For 15 years, Liz Hollerman worked as a 3D artist and animator for the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, and some independent gaming companies. Most recently, she worked for Turn 10 Studios in Redmond.
She built a successful career — but still, something was missing.
Hollerman always felt driven to help people, and teaching part-time filled that need. But quitting her day-job to teach full-time?
“To drop working in the (gaming) industry and teach full-time … I’ve waffled back and forth with it,” she said. “I kind of just made this conscious decision that this is the direction I want to go. I get more out of it, I suppose.”
Hollerman took the leap, leaving her job as a senior cinematic artist at Microsoft in October 2017 to focus on the final year of her tenure at Bellevue College. She is now a tenured professor, and the chair of the school’s digital media arts program. She teaches animation and game design fundamentals, as well as intermediate and advanced 3D animation.
For Hollerman, choosing to leave the video game industry was one way she could contribute to the world in a more lasting manner.
“When you make art, people will consume it in a short amount of time,” she explained. “Sometimes you can make something that will be really impactful to people, for sure. But the kind of games I’ve been working on are racing games or fighting games, kind of a thing you’re going to look at once and be like, ‘Cool; that was neat.’”
For example, while working at Turn 10 Studios, she helped build the introductory experience for Forza Motorsport 6. When the game came out, she watched gamers play through that initial segment in the popular, live-streaming video game platform Twitch.
“I was really excited to see what someone thought about it, and they just clicked ‘A’ through it,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s a little demoralizing.”
Hollerman still loves creating and playing video games. But the gratification she gets from teaching students is unique.
“It’s a different type of fulfillment,” she said. “It doesn’t make it better or worse than working in the industry. It’s just the one that I need in my life right now.”
Education jobs often pay less — substantially less, at times — than jobs in other industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for postsecondary teachers in 2017 was $76,000. For high school teachers, the median yearly pay was $59,170.
But taking a pay cut to teach has been worth it for Hollerman.
“It’s a lifestyle shift at the end of the day,” she said. “It would be nice if people valued education more, but you know, it’s not the reality right now.”
Hollerman isn’t alone in her decision to leave a lucrative career for a teaching job that pays less. Other successful professionals are doing it, too, for reasons as varied as work-life balance to career restlessness.
However, one justification is frequently shared: Imparting knowledge to a future generation provides a certain satisfaction that other jobs do not.
Teacher Mike Wierusz made the switch from mechanical engineering to education after about eight years in the industry. “I think I was getting a little fidgety about engineering and just kind of starting to look for something different,” he said.
Wierusz volunteered in classrooms and job-shadowed before he enrolled at Seattle Pacific University and earned his master’s in education. His first teaching position came in 2010 at Secondary Academy of Success in Bothell. After that, he moved to Inglemoor High School in Kenmore, where he’s taught product design and engineering for the last four years.
One of the major differences between teaching and working in mechanical engineering, Wierusz said, is the speed at which he receives feedback on his work. In commercial building design, it might take a couple years for him to find out whether he finished a project correctly. Not so with teaching.
“In education, (it takes) about two seconds. You’re on stage, essentially,” he said. “It’s exciting. But it’s also a little bit daunting too, because you have to be pretty dialed in and pretty willing to be responsive and change if things aren’t going right.”
After about nine years of working in education, Wierusz said the highlight of his job is seeing students find their passion for engineering. That, and writing letters of recommendation for college.
“Just to see them get ready for their next steps and where they’re heading …” he said. “I feel completely like (teaching is) within the rhythm of my life, so I can’t really envision doing anything else.”
High school teachers make about 30 percent less than mechanical engineers. The decision to accept a lower salary was a difficult one to make. But Wierusz said he has no regrets.
“I really had to weigh the life happiness factor quite a bit, and just kind of equate what dollar value (I) put on coming home feeling fulfilled,” he said. “It was hard to put a number on that, but it seemed worthwhile. And I still never have second-guessed the decision.”
Unlike Wierusz, Seattle University law professor and longtime Redmond resident Steve Tapia had wanted to be a teacher ever since he graduated college more than three decades ago. But teaching jobs were hard to find in the late 1970s, he said.
