How a theater major went from scripts and sequels to scripting SQL

Let me clear something up straightaway: my passion is, was, and will always be theater—singing and acting, to be specific. I dreamed of becoming an actor while growing up in Brooklyn, was classically trained at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked for a number of years at a local theater in Philadelphia (as both an actor and manager).

But in what is likely a familiar refrain for a lot of liberal arts majors—and considering today’s economy, just about anyone— after graduation I found myself often struggling to make ends meet. My options were dwindling; if I wanted to seriously pursue acting or arts management, I knew I’d eventually have to relocate to Los Angeles. I’m an East Coaster at heart, and I love Philadelphia—so LA (or even New York, for that matter) just wasn’t going to happen. The time finally came where I realized I had to start thinking about other options to further my career.

This was during the late 1980s, and personal computing was only just beginning to take off. So I began to experiment with an old IBM desktop that had been gathering dust in my office at the theater. It had an old program installed on it called Q&A — a DOS-based mini-database with a proprietary BASIC-like programming language for creating text-based, forms-style applications. I cracked the Q&A programming manual, slowly but surely taught myself to use it, and found it came pretty naturally. Mind you, I had taken the requisite calculus classes in college and borrowed my roommate’s computer to write a paper a few times, but until then that was the extent of my technical background.

One of the first things I did once I had figured out the basics was to design a program that would help track membership and ticket sales at my theater. Prior to that, we’d been relying on a manual ledger, which wasn’t always updated quickly or accurately. I figured there had to be a better way, so and created a custom ticketing and membership management platform. And it proved to be quite successful. Suddenly, we had a much better idea about customer trends – which shows sold better on which days, when customers were likely to buy, which prices sold the highest number of tickets, the cost-effectiveness of subscription-based membership, and so on. Little did I know that that desire to explore a practical problem in search of a solution would lead toward my co-founding a software company some 10 years later.

I quickly came to find myself more and more interested in programming and felt I had a knack for it. I was a musician, trained to read music, arrange it, perform it, and even compose it.  It eventually dawned on me that programming wasn’t so different, as it’s ultimately an activity that’s equal parts left- and right-brained. You need to be creative, to apply physics, math, and logic, to adhere to a universally accepted and codified form of notation, and to finally present it in a manner that humans find intuitive and gratifying.  All of that is as true with software as it is with music.

It was at this point that I decided to go all-in on the idea of staring a new career. One day, while scanning the want ads in the newspaper (yes, those used to exist), I answered an ad for a small Philadelphia company that was seeking programmers with the pre-requisite “no experience necessary, smart people only need apply.” The hiring manager was initially skeptical when he learned about my background but he agreed to give me a 30-day trial—fully expecting that he’d be firing me at the end of it. The 30 days came and went and I was able to prove my mettle enough to be hired full-time. Within 60 days I was head of their nascent programming department.

Over the course of the next decade, I pushed myself to learn a number of different languages and platforms and finally found two niches:  database modeling and programming; and browser-based technologies.  Eventually, I evolved from “programmer” to “software designer” and worked at a variety of tech companies, gaining invaluable experience along the way.

And then the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, the NASDAQ crashed, and once again I found myself at a crossroads akin to the one I had been at 10 years prior, when I was trying to figure out where to take my career from that small Philadelphia theater.

During the previous decade I had worked at LaserLink, a virtual ISP in the dial-up days, where I had encountered a problem I recognized from my days at the theater: how to effectively manage billing entities and subscription-based customer relationships. And so, along with Ed Sullivan (the head of LaserLink), we decided to found Aria Systems. Our focus was on disrupting the traditional billing industry, which was clunky, overly complex and not particularly intuitive. We also saw a great opportunity on the horizon in the form of cloud computing – which allowed users to access powerful engines in an on-demand manner.

The startup we founded back in 2003 is now a successful SaaS business, with customers ranging from high-tech startups like Automattic and HootSuite to large enterprises like AAA, Disney and VMware.

I figured my story would be particularly relevant in today’s down-and-out economy, when graduates have to get increasingly creative to find work. I’m not going to sit here and say that there was some kind of secret sauce to my learning to code and ultimately founding my own company—there wasn’t. Straight up, it took hard work and dedication, not to mention a couple of right -place-at-the-right-time moments. But without a doubt the most important were the courage and self-confidence to gamble on a career switch.

To the budding technology entrepreneurs out there, young and old alike, I say this: Just because you weren’t an engineering major in college doesn’t mean you can’t break into that field later in life. It comes down to motivation more than anything else. Sure, you have to be wired for programming—and not everybody is. If you can get past that barrier, though, you just need to apply yourself and believe in yourself enough to take calculated risks.

Learn to write a web page in PHP. If it works out, run with it. Convince somebody to give you a chance, or work for free if you have to, puff out your chest when you need to, and don’t stop. (Insider tip: There are many hiring managers out there like me for whom who you are and what you can demonstrably do carries far more weight than where you went to school or what you studied.)

As a programmer, you’ll find yourself in a unique position: you’re a builder with almost no constraints. And no matter what anyone says, there will always be some new interesting problem that needs solving. Not everybody will be equipped to solve them, but some will. Being able to program is a huge differentiator. It truly boggles the mind to consider the coming innovations in the Digital Age, most of which we probably haven’t even conceptualized yet. So ask yourself two questions: “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a system that did [insert crazy notion here]?” And “What do *I* think I’m really good at?”

Brendan O’Brien is co-founder of Aria Systems. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.