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Ask HN: Any successful transitions from a tech/IT career to working in the arts?
92 points by 0x70run 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments
Asking this to read about some personal stories and/or advice. I read a lot about people transitioning from regular tech/programming jobs to maybe quants/finances etc., but rarely about arts (literature, music, sociology, history etc.).

I got into a CS curriculum right after finishing my high school on a whim; I'd always wanted to pursue a career in literature/writing/journalism from a younger age (but couldn't due to personal reasons). Now that I'm almost 27 and have been in the industry for ~5 years now, I'm wondering if I should decide on taking the plunge, or at least plan for it... since I do feel the friction in transitioning getting a bit higher as I spend more time in this field.

I have a tech career, but am a working jazz musician on the side. I have a couple of thoughts about this.

First, ignore the economic implications. The reason is simply that the economics of an arts career are a known known. Nobody goes into those careers blindly. You won't either. Perhaps the only widespread misconception is that there's a tier of artists below the superstar level, who can earn a living at it. There isn't. At the second tier, you're already competing with day-jobbers like me for $100 gigs.

Second, consider the skill level of first tier artists and how they got to that level. This varies from field to field and might help you choose a field where you have a realistic chance of getting a job aside from the economics (sociology), or don't (classical violin performance). To clarify the comparison:

Classical violinists are already playing at close to a professional level before they start college. At your age (assuming you're older than 8), you don't have a chance at making your hands do those things, or mastering skills such as sight-reading. I started playing music at age 8.

On the other hand, sociologists start college with a fairly general skill set but no particular expertise in sociology. A friend of mine went to grad school in sociology after a masters degree in classical guitar performance. Between the requirement for a graduate degree, and the lack of interest from anybody else, the job market is still overcrowded and underpaid, but not to the same level as music.

Consider as an alternative working yourself up to a very high skill level as a dedicated amateur. There are people in my area who do things like write books about the local history and culture, that sell 50 copies. Or, they work up and perform obscure musical styles that are not commercially viable. There's a guy who specializes in baroque keyboard music, and even the local pro's go to his performances.

> Perhaps the only widespread misconception is that there's a tier of artists below the superstar level, who can earn a living at it. There isn't.

I'd put one minor twist on that, in that it depends on how "commercial" the art field is that you're getting into. For example, for anyone in a pure entertainment field (musician, actor, comedian, etc.), I'd agree. But I have some artistic friends who got into other fields like carpentry and painting who actually make a good living at it.

The carpentry example is a guy who studied traditional Japanese woodworking in Japan, and now has a pretty thriving business designing and making high-end furniture for interior design clients. Same with the painter, he's a pretty incredible portrait painter so he gets a lot of commissions from rich clients to do portraits and other interior painting for big remodel or new build projects.

> Perhaps the only widespread misconception is that there's a tier of artists below the superstar level, who can earn a living at it.

Music and writing are especially bad, but in areas where you make an unique non-copyable artifact, such as a painting or a sculpture, there's a significant number of working artists who are definitely not superstars. Probably most of them take commissions to make ends meet, but they get to do them with their choice of style and technique, which is half of the fun for many.

For sure. I have a friend who shifted from being a chef to an artist making stuff in the neighborhood of paiting. She works as hard at her new career as she did as her old. A lot of effort goes into marketing and sales, but she's making art she likes and has a solid income.

>Classical violinists are already playing at close to a professional level before they start college. At your age (assuming you're older than 8), you don't have a chance at making your hands do those things, or mastering skills such as sight-reading. I started playing music at age 8.

Sort of bewildered by this statement. You can't learn to sight read after age 8?

I think the argument is that someone who started learning music at age 27 is unlikely to ever professionally compare with someone who is also 27 but started music seriously as a career at 8.

Well... in the case of sight reading maybe 8 is extreme. But even with that specific skill, it gets exponentially more difficult to learn after your teenage years. I follow a web forum for the instrument that I play, and people who learned it informally have talked about their attempts to learn sight-reading as adults. I actually get some work because I've managed to maintain my reading chops over the decades.

I'm a jazz/blues guitarist dilletante who can only go by fakebook lead sheets for comping and rigid arpeggios and scales for improvisation... So could someone enlighten me why sight reading is a precarious skill you can learn only if you're a child? Isn't it just combining two skills ear training and tabs reading (and recalling from memory what pitch it was) ? Thanks!

It is those skills, with the added nuance of doing it at speed. In this sense I think it's like getting fluent at reading and speaking a language: For some reason it gets harder as we get older.

Naturally there are some social barriers as well. The joy of playing music as a kid is that you're allowed to suck and everybody claps. As an adult, you're conscious of your own suckage, so you have to work on your skills alone. And when adding a skill like reading, you can already play and the reading is making it noticeably worse not better, until you get over that hump. Learning it by immersion gets harder when people expect you to be good at it.

Not saying it can't be done, but it just gets harder. It can certainly be done starting at middle school age, which is when most wind players start.

Now, get that fakebook out again, and use it for reading practice. That's a valuable resource. There's also a huge pile of classical guitar literature including etude books that are graded by level, so you can work through them progressively.

The weird thing about jazz is that the opportunities for doing actual reading are disappearing as the whole jazz and live music scene evolves. I've been lucky to play in larger jazz ensembles, where the charts are largely written out and reading is a vital skill, so I've been able to maintain my reading chops possibly better than some pro's.

I'm a non-musician trying to learn some musical stuff now and think language acquisition is a great analogy. I can learn this stuff, but my pace is just so slow compared with what any child can do. I feel this both for music and for foreign language skills. I will just never be as fluid as a native speaker and I have to be ok with that.

Try whatever it is you want as a side gig first. I've known a lot of humanities focused individuals from school, and by and large, they struggle mightily to find work and jobs to fill the hours. Many get part time side gig like work and live a meager existence. Others give up and look for something lucrative. And if you're passionate about those subjects as a mere hobby, side gigging will teach you whether you can actually make a career from it, before you leave tech.

