After studying psychology and criminal justice, Max Johnson found himself living paycheck-to-paycheck and jumping between jobs as a mental health therapist, delivery driver, and physical trainer. He wasn’t satisfied and wanted a more viable career path. So he took a risk and drove across the country from New Jersey to San Francisco to attend Holberton School. Max tells us how diverse his cohort was, how the Holberton School team supported him when he was struggling, and how he landed a junior engineering role at J.Crew!
What were you up to before Holberton School?
I studied criminal justice and psychology while on a basketball scholarship at Saint Augustine’s College in North Carolina. When I graduated, I couldn't find a job right away. I eventually became a mental health therapist for people with disabilities like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, but I lost that job. I then became a potato chip delivery driver and I coached basketball and did physical training. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, hopping from job to job, and it wasn't satisfying. I needed more money to survive.
What made you think, "Okay, I think I should become a software developer"?
I had always wanted to major in computer science but my college didn't offer that option. After losing my job, I knew I needed to make a change in my life. I thought about my future and whether, when I turn 50 and have a family, my current path would still be viable. What I was doing was more of a side hobby. I needed to do something where I was always learning because I love learning.
So I thought about either becoming a software engineer or a dentist. People say, "Do what you love," but I loved a lot of stuff, especially learning. In software engineering, there's always something new or challenging to learn. It seemed like the best direction for me, and I'm extremely happy with my choice and my future.
What made you want to learn how to code with a college alternative?
I saw coding bootcamps in my research and felt that the model would match my learning style. And actually, I used Course Report quite a lot to look at different coding schools. Most bootcamps are around three months, but I didn’t think that was the best fit for me so I looked at longer courses. I thought about going back to college for computer science, but those programs mainly teach you theory – they don't teach you how to program.
I applied to a one-year-long coding school and didn’t get accepted. I then did the application process for Holberton School and got accepted.
What stood out to you about Holberton School?
First of all, I was broke. The deferred payment was a big plus because I would not have been able to do the program without it.
When I found out about Holberton School, I read all about the program and graduate stories, and it seemed like a great school and opportunity. I didn’t expect to get into Holberton because I knew there was a lot of competition. And even though I didn’t have much money, when I got accepted, I knew I had to make it work. I packed everything in my car, and I drove across the country to San Francisco from New Jersey, and I haven't looked back since.
What was the Holberton School application and interview process like?
When I applied, Holberton School asked me to create a website and write an essay about why I wanted to attend. Then I had to make a one-minute-long video presentation about myself and what I wanted to bring to Holberton. After that, I got invited for a face-to-face interview, it could be through Skype or on site, where I did a coding challenge.
To be honest, I completely bombed that coding challenge because my nerves got the best of me. Looking back, it was the easiest thing, but at the time I was nervous. I think what really got me into Holberton School was my passion for learning, determination, and persistence.
Holberton School aims for their application process to create more diverse cohorts. Was your cohort diverse in terms of career background, race, and age?
I started Holberton in October 2016, and oh my goodness time flies! Some people came from computer science backgrounds and some, like myself, knew nothing about coding. Others came from schools like Yale, MIT, and Stanford, and a few were college dropouts. I'm African-American, and there were three African-American students, but one dropped out. In terms of age, some people were 18, others were in their 50s – the oldest person was 56.
There was a good mix of men and women in my first class. But I switched cohorts because I was having some trouble, and that class was about 80% women, and 20% men. That class really gave women a chance to shine, and they were some of the smartest women I’ve ever met. I don't know how the application process works in terms of their algorithms, but it works well according to my knowledge. Holberton really pushes diversity.
Tell me about your learning experience. What was a typical day like?
I was one of the students who really struggled throughout the course. My typical day was to get to school around 8:30 or 9am and be there until 10pm. (I did sometimes go to the gym to get a break from staring at my computer all day.) There aren't any teachers at Holberton School, so it’s almost like school and a job at the same time. Holberton gives you a bunch of assignments and basically, you have to figure them out on your own. Well, not entirely on your own, you work with your classmates. Holberton allows you to learn by doing, which was a great way for us to learn.
Of course, if you ask for help, they'll help you, but the number one aspect of Holberton School is learning by doing. The course mimics a real job experience. You work with other classmates, do research, make mistakes, rectify mistakes, and do it all over again until you figure it out. It was a big struggle for me, but it was a great struggle.
Since you had difficulty with the material, did you feel fully supported by the Holberton staff?
Yeah, the Holberton staff and my classmates bent over backward to help me. I read a lot of stories from other schools about how if your grades get low enough, you could get kicked out. So at the time, I kept thinking, "I'm going to get kicked out!" But I forgot that when I first started the course, Holberton assured me to not worry and that no one gets kicked out as long as you try and put forth the effort. They constantly sat down with me to see how they could make my learning process better, they were very helpful.
Since Holberton School gives you the option to do an internship after the 9-month course, did you do an internship or did you go straight into your new job?
I went straight into my new position and did not do an internship. After my first nine months, I needed a break so I went back home to New Jersey. My plan was to go home for a couple of weeks, take a break, and then go back to Holberton School, study, and then start applying for jobs out West.
