against it. You have to like what you do every day enough to make it worthwhile getting up every day (and, in the case of the military, moving every x years.)

I live not too far from Boston and I think your rent projections for that area are on the low side.

Best of luck with your decision process. Thank you for your service during a period in our history when only a very small percentage of our citizens serve in uniform. If you have any specific questions, feel free to PM me.
Friar1610

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by generalzodschicken » Fri Oct 31, 2014 2:04 pm

livesoft wrote:reports of all the layoffs at places like Merck, Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard, etc. So which is it: We need more STEM folks or we need less STEM folks?
Depends who "we" are. When "we" = Fortune 500 companies, they need more STEM folks who are willing to work for Third-World wages. So, they generally layoff as many American tech workers as possible and then complain about a "shortage" so they can get more H-1B visas approved. It is a total racket.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by asif408 » Fri Oct 31, 2014 3:04 pm

warner25 wrote:No replies so far; maybe I need to restate what I'm asking more concisely... Should I reasonably expect to make a career change to software development (starting at the bottom as an individual contributor) without setting us back many years on the road to financial independence? Or do you think I should plan instead for the more typical (for people in my shoes) defense industry contractor or general middle-management job?
warner25,

I'd say you probably should expect a setback, but financial independence is not the most important thing in life. If you can find employment in your current field without making a complete change and could be happy with that I would consider that first. That's what I did before I changed careers. If you're really unhappy, though, I'd definitely say go for the career change now.

If you enjoy your work and don't see it as a burden your quality of life will improve. I made a career change starting 5 years ago at age 29. Now at 34, my new career is less lucrative and I'll never make the money I could have made in my previous field, but I am a much happier person and enjoy my work.

I missed out on saving money for about 4-5 years. I don't regret it one bit. I'm not in a rush to retire because I enjoy what I do (though, of course, being a Boglehead, I am saving for retirement :D ).

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by DonCamillo » Fri Oct 31, 2014 3:36 pm

warner25 wrote: 2. Maybe this is because I actively seek out tech news, but there seems to be a lot of buzz... multi-billion dollar acquisitions of start-ups, major IPOs, "hacker boot camps," initiatives to get more kids into programming, booming enrollment in CS programs... I'm feeling left out. But if this is a bubble, how tough might the job market be for someone like me (neither "experienced hire" nor typical "recent graduate") in a few years?
Professor of Computer Science here. We do have booming enrollment. There are meaningful opportunities, and most of our undergraduates have jobs before graduation, often by their junior year after a summer internship. Typical salaries $50k to $60k. Market is significantly harder for graduates with master's degrees. Most of my master's students are international students trying to get a green card to work in the U.S. They will mostly get jobs with contracting firms specializing in programmers from overseas. Most of my native born master's students are already employed and their employer is paying for their training. I get one or two ex-military every semester, often on a program tied to unemployed status paid for by the state, and usually in their mid-to-late twenties, not thirties.

The hot areas like IPOs and hacker boot camps are largely limited to the top few percent of coders with recent undergraduate degrees from good schools who are willing to put in 70 hour weeks for low pay, but good opportunities for bonuses and/or stock options. It is hard to get this kind of position when you are in your thirties, married, and have a family.

I know the job market for CS graduates is great now. It was not great five years ago, and I have no idea how it will be in four years. I have seen many dramatic changes in the software development job market for fresh graduates from year to year. The number of recruiters who come to our job fairs can halve or double from one year to the next.