“I had a mentor tell me this: ‘Steve, I think you’d be a wonderful teacher, but you’re going to starve. You talk too much. You write too much. Why don’t you think about going to law school?’”
So that’s what Tapia did. He worked for 30 years as a lawyer — mainly in intellectual property, copyright law, and television production — for companies like Loeb and Loeb, PBS stations, HBO, Microsoft, and ROOT Sports.
“After I got to the point (financially) where I really didn’t need to work unless I really wanted to, I started pursuing the opportunity to teach,” he said.
Now in what he considers his retirement, Tapia teaches intellectual property, business, and technology law classes full-time at Seattle University.
“For me it’s been life-illuminating,” he said. “The kind of interaction that you have with people is just so much better than you do in the business world. You get to relate to people. You get to feel like you’re actually moving them to become better people on a regular basis.”
As someone who has demonstrated his ability in the field of law for decades, Tapia seems to upend the iconic quote from George Bernard Shaw: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”
Tapia has proven that, in the legal world, he certainly can do both. And that fact, he said, actually makes him a better educator.
“If I think about what it is that I teach, I teach the stuff that I did as a practicing lawyer for over 30 years. If I had gone straight out of law school to become a law school professor, I would have had none of that,” he said. “My sustained competitive business advantage as a teacher is that I’ve actually been out in the world and have done it. I have the ability to be able to tell people how it is in the real world.”
Like Wierusz and Hollerman, Tapia also took a pay cut when he quit practicing law to become a teacher. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual salary for a lawyer is $119,250. That’s approximately 35 percent more than the median yearly pay for a college professor.
“I say it teasingly, but it actually is probably true. I think my admin makes more money than I do,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t view that as a problem. My previous career has been very, very kind to me.”
Another Eastsider, Alfred Nehme, worked for 23 years as a software engineer at Dell EMC; CambridgeSoft; and, most recently, Amazon, before he became a teacher.
“I felt like at Amazon I wasn’t learning a lot,” Nehme said of his decision to leave his industry after two years at the Seattle-based company. “I was learning the Amazon technology, but I wasn’t expanding my knowledge in other areas.”
A lack of intellectual stimulation was one of two main reasons Nehme decided to quit. The other? Work-life balance.
“I was spending too much time outside the home. I was leaving at 7 a.m. and coming back at 7 p.m., so that was a little bit tough. I do have kids, and I wanted to see them more,” he said.
So Nehme reached out to Bellevue College and eventually landed a tenure-track teaching position in the computer science program. There, he teaches machine learning, software patterns, cloud computing, and database system courses.
When he made the switch from engineering to teaching, Nehme said he took a “big salary decrease,” but that it didn’t bother him too much. “I knew that it was lower,” he said. “I’m at the stage where I don’t necessarily need that higher income.”
And despite the fact that he works more hours now than he did before (a common theme with all four teachers), being a professor is still less taxing than working as an engineer, he said.“It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s a different type of stress,” he said. “I wish that (I started teaching) 20 years ago.”
Tips on Making the Switch
Switching from working in a niche industry to teaching students in that industry can be a little intimidating. Before taking the plunge, take some advice from those who have done it.
“(Find) a way to just carve out time and spend time in the classroom.”
Mike Wierusz, former mechanical engineer and current Inglemoor High School teacher
“The joy of paying it forward is almost incalculable. It is just such a beautiful thing. And that’s not everybody’s thing. If you have the desire to take what you’ve learned and pass it on to another generation, then I can’t think of a better way to do it than to teach.”
Steve Tapia, former lawyer and current Seattle University law professor
“You’re never going to get it right the first time. You’re going to go through a lot of iterations of how you teach your classes, and you have to be comfortable or OK with the fact that the way you taught something one semester or one quarter might be different the next.”
Liz Hollerman, former 3D artist and animator and current chair of the Bellevue College digital media arts department
“If you are passionate about it, just do it.”
Alfred Nehme, former software engineer and current Bellevue College computer science professor