Think for a moment about the original blueprint you once had for your career. What did you want to be when you grew up? How did you envision your life would look? And what has your actual experience been like?
If you’re like most people I cross paths with, your career trajectory has been very different from what you imagined. Your ability to roll with the punches and absorb the shocks that inevitably come up along the way of any professional journey can make a huge difference to where you end up.
Broadway musical star turned web engineer Carla Stickler explains how she managed to balance multiple career endeavors while pivoting into a brand new industry on episode 99 of the Career Relaunch® podcast.
In the Mental Fuel® segment, I’ll also explain how to embrace and manage the inevitable messiness of career transitions.
Key Career Change Insights
- Sometimes, you can just tell when you’re excelling and making the most of your strengths in your career. The more positive feedback you get from others, the more this reinforces the fact you’re on the right track.
- You never know when you’re going to turn a corner in your career. With enough patience and persistence, you may eventually have your big breakthrough.
- Think of your first job in a new sector as an opportunity to clarify exactly which aspects of this new work appeal to you and aligns best with your interests.
- When you’re considering opportunities that may feel like a reach, instead of just saying, “why me?” try saying, “why NOT me?”
- Carla mentioned a couple of resources to help people learn coding including Freecodecamp.org, the Grace Hopper bootcamp, and the Flatiron School bootcamp that episode 77 guest Erika Russi joined.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel® segment, I challenged you to identify one area in your career where your desire for the ideal set of circumstances may be resulting in procrastination and getting in the way of you starting the next chapter in your career. Are you still waiting or the perfect solution to come to you? Are you waiting until the moment when you feel completely ready to take a plunge into something new?
Try and accept that pivots are imperfect and imprecise. Acknowledge that there may be no perfect time to make your move. Understand you may never have 100% clarity on exactly what you want to do next. And understand that the biggest challenge is not tackling but rather accepting the uncertainty of it all. Rather than getting stuck in a state of inaction and paralysis, just do your best to just take one action that creates some progress in the face of this uncertainty.
- 00:00:00 – Overview
- 00:01:07 – Introduction
- 00:03:00 – Chat with Carla Stickler
- 00:45:44 – Mental Fuel
- 00:52:39 – Listener Challenge
- 00:53:14 – Wrap Up
About Carla Stickler, Broadway Star Turned Web Engineer
Carla Stickler is a Web Engineer at Spotify with over a decade of performing in musicals under her belt. She is best known for her performance as Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and has performed her own cabaret as a guest entertainer onboard Norwegian and Disney Cruise Lines. With a BFA in acting from NYU-Tisch and masters degree in theater education from NYU-Steinhardt, she was a voice teacher in New York City and made appearances as a teaching artist and guest speaker at Thespian Festivals around the country.
Carla is passionate about reframing the narrative of the “starving artist” and encourages young artists to take agency over their careers by developing skills that can provide them with financial stability alongside their artistic journey. She’s also involved with Artists Who Code, a growing group of artists exploring the world of tech, where she mentors other artists as they are beginning their journey into tech.
Find out more about Carla by listening to this episode of NPR’s Up First podcast (where I first heard about her), reading this HuffPost interview featuring Carla, or checking out this NPR interview she did with Scott Simon.
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Interview Segment Music Credits
- Podington Bear – Pulsars
- Isobel O’Connor – King of Forest Green
- Podington Bear – Tweedlebugs
- Podington Bear – Turqoise
- Podington Bear – Raw Umber
- Bio Unit – Idiophone
- Lama House – Oceans and Infinity
- Orbit – Corbyn Kites
Joseph: Well, welcome to the Career Relaunch® podcast, Carla. It is great to have you on the show. I’m so excited to talk with you today.
Carla: [03:07] Thanks so much for having me. I can’t wait to get into it.
Joseph: All right. Well, let’s talk about, first of all, what has been keeping you busy at this moment, in your career and also your life.
Carla: [03:18] Well, at this very moment, the thing that is keeping me the busiest is I recently started a new job. Almost, I’m like a month and a half in now at Spotify. And so, that is what has been keeping me the most busy right now. Just trying to like to learn everything, figure out the code base, and figure out what I’m doing.
Joseph: You are a web engineer there, is that correct?
Carla: [03:41] Yes, that’s correct.
Joseph: Without getting into specifics on the projects you’re working on, can you give me a sense of exactly what a web engineer does at Spotify?
Carla: [03:53] Like most people know, they have the app on their phone, that would be our mobile engineers who work on the app that you probably use daily. I work on the website of the podcast side of things. So, I work on the web being what you see on your computer when you’re using the podcast part of Spotify. I work on the front end, so I work on what you see; not the back end, not the data, not all the stuff that makes everything run.