I am a veteran and a military "brat." Some employers appreciate veterans. Others avoid them because it is hard to transfer military skills to their needs.
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by greg24 » Fri Oct 31, 2014 4:24 pm

It sounds like you are considering undergoing a somewhat difficult career change now to avoid a surprise career change in the future. I'd stick with what sounds like a very good career.

warner25
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by warner25 » Sat Nov 01, 2014 6:50 am

livesoft wrote:Do you have any idea of the kind of software that you would like to develop?
No, but good point that I should probably narrow it down, especially if I'm trying to hone my skills.
market timer wrote:Is it possible to transfer in the military to a role that uses your background in CS?
It is possible to laterally transfer into an IT management (not software dev) role, but opportunities are limited by the current downsizing. I've been denied once but will probably try again. Even in better times, the HR system is rigid. So we might say we need more officers with CS/IT skills to work in cyber-security (for example), but that doesn't necessarily mean people of my rank/time-in-service.
wxz76 wrote:Do you have a security clearance with the military?
I do, at a fairly high level, which I know is valuable. I think it would expire one year after leaving the military unless I got another job that required it, so that would be one argument for not committing to a full-time (two-year) master's program before looking for a job.
3CT_Paddler wrote:With a comp sci background originally, why didn't you do programming out of school?
I have always been interested in computers/programming, but I also wanted to do certain other things as a military officer coming out of high school. So I went through college on an ROTC scholarship to get my commission, and studied CS because I enjoyed it. As you mentioned, programming will always be an enjoyable hobby for me if nothing else.
market timer wrote:Your $2K/month rent estimate seems awfully low for a family in NYC (not sure about Boston).
friar1610 wrote:I live not too far from Boston and I think your rent projections for that area are on the low side.
Slightly off-topic, but I see a lot of 2-3 bedroom apartments on Padmapper in the $2k/month range. Not in the downtown core, but in surrounding towns/neighborhoods that are still walkable and served by public transit. Am I really fooling myself here?

The consensus seems to be that wholesale career change could be more difficult than I have imagined. Lateral transfer to an IT position within the military might strike the best balance for money/satisfaction. If I do get laid-off, the next best option might be leveraging my security clearance to get a foot-in-the-door of the defense industry working on software.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by Zapped » Sat Nov 01, 2014 2:25 pm

DonCamillo wrote:
warner25 wrote: Professor of Computer Science here. We do have booming enrollment. There are meaningful opportunities, and most of our undergraduates have jobs before graduation, often by their junior year after a summer internship. Typical salaries $50k to $60k. Market is significantly harder for graduates with master's degrees.
I'm glad to read a moderately encouraging reply in this thread.

Both of my sons have chosen to go into PhD programs at different universities here in the states, but my youngest just graduated with his BSCS this year and told me that his friends who weren't moving on to graduate programs considered $80K a typical salary and $100K a very good starting salary. Well-paid summer internships were available each year. I'm not saying you merely have to "fog a mirror" i.e. prove you're alive, to get a job, but a CS degree from a top undergraduate university should allow a student to ace a technical interview at most companies.

DonCamillo is saying that typical salaries for newly minted undergrads are in the $50K-60K range. To me that sounds more like a starting salary in IT work, not Computer Science. My oldest son had an internship at one company for three years in a row, and the first summer's wage was equivalent to the low $70K range if annualized. By the third summer the salary was equivalent to $90K/yr.

The engineers who leave my current employer for better opportunities are usually looking for salaries quite a bit higher than $100K and generally expect an established software company (one that is not pre-IPO) to offer stock options each year that amount to an effective doubling of salary as the options mature over time. It's very very difficult for employers to find decent programmers and while it's true there is a lot of work done overseas these days, the domestic market for programmers is very much a seller's market.

Just another anecdotal data point.
- Jim in Austin, TX

Nathan Drake
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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by Nathan Drake » Sat Nov 01, 2014 8:23 pm

Curious how your net worth is that high, having graduated in 2008 and with a SAHM?