A word of warning, the nice jobs in your target fields are very very hard to get, you'll probably struggle to compete if you're not focused on writing and humanities since school. You may shoot your resume into fifty black holes before anyone gives you the time of day, probably because every opening gets hundreds of resumes for something like Literature Critic or Staff Writer.

In the end, that's all prudence allowing you to keep your lucrative tech job while experimenting. But if you really can't stomach tech, maybe you should try a hybrid idea. Get into tech journalism or writing about tech first, and then use that stepping stone to write about whatever else later on.

Good luck!!

I second this. The fields the OP mentions in particular are all quite hard to making a living at right now. Journalism is especially brutal these days due to the decline of newspapers. Keeping the (lucrative!) tech job while building up skills, connections, and a track record is an excellent way to do it. Tech is also the kind of field where you can do part-time consulting and still make enough to get by, which can really help with a transition into the new career.

As for people who have done it, an example that comes to mind is Daniel Suarez, an IT consultant turned novelist: https://daniel-suarez.com/

I'd also recommend digging around for John Scalzi's recommendations. He's a former finance journalist turned novelist, so he has a lot of good advice about the practical and financial side of becoming a full-time writer. For example:


It's not exactly the same, but a transition to woodworking seems to be relatively common for programmers. Try a search for that, you'll find some personal stories.

My advice FWIW is that if you're determined to make a new career as a creative, to find some low-stress, absolutely 9-5 job that allows you to just do your job and not worry about it afterwards. The government here has IT jobs that are 35 hours a week. My expectation is that the work would be soul-sucking and the pay very low.

But the money, even if 35% of market rates, can perhaps be enough to keep a roof over your head and Corn Flakes in the cupboard. Stress might be good for creativity, but I can't imagine that eviction notices slipped under the door will help you do your best work.

Furthermore, not having to continuously read technical books and blogs trying to stay on top of the latest trends will leave you hours - and even more importantly brain space and energy - to put 25 or 30 hours into your craft. You'll be able to really put the energy into making your art what you want it to be.

My model for this is a sculptor I know - he's very good, he has a few large sculptures in the city parks and has trained with famous artists all over the world. He became a firefighter. 3 weeks on (12h days, 6 or 7 days a week I forget), 3 weeks off. He was able to lead two lives, live in a pretty good house with a nice studio, and concentrate on becoming the best artist he could be rather than carving pokemon figurines to sell at farmers markets to make ends meet.

> My expectation is that the work would be soul-sucking and the pay very low.

FWIW, I've not found this to be true. My Enterprise IT stints were enjoyable, with lower pay, but not so low as to be unworkable. I'd say they fell around 80% of SaaS rates, not the 35% you proposed. They were exactly the type of day job I'd want if I were really putting my energies into growing out a new side gig.

I was exaggerating with the 35%. But both the local university and the local government where I am (Edmonton, Canada) advertise mid-level jobs in the 55-60k Canadian range, which is about 50% of local market rates.

I did a PhD in physics, then transitioned to a career as a quant in finance, and lately I’ve gotten involved in the arts with some side projects (music, writing). I’ve written the draft of a kids sci-fi novel and have a few other stories in the works, nothing published yet.

First, I would suggest finding out what you want to do. You mention journalism and literature, which are quite different. Which one more appeals to you?

As you may have seen, many techies here have GitHub side projects. So I’d recommend starting off by continuing with your tech day job and treating your writing as a kind of side project.

If journalism is your calling, maybe you can start by writing a few free ‘articles’ on a blogging platform.

If you want to do literature, then start by writing something. If you have a story in mind, get started on it. Maybe it’s a short story, maybe it’s a novel.

But whatever it is : Start Today! Write just a single paragraph, even if it’s pure shit. And frankly the first paragraph of a first draft is likely to be shit so just let it be shit, it can be heavily edited or cut later. But you’ve written something, you’ve gotten started, and have planted a seed from which to build on!

Also, Twitter has a brilliant supportive writers community. There are all kinds of things like hashtag games where you write a snippet based on the “word of the day”, each day there are dozens of different hashtags. See #vss365 as one of the most popular ones.

Most authors I’ve seen and follow on Twitter have day jobs. Some have only quit their job after publishing a few successful novels.

But the key is to write something and get something down and make progress on it. Start as a side project and see where it goes.

And get yourself writing that first paragraph today!!!

There reason you don't hear about these transitions too often is because it's virtually impossible to have a "career" solely in the arts.

I've had many friends over the years who where all variety of artists/creatives working in the arts including performing art, visual arts, writing, musicians etc. Skills range all over the board from talented amateurs to highly trained/skilled professionals.

Nearly all of them, even the a few I know that played in professional symphony orchestras, needed another, non-creative full time job to pay the bills. Visual and performing (drama) artists in particular all needed another source of income. The only exception to this would be people living in extremely low cost of living areas, but even then all of them had some sort of major financial support coming from somewhere else (spouse/family).

The closest thing to a full time job that pays a living wage in the arts is to become a professor, but that is insanely competitive and many of my friends who went that route found it ultimately unfulfilling. Some visual artists will also work as graphic designers or in an area like UX, but that's still a full time job just using your skills for someone else, not really making your own art.

I would recommend you talk to artists of all sorts that you know (or reach out if you don't). If you're interested in visual arts go to a few gallery openings, chat with artist, if it's literature reach out to your favorite authors (side note, may Booker prize finalists will only every sell a few thousand copies, just to get a sense of the competition in that space) Many of the ones that are making a living at it are probably not doing the art they would prefer most of the time, and the income they are bringing in is very low compared to even poorly paying software engineer gigs.

My advice would be to find a low stress, remote programming gig and devote as much time as you can to your preferred art. Making six figures at your 9-5 and working in the arts is much easier than working at a coffee shop to support your arts. If you really want to do it full time, then I would recommend putting in a few years at a very high paying FAANG type job and finding the lowest cost of living community you can with an arts scene and see how it goes.