However, when I was home, I randomly decided to apply to jobs on the East Coast. I ended up getting hired as a junior engineer at J.Crew. I was super surprised because it happened so fast. I didn't expect to get hired at all, but Holberton School prepared me for the interview process. I'm still shocked to this day because my life has really changed for the better!
Congrats! Tell me about your job search process.
Throughout the course, you meet professionals all the time – our mentors knew about all the job openings that you could apply to. And when you finish the course, Holberton gives you a list of possible job openings. When I went home and started interviewing with J.Crew, I didn’t tell anyone because I wanted to see what would happen. Sylvain, the co-founder of Holberton School, really helped me with the job search, but I waited until I got back to San Francisco before I told him and the other Holberton staff about my offer. They were super excited for me, I was really lucky to find a job that fast.
Did you feel any stress from that unplanned job search?
No. I have a very laid back personality, so I don't allow a lot of stuff to get to me. But other students were stressed. They were worried about finding a job, even though they were way better developers than me, in my opinion. They eventually got jobs too but speaking for myself, no, I didn't feel pressure. I knew I had worked hard, so I just kept believing in myself. Something would’ve fallen into place eventually.
Tell me about your new job at J.Crew! What tools and languages are you using?
I'm a junior developer engineer at J.Crew and I started at the end of January 2018. We work with Jenkins, Python, and Bash. My job is basic continuous integration, testing, deployment of code. I test the code with a lot of bug checks to see if it is working properly.
So you've been working for a few months, is it what you expected? How did J.Crew ensure that you were onboarded correctly?
It was different working for a big company since they have different processes. There was a lot of waiting at first to get set up, but once I was, my manager taught me how to work through our user system since it was totally different than what I knew. My manager reviews my code and gives me feedback on what I'm doing wrong, and what I'm doing right. I’m learning day-by-day because the company is also doing a big tech overhaul, so my team is learning new systems as well.
In terms of the languages that you're using at J.Crew, what did you learn at Holberton and what was new to you?
I knew Python and Bash because of Holberton, but what I didn't know was Jenkins. Jenkins was pretty easy to learn because of my foundation at Holberton School. Since I knew Python and Bash, I knew how to program and that's the main skill J.Crew wanted.
What advice do you have for other future software engineers who are currently going through the job search?
Trust the process, and believe in yourself. Everything you learn at Holberton School is what you need to do in your job search. Believe in yourself, study hard, make this your goal, and you'll find something eventually. There's that cliché saying, “If I could I do it, you could do it!” And it’s the truth. I struggled big time – I had different problems growing up, but I persevered, pushed through and found something that I love to do. Don't give up. Just keep on working.
As an African-American, how has your experience been impacted while learning at Holberton School and now working in the tech industry?
Working at J.Crew, it hasn’t really impacted me at all because J.Crew is pretty diverse. At Holberton, there are so many students from different backgrounds and learning styles. Since the school is still pretty young, they're still learning how to deal with different learning styles, like mine. The staff was great at adjusting to meet my learning needs and giving each student the help they needed.
When I interviewed at some tech companies, people looked at me weirdly because I'm pretty big – I’m 6 feet tall. One time, I went to a prominent tech company in California for an event with my classmates. One of their employees asked if I was there to set up the audiovisual equipment for the event, and I had to tell them, "No, I'm here for the event." I guess I’m a weird looking developer!
Since you worked in a few fields before Holberton, has any of your previous job experience been useful in your new role as software engineer?
Yes. Because I was a psychology major, I’m always analyzing things; which helps you to not jump the gun on certain ideas. When something bad happens like your code breaking, you don't get upset. I just ask myself, "Why did this happen?" There's been plenty of times where fellow classmates’ code would break, and they’d get frustrated and start all over. My psychology background helps me to say, "Okay, let me take a step back." I learned how to take a step back, write it out, explain it on a whiteboard, see what went wrong, ask for input from the class, and then take it from there. Nothing is perfect, so I’m able to learn from my mistakes, and just get better. My psychology degree helped me to not stress out.
What has been the biggest challenge or roadblock in this journey to learning how to code?
The whole journey was challenging for me. There were so many times when I was at Holberton frustrated in front of my computer screen because I just didn't get it. I was there all day and all night studying, but I just didn't get it. Eventually, it clicked. But having your classmates get ahead of you in their leaning makes you think, "oh man, can I really do this?” I started doubting myself because every day was a struggle. I still don't know everything, but I know way more about software development than I did before.
Maybe the hardest thing was figuring out how to solve a certain question with the knowledge that you have because a 9-month school only teaches you so much. You'll make it at the end of the day as long as you keep trying. But for me, the whole journey was tough.
Do you still stay involved with any of the other Holberton School alumni?
Oh, yeah. I talk to my classmates all the time, and I talk to the new students. I was lucky enough to give a talk in front of a new cohort. And I'll be going back to San Francisco plenty of times to visit in the future.
What advice do you have for people thinking about making a career change and attending a coding school?
Go ahead and make that life change. If it's something you want to do, don't think about it anymore. Just go ahead and apply. And if you fail the first time, apply again. This is your life and in my opinion, you get one life, so you may as well enjoy it to the fullest. Don't worry about anyone else or what they think. Do what you have to do, and do whatever you can to make it. You will be happy at the end of the day.