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by jchris » Sat Nov 01, 2014 9:32 pm

I had a similar career track to yours, although in engineering, not comp sci. Left Navy after 8 years as a commissioned officer, looking for engineering work, and wanting to pursue a masters degree. Leaving after 5-8 years as a commissioned officer is a pretty common departure point. If you stay too much longer, you may as well stay to get your 20 and military pension. My path worked out because I was very open to considering different types of jobs - I interviewed with probably 9 different companies and eventually ended up taking a job with a government contractor - then within a year got hired into the Federal government, which is where I still am, 20 years later. Masters degree (engineering) obtained at night school and paid for by Uncle Sam. So I would echo some of the earlier comments suggesting that you look seriously at government contracting jobs. Your clearance will be a huge plus (mine definitely was). Also, if you eventually decide to work for the government, your military time will count toward your pension.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by bluejello » Sat Nov 01, 2014 9:41 pm

I work in tech, in one of the companies with a lot of "buzz", and I lived in NYC for over a decade. A few thoughts for you:

1) Good engineering talent is worth its weight in gold. Every tech company is always trying to hire for engineers (that's what we call programmers). Starting salaries $80k to $100k easily.

2) I would not necessarily go straight for the Master's. I think you'd be better off just looking for a programming job at a private company that writes software for the military.

3) As several posters have already said, look at your military background as a strength not a weakness. In addition to programming jobs in the military, there are also lots of private companies working on software for military applications (Palantir is the first name that comes to mind). Look for companies where your experience will be valued, rather than trying to compete for roles at companies indifferent to your background.

4) Technically, yes you can get an apartment for $2k in NYC, but realistically you won't want to live in it. $2k will get you something like a 300 sqft studio in a walkup building in a dodgy neighborhood 15 minutes walk from the nearest subway station. One of my friends lived in an apartment around that price range and she didn't have a kitchen sink (she washed her dishes in the bathroom sink). NYC real estate is just that crazy. I would budget realistically $3k to $4k for a couple with a young baby.

5)
The consensus seems to be that wholesale career change could be more difficult than I have imagined. Lateral transfer to an IT position within the military might strike the best balance for money/satisfaction. If I do get laid-off, the next best option might be leveraging my security clearance to get a foot-in-the-door of the defense industry working on software.
Yes, exactly. Think of yourself as a knight on the chess board — you can go wherever you want, but you can't necessarily get there in one step. The first step is a transition to a programming in the military or at a defense contractor. Then after you have a couple of years of bona fide programming experience, you will have other options available to you and can then consider changing fields if you like, or moving up in the same field, etc. Go step by step, build on the valuable experiences you already have, and you'll get to where you want to be.
Last edited by bluejello on Sat Nov 01, 2014 10:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by baw703916 » Sat Nov 01, 2014 9:50 pm

Busting Myths wrote:
livesoft wrote:It is hard to predict the future. I read the newspapers about the need for more STEM graduates and how we should increase teaching in the STEM fields. On the same pages as those articles are reports of all the layoffs at places like Merck, Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard, etc. So which is it: We need more STEM folks or we need less STEM folks?
Companies want well educated, highly experienced, and value producing STEM workers that cost less than the current supply of workers.
And I want investments that always outperform the market. Both are about equally likely...
Most of my posts assume no behavioral errors.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by liberty53 » Sun Nov 02, 2014 9:01 am

I think if you can actually code you shouldn't have any problem getting a job in the $70-$100K range in the Boston area. This estimate of starting salary accounts for your lack of current industry experience. Your salary should climb rather quickly after a few years, either through job changes or internal salary adjustments.

A Secret clearance probably doesn't buy a whole lot of additional salary if you are targeting the defense industry. A TS or TS/SCI on the other hand is worth more in starting salary.

Your decision would probably come down to quality of life choices. If you suspect you will have to relocate often or still have unaccompanied deployments ahead of you, and you aren't too near your 20 years, then you should probably think about transitioning. If you have acceptable quality of life for the foreseeable future in the military then riding it out and taking the retirement looks very appealing.

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Re: Career change: realistic expectations and risks

Post by warner25 » Sun Nov 02, 2014 4:05 pm

Nathan Drake wrote:Curious how your net worth is that high, having graduated in 2008 and with a SAHM?
We both graduated debt-free. Since then we've had combined earnings of $550k and spending of $250k with the difference invested into a rising market. Most of the earnings are mine, but my wife did work a few years before the SAHM arrangement. We do serious LBYM things like rent a small 1BR apartment, share one car, no cable TV, buy two-year old phones to use with a $10/month plan, etc.

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