The “Why” behind my journey from Experienced Physical Therapist and Director of Rehabilitation to Entry Level Software Engineer.

Over the last year, many people have asked me what led me to leave a successful career that I had spent so much time developing through education and hard work. This decision was a difficult, yet exciting one. There were multiple factors that led to this shift. In this series of articles, I hope to share the experiences that led me to this change, the reasons why, and hopefully inspire those who might be thinking about taking the leap and starting something new.

Part 1. The Jig was Up

The main reason I went into physical therapy was that I wanted to help other people. I have always been an athlete and interested in physical fitness and health and thought a career in physical therapy would be a great blend of my passions. At first, I felt incredible about being a clinician and the impact that I had on the lives of my patients. I was inspired to go to work and to help people work toward their goals of moving more and doing so with less pain. This was such a gift.

However, after the first couple of months of alternating schedules, insurance case management, corporate overhead, money driven employers, ethical dilemmas, overbooking patients 3–4 at a time, excessive documentation with no time built into the schedule to complete this documentation… I burned out. The honeymoon phase was over. Every day was a grind. Every day was a struggle. I no longer looked forward to going to work… I dreaded it. What was sad is that this happened in my first year as a PT. I was a new graduate (a very successful one at that) with all of these hopes and dreams of being a leader in the field, and I was already burnt out. This was not what I signed up for.

After 1 year, my first step was to leave the outpatient world in search of another clinical setting. I thought that I could leave outpatient (my first love), and enter the world of inpatient rehabilitation where Medicare required 1:1 patient care, and you only had to be 80–85% productive. More of an 8–4 job vs. strict retail like scheduling. It even came with an increase in pay. I thought this would be a good way to overcome burnout. For the first few months, it felt like a breath of fresh air…

Then Medicare cut payments. Then Corporate wanted group treatments. Then the micromanagement started. Then I took an 8% pay cut. Then they froze raises. Then they cut my hours from 40–32 and reduced my vacation time. If we did not have enough patient treatments, we had to use our vacation time to make up the difference just to get paid. This sent me spiraling into a deep depression.

Fortunately, at the same time, I was offered a new position within the company. A director’s position. This was something that got me excited. I looked forward to something different than patient care. I always loved leading a team and the ability to help transform the lives of my staff. It came with more responsibility, but a guaranteed salary. I got a raise, but was still less than where I started to begin with…but at least I could afford to make my loan payments.

Once again, it felt good to try something new. That was until we were threatened with more micromanagement. My productivity standards went up from 25–60% clinical. Corporate forced me to cut PRN staff, and make all of my staff work the weekends. My team’s morale plummeted. Insurance companies wanted late Friday evaluations to be completed day of, which required me to work until 8pm consistently on Fridays. Call outs frequently happened on the weekends, which caused my to go in and pick up the slack. It was only a matter of time before I burnt out again.

At that time, I decided to leave inpatient and return back to outpatient. I wanted to pick up where I left off to pursue my dreams of working for a sports team, teaching, and potentially opening my own place. I told myself that this was the best decision for me. I told myself that I would give it my best “college try” and to get my name out there. I still had not made a dent in my college loan payments, and was living pay check to pay check… but was willing to take another pay cut to return back to outpatient. I checked out a company that had a great model. One that I thought would give me a better work-life balance.

I started working for a company with a 1 on 1 treatment model. I took a 20k dollar pay cut to do so. This made things a little more stressful. In addition, my schedule was overbooked from the day I started. I had patients on a wait list for 6 weeks for an evaluation. I was back to alternating schedules and demands of getting my paperwork done on time…when there was no time allotted for documentation. This made my hours and days even longer. I began referring to Sunday as the last day that I saw the Sun. I burnt out again within a few weeks. But I wanted to make it work. I wanted to reach my goals. I wanted to do anything I could to do so. I was someone who was resilient and had a lot of grit. It worked in the past. I could do anything. These were some of the ways I convinced myself to continue working toward my dream. However, as the time went by I became more and more burnt out. I became more and more apathetic. I felt undervalued, underpaid, overworked, and not appreciated. I spent nearly 3 years in this position before I decided to try something new again.

At that point, I went into home health. The promise of a higher paying position gave me some sense of potential financial relief. Once again, in a matter of weeks I was burnt out. I was the only clinician in the Boston area managing a case load of 40+ patient visits a week in a position that was designed for 27 visits. There was no end in sight as the company refused to hire any other staff in my area. Within 3 months I became burnt out to the point that I took a very bad fall at work, leading to a significant ankle fracture, a deep vein thrombosis, and a pulmonary embolism. The blood clot in my lung nearly killed me. Doctors also questioned whether the blood supply to my leg was enough to keep it alive, and amputation had been spoken of as an option. My body was trying to tell me something. Fortunately, after months of being on the most aggressive blood thinning treatment you could be on, it started to turn around.

