Fernanda Penna Ribeiro13 min

From Lawyer to Backend Engineer: An Unlikely Story

Inside STRVEngineeringMar 15, 2023

Inside STRVEngineering


Mar 15, 2023

Fernanda Penna RibeiroBackend Engineer

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I used to be a lawyer. Then, at the ripe age of 31, I decided to go back to a passion that began when I was a little wide-eyed girl playing Zork. Here’s why I made the scariest, best decision of my life.  

Something typical for my day-to-day is wandering around in my head. It's not just talking to myself or random daydreaming. Sometimes, I reenact dialogues or social situations where, instead of what really happened, I picture scenarios where I come off a little less awkward.

But my favorite thing is to imagine I'm the host of a talk show interviewing myself. So before I get into the full story of how (and why) I transitioned from being a successful lawyer to a junior programmer in my early thirties, here’s a quick recap via interview format. Lights, please.

An Interview With Myself (My Worst Enemy & Greatest Teacher)

Ladies and gentlemen, my next guest needs no introduction!


Hey everybody, I'm so happy to be here!

Now, I know you've faced this question many times and have tried to answer it even more times in your own head as a coping mechanism. I know that — because I was there.

*audience laughing*

I think I already know what you're going to ask. Let's go. Hit me.

Why did you choose to study law in the first place?

[Deep breath] Thinking back, I guess it was more a process of elimination than an actual choice. That was my mistake. I knew I didn’t want to work with anything remotely tied to a needle or blood, so a medical career was out of the question. And I was too insecure to try anything that demanded solid math skills.

My best grades at school were in Portuguese (grammar, writing), history and geography, and I had the skills and endurance to read a lot. It seemed like common sense that all this was perfect for law school, so I went for it.

And it was a terrible decision, right?

You know what… for a while, my answer to that was: Yes, worst decision ever! But after spending time imagining a scenario where I’d have gone directly to computer science, I’ve shifted my point of view. Instead of seeing what I could’ve gained, I now see what I could’ve lost. The friends I made, the happy moments and the bad ones — it all helped me grow as a person.

Of course, my dissatisfaction with law didn’t start after graduation; it was present during the course. I always felt like an outsider because I wanted to do things differently. Be more creative, experimental. But law is a very traditional and conservative field. I was bored as hell.

My solution was to go on a journey of discovery. I explored journalism, architecture, literature, math, arts, history and philosophy, reading books, watching movies, documentaries… it became the most creatively rich period of my life.

Since we're looking at the bright side, has being a lawyer helped you in your software engineering career?

I wouldn't say being a lawyer per se but, rather, many things I learned at school and beyond — like communication and dealing with people.

For example, thanks to philosophy, I learned that Aristotle believes a speaker's ability to persuade an audience is based on three things: logos (reason), ethos (credentials) and pathos (emotions). You must use a combination of these three to engage others.

Especially for people in the tech field, one rookie mistake in communication is throwing around a bunch of numbers, statistics and heavy theory (with a lot of math). But our brains don’t work like that; we have difficulties memorizing and rationalizing pure data. Instead, we need a compelling storyline to follow. Storytelling lets you communicate an idea in the best way possible.

Communication skills and being proactive are very important in any area. Society revolves around them. Today, more and more people in tech are talking about the importance of soft skills. After all, we work as teams — so we need to know how to deal with people. From this perspective, my experience gave me a head start compared to some other colleagues.

You successfully transitioned into software development. How did you know it was the right move?

The people I know who want to become software developers want to do so for the freedom to work remotely while making a lot of money — and because it’s trendy at the moment. It’s “the job of the future” and tons of sources claim that coding is fun, easy and anybody can do it.

Well, first of all, code is not easy. Maybe for a hobby, but if you want to become a developer, you need way more than the basics. Starting a new career is never simple and finding your first job won’t be, either — no matter how many articles claim otherwise.

So the first question I’d ask is: Do you like to code? Forget the perks, the salary. Would you want to code if you didn’t get all of that? If not, do something else. This may not be for you.

If you could go back to the beginning of your programming journey, would you do anything differently?

Yes! I wouldn't do more than one course at a time. I used to think I could study backend, frontend and three different programming languages at once. Don't do that!

Take it one step at a time. Your brain simply can't absorb that much information, and letting your mind rest is really important for retaining what you've learned. In fact, instead of watching a ton of courses, sit down and actually code.

As for timing, not only would I make the decision to switch careers earlier (since the more you wait, the more difficult it gets) — but I also wouldn’t wait so long to start looking for a job in development. Before starting my search, I kept studying more and more, thinking I wasn’t ready. But you’ll never be at “that” level until you start working.

Is the feeling of not being ready why you were stressed during the STRV hiring process?

Definitely! I'm a very insecure and anxious person, but who isn't nowadays, right? Unless you're a ruthless psychopath, rich or a narcissistic straight white man, you’re constantly struggling with your inner fears. That's being human.