The closest thing to a full time job that pays a living wage in the arts is to become a professor

I think many people here are missing the career of a tattoo artist (though the OP was asking about literature, not visual arts).

They can get paid as much as contract programmer -- $30 to $100 an hour -- or even a dentist, e.g. $200-300/hour if independent and well known.

Ironically, tattooing is one of the few forms of art that's not economically affected by computers -- you can't download a tattoo :) Computers made every form of knowledge easier to copy and thus less expensive: software (open source), journalism, literature, music, and movies. But it didn't do that to tattoos.

I think they also follow Jamie Zawinski's law, i.e. write software that will help your users get laid. People will pay more for tattoos than they would pay for something they hang in their living room. (This isn't a negative statement about the art form; I don't think anyone who tattoos would disagree that it's often sexual)

wut? People are getting tattoos to get laid now?

> There reason you don't hear about these transitions too often is because it's virtually impossible to have a "career" solely in the arts.

My little sister has a fine arts degree and has worked as an artist. She's had lots of write-ups in local and regional papers, and has sold at least one piece for about $10,000.

She describes being an artist like this: "No one wants to pay you for your work."

This is great advice.

I am an amateur in a lot of different arts (music, painting, writing being the main focus). I have friends who are professionals in these areas and each of them of them has a day job they don’t care for to support their art. I was moderately close to making an attempt at being a professional musician in my early 20s, but playing enough local shows and only making $50-100 to split between 4 people dissuaded me of that notion. Now I have a fairly hard, but not stressful job in STEM that pays well and has good work life balance.

I find I have a couple advantages because of my reasonable stream of STEM based income: - I don’t ever have to care about selling anything I create, which makes it less stressful - I can afford almost anything I want to tinker with for a particular art

Consuming and creating art is a very critical part of my being, but given the realities of our modern economy and the insane competition in the arts, I am glad that I will be a “forever amateur”.

I'm surprised this doesn't get mentioned more on this thread.

First, find synergetic fields. Parent post is a good example. I definitely think there's something to be said for you UX roles. You could make the switch.

A new suggestion is you have to leverage your current skills as a platform for your new skill / career. Once you know what that is, use your coding prowess to open doors.

For example, if your thing is history, you could go work as a dev at a gaming company that does historical simulations, such as paradox. Or you could do system IT for a museum or the like, to then jump in a job opening of your choice in your field.

There are game studios looking for music talent with tech background, so breaking into music should not be difficult. If your thing is public performance, this route may be interesting - since gaming live music is a very underserved market. Live performance is still going to be a gig for some time and you wont be able to to turn it into a FT job, but you will be both composing music as a FT job and playing it for audiences as a hobby. Thats as fulfilling as it gets

You have a big advantage of having a skill that most modern companies need. Best, the larger the company, the more needs they have in the arts (logos, marketing collateral, art, photography etc) Leverage your tech background to get a foot in the door.

I went from a career as a full-time musician to a tech worker. When I say "career", I mean that I literally got by with the minimum of everything. It was fine in my 20s, but quickly became unsustainable in my 30s. This is why so many comments in this thread are focused on money. The typical path for artists is to start young and broke, or young with wealthy parents. Then it just becomes a story of financial attrition. A few people become financially successful and continue as musicians, but most eventually find a "real" job as they get older.

This is the depressing truth: as you get older you want and need more financial stability. So if you do want to make the switch, you should do it now. Be willing to be broke for the next 5-10 years as you chase your dream, then, worst case scenario, switch back to tech.

This is close to what happened to me. I went back to study sculpture in my 30s, and although I loved it, and still have creative projects, I realised pretty quickly that I wasn't ready to go back to a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, living in shabby digs in the cheap part of town. Now I have a family and there's absolutely no way I'd want to go back to that kind of financial insecurity. For every Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of struggling artists. I met quite a few fine artists who were full-time professionals making genuinely wonderful work, represented by well-regarded galleries, who despite being able to occasionally sell pieces in the tens of thousands of pounds were still scraping a living teaching at art college. (Not helped by the fact that galleries generally take at least 50% of any sale price).

In college I studied both CS and Studio Fine Arts (painting), and subsequently while working in tech (startup SE) showed work – that I had painted "for fun" – in NYC art galleries. From there I became part of the NYC arts community and began thinking about interesting ways to combine art & code. I built a few of these in my spare time, which caught up to my day job and led to a SE position at a startup that built software for the art market.

Assuming you reside in a city that has a strong arts community, I would focus on the nexus between where you are at and where you want to be: how could your skill set move the needle in a creative field? If you're living in a cultural desert, take your search online.

There is exciting work being done at the application layer across creative fields from Generative Art (https://artblocks.io/) to revenue management for musicians (https://www.ampled.com/) to publishing (https://mirror.xyz).

At the protocol layer I'm specifically interested in royalty payments streams (https://superfluid.finance), fictionalized ownership models, and partial common ownership (https://www.radicalxchange.org/media/papers/ownership-and-pu...).

Asking the question in this manner indicates to me that you're lacking inspiration and the resulting specific intrinsic motivation; find this first and the steps to transition will become clear.

Hi! I just moved to NYC from the bay in a similar situation and have lots of questions if you're willing to chat :) @thezisko on the bird website. (or email me)

Check the bird

I think your first challenge is to define what you mean by "successful". I no longer build software, and instead build wooden furniture. Setting aside the question of whether or not that's the arts (I don't care one way or the other), my partner and I went into that career change knowing full well it would never pay the way software did.

We've also structured our lives such that we can live with the fluctuations in income that result from that career change. We live in modest places, drive older cars (verging on shitbox in my case, but I do most of my own work and can keep an older car running. Her car is newer), don't eat out much (even in normal times) and vacation inexpensively (we're both hikers). I suspect you know this, at least abstractly, but it bears pointing out.

