Bobby Yang was no newbie to tech when he arrived at Holberton School – he had freelanced as a WordPress developer in high school, dropped out of a CS degree to work as a front end developer, and launched his own startup. But Bobby soon realized that he needed to deepen his grasp on computer science fundamentals, and joined Holberton School’s two-year coding program in San Francisco. Bobby tells us why the learning style at Holberton School suited him better than college, what motivated him through the 13-hour days, and how he turned his internship at Wonder Workshop into a full-time software engineering job!
Describe your education and career background.
I was interested in software engineering throughout high school; one Spring Break, my dad offered to pay me a few thousand dollars to build his acupuncture website instead of hiring someone else. I taught myself by watching videos and asking questions on forums. That was my first experience building a website – I liked having a challenge and problem solving to meet that goal. I used WordPress for that site, found a part-time job as a remote WordPress developer, and that got me intrigued in computer science.
I went to CU Boulder to study computer science in college. During the summer, I interned at a day trading software company called NinjaTrader. While I was interning, I realized that what I was learning at school was not relevant to what I was learning at work, so I dropped out of college after my second year and started working full-time at NinjaTrader.
After NinjaTrader, I started a company called Perch with a peer designer I met at a hackathon. Perch was a smart seat that told you about your posture; but because of my limited knowledge in both software and hardware, we couldn't get too far. We came up with a simple proof of concept MVP, but decided to put it on hold. Later we both moved together to SF and still hang out a lot :)
It sounds like you had a lot of experience building websites before Holberton School – why did you need a coding program?
Did you research other coding software engineering programs? What stood out about Holberton?
I applied to Holberton, App Academy, and Hack Reactor. I got through the interview processes, and I was about to start Hack Reactor when I found Holberton School on Course Report. When I saw that Holberton School was two years long (longer than bootcamps) and that the curriculum began with very fundamental computer science lessons, I thought it was a better fit.
I did like how Holberton School allows you to pay tuition after you find a job, but I also had side freelance gigs and money saved. So I could be a little bit flexible on tuition price.
How was the Holberton School interview process for you? Did you feel like it was challenging?
During the interview process, they say take your time and spend one to two weeks completing it. I did it in one day. Holberton School’s next cohort started in a month and a half so I LinkedIn messaged and tweeted the co-founder, Sylvain, asking to get into the next cohort. A day later, they responded to my application. The whole interview process took about a week from beginning to finish.
Do you have any tips on how to ace the interview?
How many people were in your cohort at Holberton? Was your class diverse?
Tech is cool because your background doesn’t matter – if you're willing to put in the work, you can totally do it. We had around 30 people in our cohort and the class was almost 50% men and 50% women so it was really diverse in gender. There were also diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. Not a lot of people came in with tech experience – most were coming from different industries. And I was the second youngest in my cohort at the time at 21.
Tell me about a typical day at Holberton School. What was the learning experience like compared to your university experience?
I would say Holberton definitely matched my learning style better than a university. Everyone who was there wanted to be there, but I can't say that for everyone in my college classes. Some people were in class because of their parents, or because of their friends.
Being around people who wanted to be there made me want to learn more and be better at what I do. I think that was probably the most helpful aspect for me, being surrounded by people who were really motivated, pushing themselves, and really learning.
In terms of course load, I would say Holberton School is more difficult than college. Most people who were at Holberton School had no prior experience, so it was very rigorous. Even though I had prior knowledge, I would still find myself at school for 13 hours a day. It moves really fast.
How did you get through those 13 hour days?
Both my parents have traditional Chinese values. So they pushed me really hard to learn things when I was younger. They gave me extra homework to learn more, which, now looking back, I'm very grateful for. If I'm not passionate about something, I won't push myself to do anything, so I'm glad that they were there pushing me and making me a better person by making me learn more.
The fact that my parents pushed me helped me set the bar higher. Now that I really love what I do, I can't slack off. I hold myself to an even higher bar than my parents did.
How do you learn at Holberton School? Are there teachers or mentors? Are there lectures?
