Katherine Ricafort McCreary, a Broadway performer-turned-software engineer, had been in her new job at Internet company Stitch Fix for almost a month when the pandemic hit. Although she made the leap to a more stable and well-paid industry than theater, her artist friends and former colleagues were in crisis.
About a week after Broadway closed, Ricafort McCreary and her husband, Scott McCreary—a staff cellist, singer, and actor-turned-software engineer—created a support group for artists interested in career transitions. “We thought, if your job is fired, it’s time to look into what we’ve done,” says Scott. “We want to make life easier and help people who are suffering.”
Fewer than 10 people joined their first informal Zoom meeting in March 2020. Artists who code, has grown to about 280 members in the US and abroad. This volunteer-run organization offers guidance and emotional support to artists interested in technology or currently working. Among them Carla Stickler, who acted as an understudy for Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked and now works as a software engineer and art teacher in Chicago; Melinda Sevak, a Nashville data scientist and singer-songwriter, and Nick Spangler, a former Broadway actor who now works as a software engineer on a digital theater ticketing platform.
Artists Who Code was born out of the deep frustration of a full-time artist couple. After graduating from USC with a degree in industrial and systems engineering, Ricafort McCreary spent about 10 years as a musical theater dancer, actor, and singer, performing ensemble and supporting roles in Broadway productions of Mamma Mia, Cinderella, and Miss Saigon. ”
They met in 2010 on the NBC reality a cappella show The Sing-Off. In 2018, the couple enrolled in software engineering training courses, both of which are three-month immersive courses that teach students how to code and how to get jobs in technology. They were at the point where they both wanted financial security—the ability to buy a house and plan for the future.
“We saw artists that we looked up to and who were known in our community, and we saw that they had to do something, like go on tour for six months to pay for college for their children,” says McCreery. “They were just as worried about where the next work was going to be as we were.”
Two months after graduating from boot camp, McCreary, who had performed as a cellist with the New Haven Symphony and performed at Cabaret on Broadway, was hired as a junior software engineer at Grailed, a fashion technology company.
When Ricafort McCreery landed the role of Karen Computer in the 2018 production of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, it was like a career high. However, the role, while glamorous, was just a band-aid for a deep wound, she says. When the job ended, she again struggled with low-paying jobs and unemployment, earning just $10,000 in 2019.
“With every big Broadway hit I made and the higher I climbed the ladder, I really did analyze; I saw my net worth drop,” she says. “I felt less and less powerful with every year that I spent in the industry, continuing to audition and feeling things like typecasting and constant unemployment and a lot of physical injuries – it all became very frustrating.”
Based on their strange and often isolated experience navigating the tech space as artists, Ricafort McCreery and McCreary created a free mini resource curriculum for artists who code. These include tips for members on how to choose a coding boot camp, creating a mentor program to help artists through the different stages of their coding journey, and tips on finding work and conducting technical interviews.
In one of their internal Google documents, titled “Real Conversation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Beginnings of Software Development,” they revealed why they changed their careers. Good? Entry-level jobs in the tech industry can bring in six figures in New York, and you can still take short-term gigs or other creative projects. Badly? Getting a job isn’t easy, and once on your doorstep, the culture shock of working in an office can be challenging. “The engineering community can be very dry and insensitive,” they wrote. Ugly? Going from zero to software engineer may require signing up for a boot camp, which can cost around $16,000.
LinkedIn is often another hurdle for artists. Ricafort McCreery didn’t use LinkedIn until after she applied for a job as an engineer. She didn’t have a “proper” professional photo, “so I took a screenshot from the audition tape I made for the role of the teacher,” she laughs. The couple learned they needed to compress their art wins to make room for technology. They hosted LinkedIn Renewal Workshops to help artists apply interpersonal skills such as discipline, attention to detail, and working in challenging environments to their resumes to attract hiring managers.
“It’s like a code switch. As an artist, you don’t know what a Google Calendar invitation is,” says McCreary. “Absorption of the etiquette of this new world and knowing what is appropriate and what is not and how to address people and how to protect yourself and how to pass on the skills that you bring to the table as an artist.”
