Catherine Ricafort McCreary, a Broadway performer turned software engineer, was nearly a month into her new job at the online clothes styling company Stitch Fix when the pandemic hit. Although she had made the leap to a more stable, well-paying industry than theater, her artist friends and former co-workers were in crisis.
About a week after Broadway shut down, Ricafort McCreary and her husband, Scott McCreary — a full-time cellist, singer and actor turned software engineer — launched a support group for artists interested in making a career switch. “We thought: If your job is gone, there’s never a better time to learn what we did,” Scott says. "We want to make it easier and help people who are hurting.”
Less than 10 people joined their first informal Zoom meeting in March 2020. But as word spread over the past two years, the group, now called Artists Who Code, has grown to about 280 members across the U.S. and abroad. The volunteer-run organization offers guidance and emotional support for artists interested in or currently working in technology. Among them are Carla Stickler, who performed as the Elphaba understudy in Broadway’s “Wicked” and now works as a software engineer and arts educator in Chicago; Melinda Sewak, a Nashville-based actor and singer who works in data analytics, and Nick Spangler, a former Broadway actor who now works as a software engineer for a digital theater ticketing platform.
Artists Who Code was born out of the pair's deep frustrations working as full-time artists. After graduating from USC with a degree in industrial and systems engineering, Ricafort McCreary worked as a musical theater dancer, actor and singer for about 10 years, performing ensemble and supporting roles in Broadway’s “Mamma Mia,” “Cinderella” and “Miss Saigon.”
The two met in 2010 on NBC’s a cappella reality show “The Sing-Off.” In 2018, the couple enrolled in software engineering boot camps, both of them immersive, three-month courses that teach students to code and land a job in tech. They were at a stage where they both wanted financial security — the ability to buy a house and plan for the future.
“We were seeing performers who we looked up to and who were famous within our community, and seeing they were having to do things, like go on tour for six months, to pay for their kids’ college,” McCreary says. “They were just as worried about where the next job would come from as we were.”
Two months after graduating from the boot camp, McCreary, who performed as a cellist with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and acted in “Cabaret” on Broadway, was hired as a junior software engineer for Grailed, a fashion tech company.
When Ricafort McCreary was cast as Karen the Computer in the 2018 production of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,” it felt like a career high. Yet the role, though glamorous, was just a band-aid over a deep wound, she says. When the job ended, she struggled once again with low-paying work and being unemployed, earning just $10,000 in 2019.
“With every big Broadway credit that I earned and the higher the ladder I climbed, I actually did an analysis; I saw my net worth going down,” she says. “I felt less and less powerful with each year I spent in the industry continuing to audition, and feeling things like typecasting and constant unemployment, and many physical injuries — it just all became very frustrating.”
Culling from their strange and oftentimes isolating experiences of navigating the tech field as artists, Ricafort McCreary and McCreary built a free mini-curriculum of resources for Artists Who Code. These include advising members on how to choose a coding boot camp, setting up a mentorship program to help artists in different phases of their coding journey and offering advice on the job search and nailing technical interviews.
In one of their internal Google Docs titled “Real Talk: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of getting into Software Engineering,” they outlined why they made a career change. The good? An entry-level job in the tech industry can earn six figures in New York, and it’s still possible to take on short-term performing gigs or other artistic projects. The bad? Landing a job is tough and, once in the door, the culture shock of working an office job can be challenging to navigate. “The engineering community can be very dry and not empathetic,” they wrote. The ugly? Going from zero to software engineer might require enrolling in a boot camp that can cost about $16,000.
LinkedIn is often another hurdle for artists. Ricafort McCreary hadn't used LinkedIn until she applied for jobs in engineering. She didn’t have an “appropriate” professional photo, “so I took a screenshot from an audition tape I had made for the role of a teacher,” she says, laughing. The couple learned they had to compress their wins in the arts to make room for tech. They hosted LinkedIn makeover workshops to help artists translate soft skills like discipline, being detail-oriented and working in demanding environments on their resumes to attract hiring managers.
“It’s like a code switch. As an artist, you don’t know what a Google Calendar invite is," McCreary says. “Absorbing the etiquette of this new world and knowing what is appropriate and what’s not and how to reach out to people, and how to advocate for yourself and how to communicate the skills that you as an artist bring to the table.”
