Failing Forward: How a Starving Artist Found His Way to Software Engineering

Five years ago, I left a financially rewarding but personally unfulfilling first job in finance to take advantage of an opportunity to compose music for commercials. Overwhelmed with excitement, I took every penny I had (plus a huge pay cut) to pursue my dream of a professional music career in New York City. Despite my lack of formal training, I was able to pick up just enough piano and guitar to arrange music in a number of genres for commercial use, which opened other doors to the industry.

A career in music can seem like the ultimate dream, especially when you’re focused on the public-facing front end of artists’ careers: the Instagram posts and likes, the high play counts on Spotify and SoundCloud. You’ll never see what’s happening at the back end – the negative bank accounts (ironic because I’d previously worked in finance), the struggle to make rent, the missed opportunities to genuinely hang out and stay in touch with friends and loved ones. Even after I had songs chart virally on Spotify and played at some of the most well-known festivals and venues, I felt the need to continually build up the perception that the full stack of my life was operating well. Most folks didn’t recognize the digital barriers I’d constructed to help paint a picture-perfect story through my social media, which also worked to mask the financial insecurity, the feelings of isolation, the bouts of uncertainty and tests of faith.

I decided to pick up and take an indefinite trip to Atlanta, the emerging holy grail of the music industry. While there, I truly discovered and honed my authentic voice, and created incredible music along the way. Taking a break from the chaotic pace of NYC allowed me to go into a fresh environment with anonymity, appreciate music outside of it being my business, while also reclaiming my southern roots.

However, being in Atlanta came with its own set of challenges. The aforementioned hardships, financial and otherwise, of being a musician followed me, and I finally acknowledged to myself that – at least for the time being – music was going to have to become a side hustle to full-time employment in something else, rather than the other way around. Having worked only part-time jobs in the non-music world for several years, I didn’t feel confident that I possessed the scope of skills to bring value to something new, nor was I sure what I’d be passionate about. I just knew that in whatever capacity I worked, I wanted to make an impact.

Meanwhile, my partner, who had stayed in NYC, suggested a coding boot camp as a way to pivot into a career in software engineering. She had witnessed firsthand how unsustainable a full-time career in music was as a foundation for our shared future. As for myself, I couldn’t help but be curious about exploring this option, especially considering the outsized role tech had played in my music career via social media and distribution platforms such as Instagram and Spotify.

Initially, I found coding to be a mind-bending puzzle – simultaneously frustrating and highly gratifying. I found myself working late into the night as I fed my passion for creative problem solving, similar to when I first started creating music. I started to draw the connections between being a music artist and software engineer. Programming the beat and arranging instruments to create the entirety of a song is surprisingly akin to programming a method or function that serves as a larger part of the code. When something isn’t working in the song, we perform take after take until we get it right. Likewise, when the code isn’t passing our test spec, we tinker around, take breaks, stay persistent and refine our process until things come together.

No matter where my journey takes me, I know I’ll always look to music for inspiration. Even if my original dream didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, I don’t regret the failure; indeed, I’m grateful for it. There’s no reason that someone who says “I want to be an artist” can’t say with equal confidence “I want to be a software engineer.” Personally, I think they go together pretty well and it makes for a damn good rock star.

Demarius “Mari” Edwards ’14 is a musician turned full stack developer, driven by the powerful intersection between art and tech. He is currently developing applications that help increase visibility and exposure to tech for underrepresented communities. He can be reached on Instagram, Twitter @mari_world_, GitHub and LinkedIn. The original version of this article appeared on Medium.