Joseph: Very interesting. Well, that front-end user experience is, obviously, really important to the success of Spotify over the years. As a user myself, I certainly appreciate the incremental improvements and changes to the app made over time. What about personally, what’s been occupying your time outside of work?
Carla: [04:40] I love that Spotify has a great respect for work-life balance. So, I do take advantage of my personal time. The one thing that has been occupying all of my time, and I’m going to dive right in and get real personal. My husband and I have been doing fertility treatments now for almost two years. We are coming to a close with them very soon. That has just been kind of occupying all of the other space in my life.
Joseph: I can imagine that. It’s one of those things that many people don’t talk about. But then, if you start to ask around with friends, you start to realize a lot of people are dealing with this when you have no idea that they were dealing with it on top of everything else they have going on. I know it can be a very intensive process.
Carla: [05:27] Absolutely.
Joseph: Okay. Well, let’s talk a little bit about your former life. You haven’t always been a web engineer at Spotify. I’m going to want to talk with you at some point about how you ended up in this very different industry from what you were doing before, which is you used to be a performer on Broadway. Before we get into the details of the shows that you were in, can you just take me back to your childhood and how you came to this idea that you wanted to perform?
Carla: [05:59] I grew up in a very musical family. My mother was a classical pianist, who was obsessed with Stephen Sondheim in musical theater. My grandmother was an opera singer, who had a voice studio downtown at the Fine Arts Building here in Chicago. My father was in a — there were five of them. They were called “Stuck in the ’50s,” and they sing doo-wop in my hometown.
Joseph: Wow. Okay.
Carla: [06:24] I just grew up in it. Just everybody in my family was in music. So, it made sense that that was kind of what I was going to do. I was in a choir at a young age. I was encouraged to pursue the things that I wanted to do artistically. I went to summer camp up at Interlochen Arts Camp up in northern Michigan in Traverse City for all my summers of high school. I ended up going there for my senior year of high school. It was kind of this thing where I was just on this path. There’s a lot of momentum around doing theater and music, just non-stop. I didn’t have a lot of other things that I did. I was very focused on music here.
Joseph: Were you thinking that you were eventually going to do this professionally at the time? Was that the plan?
Carla: [07:09] I went back and forth when I was younger. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a musical theater, or if I wanted to be an opera singer. I ended up going to college, my freshman year of college at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, to study opera. I was like, “I want to be just like my grandma. I want to sing opera.” That was kind of the plan.
My freshman year ended up having a little bit of a setback. I had to have surgery on my vocal cords after finding out I had a vocal cyst. I dropped out of school after a year. I went home to Chicago. I worked in a deli for a semester and was just kind of stuck trying to figure out what I was going to do next. At that point, I decided to do just acting. So, I went to NYU and I studied just theater, and I didn’t sing for three years.
At one point, I had a teacher who was like, “Why aren’t you singing?” I was a very emotional child, so I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing in my life. I think I want to be an actor. I’m very confused.” They taught me how to belt and I learned how to kind of just re-imagine what my voice could be. That for me, was I would say kind of the first time in my life I learned how to kind of pivot and how to reframe what I wanted to do, and realized that I could kind of have a little more power over who I am.
So, I learned how to belt and things just kind of took off. Like, I was like, “Oh, this works. This makes sense. I’m good at this.” And then, I just kind of fell into it. Then after graduation, I got an agent and I started working immediately.
Joseph: Yeah. One of the things I’ve always wondered about, Carla, is how does one know whether they’re pretty good at singing and maybe above average versus being like top-tier Broadway material? At what point does that become more obvious to you?
Carla: [09:01] You feel it. You feel the response that you’re getting from other people. You feel the way that you feel while you’re doing it. Once I learned how to belt, which is the thing that I did in my Broadway career. I’m a Broadway belter.
Once I learned how to do that, I just remember it feeling so weird, but it just felt really good. It felt right, and I was getting positive responses for my teachers, things just kind of started snowballing and falling into place. I don’t think we always get to make the decision, but I was getting all this really good feedback. So, I was like, “Oh, yes. I’m going to follow this.” And, that’s kind of what I tend to do. I’m like, I choose something, and if I’m getting positive responses, I tend to follow that path, until I don’t. Either decide I don’t want to do it anymore, or I decided I wanted something else.
Joseph: So, you get an agent. What was one of the first roles you ended up landing?
Carla: [09:59] The first big job I got right out of college, I ended up playing Liesel in “The Sound of Music” in Asia. I was like 19, or no, I was 20. When I graduated, 22. I was 22. I went to Hong Kong for like four months and played Liesel, the oldest daughter. The “16 Going On 17.”
