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Alumni Spotlight: Alon Robinson of Hack Reactor Remote

Imogen Crispe

Written By Imogen Crispe

Last updated on July 25, 2016

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    Table of Contents

  • Q&A


Alon was working in sales, but had always wanted to get into coding. So when he heard about an intro to JavaScript program at Operation Spark in New Orleans, he enrolled straight away. He fell in love with coding and decided to carry on and study full stack JavaScript via Hack Reactor’s Remote program. Now Alon is a front end developer at GE Digital, and he just got back from a summit at the White House where he spoke about building applications around police data. Alon tells us about his whirlwind experience learning to code, his strong bond with his Hack Reactor classmates, and shows us his final project Culturalyst.


I heard you were recently at the White House talking about the New Orleans tech scene. Tell us what you were up to!

I was at the White House to talk at the Police Data Initiative event. A nonprofit coding school here in New Orleans called Operation Spark held a hackathon July 2015 focused on the White House Police Data Initiative. We worked alongside the New Orleans Police Department, City Hall Officials, and people from the community – developers and new coders. They released the police data and opened it to us, then we were able to hack on it, create applications, and do data visualizations.

Then we gave the police department feedback on how they could improve the data to be consumable by the public. They took our feedback and released the data in February this year. Representatives from police departments were there to discuss how we could do better in the future. Police departments from around the country agreed to the Police Data Initiative, and pledged to work hard to make their data open to the public.

Well done! What was your background before Hack Reactor Remote and before you even got into coding?

I'm from St. Louis, but I came to New Orleans in 2010 for college. I studied physics and math for two years at Loyola University. My original plan was to finish at Loyola University, with a degree in Math and Physics, and a degree in Engineering, then to go into software engineering. But I wasn't able to finish school for financial reasons.  

I stayed in New Orleans and worked in sales for a couple of years and some other odd jobs. I've always been really interested in computers and learning how to code. When I was introduced to Operation Spark, my learning-to-code journey started.

Operation Spark was offering a part-time Intro to JavaScript course. It was a couple of hours a day, two days a week, for about three months.

Once you were at Operation Spark, what made you want to enroll in Hack Reactor?

When I got to Operation Spark- even before then- I was really excited about the opportunity. Then when I actually started learning how to code, I fell in love with it. I would be up really late working on projects. John Fraboni, the CEO and founder of Operation Spark, always tells a story about how he would get pings and notifications of me doing my work at 12am, 1am, 2am in the morning, just going at it. I fell in love with it and I didn't really know what next steps to take, but John told me about Hack Reactor and said that it was an awesome program. I just trusted in the process and went along with it.

What was the application and interview process like for the Hack Reactor Remote program?

When I did it, you had to apply online. There was a small coding challenge before you could apply, which encourages you to go Codecademy to teach yourself the basics. Then they give you materials to study in order to prepare for your interview. They set you up for an interview with their team over Skype. You’re asked a bunch of questions to test your knowledge and test how well you do on the spot with new problems.

Did you find that the class you did at Operation Spark really helped you with that application process?

Yeah, it helped a lot. Operation Spark gave me that initial drive and the initial idea that I could succeed in this field. You’re surrounded by people who are already software engineers in the city – their CEO John is actually a software engineer as well. Being in that environment gave me a lot of drive and excitement about what I could achieve because of who I was surrounded by.

What was the overall learning experience like while learning through Hack Reactor Remote?

It was crazy. I had to get used to working 11 hours a day and 6 days a week. People compare it to "drinking through a fire hose.” There's all this information in short, typically two-day sprints, which force you to learn at a rapid pace, and also not be distracted. You learn how to use your resources very, very wisely so that you can get to the end of each sprint. Once you get past the first two days, it's just craziness. In a good way, though!

And what was a typical day like when you were studying?

Typically there's a morning meeting, and then you have self-assessments every week. Then you pair, get your assignment, and it's solo reviewing of the sprint – what you're going to be doing, figuring out the basic requirements, and the time to start coding it. Afterwards you get with your partner and just pair all day long. In the evening, people do a short presentation on some type of technology. After that, you do more pair programming, and then obviously lunch and dinner are in there as well.