In the early days of Artists Who Code, the pair worked to find ways to make sense of the technical concepts and jargon for those who were unfamiliar. “These are now the same people we mentored in the beginning, many of whom are now in their first jobs as software engineers, product managers or UX designers,” says Ricafort McCreary. “They talk about things I don’t even understand.”
For Jonathan Butler, Artists Who Code proved integral to his transition from cellist to full-time software engineer. Discouraged by the lack of stability as a freelance musician, Butler began learning how to code up to the nationwide restrictions. The Los Angeles-based professional cellist has had several stable job options, which usually include playing with a professional orchestra or teaching cello at a university, especially during the early days of the pandemic.
Being part of Artists Who Code was helpful when he was working on coding issues. But more importantly, seeing other artists make the transition has inspired him to do the same.
At this point, Butler is not interested in returning to playing the cello. He began learning electric bass guitar and worked as a front-of-house sound engineer. “I don’t have much remorse. It’s not that I hated the cello or music; I liked it,” he says. “Then it just became known to us. It was disappointing, especially since the pandemic has caused almost all artistic events to be cancelled.”
For Ricafort McCreary and McCreary, one of the most important aspects of Artists Who Code is building a community to help artists deal with the identity crisis that often comes with a career change. Creating a new resume is especially painful; much of the feedback they have received and given is aimed at minimizing their accomplishments in the arts to make room for discussion of their experiences in, say, engineering. “It’s like it’s your soul and you’re crushing it and making room for something else,” McCreary says.
At the meetings, attendees often wondered if they could still call themselves artists while learning to code. But the McCrearys emphasize that you can do both.
“Perhaps purely creative people perceive getting such a day job as a betrayal or rejection,” says Ricafort McCreary. “We’re really trying to rethink it.”
It’s encouraging to get practical advice and connect with other programming artists,” says Lindsey Patterson Abdu, an opera singer who started learning programming languages before the pandemic. “I love the added benefit that they understand that, for me personally, music and performing are still a huge part of who I am,” says Patterson Abdu, “and I never want to give that up.”
Both Ricafort McCreery and McCreary are happy with their new jobs. The couple say that without the feast or famine cycle, with artists working full-time, they’ve discovered a new passion for the arts and the freedom to be selective in the performances they pursue. Working as a software engineer, McCreery earns six times what he made during his lowest earning years as an artist. Coding started out as a way to achieve stability and make more money, but, in his words, “I’ve found that it’s actually quite a rewarding career and a creative outlet in its own right.”
While working as a full-time entertainer, Ricafort McCreary struggled to get into a show where she could tap dance. Now she taps out of love for the art form. She also started a wedding choreography business that hires Broadway artists. “This is for a healthier relationship with art,” she says. “I again find it fun and a source of joy, which first attracted us, and then became a source of stress and pain.
“Without worrying about basic [questions like] “How can I dance, sing and play enough to set the table with food and pay rent?” Instead of thinking that way,” says Ricafort McCreery, “now I can really be creative and find my own projects.”
The couple found that most people at Artists Who Code feel the same way. Although many have joined the group as a temporary measure, people have been surprised by how much they are enjoying their new career. A smaller number of people are involved in technology and art at the same time. And Katherine knows two people who are considering returning to art full-time. “My observation about them in common,” she says, “is that their first job in technology didn’t provide enough structured support and growth.”
Two years after the launch of Artists Who Code, group calls no longer feel like an emergency. The couple, who bought their first home near Phoenix in July 2020, now work as consultants.
They also speak on behalf of technology artists. “My dream is for a hiring manager at a technology company to get a resume from someone who was once a professional cellist or played on Broadway and immediately understand what this person has to offer,” says McCreary.
In their organization, they saw artists use their newfound technical skills to solve problems in art. As part of her latest project during boot camp 2018, Ricafort McCreery created a game to test how well a user can remember a script. Another contributor, a harpist, made an app to manage concerts—from the artist’s point of view—by giving them the ability to select concerts rather than clients filtering them out.
“There’s a whole wave of artists infiltrating tech right now because of COVID,” says Ricafort McCreary. “As they learn best practices, skills and tools from technologies that have achieved truly amazing results in just a few years, I hope they will be able to [launch] your own ideas and start applying them back to art.”