I currently work in technical support for a software/hardware company and for the most part it's a good job, but it's feeling more and more like I'm getting 'stuck' here. No raises in the 5 years I've been here, and lately there seems to be more hiring from the outside than promotion from within. The work I do is more technical than end-user support, as we deal primarily with our field technicians who have a little more technical skill than the general user base. As a result I get into much more technical support issues... often tracking down bugs in our software, finding performance bottlenecks in our database schema, etc.
The work I'm most proud of are the development projects I've come up with on my own, and worked on during lunch breaks and slow periods in Support. Over the years I've written a number of useful utilities for the company. Diagnostic type applications that several departments use and appreciate. These include apps that simulate our various hardware devices, log file analysis, time-saving utilities for our work processes, etc. My best projects have been the hardware simulation programs, which are the type of thing we probably wouldn't have put a full-time developer on had anyone thought to do it, but they've ended up being popular and useful enough to be used by development, QA, R&D, and Support. They allow us to interface our software with simulated hardware, rather than clutter up our work areas with bulky, hard to acquire equipment.
Since starting here my life has moved forward (married, kid, one more on the way), but it feels like my career has not. I still earn what I earned walking in the door my first day. Company budget is tight, bonuses have gone down, and no raises or cost of living / inflation adjustments either. As the sole source of income for my family I feel I need to do more, and I'd like to have a more active role in creating something at work, not just cleaning up other people's mistakes. I enjoy technical work, and I think development is the next logical step in my career. I'd like to bring some "legitimacy" to my part-time development work, and make myself a more skilled and valuable employee. Ultimately if this can help me better support my family, that would be ideal.
Can I make the jump to professional developer? I have an engineering degree, but no formal education in computer science. I write WinForms apps using the .NET framework, do some freelance web development, have volunteered to write software for a nonprofit, and have started experimenting with programming microcontrollers. I enjoy learning new things in the limited free time I have available. I think I have the aptitude to take on a development role, even in an 'apprentice' capacity if such an option is possible.
Have any of you moved into development like this? Do any of you developers have any advice or cautionary tales? Are there better career options I haven't thought of? I welcome any and all related comments and thank you in advance for posting them.