In the early days of Artists Who Code, the couple worked to find ways to walk through technical concepts and jargon for those who were unfamiliar. “Now it’s the same people that we were helping mentor in the beginning, a lot of them are now employed in their first software engineering or product manager or UX designer jobs," Ricafort McCreary says. "They are talking about things that I don’t even understand.”
For Jonathan Butler, Artists Who Code proved integral in his transition from cellist to full-time software engineer. Discouraged by the lack of stability as a freelance musician, Butler began learning to code before nationwide lockdowns. As a professional cellist based in L.A., there were few stable job options — which typically include playing with a professional orchestra or teaching cello at a university — particularly in the early days of the pandemic.
Being part of Artists Who Code was helpful as he worked through coding questions. But more important, seeing other artists make the transition served as inspiration that he could do it too.
For now, Butler isn’t interested in returning to the cello. He started learning electric bass and picked up a side gig as a front-of-house mix engineer. “I don’t have a lot of remorse. It’s not that I hated cello or hated music; I enjoyed it,” he says. “But it was no longer a net positive. It was causing frustrations, especially with basically all arts events being canceled from the pandemic.”
For Ricafort McCreary and McCreary, one of the most crucial aspects of Artists Who Code is the formation of a community to help artists navigate the identity crisis that often comes with changing careers. Making a new résumé is particularly painful; much of the feedback they have received, and have given, is to minimize their achievements in the arts to make space for discussing their expertise in, say, engineering. “It feels like that’s your soul and you’re crushing it and making space for this other thing,” McCreary says.
In meetings, members have often wondered if they could still call themselves artists while learning to code. But the McCrearys emphasize it’s possible to do both.
“Maybe the pure artistic types see getting a day job like this as selling out or giving up," Ricafort McCreary says. "We’re really trying to reframe that.”
Getting practical advice and connecting with other artist coders has been encouraging, says Lindsay Patterson Abdou, an opera singer who began learning programming languages before the pandemic. “I love the added benefit that they understand that for me, personally, music and performing is still a huge part of who I am," Patterson Abdou says, "and I never want to have to let that go.”
Both Ricafort McCreary and McCreary are fulfilled in their new jobs. Without the feast-or-famine cycle of being full-time artists, the couple says they have unlocked a new passion for the arts and freedom to be selective in the gigs they pursue. As a software engineer, McCreary makes six times more than his lowest-earning years as an artist. Coding began as a way to achieve stability and make more money, but, he says, "I have found that it’s actually a pretty rewarding career and creative outlet in its own sense.”
Working as a full-time artist, Ricafort McCreary struggled to get cast in shows where she could tap dance. Now she taps for the love of the art form. She also launched a wedding choreography business that hires Broadway artists. “It’s made for a healthier relationship with the arts,” she says. “I find it fun again and a source of joy, which is what first attracted us to it, and then it became a source of stress and pain.
“Not worrying about the basic [questions like] 'How do I dance enough, and sing enough and act enough to put food on the table and pay rent?' Instead of thinking in that mindset," Ricafort McCreary says, "now I can really be creative and find my own projects.”
The couple has found that most people in Artists Who Code feel the same. While many joined the group as a temporary measure, people have been surprised by how much they’re enjoying their new careers. A smaller number are pursuing tech and the arts professionally at the same time. And Catherine knows of two people who are considering a return to arts full time. “My observation of what they have in common," she says, "is that their first job in tech didn't provide enough structured support and growth.”
Two years after launching Artists Who Code, group calls feel less like an emergency. The couple, who bought their first home near Phoenix in July 2020, now work in an advisory capacity.
They are also advocating on behalf of artists entering tech. “My dream is that a hiring manager at a tech company gets a résumé for somebody who used to be a professional cellist or used to be on Broadway and understands immediately what it is that person brings to the table,” McCreary says.
Within their organization, they’ve seen artists use their newfound technical skills to address issues in the arts. As part of her final project during her 2018 boot camp, Ricafort McCreary made a game to test how well a user could memorize a script. Another member, a harpist, made an application for managing gigs — from the perspective of the artists — giving them the power to choose gigs rather than customers filtering them out.
“There's a whole wave of artists now that are breaking into tech because of COVID,” Ricafort McCreary says. “As they learn these best practices and skills and tools from tech, which has achieved some really amazing things, only a few years from now, I'm hoping they can [launch] their own ideas and start applying that back towards the arts.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.