Given our current goals, our working version of success is that my income will help us cut into the principal of a mortgage much more rapidly than we could on hers alone. Mind you we need to find a house to buy first, but details. Point being, we're looking in a price range that we can afford on her income indefinitely. Success for us looks like owning it outright faster than we would without my income.

Less tangibly, success has included me being excited about my work. I was not excited about going and writing code for pretty much the whole time we were together before I made that career change.

As someone who previously kept a successful side hustle in arts and lifestyle journalism* while working full time in tech in my 20s and early 30s (wrote fashion and lifestyle columns and articles for newspapers and magazines) - do it as a side hustle first.

There are lots of arts talent roles, but here's one view from writing:

It costs you nothing to find editors and pitch articles to them in your off time, and you can see how far you get. Quitting a tech job to pursue it without making money on it first is substituting a commitment ploy on yourself for using your actual skills to succeed. Do you want to be a martyr to your own dream because it represents the reinvention you desire, or do you want to survive to have the choice to do the thing well? Writing is 90% an itinerant sales job, and the marginally better quality of your writing to anyone elses is going to go through the filter of the house voice of editors first anyway. A "career" in journalism now is more of a political career than one in arts. Sure, there's performance involved, but it's mainly a narrative gatekeeping role that is unrelated to artistic talent, insight, or skill, and getting a full time role favors a certain kind of navigator or operator. Being 70th percentile writer talent is just table stakes.

Figure out if you are organizationally savvy enough to land a prestige magazine/media job, and then ask, if you're really that good, why would you waste that skill for an intern level salary in a dying business, when the skills could make you jr. exec level at a real social center of power like a platform company, ibank, political campaign, etc.

If you like the arts, partner up with a gallery owner and invest or raise money for them.

I'd recommend abstracting the roles you're considering from the work itself. e.g. Do you want to write opinions instead of code, manage writers instead of developers, sell and trade in access instead of products, etc.

It's possible you just want to be a professor, which is its own decades long slog through adjunct hell as well, but the beauty of relatively high paying tech jobs is that you can use them as leverage into these other things on the side.

I was in a similar situation as you. I had a SE job lined up right out of college after having run a small late night bakery out of my apartment during my senior year. After a year and a half working as a SE, I left to pursue work in the food industry full time. I ran my own business which subsequently folded, then worked in a few other restaurants. I eventually bought the same restaurant I managed for 2 years and was chef/founder of it for 3. COVID hit as we were looking to open a second location and I decided that it was time to hang it up entirely. I am now back in software.

I regret none of it. I am so happy I took the chance at the age of 23 because I knew the software industry would always be a fall back if things didn't work out. As others here have stated, try out your art as a side hustle first, if at all possible. You can always come back to software, the industry is not going away any time soon. Some employers will love your multi disciplinary talents if you do come back to tech. It is better to try when you are young. You do not want to look back and regret not trying!

Good luck!!!

The people saying to keep your day job and work at a creative field on the side are probably right. As long as that day job is a low-stress 40 hours a week. Working at a high stress high overtime job will make creative work on the side impossible.

I spent the better part of a decade trying to make it as a screenwriter. During that time I worked what was basically part time dev work. Finding those situations was a little tricky, but the income was comfortable and the time demands low.

Despite having scripts that got me meetings with nearly everyone I wanted, nothing ever moved forward and eventually I moved on. I know I sacrificed some income over that time period, but I'm glad I got to play the game for a while.

Now I'm still working part time, fully remote, but self-publishing novels that sell a few copies. That satisfies my creative needs if not my ego needs.

If you want to write, start now. There's no point in waiting. But it'll be easier on you if you keep a decent income while doing it.

Hi guys :) The only person I have ever known to keep a full-time career in the Arts his entire life is a pianist working in classical dance. His work is "piano labour"; I have seen him after 13 hours at the keyboard (on tour) as repetiteur - such tours might last 3 months and the year is packed end-to-end with tours. So that's the tier of musicians below superstar level who have careers and buy houses on mortgages. I'm a free-form improvising guitarist. I don't depend on music for an income so I don't get stressed. I can have a nice conversation with my guitar wherever and lots of people like my work. I represent the tier of musicians who have fun!

I have a journalism degree and work as a software engineer at a newspaper. The place I work allows pretty much anyone on staff to pitch story ideas, and if the editors like the idea enough, you can write it and get it published.

You can perhaps try to first get a tech job in the industry you want to be in, such as journalism or media, then see if you can internally transfer. Might be easier than quitting your job and randomly applying to media companies to be a writer. Also you can see if it's something you actually want to do if you're around other writers and journalists a lot.

Just a suggestion though, I don't know your full backstory so it really depends on your situation.

I accidentally ran into a case once where an artist of some notoriety (had showings in various large city MOMAs) needed help, and I ended up helping them for several months. It was various forms of modern art that needed some tech assistance with IoT type stuff (LEDs, audio, etc). I wasn't particularly interested in the art, but if I had been, it would have been an avenue to get some advice, experience, etc. All stuff done in my spare time.

So, perhaps that's one avenue you could try. I imagine there are writers that need technical help with blogs, publishing tools, and so on. You could barter that help for advice, contacts, and so forth.

You need to understand that success in the arts looks very different from success in STEM. In our field success is all about how much money you can make, there is a side focus on also feeling fulfilled, but rarely do you hear people talk about how fulfilling their work as a function of itself.

In the arts on the other hand success is defined by how happy you are with the work you’ve accomplished regardless of a dollar value attached to it by others. All the successful artists/creatives I know aren’t making STEM salaries but are happy with the work they’re doing and thus feel successful.

Unfortunately success in the arts also depends on making a name for yourself and that is directly correlated to how much you sell, who you worked with and how many people heard about you.

You’re conflating the wrong things again, if you’re worried about what others value then yes you need to make a name for yourself. But if all you want is happiness, other people’s judgment isn’t necessary

I never disagreed with the happiness part, as a matter of fact it is what I do. But I don't consider myself as a successful artist neither do I care to, just doing my thing and getting what I need to get from it. That is not considered success, especially when the world has no idea about one's happiness doing their own thing. And by the way, you saying that I am "conflating the wrong things again" is patronizing and very assuming.