Joseph: Yeah, I remember.
Carla: [10:22] It was so much fun. I just like had the best time. We were famous in Hong Kong. Our pictures were on billboards. Everywhere we went, everyone knew who we were. It was very, very fun.
Joseph: How long were you doing that before you ended up moving on to your next role?
Carla: [10:38] That was a four or five-month gig. When it ended, I didn’t work for a year after that. I had a really big kind of reality check. I had been fortunate to book that, but I still wasn’t a union actor. It was overseas, so it wasn’t a union gig. I was struggling to be seen. Even though I had an agent, it was really hard for me to get in the door.
And so, the only thing that I knew how to do was take classes so I could meet people. I took a bunch of musical theater classes. I started taking dance classes all the time. I started waiting in long lines to audition first off because I wasn’t union. Every time I would get an audition for my agent, I would get a coach and I would work hard on it. Because my goal was just to get my union card so that I could audition easier. I didn’t study musical theater in college. So, that year was my education in musical theater that I really kind of crammed myself while waiting a lot of tables, bartending, and doing a lot of other things to make money so I could live in New York.
Joseph: I’ve always wondered because you always hear these stories about people who eventually end up on Broadway or who are on Broadway, and they’re waiting tables, or they’re doing these other sort of blue-collar jobs. Did you have like a time limit in mind for yourself before you would maybe move on to something else? Because I would imagine it takes a little bit of time to gain some traction in this very competitive industry.
Carla: [12:00] Funny that you asked that because I haven’t thought about this in a while. But, right at the end of that year, I was two seconds away from quitting. I was so over it. I hated waiting tables. Nothing was happening. I remember the guy that I was dating at that time, we had taken a trip to California and we were out at the beach. We’re like, “Maybe we should just move to the beach, and wait tables, or like open our own theater company. I don’t know.” We were about to just like leave New York. I was just so fed up with that whole year. It had been frustrating and hard.
Literally, while we were on that trip, my agent called. They’re like, “Can you be in New York in two days? You have a final callback for ‘Mamma Mia’ for the national tour.” I was like, “Okay.” I had been in for the show a few times at that point. And so, I flew back. I got a terrible cold. I had probably what I thought was one of the worst auditions of my life. And then, two days later, I found out I booked it and had to go out on tour a week later.
When you were kind of like, “How do you know you’re doing well?” I always take it, it’s like little science. I’m like, “Well, I guess I am supposed to do this.” So, my plans of quitting kind of got put on hold. I was like, “All right. I’m going to go on tour. See? The universe is spoken. I’m supposed to do this. I’m not supposed to quit.” So, I just kind of kept doing that. I went on tour then for about a year and a half with “Mamma Mia.”
Joseph: So, you’re in “Mamma Mia,” huge show, very well-known around the world. You would eventually end up getting cast in “The Wicked” musical. How did that all transpire for you?
Carla: [13:27] I’ve literally done three large shows in the entirety of my career because I was really fortunate that I got into kind of these long-running shows. I did “Mamma Mia” for about a year and a half. And then, I left to go get married the first time. I was a vacation cover for that company then for the rest of that year and a half. I would fly out to the tour and I would cover for a couple of months.
At the beginning of 2010, I ended up booking “Wicked.” And so then, I went on tour with that for three years. And then, back to New York. And then, I was in New York for the rest of the time.
Joseph: Just going through this one step at a time, what was your role during those first years with “Wicked”?
Carla: [14:06] From 2010 through 2011, I was the understudy for Elphaba. Which means, I was in the ensemble, eight shows a week, and I was the second cover. So, in “Wicked,” Elphaba has a standby and an understudy. The standby is an off-stage cover. They’re the first person to go on. They’re on a principal contract. They will always perform the role of Elphaba if the lead role cannot go on; the lead person who plays that role. The understudy only goes on if the other two people cannot go on.
You’re in the ensemble eight times a week. You understood you’ve rehearsed the role, and you have no idea when you’re going to go on for the role. I did that for two years. And then, I did the standby role for a year on the tour. And then, after I left that, I moved into the Broadway company to go back into the understudy role. I was the understudy for the entirety of the time that I was there on Broadway. I would occasionally go in as a swing contract because I would cover a bunch of other things. But, I was always understudying Elphaba.
Joseph: Elphaba, for those people who are not familiar with the show — I have seen the show. She’s the lead role.
Carla: [15:17] She’s the green one.