What kind of learning platform were you using? How do you stay on track?

A team from Hack Reactor- including full-time software engineers and students from the Hacker in Residence Program- built this platform called Bookstrap. It has the whole curriculum and everything else you need  – resources, videos, and lectures.

Did you have just one instructor or were you interacting with a lot of different instructors?

There is a mixture of lab lectures and video lectures, so we had different instructors for the lab lectures and the video lectures. Then you have your technical mentors. There were two or three technical mentors who did town hall meetings during and after every sprint. Town Halls are 20-30 minute sessions where you can ask questions and clear the air on any confusion. We interacted regularly with different people, but they get familiar quickly because you are there all the time.

You were mentioning doing a lot of pairing. Were you paired up with the same person throughout or did you alternate?

No, you alternate. We had about 20 people in the class which gave room to pair with almost everybody over that time, and then towards the end of the class, you get to pick your own pair.

It sounds like you got to know the other people in your class quite well. Where were they from and what kind of backgrounds did they have?

They were from all over. One guy was from Poland. Our “shepherd” from the Hacker in Residence program, who made sure we were okay, was from Switzerland. I had classmates from Korea, and from all over the US. When I later went into The Hacker in Residence Program, that class had a guy in Brazil.

Some people find it easier to learn to code in-person, but Hack Reactor Remote sounds like it works even though you're far away from all the people you're learning with.

It works really well. The reason that it works is because you have to try a bit harder. The people aren't right next to you when you pair, so you have to work around their problems. Working with people who are in different time zones than you is a whole different problem to solve. Also, from the amount of time I spent in pair programming; I have close friends who I've never met in person. During Hack Reactor- especially during the job phase of Hacker in Residence- we talked all the time and shared notes. We still talk all the time in our Slack channels. I think in-person is an awesome experience, but I don't think anybody should rule out the remote experience either because it was great. We had a lot of fun.

How many hours per week were you spending on Hack Reactor work on top of the compulsory 11 hours a day?

During Hack Reactor, the first six weeks is the curriculum phase and then the next six weeks is the project phase. For me, being in Central Time Zone, class was from 11am to 10pm. During the curriculum phase, I would stay up for a couple hours after class, but I would try to get my sleep because this was new and I wanted to make sure I was functioning properly. Unless I was way behind on a sprint or something, then I would stay up. But during project phase and our thesis project, I was up all night. I would go home, and I'd be up working on my thesis project from about the time I got home around 11am to sometimes 4am.

Did you work on Hack Reactor Remote from home or did you find another space?

Since I was had done an in-person class at Operation Spark, they let me and six other people from Operation Spark do the Hack Reactor remote program together in a room. That was really awesome. In the very beginning they tried not to pair us together so we still had to have that remote experience.

I’m excited to take a look at your thesis project- could you share your screen now?

Yes, for sure. I worked on an actual company called Culturalyst. The idea was thought up before Hack Reactor by Sam Bowler, our CEO and founder. We then started building the project during the thesis phase in Hack Reactor and continued working on it. Our product now looks a lot different than our presentation did back then because we’ve been revamping it and building on that infrastructure. We’re going to release it to public, which I'm excited about!

Our team was Mykia Smith, Alice Green, Alon Robinson, Ryan Baskell, Brian Kustra, Victor York, and Sam Bowler, and our product is Culturalyst. Culturalyst is the LinkedIn for artists, where users can find artists they love and fans can directly support artists. Watch below:

That's such an awesome project. So you started working on this for your thesis project and you’ve continued working on it after you graduated?

Yes. It slowed down a bit because some people went into the job search and others were in the Hacker in Residence program, but now we have reassembled. We were actually all in New Orleans together at Operation Spark. We're looking at adding more team members so we can finish the functionality and release it to the public.

What technologies did you use?

We used Angular, Node Express, SQL for our database, and now we're migrating to PostgreSQL. It took about three to four weeks.