That's really a non-linear path, but I'll try to tell the most important waypoints anyway: I have a background in Physics and had already around 5 years of professional tech experience under my belt. Being frustrated with corporate life I moved to Berlin in 2013, decided to co-found again and minimized my recurring expenses, finding a cheap place with an old friend.

That co-founding didn't go well and I started visiting really a lot of Meetups (too bad that's not an option right now, hopefully soon again!). So eventually I ended up working at a co-working space. Many people there worked with freelancing, had a design background and my supervisor actually was working as freelance artist on the side.

So I was getting involved in as many projects as I could. Eventually I was attending a Hackathon that I really liked. It was quite a high-effort project, unfinished but me and a friend decided to continue it after the Hackathon. At that point I was also frequenting another more artistic Hackerspace and the owner asked if we wanted to exhibit the project. Being unfinished, one requirement was to give it an artsy touch. Of course me and the other guy still being in the project agreed. He also has a design background.

This way I ended up having a project exhibited in a science art place and I also realized that my project list at that time mostly consisted of highly experimental projects. At that point I wasn't really putting that much effort in anymore. Eventually I also decided to sort out my life and went for a regular job again. But the irony is, things were going by themselves and it was already more effort to "go out" than to stay in that space.

FWIW, I noticed that there are quite a few literature/writing Meetups. Maybe that's a nice way to get your hands dirty. I mean you can just visit and join the projects whenever those come up...

>I'm wondering if I should decide on taking the plunge, or at least plan for it... since I do feel the friction in transitioning getting a bit higher as I spend more time in this field.

I spent 25 years in tech before transitioning into non-profit work. The friction/inertia was a bell curve for me and was primarily driven teo things:

Money: For the first 15 years or so, the money/benefits were the archetypal golden handcuffs. At first, the more I made, the more financial responsibilities I took on. But I didn't keep upgrading my lifestyle past a certain point and I kept increasing my savings rate. At the end of my time in tech, my savings allowed me to choose my career without consideration of the money.

Skills: I realized I wanted to do something else and so I shifted my career away from narrow specialization in hands on tech to more strategic roles (product and people management). This gave me a wealth of skills that were more easily translatable to roles outside of tech.

Note that I am not specifically advocating for the path I took, but just giving my perspective on how it worked out for me.

I have worked for over 20 years in IT development and consulting while loosely making my own original (self produced) music and (occasionally) performing live. I decided the past year (mid 2020 until now) after all of the pandemic issues and shutdowns to see how far my music would go and I incorporated my record label and released more music than I ever have before. My plan was always to be practical first before being adventurous. Many of my musician friends who were adventurous are stuck trying to recover financially and catch up skill-wise now that they have families and health care needs, so practicality simply has to be a part of any plan in my opinion unless you are born with a silver spoon (which i wasn't)

I found that may others had the same idea, and that I was instantly competing with many others that had a lot more resources than me, including major industry record labels. Conversely, I had more time to realize that a lot of the statistics were not realistic because of taking the time out to investigate with my knowledge of IT and development.

A lot, probably of the majority of musicians that look successful are in reality not. Most are discovered based upon their geographical location and connections they have (especially family connections and sheer luck or favoritism that I really can't be jealous of). Success (real honest success) is a very steep uphill battle for everyone in any career field.

Based on my experience though, I'll never stop creating music and doing things my way, but social media is of little help and lots of hype in terms of music discovery, so I stopped investing heavily in it, developed my own web site, and I spend time producing video content to accompany my music rather than posting monologues and skits. I love what I do, and no longer have dreams of it paying off, but regardless I'm very fortunate to have work that pays very well as a back up plan. No regrets on my end.

Like others have said, the arts is a pretty tough field. I'm busy transitioning the other way myself - dropped out of my IT degree 20 years ago to follow my dreams, never regretted it until the pandemic made live performance impossible 2 years ago.

I have noticed that some things are the same for both industries. Doing accounts, selling yourself to prospective employers, getting along with co-workers.. These are a big part of any job, so you should know where you stand there at least.

Also I think that nowadays, on some level, every job is a tech job.. I am a circus performer, but have a website; I use software for music, video production, lights, etc. Also I have automated our booking system which required programming. So yeah I think in the arts world, especially freelancing, some IT experience can come in handy.

At the end of the day, it's up to you. It's probably a good idea to try your luck with writing part time at first - that worked for me (making apps for fun -> full time web developer)

Don't give up on your dream!

Jonathan Coulton and Andy Weir spring to mind. And both, as I understand it, treated creative work as a side thing until it could stand as their main thing. That seems like the wise course.

Here's the story about why I quit tech to become a psychotherapist: http://glench.com/WhyIQuitTechAndBecameATherapist/

I haven't made the transition but know a few creatives— some of whom hold down other jobs (including my wife). I think the standard advice is to try it as a hobby instead of taking the plunge. See if you can make it work at any scale.

There is also a real chance that you won't like it as a full-time career, and there are myriad reasons why. Some personal (e.g. loneliness) others environmental (e.g. politics). A career in tech has issues, to be sure, but so does a career in any other field.

If you like the data you gather in the experimental phase then take the plunge.

I wrote a book in the mornings and after work, as well as on the weekends. It was hard work and incredibly satisfying. While I hoped to publish, I didn't put nearly enough effort into finding a literary agent, etc. Through the process I learned just how hard writing is and while I still dream of being an author, I've decided not to quit my day job for it yet. There's no playbook for how to transition to the arts from CS afaik. Society will think you are weird etc for wanting to do that..."there's no money in it"

Word of warning: generally arts pay poorly and may have really bad working environments - like any field with a large pool of young eager candidates who are ready to do anything in order to create a career out of self expression.