Joseph: She’s the green witch and lead role in a huge, huge musical. As the understudy, what are you doing during the show? Because you’re saying you’re on standby. You are literally waiting backstage.
Carla: [15:34] It would depend. If I was the standby, I would be off-stage. I would just be kind of hanging out when I was on tour. When I was the standby, I had an Etsy store and I made bracelets backstage because I had nothing else to do. I guess I was fortunate that I performed the role a lot while I was on tour. We just happened to be in places where some of the girls that I covered maybe had allergies or whatever was happening with them. So, I got to perform the role a lot while I was on tour.
As an understudy though, you’re in the show eight shows a week. So, you’re in the ensemble so there’s no time to do anything else. That standby role is my favorite thing to do ever. It’s like the perfect role. Maybe you play Elphaba once or twice a week, and then you just get to do whatever you want the rest of the week. You have to be at the theater to do that. That’s the coveted get. In my opinion, that is the perfect job.
Joseph: Could you give us a sense of how much of this you were doing each week? You said you’ve got, obviously, got multiple shows a week. How many shows are we talking about every single week?
Carla: [16:33] Eight shows a week.
Joseph: I’m assuming if you’re playing the role of Elphaba, you’re in heels, you’re wearing a wig, you’re in full dress. Does that take its toll on you after? Well, I’m just trying to imagine delivering that level of energy every single night. Whether you’re in the ensemble or if you’re actually performing the role of Elphaba. Both just require like 100 percent every night. What’s that like?
Carla: [16:57] I found my ensemble role to be hard on my body because I danced a lot, and I am not actually a dancer. But, for some reason, the understudy has to dance. So, I wore like three-inch heels, and heavy, heavy wigs. My neck, chronic neck issues from wearing those heavy wigs. In the Broadway company, the stage that we danced on is not flat. It’s what you call a raked stage. It’s lower in the front of the stage and higher. It goes on a slight angle. Our stage is one of the highest raked I believe on Broadway. The one at the Gershwin in New York.
So, imagine you’re wearing a three-inch heel on a raked stage. Now, it’s like you’re wearing a five-inch heel. I used to wear this very tall, flat-top wig. And so, my head, you’re constantly — your body’s rebalancing for like this crazy angle. So, your neck and all these muscles that you wouldn’t think are over-compensating. And so, I ended up with like neck injuries, and I ended up with some rib injuries from dancing with a dance partner with a very bony shoulder that got me in the side of the rib, and then a bunch of foot injuries. I have hip injuries.
I literally spent all of my free time when I was in that show in New York at physical therapy, the doctor, the gym. Just like trying to make sure that my body was ready to go that night because I had so many things going on. That’s the most exhausting part of being on a Broadway show.
Joseph: I was going to actually ask you, yeah, what’s the best part of being in a big Broadway hit and what’s the toughest part of it?
Carla: [18:36] Yeah, that’s the toughest part.
Joseph: The physicality.
Carla: [18:38] Yeah. It’s the thing that the audience doesn’t see. They don’t know there’s this idea that performing on Broadway is really glamorous.
Carla: [18:47] It is. There’s a certain aspect to it. It’s really fun. The fact that I get to go out on stage and tell the story every night, and sing these songs, and be a part of this incredible show, that’s the best part of it. When I get to meet people and they tell me how much the show meant to them, that is incredible. But, the stuff that people do not see, the constant having to take care of your body and your voice.
As an understudy, I always like to say it was like I had a little Elphaba sitting on my shoulder at all times. I had no social life. I couldn’t go out late. I had to make sure I got at least eight to nine hours of sleep every night. I couldn’t drink alcohol. I couldn’t talk too much. I had to make sure that I was warmed up every single day because I also never knew when I was going to perform that role. I would find out at the last minute always because I was the understudy and not the standby. It usually meant that there was an emergency if I was going to be performing.
I performed a lot, which meant there were a lot of emergencies, which meant I couldn’t live my life because I had no idea when those things were going to happen. And so, I kind of always had to be ready. That’s why I say that standby role is that coveted role because you know you’re going to get to do it at some point within the next couple of weeks. But, as the understudy, it could be six months, it could be a year before I go on. And so, it’s a lot of just having to keep up your physical body and everything so you can do that role at a moment’s notice.
Joseph: Yeah. I could just imagine the uncertainty of it and just not knowing what your day is going to look like, or thinking you might go on stage and then you don’t.
Carla: [20:26] It’s emotionally exhausting.
Joseph: Yeah. I can imagine. At what point did you feel like this toll that the performance was having, both physical and also just the emotional, what you’re talking about not knowing when you’re going to perform? At what point did you feel like you may need to make a change? Do you remember what that moment was for you?
