Behind the Scenes: Kasia Kaswen-Wilk

Kasia talks about her career switch from an opera singer to a frontend engineer. She also shares practical advice about what it takes to change a career path in tech.

Could you please tell me about yourself and your background? And how long have you been working at Babbel? 

I’ve been at Babbel for around a year and a half. I started as a junior frontend engineer and I was promoted to mid level professional engineer about three months ago. And my background is actually in music, I have a degree in opera and acting. I speak Polish, English, German, and a bit of Dutch. 

What drove you to begin your career change from being an opera singer to becoming an engineer?

Actually, I think it came from a personality switch for me, because I felt like life in the opera world was most of the time about networking, auditioning, schmoozing and less about the music, which at the end was not fitting for me.

That is when I realized that this environment and way of living was affecting my mental health, so I started thinking about a plan B. 

I started thinking, what could be my next step: I thought, okay, what challenge could I undertake? What cool thing could I do? And then I thought, almost as a joke or a dare, wouldn’t it be cool to do some coding? At first,  it felt very overwhelming, because I had no knowledge about it. It just felt intimidating, you know, those hackers in movies, screens with numbers everywhere. But I thought that, as a plan B, this could be very cool and badass.

At that time, my husband, who is a backend engineer, offered his support in researching the options. I let the opera and acting projects I was working on kind of “run their course” until I was finally ready to start doing it, first as a side hobby but then getting full into it pretty quickly.  

How many years did it take you to fully get into coding and learn it? Was it a long time?

I didn’t want to rush it so I did it for about a year on and off – not every day, for a couple hours at a time. I know that a lot of people learn at boot camps and they cram all this knowledge into their brains within two months. I don’t know how they do it, because I did it for about a year, on and off.

What was the biggest challenge you faced before and during your career switch? 

One of the biggest challenges was that I was doing it alone, without a teacher or anyone to ask. I used a free online curriculum called Odin project, which I can definitely recommend if anyone is interested. It is an open source curriculum which allows you to end up with a portafolio, which is very important. It sends you to different websites, or videos or courses, and you can find bits of lessons that are free in the proper order. After each chunk, they give you a challenge to code. And that way you can kind of put in practice what you learned.

How did you start? What language were you studying in the beginning? 

It starts with the basics. So you’d learn HTML and CSS, then move to JavaScript. And there are also other kinds of branches. I learned a little bit of Ruby, although I’m very much on the front end side of things. That’s my interest. So Ruby was not for me (that’s a backend language). They also have other ones now. 

I think after the first few months on the job, I realized that I could do stuff because I did some projects which were working. I thought ‘’what if I come to a company, and they verify that actually my skills are lacking’’. It turned out that the course was legit, and did teach me the way that people actually do it. So that was really cool- to kind of get that validation, that I wasn’t just a little child playing at coding.

How did you manage to stay motivated and overcome your challenge? And what were some things that you did to keep yourself going?

A couple of times, I reached out on some forums online to ask people for help. I went to some discord channels, where I knew people were willing to help noobs like me. 

I did also just take time. Sometimes if you feel like you’re hitting the wall, it’s good to just step away.
I’ve had a couple of times when I would leave the computer and go somewhere because I thought, I need to take a breather, I’m going to run some errands or whatever. And then suddenly, I’m like, I got it! I know how to do it. And I would come back and yes, it would work. The moment of eureka – you have it on the backburner, but it’s still working there somewhere.

What were the biggest changes from the career change?

So there’s the working hours and the culture of a tech company. Now I’m at the desk, in my home office most of the day, where I didn’t use to sit much during the day. But there are also pros because I used to have to work whenever my friends had days off, or evenings or holidays. That’s when I worked.

What would you say about your current role at Babbel? And when you came here, how did it make you feel? 

I really like that at Babbel my manager is very involved in my professional development. It’s not only that you’re here to provide value for us but also I definitely feel like Babbel is invested in getting us to learn more and I mean of course give back that’s natural but I’m definitely challenged every day in a positive way. There’s this grid for what you need to represent with yourself in order to be considered for a promotion. So we took a systematic approach to this, like what actions, what tangible things could I undertake in order to learn quicker and in a more streamlined way, so that I don’t just randomly learn things that are not going to help me and try to stick to that. 

What did you learn about your biggest strengths and weaknesses from this career change experience?

My strength would be courage,  because I think it takes courage to jump to such a different topic. And it does take perseverance to do it by yourself without any deadline that’s hanging over you.

There was a quote that was heavily used in the course that I did, which was ‘’embrace the suck’’. Because when you learn new things all the time you really crave that moment when you just feel like ‘’oh, I know things’’. But there are these ups and downs and in the ups you feel like you’re the king of the world, but then a new challenge comes and you realize that what you actually learned is just a small portion of the ocean of knowledge that you that there is and then you feel overwhelmed again and you have to embrace that and also maybe this is not a strength or a weakness.

Something that I learned from the whole process was to be okay with asking questions. Be okay with showing people that you don’t know something. This is a difficult one when you have the pride of trying to appear to others as if you’re knowledgeable and smart.

What advice would you give people thinking about changing their career?

Don’t give up with the first thing that feels like you can’t do it. Maybe give up after the fifth thing that you feel like you can’t do? *laughs*. I guess it’s difficult to determine whether something is difficult just because it’s difficult, or if it’s difficult because it’s not for you.

I think there are still ways for people to safely explore new paths if they are afraid of switching careers, because there is something that they might miss. Maybe there’s a way that they can combine the old with the new in some way, that would remove the barrier of saying goodbye to something that they might have loved, but is no longer viable for their life. I, for one, never fully gave up on singing. I just do it as a hobby now and don’t have to depend on it for my livelihood.

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