For each Stephen King there is a million writers who are unknown to public and struggle to make ends meet.

That's not to say you shouldn't do it - but you should be able to approach the proposition with grim determination or flippant playfulness.

What stops you from writing in your free time while having the CS career pay the bills?

I’ve done the opposite, I switched from arts to tech. Being able to use programming to create art is fantastic. I can clearly remember the days where creating images _always_ was a manual task (I used Adobe Photoshop at the time). Now I would use Processing, Python, Node.js or look into Adobe scripts whenever I have to make graphics that involve some kind of automation. I wish I had that knowledge/skill back when I studied at my art academy.

Your question is about transitioning from tech to arts though, so I can only reply with the steps that I would take (with my currrent knowledge).

Art schools/academies often have part-time courses, or an ‘evening school’. My mom -a nurse by trade- actually graduated from a renowned art academy two years ago, by finishing the part-time course. Don’t be fooled by the term ‘part-time’ though, as any good art academy course takes a lot of time and effort. I’m glad I’ve got my degree. My current tech job is so much easier than studying at an art school.

I would strongly recommend that you find a good course at a good school and go for it. Online courses cannot replicate a good arts education. The in-person examinations and presentations are very valuable. Also consider moving (abroad) to find a good school if there are none near to you.

Your last sentence resonates with me, do it now while you’re still young! :)

I’ve worked as a coding teacher at an art academy, teaching graphic design students, FYI.

> Being able to use programming to create art is fantastic.

What do you think about the demoscene?

The demoscene is fantastic, it’s just very math-heavy. I love shaders and the speed of GPU’s/parallel processing, but learning to write GLSL is hard especially when you haven’t had much math education. (Which is often the case for art students).

That’s also the reason why I mentioned Processing. It’s one of the few programming languages that’s very accesible for non-beta students because of it’s very simple and visual documentation.

A good book to get you going is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

Although I majored in CS, talking a political science course in college made me realize that having some fundamental knowledge of data science, statistics and, in general, effective 'data crunching' habilities (call it numpy, matlab, whatever) is probably pretty useful for empirical sociological/anthropological research. So there's definitely some overlap between your CS skill set and knowledge that might help you in the humanities, I would even say that it gives you some kind of leverage to differentiate from the majority, if you play your cards well. Have a look at this paper, for example, it really made me think of how interesting it is to ask what implications technological change has in societies: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-s... It talks about what consequences the increased cellphone coverage in Africa could have related to acts of political violence.

A good strategy is to dip your toes in first, then plunge when you feel the moment is right and you get the sense that you are good at it (music, literature etc.).

Work on whatever interests you part time / on weekends / before or after work, and if you feel you are having some traction with it, then proceed with the plunge.

The risk with taking the plunge immediately is that if you won't be good enough at whatever you choose to do, then you will be even further demotivated.

Here's my suggestion. No matter the field you work in, if you work for someone else, it's less fun and fulfilling than if you worked on your own ideas. If you switch to arts, the only difference is going to be that you might enjoy doing work for someone else a bit more. The trade off is going to be _a lot less money_ and potentially less time to work on your own ideas because you have to sustain yourself, your family and some quality of living.

You could take a different approach. You can buy time with money, and you happen to be in a highly paid field, so you could either reduce your hours to part-time to maintain a level of income that allows you to pay the bills, or, alternatively, make a plan to optimize your CS career such that you can retire early by the time you're 37, while keeping arts as a hobby (e.g. get into a FAANG as a senior engineer at $275K+/year and save/invest wisely). Afterwards, you could go full-time working on your own art ideas, not for someone else. At 27, 37 feels like it's a lifetime away, but 10 years fly by _fast_, especially the older you get.

That said, if you're posting here, I'm assuming you are semi-seriously willing to take such risk, and if there's a time for this risk to be taken, it's definitely now, while you're still in your 20s, because in your 30s not only do most people have a family (or at least a larger family than in their 20s), you have all sorts of bills to pay, including more medical bills. Just be mentally prepared to be permanently behind your colleagues professionally and financially in 5 years when you decide to come back and take a lower level job than you would have otherwise had if you stuck around in the CS field for those 5 years.

Speaking directly to the literary side of things, there is very little money to be had, and it's easy for little things to eat away what little money that you can make.¹ Looking over my records, my lifetime income from writing literary works is less than $600 and that's with an MFA and a pretty good publication record.

Journalism was a better bet for being able to make a living at before the internet ate the news. Putting aside tech writing contracts, the most I ever got for writing was $1000 for a review article for U&lc back in the 90s. U&lc no longer exists and freelance paychecks haven't really grown since those days either.²

Keith Gessen, in 2006, wrote an article on money for the magazine he co-founded, n+1, which is available here: https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-4/essays/money/ The only thing that's changed in the intervening 15 years is that the income is lower, the opportunities fewer and the expenses are higher.

Bottom line: it can be a side gig, but not much more than that unless you're extraordinarily lucky.


1. Thanks to the pernicious impact of submittable, it is all too common for publications to charge a ~$3 submission fee for online submissions. It seems like a reasonable thing, but given that a 2% acceptance rate is a good number, that means that you'd have to make $150 on average for every accepted piece just to break even. Most markets pay less. I have adopted a solid rule against paying submission fees. I will very rarely pay an application fee for a conference or entry fee for a contest, but even that I tend to avoid.

2. Perhaps the most depressing thing about reading John Fante’s Ask the Dust were the dollar amounts that were mentioned in the novel. Magazines paid more in nominal dollar amounts for stories in the 1930s than they do now.

I guess it depends what you mean by "working".

In addition to being a software developer (my day job), I also write and publish poetry, reviews, and non-fiction. These pay very little, if anything; I find that US literary publications pay almost nothing, while Canadian ones are usually able to pay a little. I think this is due to Canada Council rules around funding, but may be wrong.