Carla: [20:49] The first one in 2015, when I left the Broadway company full-time, I knew that I couldn’t keep doing the show eight times a week. I was just exhausted. I had a lot of medical stuff going on. And so, I went to grad school. I decided for myself that if I was going to step away from performing full-time, the respectable thing to do would be to go and get a master’s degree in Education. I got a master’s in Theater Education at NYU, and teach theater because I really like teaching theater. I like teaching voice, something I always felt very drawn to. I like helping people.
Joseph: You’re teaching high school kids at that time.
Carla: [21:29] I was doing both. So, I was going to Thespian Festivals in the summer, and I was teaching, working with high school students. And so, that’s kind of what inspired me. But, I knew I wanted to work with college students. I wanted to kind of work on a little bit more of an expertise level. So, I taught between 2015 and the pandemic, so 2020, I taught on two faculties in New York. I had a private voice studio that I ran. I loved doing that but I also simultaneously was still going in and out of “Wicked” during that time.
I thought teaching was going to give me the freedom to have a little more ownership over my career. Teach, but then I was also still performing, occasionally, and I was getting frustrated with the business throughout all of that. It wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. I was an adjunct professor. I didn’t make a lot of money. I didn’t have health insurance. I just kind of kept realizing that I didn’t know. I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this forever.” I was exhausted. I felt like I was just constantly hustling. Looking into the show, performing for a couple of weeks here and there, and then maybe doing readings of new musicals, and then having a full load of students, and just being absolutely drained.
And so then, in 2018, I had been at “Wicked” for a couple of weeks — the thing about going into “Wicked” is, every time I would go back, they would kind of like dangle a carrot in front of me. They’d be like, “Oh, Carla. It’s so great to have you back. We have to get you back in that standby role.” And then, the role would come up and they wouldn’t cast me in it. I just kind of was like, “I keep bending over backward to come in and help you out.” They would call me a Sunday morning and be like, “Can you come in for the matinee?”
Joseph: Oh, wow. Like, that afternoon. Okay.
Carla: [23:12] Yeah. I remember, one 4th of July, I was in Philadelphia with my friends. They were like, “Hey, Carla. Do you think you can be here tomorrow? We need somebody to cover for two weeks.” I was like, great. And so, I rented a car and drove back from Phil, like wherever I was in Pennsylvania to help them for two weeks. I did a lot of things like that. I thought if I gave them my show, that I was loyal to the show, they would give me the thing that I wanted, which was to move me into that standby role. Because that was the thing that I loved because I loved performing that role. I didn’t love dancing.
And so, in 2018, I had this moment where I realized, “Oh, they’re never going to give me that role. They’re never going to let me play it.” I kind of just melted. I was like, “I can’t do this.” Like, I can’t teach these college students to go into a business that is just going to chew them up and spit them out. I can’t keep doing it. I was like, “I don’t know how to inspire these people to go into this business that is making me feel so terrible.” And so, I was like, “I need to do something else.”
Joseph: Now, before we get to that transition, I also know that on top of all of this, do I have this right? That between 2015 and 2017, you were also working on a cruise line?
Carla: [24:31] Oh, yeah. I also did.
Joseph: On top of going to grad school. Can you just explain how that worked?
Carla: [24:39] How that’s possible? How was I doing things at once?
Carla: [24:42] I mentioned I have ADHD, that’s how I was doing it. No. I was finishing grad school, and I was working on Norwegian Cruise Lines, doing my own show. I was a guest entertainer. The cruise went from Sunday to Sunday, from New York to the Bahamas and back. I would, on Monday, in New York. I would go to classes on Monday and Tuesday. And then, on Wednesday, I would fly to the Bahamas, meet the ship there. Cruise back with them to New York, do my two sets Saturday night, and then I would get off the ship Sunday morning, and I would go home, and I would rinse and repeat.
I did that non-stop every week for about six months. And then, for another year and a half, I did about one sailing a month. Like, every week. Maybe once a month, maybe twice a month. I switched off with another girl. So, I did that kind of intermittently.
Joseph: So, you’re balancing this solo show on Norwegian Cruise Lines with your grad school, while also being called in every so often to do “Wicked.” You’re flying back and forth between New York and the Bahamas. When you did decide that it was time for you to look at doing something else, what steps did you take to figure that out?
Joseph: How are you teaching yourself this? Was it online courses? Did you get books?