Holberton School had a peer learning process. To really understand a topic, you need to be able to teach it to someone and that was pushed at Holberton. Knowing the material in my head was much different than being able to vocalize it. This process helps me in the workplace because when I run into an issue, I can describe the issue and ask for help.
There were four Holberton staff members whom I would go to for help. Holberton School has a hierarchy in place for students to find help. First, you try to figure out yourself, then you can try research on Google or Stack Overflow. If you can't figure it out, ask a peer. If you still can't figure it out, ask another peer. There’s a whole process before you get to the point where you need to ask one of the staff members. This was helpful for me because if I didn’t know the answer, nine times out of ten, one of my classmates would know. There was a lot of communicating with our peers so my interaction with the staff was limited.
What was your biggest challenge at Holberton School?
My biggest challenge at Holberton School was balancing school with my existing life. Because it was so rigorous, there wasn't too much time for my own projects. Going to school and freelancing at the same time was the most difficult part for me.
Tell me about your final project at Holberton School. What did you build?
I've always been interested in developer tools and things that help other people do what they do. I went to a talk where a company was going over how they did their deployment process and I thought it was super interesting. So I tried to build something similar.
For my final project, I built a continuous integration platform. These are tools that help streamline the process as you deploy code. The platform automatically builds, runs the test, and deploys it. The platform allows you to do daily deployments instead of weekly or monthly deployments, or you can even do deployments by commit. That way, you can get features out faster, you can listen to your users, and fix bugs with faster iterations.
The main technology I used was Docker. The platform creates a Docker container for each project, and then when you make a commit and rebuild again, it uses the same Docker container. So there are all these live containers just waiting to be used instead of the other way around. There are a lot of continuous integration systems but this cuts down on your deployment time.
Even though you had technical experience before Holberton School, was this a challenging project for you?
Definitely. I chose to write the project in a different language than that was taught at Holberton School. Once you get the foundations that Holberton teaches you, it's not difficult to expand into different languages, because all programming language basics are the same. Using a language that I hadn’t really worked with before was challenging. Planning was also challenging, but Holberton really helped me prepare by using whiteboards to write out algorithms. Sitting down, thinking about pieces, and drawing everything out really helped.
We read that you were chosen to be an EdSurge Independent Fellow while you were at Holberton. What does that involve?
I was in a cohort of a lot of very knowledgeable peers from all different backgrounds, all with a common passion: to improve education. We all believed that the current state of education (especially education in the United States) was less than ideal, and we all had various and sometimes conflicting ideas on how education could improve. It was an honor to be able to pick the brains of the people in my cohort and it really helped me understand what other people thought on education.
How did Holberton School prepare you for the job search?
Holberton School has the attitude that they don’t give you a job, you have to work for it and find it yourself. Holberton gives you the connections and everything you need to do that, but the work is up to you to do, which I 100% agree with.
During my cohort, the Holberton team was still iterating on the job search portion, but they gave us interview prep resources, interview book suggestions, and professional connections.
Did you participate in the internship portion at Holberton School or did you go right into your new job?
I did the internship portion and that internship actually turned into a job. I spent four months interning at Wonder Workshop, and then just last month, they offered me a full-time position.
Congratulations! Tell us about the company, your role there, and what technologies you are using.
Wonder Workshop makes a suite of robots that help teach kids how to program. They hired me because they are starting to pivot towards schools and educators as opposed to general consumers. We’re moving away from selling the robots at Target or Walmart, and are now really targeting schools.
I'm working on the platform that teachers and students will use in schools to program the robots. On the front end, we are using React; on the back end, we're using Scala.
Could you have reached the level that you're at now without Holberton School?
I definitely don't think so. I'm more prepared to learn infrastructure, learn languages, and get acclimated with the code base a lot faster because of Holberton.
What advice do you have for people thinking about making a career change or upskilling with a coding school?
Work hard. The best engineers that I've talked to are the ones who worked really hard at it. You get out of a software engineering program what you put into it. With coding programs like Holberton School, there's structure and dedicated time that you won't get when you learn part-time or by yourself. So take advantage of that time and work really hard. Give it your all!