Regardless, it's a field where it's very difficult to make money, and most of the people I know who manage this full-time do some combination of traditional teaching at colleges/universities or via online courses, manuscript editing services, that sort of thing.

As much as I'd like to be able to spend more time on my artistic pursuits, I'm grateful that my day job allows me to do things like pay my mortgage, and eat, and so likely the arts will stay a side thing with me forever.

TLDR: Start with some CLI text games in Node.js :)

Three viable options:

* Work in tech until you're financially independent (you should be able to pull this off in a decade or 15 years at most), then retire from tech and start working in writing/journalism full time without needing to worry about the fact that you could be making $40k at best for the rest of your life. You'd have plenty of time. After leaving a youthful interest in writing for a career in insurance, Chandler didn't come back to writing until he was in his 40s. It was then that he wrote his best (and best known) work

* Write on the side. You can make a good income and still comfortably fit in 15-20 hours a week of writing. WCW was a doctor and wrote poetry on the side. Many other role models here of course. The trick is to find a job that respects WLB and to avoid positions of time-consuming responsibility, but this is not difficult in tech if you're not trying to maximize income

* Broaden your understanding of the arts to include games (this one makes good sense to me as someone with an MFA in game design). Then, you can get a programming job at a game studio. From there, if you like, you can move towards/into design through "gameplay programmer" and "technical designer" roles. The upside here is that you can use many of your existing math/CS skills, and the money is ok (only in commercial gamedev, though. Solo gamedev artists starve like all other artists everywhere and forever). Another upside is that you can get started making games today using the skills you have and a tool like Godot. You can get a feel for whether you like it while practicing skills relevant to your current career

If I was you, I'd go with gamedev on the side and start working on some small story-driven (or even text-only) games using some tool that's tailored for those genres, like Twine or Ren'Py. Or honestly, just a CLI Node.js text game, why not

Good luck. Most programming jobs at medium/large orgs are boring as shit so I get wanting out

> Broaden your understanding of the arts to include games

I came here to post this. I only worked in the game dev industry for ~6 months, but it was clear to me this is how I would break into any form of "art" myself. All manner of creative things exist in the space of game development too. Writing, painting, music, cinema, modeling, etc. It's all there.

Frank Lantz, who ran the NYU Game Center when I was there, likes to compare games to opera because of the mind-boggling variety of disciplines involved in the production of big budget games. I think it's a pretty apt comparison

Separately, outside of AAA commercial gamedev, tons of people are doing things around games that are very close in spirit, intended function/audience, etc to traditional High Art

For my money though, the sweet spot where the most interesting and funnest work gets done is experimental-but-commercial solo/tinyteam indie gamedev. Stuff like Baba Is You, Bennett Foddy, Stephen Lavelle, Michael Brough, etc

You could Consider going into VFX, as either a Technical Animator (Think Maya/Blender, animating creatures etc), or a Creature Effects person (wrangling Fur and other strange character effects), or a support Pipeline Engineer, where you are in the background helping all the artists in the Studio make the VFX shots.

Lots of the time, you will save your teammates hides by introducing in useful tools if you can program well with python etc.

Although I personally think just working a normal boring low-stress programming job is great, then doing Art on the side whenever creativity hits... Doing Art when you are not feeling creative _IS THE WORST_

TL;DR: do it! But do it strategically.

The good news is that you're young at merely 27.

More good news: you have a someone financing you, your current job.

Think about being an Artist as being an entrepreneur running your own startup, the beauty here is that you control every single aspect:

- you control the product: you can change it and tweak it at any time. Discontinue a product line, or take it back

- you control the pricing: free or $1,000,000, BOGO; it doesn't matter, you control it as you see fit

- you control the branding: NFT or mass production, the choice is yours, and you can always change your mind

- you control the positioning: for the elites or for the masses? Mass e-commerce distribution or atelier-style single sales?

Just like a start-up you will need:

- some type of business plan, where you address all the choices outlined above; a timeline, a capital budget, and timeline of activities

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimum_viable_product

Continue to work full time as you start moonlighting at your new venture. With time you'll increase the moonlighting and possibly decrease the dayjob. At some point there will be an inflection point where you jump ship and pursue the new venture full time and either drop the dayjob or scale it down to part-time / free lance.


* Jerry Saltz book: How to be an Artist

* Follow jerry on IG/Twitter

* Paul Graham book: Hackers and Painters

Your experience about the availability of paying work in tech may mislead you about the availability of paying work in the arts, of which, relatively speaking, there is very (very!) little.

That said, there are many ways a tech background is useful in the arts, and some of the most interesting work I have done in tech has been with arts-oriented organizations. Of course quite a number of arts folk subsidize their passion through day jobs in tech.

I would recommend viewing it not as a transition, per se, but an adding on. Good luck.

I think your first step might be to take a single class at a university, on whatever subject interests you.

Your question is at first straightforward. You say the "arts", which to many means the Fine Arts: painting, sculpture, music, etc. And so they advise you of the financial pitfalls. All well and good.

But upon closer inspection, your words are are little mysterious, because as examples you include sociology, history, and journalism. As others have pointed out, these are unlike trying to become a full-time novelist or guitarist. Broadly speaking, however, they do fall under the Arts, specifically the Liberal Arts, or the Humanities. If that is what you mean, the financial outlook still is dimmer than good old computer programming, finance, or business, but much brighter than trying to make a living as a painter.

As for getting into one of these Liberal Arts fields, I don't have a lot of good examples. The best advice I would have has already been given: in that you simply try to join a company that overall is in the field you are interested in. For example, if you are into journalism, try to get a job at a news company. If you are a history buff, maybe try to get a job at a textbook company or some other publisher of history books. It doesn't matter what kind of job you get. So you could exploit your expertise and try to land a job as a computer programmer there or something else technical. But once you are in there, as many have said here and elsewhere, it is far easier to slowly work your way into one of the more artistic jobs within the company. This is because of the huge importance of trust. The company now knows you, you are part of its circle, and after a couple of years of them observing that you're not a psycho, that trust goes a long way, and you actually have an advantage over a total stranger applying with a little bit stronger of a resume, because the company at this point is unsure that the stranger is trustworthy. Trust is huge. Join a company you like, make a few friends, bounce around from the inside.