And then, I was also digging around a bunch of bootcamp prep programs. So, my friend had gone to the Flatiron School. So, I was looking at their bootcamp prep. I also looked at Grace Hopper’s bootcamp prep. I need a lot of different pathways into the material to understand it. So, I just found a bunch of different ways to get into this material so I could see it from a bunch of different angles and understand the concepts. So, I did that. And then, I decided to do the bootcamp in the summer of 2019, my summer break.
Joseph: I’m just trying to understand. You’re going from being a performer, belting in front of huge audiences, which strikes me as quite an extroverted type of activity. And then, you’re moving into learning coding by yourself, sitting in front of a screen. They seem like such different worlds and existences to me. Was that difficult to make, the transition, or was it welcome?
Carla: [28:03] You know what’s interesting? While performing is an extroverted activity, I guess or a job career, understudying a role is a very solo job. I spent a lot of solo time going over the role. I would spend time by myself in a rehearsal room walking through the show. By myself in my hotel room, singing through the show and visualizing my work. So, there is a lot of introverted kind of solo work that goes into being an understudy. Yes, you do have to be on stage with other people. So, you do have to know how to connect with other people.
The thing that I knew how to do was how to work by myself. I knew how to learn things. I had learned how I learned, and that is something I do solo. And so, doing software engineering really kind of tapped into that solo work that I love. Also, I am a ceramic artist. I do pottery. Pottery is also very focused solo work. I can sit at a pottery wheel for four hours, five hours, and just throw mugs all day long. I love very focused work. And so, software engineering really tapped into that for me. I guess I do. I do sometimes crave people. But, I’ve found other ways to get that.
Joseph: Yeah. I guess you’re spending a lot of time by yourself in hotel rooms and backstage and just quietly rehearsing things with yourself. So, very interesting.
Can you explain how you then transitioned into your first formalized role in this world of coding and software engineering? I understand your first role that you had wasn’t exactly the perfect role for you, but it helped you transition into the industry.
Carla: [29:52] I have the great fortune of starting my job search in March of 2020. We all know what was going on then, and everybody was on a hiring freeze. Nobody would hire me. Nobody would even interview me for software engineering roles. I had a couple of calls with people. What I remember one, at the end of the call, she said to me, “I’m really sorry. I hope I didn’t waste your time. I just really wanted to talk to you. You seemed like an interesting person, but I don’t really have a role for you.” I was like, “Okay.” She’s like, “But I’m so interested in you. I can’t wait to see what’s next for you. Please keep in touch.” I was like, “Great. Okay.” I was like, okay, I’m networking. I guess that’s what I’m doing. I could not find any roles.
The first interview that I got was for a customer success role at a tech start-up in New York. It was fully remote. I charmed my way into the role. I had no idea what I was doing. I bombed the interview. I sent them an email like, “Listen, I can learn this. I’m good with people. If you teach me how to do it, I will be able to do it.” They gave me their job. I did it for a year. It was not the right role for me. I discovered I like people; I do not like working with customers. That is a very different kind of people.
The great thing about it was it gave me and my husband the opportunity to move back to Chicago. I had a full-time job. I had health insurance. Those were the most important things to me. So, as soon as we had some stability, we moved back to Chicago. We bought a house. We got to be near our family. And then, once we settled here, I started applying for software engineering jobs and ended up at a company in Chicago. I did that for two years, and it was great.
Joseph: That was G2.
Carla: [31:34] Yes.
Joseph: Which is they do software and service reviews. Now, before we get to your current role, I know in late 2021, you ended up kind of going back to your former life a little bit. Can you explain to me what happened after you had started your role as a software engineer at G2, about a year into your role?
Carla: [31:57] I am so grateful to G2. They were so supportive when this happened. I kind of mentioned earlier how “Wicked” would ask me to do things very last minute a lot. That was kind of the thing I’m very good at. I’m very good at a last-minute pop-in, to do something that is very difficult.
It was Christmas vacation of 2021. It was the day after Christmas. I was on my way to Michigan to go have a great time at a cabin with a bunch of friends. I get a call from “Wicked,” and they were like, “Hey, what are you doing? Do you want to fly to New York tomorrow and come help us out? We’re running out of Elphabas. Everybody has COVID.” At that point, I was thinking through all the girls that I knew in New York who covered the role in the past few years, and everybody had COVID or just had a baby.
And so, I was like, “Well, it’s me. Okay.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go just because I was so excited about my new life. I was like, “No, I got to do this.” I need to kind of just for me, for myself. I was like, if I get one more chance to play this role, I think I can kind of put it to bed. I think I will be content with Broadway and not feel like I missed out on anything. Because I hadn’t, at that point, played Elphaba since 2015. Even though I’ve been covering it, and understudying it, and rehearsing it, I hadn’t performed it in a long time. So, I was like, “Oh, this might be a nice opportunity.”
