Why I Went From Pharmacy to Coding

Tien Phan
Tien Phan

In my previous career, I worked as a pharmacist and managed a successful retail pharmacy for a couple of years. As a pharmacist, I worked in an interdisciplinary program with nurses and physicians to help patients with various health issues.

Why did you first decide to start coding?

When I graduated, I felt like I had more free time than when I was in school so I explored learning different things, one of which was coding. At first, I worked with a friend to make some websites and blogs and got my first exposure to web design and basic coding concepts. Even learning the basics opens up your eyes to so many possibilities. I saw that there were quite a few tasks in the pharmacy that were very repetitive and could be automated.

For my first program, I decided to make software that could help track lab values better for patients taking clozapine. Patients taking clozapine are required to go for lab tests regularly (WBC and ANC) due to the risk of fatal agranulocytosis. In the first six months, they have to go weekly. In the next six months, they can go every two weeks. And after a year of no complications, they still needed to go every 4 weeks. Our system was a combination of excel spreadsheets, papers, and the existing software provided by each company that manufactured clozapine. The program I made allowed the pharmacist to keep track of all their patients in one location.

Another program I made would figure out which prescriptions were going to expire soon. We had many patients that received home care and couldn’t always go to their doctor for a new prescription. So we had to manually scroll through a spreadsheet to check for due dates. This task would take almost 2 hours at times. I made a program that automatically parsed through the spreadsheet to figure out prescriptions that were expiring soon, and order them into a presentable list.

After seeing how these relatively useful programs saved hours of work, I saw programming as a superpower.

If you don’t have a CS degree, how did you learn coding? Did you do any particular courses or bootcamps?

Instead of trying to learn how to program, I had a project that I wanted to do (lab values tracking). I did some research about what sort of skills I needed to learn and picked out some well recommended resources. For example, I figured out that I needed to learn a programming language that dealt well with data and .csv files.

Can you tell us what an average day looks like for you just now working as a Software Developer ?

As a fullstack developer, I work on both the backend and frontend. Each developer is responsible for taking an entire feature to completion. When I first started, I worked in Data Integrity. This basically meant that we had to keep our data correct and ensure that it followed our data model as well as it could.

Although it meant lots of digging around the database and looking at rows of data, I came away with a good understanding of the complicated data model and a much better understanding why it’s important. My database and SQL skills got much better. SQL knowledge seems to be highly underrepresented in beginner web developer courses, but it’s so useful in practice.

Our developer team has a weekly learning session that I find very valuable. The sessions are led by one of the senior developers, and some of the topics include web security, in depth PostgreSQL, front-end testing. The topics are usually chosen based on what the senior developer believes would be most useful at that time for the rest of the team.

How has your life changed since becoming a professional programmer?

I see programming as a superpower. It’s allowed me to automate many tedious tasks in my personal and work life. Recently at work, I launched a new staff feature after writing a few hundred lines of code. I only had to do it once, and now it is permanently there to help internal staff with their processes and save them hours of time.

In my personal life, it’s become my creative outlet. In just the span of a weekend, I can program up a project that can have actual impact. I’ve also met many interesting people in the tech industry. Not only other programmers, but designers, product managers, and more. The great thing is that software technology is becoming more prevalent in other industries, so you can have interesting conversations with radiologists who are trying to use computer vision to better predict illnesses from medical imaging. Not only that, I’ve met many people online that I wouldn’t have otherwise if I didn’t become a professional programmer.

Has anyone ever asked about your coding qualifications when you have been talking to clients or going to interviews?

At interviews, you just have to demonstrate what you know. When I was looking for my second job, I had to actually do interviews. I knew that I didn’t know enough about data structures and algorithms to pass interviews. Right now, there’s no way around it other than studying. Here’s what I did:

  1. I picked up some resources on data structures and algorithms, and watched youtube videos on the parts that were confusing.

  2. Did practice problems on leetcode which was crucial to building an intuition around the concepts.

  3. When I felt more ready, I went through mock interviews with other people (eg. pramp)

Because computer science and programming is such a broad field, I don’t think I’ll ever feel “competent” at it. But I can probably learn a specific skill well enough if I need to, since there are so many resources online.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get their first programming job but they don’t have the time or money for a CS degree?

You can either go to a reputable bootcamp or teach yourself online. Even if you want to try a bootcamp, it makes sense to try to teach yourself online first. You can figure out which area of programming you like at practically no cost. And if it turns out you don’t enjoy programming, that’s fine too.

I think working on a project works for many people. If you keep working on projects until you find one that you want to keep at, then you’ve found your source of motivation. It also helps to have a community of people who understand what you’re doing, and will support you.

TLDR; Project building + Community

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