I spent 6 months rehabilitating from my injury and from my critical condition, and it was clear that I needed a change. I could not return back to home health because my doctor felt that I needed a less stressful, more structured environment. I started looking at other career options. I had started off as a computer engineer in college and had always thought what if? I took CS50 on EdX as well as some classes on FreeCodeCamp and fell in love with development. However, I was scared to make the jump. I felt I had no safety net to take the leap of faith. I was still living just above water on a PT salary, I could not imagine not having a salary for an extended period of time. So I decided to give up and return back to outpatient.

I told myself…one more shot. I will give outpatient one more shot. I would sign up to take an examination to become an Orthopedic Certified Specialist with the hopes of eventually entering academia. This was November of 2019. I put in 20–30 hours per week on top of a full time case load for the examination. I put my all into it. I was tired of the way that I felt, and thought this was the way out. BUT…by March 2020, I was laid off due to COVID 19. My test was cancelled on the day of. Once again I was left burnt out and frustrated. At this point, I felt trapped. I felt that my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree had me stuck in a position that I could not get out of. The needle had not moved on my loans, I had no retirement savings, I was constantly burnt out, and my treatments started to suffer because I was always struggling to stay afloat with documentation and demands. I felt like an absolute failure. A 4.0, award winning valedictorian, president of his class….failure.

After a few weeks of being unemployed and deep in reflection, I decided that maybe this was an opportunity to try something different. I spent time thinking about what that different was. My growth mindset kicked in. I thought about all the things that got me excited. I thought back to high school and my decision to declare software engineering as my major….to building pages on Geocities and seeing my code in action….to learning visual basic and C++ and the magic that resulted…and then to my first year of undergrad as a computer engineering major. That thought of what if came back. I then reflected on my learning experiences in 2019. The EdX and FCC courses I took and how much I enjoyed them. I thought to myself…maybe this is God telling me that PT is not for me. Maybe this is God telling me it was time to try something new. My financial situation began to look grim being on unemployment, but the pandemic made it impossible to find work and the pulmonary embolism in my medical history made it not smart to be in a patient care capacity. Fortunately, I had a friend and wife willing to take me in to reduce my expenses. I moved in with them and finally saw that safety net develop underneath me. This was my opportunity to explore. To take more courses. To take my leap of faith.

I started with free courses on EdX. I learned Python, Javascript, and SQL. I absolutely loved it! By June, I had completed about 5 or 6 courses on EdX, and I wanted to learn more. I felt like a full time student again. Every second of my day I thought about developing applications and the joys of creation. The possibilities that a career in tech would open. That feeling of being trapped soon started to dwindle. I watched numerous videos on YouTube about transitioning into tech. I started talking about it with friends and hearing people’s story of getting into tech in random places in almost every conversation that I had. It gave me hope. I learned about bootcamps and personal journeys into the industry without a college degree (I could not fathom going back to school for more than a few months because I could not afford it). I started researching programs. I started looking at bootcamps, masters programs, and other options to get my foot in the door at a tech company.

For the first time, I had hope back. I had my ability to dream back. After talking with 3 different bootcamps, I decided on General Assembly. I started my remote learning bootcamp on August 10. This was such an incredible experience. 3 months of learning everything necessary to build multiple Single Page Applications. I idolized my instructors and loved my fellow classmates. I enjoyed developing things that I never thought I would be capable of. I felt smart for the first time since I graduated college. I felt that I just wanted to keep learning. Even though the course went at a grueling pace and required a lot of energy, I was NOT burnt out. I spent weekends working on projects and learning extra, weeknights doing homework, and weekdays learning. AND I WAS NOT BURNT OUT. I realized that I found my match. I found something that I loved to do.

I graduated on November 2nd. That day I enrolled in a bunch of Zero To Mastery Courses on Udemy and continued to learn. My thirst and hunger for knowledge in the industry was relentless. At this point, I have applied to over 130 jobs. I spend 12 hours a day applying, working on projects, and/or learning. I do not mind it. I still work out and do things that I enjoy on top of my efforts. Most importantly though, I enjoy what one would consider work. It does not feel like work. And for that, I am excited to be a software engineer.

Part 2 will look at how I want to make a larger impact than I was able to as a PT through the use of technology.

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Physical Therapist turned Software Engineer. I bring wellness to technology.

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Rob Richards

Rob Richards

Physical Therapist turned Software Engineer. I bring wellness to technology.

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