So, I flew in. Luckily, didn’t get COVID. I did get to perform the role two nights while I was there. It was unexpected. I was kind of just doing it for myself. And then, the moment kind of went a little viral. I had a lot of people reaching out to me and news organizations. Everybody wanted to know who this crazy software engineer was that could just play Elphaba at the drop of a dime. It was a little bit exhausting. I was ready to kind of just be a software engineer. And then, all of a sudden, it launched me into this space of a lot of people wanted to talk to me about what I had done, and feeling like I needed to be an inspiration to a lot of other people. I love that but also, I said my husband and I have been trying to get pregnant for a long time. So, it was like in the middle of all of these things, and I had so much going on. It was overwhelming.
Joseph: There are some times, Carla, there’s this allure to our former life. It can be very alluring and almost tempting to revert back to what used to be a very normal and kind of our day-to-day existence. And yet, you’ve now seen this other side of the world. You’ve seen this other side of an industry that you maybe thought wasn’t quite right for you. And then, you discovered this whole coding world. I can imagine that would just create all sorts of internal dialogue is what I would probably be having with myself during that time.
Carla: [34:46] A lot of like, “Who am I? What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing? Have I made the right choices?” The teacher in me is like, “How can I help other people?” It was overwhelming. A lot of good things came out of it, but I wasn’t quite ready for all of it. So, a lot of opportunities were missed just because I couldn’t keep track of everything.
Joseph: Well, you eventually just would remain in the software and web engineering space. What triggered you to eventually decide to move to Spotify, which is a recent move you just made earlier this year?
Carla: [35:18] I loved G2. I was a full-stack engineer there. It was a great first job for me. I got to learn so much about who I want to be as an engineer. I always tell people who are kind of getting into engineering, “Your first job is not going to be your forever role. Your first job is to learn about what is going to be required of you in this space.” Especially, if you’re changing careers from an entirely different field. Your first job is to learn the lingo, learn how to exist in this space, learn what your opinions are, and figure out who you are as an engineer. For me, it was great because I really discovered at that role that I love front-end work. The artist in me loves the design aspect of front end. I love making things look pretty, and I’m drawn to that aspect of engineering.
And so, when this role kind of came up, a friend of mine works at Spotify and he’s like, “Hey, we have a role. You should apply for it.” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m ready.” And then, I was like, “You know what? I’m never going to feel ready. I’m just going to do it.” I spent weeks just cramming so I could do well on the interviews. It just kind of one thing after another. I was like, “Oh, I am ready. I actually do know more than I thought I did. I just spent two years doing this. I know so much more about who I am, and the space, what I want. I’m much better at articulating that. I know how to answer these questions. I know what I’m doing. Why not me? Why can’t I get this job?” And so, I keep saying it feels very on-brand for me to work at Spotify, just because it’s a music company.
Joseph: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense.
Carla: [36:57] Yeah. Of course, I would work at Spotify. So, it’s really nice. It feels like a nice landing spot right now.
Carla: [37:03] I would like to stick for a little while.
Joseph: Yeah. It is an interesting intersection of the work that you’re now doing and the work that you had been doing in the past. Quite neatly packaged up.
So, the last thing I want to talk about with you, Carla, before we wrap up with a very interesting and important initiative of yours that you mentioned to me before, is just some of the lessons that you’ve learned along the way of your very interesting career change journey. As I was researching you and your story, and reading about some of your past interviews that you’ve done, I know one of the things that you said before was that, being an understudy and an actor teaches you to be brave. This change that you have made from being a performer to someone who’s now working in the world of software web engineering takes a bit of a leap of faith. How were you able to find your courage to make that leap of faith?
Carla: [37:52] The courage has come from all the times that I’ve had to change my mind or all the times that I’ve fallen and had to get back up. I just discovered through all of that, that the world doesn’t end. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? As long as I’m safe. Leaving a job, getting fired from a job, having to have that surgery on my vocal cords, anything. All those little moments of having to kind of overcome something and pivot and do something else, really reminded me when I was ready, I was like, “Oh, you know what? I can do this. Why can’t I do this?”
I always used to say, “Listen, I survived a divorce. I could do anything.” Like, “I survived playing Elphaba on a moment’s notice. I flew across the country to go play her. My debut was a mess, but I did it and it was great. Like, the first time I played Elphaba.” I have all of these little stories of things that I did that I think are crazy things that I was able to do. And so, when I look at that, I’m like, “Well, if I could do that, why can’t I do this?” And so, it’s just been like a series of reminding myself that, “Well, I can do more than I think I can. If I can just kind of shut that thing out of my brain that says no.” Why not, instead.