I didn’t feel sufficiently prepared, and I still don't. But I'm way more confident in my capabilities to overcome difficulties and face new challenges. This sort of evolution is never a straight line. You have ups and downs, good moments, bad moments… it’s a matter of how you face the tough times and come out of them stronger than before.

And now to the full story of a young computer enthusiast turned lawyer, then turned back into a bit older but even bigger computer enthusiast… for good.

Exploring My First Computer (Nostalgia Included!)

One afternoon, when I was six years old, my childish plays were disturbed by a clank at the front door. It was my father, arms loaded with boxes. He locked himself away, then came out several hours later with an announcement: He’d just bought a computer.

I remember observing it with curiosity. For days, I watched my father inserting floppy disks, one after the other, typing commands and watching an avalanche of words materialize on the screen. It was magical! Especially because I didn't even have Matrix for reference yet.

I wanted so badly to use it. My father promised I could once he finished installing all the software and games. He told me to watch TV in the meantime, but I didn’t want to watch TV. All I wanted was to find out what this machine could do.

My father ended up teaching me some DOS commands so I could run games like chess, hangman, DOOM, Zork I and a rollercoaster builder simulator where I always ended up getting smashed or ejected (let’s be glad I didn't switch careers to become a roller coaster engineer).

I was also granted access to Windows 95 — but I preferred using the command line because I didn’t like Windows back then (...and I still don’t).

So Much More Than a Machine

The computer was always the first thing I gravitated toward when I got home from school. I liked to be around it, observe others using it, hear the beeps and see what comes out of the printer.

With the computer, I could create things. In the chess game, I found a way to exchange all pawns for queens. Soon after, I was able to exchange all pieces for queens (except the king, but I tried) and became unbeatable against the AI — although using a very questionable tactic.

I learned English by playing Zork (and, later, Super Nintendo games). It taught me that you don’t need amazing graphics for a game to be immersive and exciting. In a way, it also taught me that books could be fun.

The Game That Showed Me Who I Really Am

As a young adult, I found a PC magazine with a CD-ROM attached. It said “Myst” and was accompanied by an image of a human silhouette falling. I had to find out more!

At the time, I was using (read: forced to use) Windows ME — also known as one of the worst versions of Windows ever; crashed all the time, just like our generation. Anyway, I started the game and didn't have any HP or MP bars on the screen. No weapons, no items, no enemies. To move, I had to click on the screen to something that seemed like a sequence of static images.

What I didn’t know was that I was facing a “point & click” game. I spent some time messing around, with no clue about what to do. What was the point of this? I could’ve easily closed the game and gone back to familiar territory, like Warcraft (not WoW; I’m talking Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, where I’d explode sheep like crazy), Age of Empires or Command & Conquer. But deep down, I knew there was something there.

I went back to the game week after week. People made fun of my obsession with a game where nothing happens. Nowadays, people are spoiled with immediate answers from Google, forums, ChatGPT… but back then, I didn’t have 24/7 access to high-speed internet. There were no back search engines, no Yahoo (which used to be a guide to WWW!). All I had was a directory of websites — hence I could only rely on my own efforts to unravel the secrets of that game.

And then all of my persistence (or should I say stubbornness) paid off. There I was, solving puzzles, connecting all the pieces… and I finally finished the game. No walkthroughs, no hints, nothing. Just me, my endless patience and laser-focused attention to detail.

I felt like I’d grown, that I had achieved something. It was amazing. I could go on forever talking about ZSNES games I've played, all the midis I've listened to on Winamp, all the people I've talked to using mIRC and all the tech evolutions I was able to witness while growing up.

Then, one day, the computer was gone. My parents got divorced and my mother, brother and I moved far from my hometown. I was out of my comfort zone; new people, new school, new culture. I had so many new priorities to worry about and handle that my hobbies were pushed aside. I had to forget a few things about myself to be able to go forward in this new environment.

It Can Take a While to Realize Where You Belong

In other words: Thank you, Mario, but our princess is in another castle!

In 2013, I’d already graduated from one of the best law schools in Brazil. I was working as a lawyer, stressed out, exhausted and unhappy. In an attempt to wind down, I opened the computer and started browsing the internet — until I unexpectedly ran into something familiar: an article about text-adventure games. One of them was Zork.

How many years had passed since the last time I played it? I felt like I’d been struck by lightning and had a huge impulse to play it one more time. I could’ve just played online but, instead, I download the game and a DOSBox (an open-source emulator which runs MS-DOS).

I spent more time remembering commands and trying things in the MS-DOS emulator than actually playing Zork, which made me think: “Wouldn’t it be cool to learn more about this?” To be honest, I don't know what I meant by “this” at the time — and after almost four years of learning JavaScript, I still have no idea what “this” is.

My developer friends (luckily) discouraged me from learning DOS and recommended useful programming languages like Python, Ruby or JavaScript. I picked Python.