Looking back over your time at Hack Reactor Remote, what did you like best about Hack Reactor Remote?

Everything. The staff were awesome. The head of delivery, Liz Penny, is such a character. In our meetings we had “meow offs” where somebody begins meowing a song, and they have to keep meowing it until somebody guesses what the song is.

Because Liz is the head of delivery, her energy transfers to everyone else and makes it a really fun, supportive, and encouraging environment. All the people I met are just awesome. Also, I love Hack Reactor because they taught us how to learn. I don't know everything, but I'm confident that if I have a problem, I can find the resources and figure out how to solve it.

What was your first step when you graduated from Hack Reactor Remote?

I went into the Hacker in Residence program. Since I was part of Operation Spark, the in-person remote, they selected me to help pilot an experiment in Mountain View, California where we opened an onsite extension to the remote program. There were two Hackers in Residence, and a couple of students on site doing the remote program together.

We were called “shepherds” and were in charge of ensuring the success of the onsite and the remote students. We were figuring out if and how will this remote learning works, and reporting that back. We also got feedback from students on how they felt about the program.

After that, I came back to New Orleans in April, went to the White House, then really hunkered down in my job search. And this past Monday, I started working at GE Digital.

Congratulations! What are you doing at GE Digital?

I'm a front end developer. GE Digital is moving into the industrial internet of things. Have you seen a GE commercials lately? They're just making fun of how everybody thinks of GE as an appliance company. But they're trying to let the world know that they've entered the industrial revolution. I will be working on their industrial IOT platform, called Predicts, and building cool stuff on that.

Did Hack Reactor help you with that job search process to find this job?

Yeah. My outcomes coach was phenomenal. She had a lot of experience working with CEOs of companies. She brought that level of expertise to Hack Reactor and helped me in my overall confidence, my negotiation skills, presenting myself as who I am and the value that I'll bring to a company. That was really awesome to work with her and pinpoint those things.

She looked over my resume, and the emails I was sending to different companies. I could hit her up and say, “Hey, I'm about to reply to this company, I don't know what to say,” and she would make suggestions on my emails. It was an awesome experience working with her.

Now you're at GE, what's your day-to-day look like as a Front End Developer?

This is my first week! I’m one of only two front end devs on the team. I've been reading all day long just figuring out the platform, what it does, what it can be used for, and doing the tutorial and the introductions on it. Now, I'm finally getting into the seed application, and I can see how they built that out and see what it does. We're launching a brand new project on July 11th. It's awesome. I like it so far!

Are you going to be mainly using JavaScript and technologies that you learned at Hack Reactor or are you learning new technologies for your job?

Yes. We'll be working with Angular and Polymer, and the back end at GE is built with Java. I'll definitely have to learn Java at some point. The cool thing about GE is that the company is so big that I will have the chance to touch everything. I’m starting on front end and then once I make a lot of progress on that, I can say, “Hey, I want to work on back end” and begin learning Java. Some of their back end is built in Go language, so I'm excited to learn that too. They're really big on getting you where you want to be in the company.

What advice do you have for people thinking about doing an online bootcamp?

I think a lot of people presume that doing an online course like this will give them the freedom that they desire as well. You can find that in some part-time or longer courses, but if you're thinking about going to Hack Reactor Remote, don't underestimate the time commitment because that is really important. You do have to put in a lot of work, and you will be able to work from home, but you can't use that as an excuse to slack off or anything because you will fall behind very quickly.

I had one of the best times of my life at Hack Reactor Remote. It was amazing, and the opportunity that I gained from it and the people that I met from Hack Reactor was completely worth all the hours that I put in. Now I'm employed as a full-time software developer at a very large company. If you're thinking about doing it, do it. Do it. I don't believe that you will regret the decision.

Find out more and read Hack Reactor reviews on Course Report. And check out the Hack Reactor website.

About The Author

Imogen Crispe

Imogen Crispe

Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves exploring technology and education in her work. Her strong background in journalism, writing for newspapers and news websites, makes her a contributor with professionalism and integrity.

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