But before that, you might consider just taking a college class --- the very thing you missed out on early on. This will give you a feel for what the work is like and might expose you to a few like minds, to the very beginning of social networking. Your teacher or classmates could advise you on extracurricular activities or clubs and, slowly, you could work your way further and further along.

I think you'd find Jason Robert's story very interesting. He studied computer science in college and worked in the tech field for over a decade, but then decided to take a break from that and taught himself how to draw and worked on a video game that he developed and illustrated himself over 7 years, that became the award-winning Gorogoa, a clever puzzle game where you slide a 2x2 grid of panels around over each other or reposition them to progress further into the game.

He's got a few hour long talks out there, but here's a good interview from him.


As for myself, I've dabbled in art since I was a kid (often doodling while bored in classes), and have released video games with my own art in them and electronic music I composed myself, some of which have done pretty well (although it was still basically just 'programmer art', i.e. not anything terribly beautiful). I also enjoy writing humorous stories and have had a few short stories published in anthologies.

I've also done my own graphic design for board game prototypes I've created, a couple of which publishers had said they probably would just use if they were to release the game. I'd still call it just barely serviceable, though.

I see myself more as a creative that is skilled at computers and has to do that for my livelihood, but I'm hoping I can get to the point where I can take a long sabbatical to pursue creative works more directly again, instead of a handful of hours here and there on the weekends.

If you are NOT already doing the same arts prior and now, you are probably setting yourself up for failure. Arts just like STEM aren't something you "just switch to" without prior and established talent.

Beyond that, it's more about your tenaciousness and commitment if you have the skills and desire. Just like anything else!!

As long as you are aware of the financial hardships an art career will bring I see nothing wrong with it. You are young enough to fail financially and recover. No different than having a failed tech start up other than the less opportunity to generate wealth or raise funds.

Go for it!

I am pursuing ‘imagemaking’ as a deadly serious hobby, I think I will have a exhibition or performance in a few years.

Volunteer with an arts organization to meet people who are already there.

I have a BS&MS in computer science and transitioned to agricultural media starting in 2006. It helped that I volunteered for several ag media organizations, meeting people that really understand that world.

Also attend events to see who is doing what.

I abandoned "successful" art career to be a graphic designer in advertising industry, moved to web-development and created my own company. It is personal.

I code and design to pay the bills and paint to save my soul.

Saving my soul is not a career so I will stick with tech career until AI makes it irrelevant.

If painting was the main career it would possibly not save the soul anymore since lots of constrains start to creep in due to how professions work: you’re no longer free to do whatever you feel but have to have selling in mind. I also think painting has saved my soul and made my 9-5 more bearable.

I know of a guy who was a programmer at a bank I think in the 90s who became a noted fashion photographer.

many successful artists either live in abject poverty or get support from rich benefactors. Even Vincent Van Gogh got support from a rich brother.

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Read Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, Ogilvy on Advertising, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook and dive deep into Storytelling. That's the basic toolkit for inventing the persona of a successful artist, and yourself.

Hey, I’m in the midst of that - of going from full-time tech work after nearly a decade, to a career as an artist (in film and music, mainly).

I wonder what you mean by “working in the arts.” The examples you offer are pretty diverse! Literature, writing and journalism: on one hand, literature is pretty much only an artistic, creative venture. At the other end, journalism isn’t going to feel very creatively engaging by contrast. But it is working in the arts in the same way being an arts administrator might be.

Your job is to figure out what you need. What’s driving this desire to switch careers? I suspect that you don’t really wanna be a journalist - but that the same pragmatism that makes you worry that you’d be transitioning too late already is also making you pick something that sounds more practical, rather than picking something that you actually want.

In short, you need to find out what you actually need. And it might be that you need to try on the artist label for size. It might not fit, but if you start to feel like you are motivated by expressing yourself, then it might be the thing for you. Also, I’ve learned that there are tons of other creative people who make great things who do not need to do it every day. Find out if you just need this as a hobby, or if you really need to do it once a day.

Working as an artist is tough, but so is anything. I couldn’t really make my career in tech feel okay. It’s been far easier for me to be what I always should have been.

But it took me a decade to realize I needed to make that transition because it also took me that long to accept I was an artist. Therapy helped. Also, actually doing artistic work helped. I learned how to write songs, I picked up other instruments. I started screenwriting, and got accepted to a writing lab.

That last bit happened last year - it’s where I met many other awesome folks who were making their careers work. But again, that happened because it built on this long journey I had to accepting my own self. I was always this creative, but for my own “personal reasons,” I wasn’t allowed to have that as a kid.

The advice I have is that a lot of the cliches are true.

Per Bukowski, you shouldn’t make any sort of leap unless it comes bursting out of you like a rocket, but if you’ve learned all sorts of reasons to abandon this part of yourself, well, it can take a long time for the rocket ship to take off.

That’s when you take the leap. The transition involves so much more work that gets you to that point, by allowing yourself to open yourself up and feel who your really are, and by learning your tools. But one day you’ll know you’ve got to jump. And that’ll be terrifying! But hey, you’ll know it’s time.

There are quite a few Sci-Fi authors who have a Tech/STEM career background.

I make music and graphical art. Designed a few prints for clothes and only lost 100€ with it.

So, no, I didn't transition, haha.

Lately, I'm looking into NFTs, out of technical curiosity, but might as well mint some tokens for my own stuff.

There is Michael W. Lucas who transitioned into a literature career. Writes great technical and fiction books, even has one book detailing the path into becoming a full time paid artist (writer in his case).

Do it as a side project. Or better cross between two -- game, animated story telling -- so many options. Blender designers are also doing fine.

You could have a look into Visual Effects or some other career which blends technology and art.

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