Just a Tired Lawyer Exploring Python… Very Slowly

I had some beginner's material, a book called “Python for Kids” and a few friends I could turn to with questions. Basically, I had everything I needed to start. Perfect, right? Except I was struggling with making it happen.

For months, I desperately tried to make time for studying — on weekends, late at night after work or between classes during my post-graduation course in tax law. I gave it all of my free time and was liking it more and more. I’d be at work, thinking I’d rather be programming.

However, despite all my efforts, I wasn’t evolving the way I’d hoped because of one crucial thing: When I did find some free time, I was exhausted. I had to fight to stay awake and learn, which resulted in going over the basics over and over. I couldn’t get further or reach a more complex topic than writing a few lines of code. The more time passed, the more frustrated I got.

For years and years, I was trying, failing and trying again, feeling as condemned as Sisyphus repeatedly rolling a heavy rock up a hill, just to face the beginning again. But I never gave up — because I was becoming more and more sure that programming was what I wanted to do. In the back of my mind, I was already planning how I’d make it work.

In 2018, my mental health was nearing its limits. I was still a lawyer, but I hit a point where I needed to make a decision. I had to face all the pros and cons of transitioning to a new career.

The Most Irresponsible, Wonderful Decision of My Life

As a lawyer in her early thirties, I had a large network and years of experience, plus I’d invested a lot of money and time into my career. In the engineering world, I had a few friends that could mentor me, the internet, some savings and my guts. That's it!

If you’re as anxious as me, you know that the mind can easily slip into procrastination as it scans thousands of possibilities, their worst-case scenarios and all the parallel realities of any risky action. You’re aware of every single thing that could go wrong — even the highly unlikely options that will likely never happen, but you count them as possibilities anyway. It’s all overwhelming and paralyzing.

My own fears and anxieties were blocking me from moving forward — and they would have blocked me forever if I hadn’t burned out that year. It was the wake-up call I needed to change my life, or else. And just like that, I made the bravest (and probably also the most irresponsible) decision of my life. I quit my job.

From an Established Professional to a Bug-eyed Student

I started 2019 fresh. For the most part, I was locked inside my room studying. (Ironically, I started my lockdown one year earlier than everybody else.)

Some friends of mine had recently been hired by a Czech company called STRV (maybe you’ve heard of it). They kindly agreed to mentor me while they waited for their visas before moving to Prague. During this almost year-long period (yes, visa approval takes that long), I was able to ask about what it’s like to be a developer and build a sturdy roadmap — which included JavaScript, Node.js and React.

I also watched them work and saw how amazing this company was; I remember telling them with a giggle, “You guys, wait for me because one day I’ll also be working at STRV!” Did I really believe that? Of course not. I'm crazy, but I'm not stupid. Still, I kept learning, observing.

Right now, you’re probably expecting me to say I attended a three-month boot camp, after which many companies desperately fought over me with job offers and promises of a great salary and a very easy, chill job with tons of perks. Except NO, this is real life, guys. I know that's what's being advertised on the internet, and I hate being the bearer of bad news — but it's time to talk to you about realistic expectations. (Please, don't shoot the messenger.)

Starting at the Bottom Isn’t the End; It’s the Beginning

After almost a year of studying in my room, with a GitHub full of personal projects and thousands of my resumes all over the internet… I got my first job as a referral from someone I met in my post-graduation course in tax law. Ironic, isn’t it?

I started from the bottom, as a trainee, with bosses 10 years younger than me with double my experience. I was making a lot less money than in my previous career, taking a lot longer than everyone else to do every task and still spending hours of my free time studying. It took almost a year before I was able to move to a better job, this time as a junior developer — still not making much money and still studying.

Not having money to go out, travel or buy the things you want isn’t great. But this career was never about money for me. Even in the rough beginnings, it felt like I was building something. That doesn't mean I didn't have bad days; I actually had a lot of them. Feeling lost, underappreciated, like I wasn’t made for this or that no one was taking me seriously. But even on those days, giving up wasn’t an option — because I liked what I was doing. It was the only certainty I had, and I didn’t want to give that up.

That Crazy Dream Might Not Be So Crazy After All

In June of 2021, I was hired by STRV. I guess dreams really can come true — even if you don’t believe in them but act as though you do.

I still remember how happy and puzzled I was when Ornella from STRV’s People Ops team told me I was hired. I’d been on the verge of a breakdown throughout the entire process because the idea of not being hired was devastating. But everyone was so nice, from the first call to my executive interview with the Chief D&E Officer at the time, Marian (the way he shows his emotions is so minimalistic that it was almost impossible to read his micro-smile).

It was then that I finally looked back on my journey and realized that I’d done it. Even though I’d already been working as a software developer for a while, for the first time, I really felt like one.

Of course, the impostor syndrome didn’t vanish overnight. It remains a daily battle. I'm still studying like crazy, learning new things every day, getting better — and I still have a lot to improve. I'm still overthinking, anxious, worried… but I'm happy.

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