Joseph: You also did an interview with Monica Torres in 2022 for a HuffPost article. One of the things that struck me that you said in the article was that you feel like, especially around the arts, people have to commit a hundred percent to being an artist. Why do you think that people feel this pressure to contain themselves within a very specific career path? Even when that could potentially be limiting to their lives.
Carla: [39:35] In particular with the arts, it really goes back to the message that we all receive when we’re young. It’s that, well, theater and music, it’s so hard. You should only do it if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. That is one of the most toxic things we can tell young people because it really pigeonholes them.
The kids who do decide to go into the arts then believe that “I have to commit. This has to be everything. I have to give everything in my life to this thing because I made this decision.” Whereas everybody else, maybe it scared them to go in, so everybody else just didn’t even explore it because they thought there was no room for them to have the arts in their life if they wanted to be a part-time artist. So, you don’t really give kids the message that being a part-time artist or being an artist can look however you want. And so, we end up creating this idea that it has to be everything. So, we have to give it 100 percent.
We have to be willing to put up with toxic behavior in the industry. We have to be willing to put up with low wages and no health insurance because that’s what it means to be an artist, that’s what it means to be an actor. I don’t want to get too much into the strikes that are going on right now. But, the WGA strike and the SAG strike. It’s all a reflection of this idea that actors and artists will work for nothing because they love it. That’s not fair because we will. Artists love it and they’re passionate about it. So, they’re willing to give up a lot for it and that’s not fair to us because then we burn out, and we don’t get paid what we’re worth, and we can’t manage all of it. Because the people with all the money aren’t respecting that we also deserve to have liveable wages and all of those things.
It’s hard. There’s this feeling of if you can’t give it all, can’t do it at all, might as well quit. That’s something I’m still exploring. What does it look like? What does art look like in my life now that I’ve kind of stepped away from that full-time pursuit? How can I do art and not feel burnt out? How can I do it for me? How can I do it and still love it and enjoy it, without giving it 100 percent? Because I can’t do that anymore.
Joseph: You sound like you have a lot of different facets to your professional life and lots of different interests, which is wonderful. I’m just interested to hear what you’ve learned about yourself along the way of this very interesting career change journey.
Carla: [41:58] Two things. One, I’m much more resilient than I give myself credit for. Two, I’m smarter than I think. It sounds silly every time I say it. But, as a woman, as an artist, these are things that I don’t think we tell young girls enough. And so, I just always assumed I don’t think I ever thought of myself as a smart person, as like an intellectual person. And so, to have gone into engineering, I’m like, “Oh, I am smart. I can figure things out. I can write code and solve difficult problems.” That, to me, means that I’m a smart person. And so, it validates that for me, which is nice. To be 40, and finally believe that I’m a smart person.
Joseph: Well, speaking of this intersection of their different interests in your career, I’d love to wrap up with something I know is really important to you. Can you tell me a little bit more about “Artists Who Code”? What exactly is that?
Carla: [42:54] At the beginning of 2020, when everything shut down, a bunch of friends and a bunch of people that I knew were kind of like, “What do I do? I don’t know what to do?” You learned how to code; how do I do that?” Some other friends of mine who I met during this time had started a Slack group just because they were having the same thing. Their friends were asking them the same question because they had been performers, they had quit performing. People were like, “How do I do that? I need a job. Can I learn to code? Is that something I can do?” They started a little Slack group.
And so, a friend of mine connected me with them, and I just started funneling everybody into this group. And so, over the past few years, this group has blown. We have hundreds of people in the group. They’re all artists who’ve all decided they want to learn how to code, or learn design, or get into tech somehow. And so, we spend a lot of time helping people explore bootcamps and have conversations around, “Is there a way to balance both? How could I be in tech and be an artist or a musician?”
It’s a really beautiful group. I love being a part of it. I do a lot of onboarding. I introduce people to the group, and I talk to them, and I help them with their LinkedIn profiles and their resumes and stuff. It’s a nice space to kind of encourage artists to remind them also that they’re smart, that we are all capable of doing more than we all think that we can do. It’s a cool group. I’m very proud to be a part of it.
Joseph: That sounds like a wonderful initiative. I know you have your hands full with a lot of different things right now. So, I just wanted to thank you again for telling us more about your former life as a Broadway musical performer, your transition into the software engineering world, and also the lessons you’ve learned along the way of your very interesting career change journey. So, best of luck with your role there at Spotify, the mentorship works you’re doing, and also everything else you have going on personally right now.
Carla: [44:45] Thank you so much for having me.