After an injury derailed his plan to be an orchestral flute player, Jinji Zhang started wondering how his computer (or “Netflix machine”) worked. He tried out coding, and became addicted! His love for San Francisco combined with his self-starter personality led him to Holberton School. Jinji tells us how Holberton’s application process convinced him it was the right choice, how diverse his cohort was, and how his music background was applicable to coding. Now Jinji is working as an Apprentice Software Engineer at Pinterest!
What was your background before Holberton School?
My background is in classical music performance of the flute. I thought that I was going to go the orchestral route. I moved to San Francisco to study at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Half-way through my training at the conservatory, I had a bad fall, broke my wrist, and sprained my back. I had to take a year off for physical and occupational therapy. I was living in pain every day. That was difficult but also one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. I had to slowly build back up to being able to play the flute for extended time periods. I knew I would never again play at the level, or for the duration that I needed to, without being in pain.
A close friend of mine used to joke about spending her evening with her “$1,000 Netflix machine." That made me laugh so hard, but also resonated with me. After my injury, I got into graduate school in Chicago. Two months in, I began to miss San Francisco and started looking for ways to move back. I thought about what my friend had said. I had this “$1,000 Netflix machine” in front of me and I didn't even know how it worked! When I first moved to San Francisco, I had no idea what software engineering was. I didn't even realize that I could be a software engineer, even though I used software every day and was surrounded by software companies in San Francisco.
I started learning with the Khan Academy. Immediately, I thought it was fun. Within a week I started waking up earlier and earlier to work on programming. Pretty soon I was trading in music practice time for coding time. I had the idea of making a career change at that point. I visited San Francisco after my first quarter of school, and someone recommended Holberton School.
Did you consider any coding bootcamps? What attracted you to Holberton School?
I looked at Hack Reactor and App Academy. I thought that three months was not long enough to learn programming fully. A friend of mine who worked at Docker connected me with a student at Holberton School who gave me a rundown of the school. I was skeptical at first because I read that there were no teachers. It was all self-learning. This was very different from the lecture setting I knew and liked.
But Holberton’s curriculum and income share agreement were both attractive to me. Other schools were a steep investment right away. I switched to looking only at income share bootcamps because I knew that I couldn't afford to live in San Francisco and pay that price immediately. I thought the length of the Holberton curriculum was a happy medium between a university degree and a bootcamp. Holberton is also unique because it is one of the only schools that teaches C. I wanted to learn more than just web development.
What was the application process like at Holberton School?
I sat on the application for a week before I started it. Starting the application is actually what convinced me to go. It took about a month to get through. The application is essentially the beginning of your training at Holberton. It was actually quite fun!
First, you go through a series of "housekeeping" type tests. After those tests, you learn about basic terminal commands, which I had never used. The application challenge was to create a website through the terminal and set up a web server. I was able to teach myself the skills and had a good time doing it. I could also interact with other students during this time through a chat room. That portrayed the Holberton environment well. After trying that, I knew that the self-taught methodology of peer learning could work for me.
I dropped out of graduate school and submitted my application to Holberton. I received a response from Holberton about two weeks later inviting me to come in for a live interview. It was scary but also exciting! I was admitted in January 2018 and started in June 2018. I used the four months in between to study C. I think studying was a huge proponent of my success. Not that it's not possible to go into Holberton without studying, but they recommend that you study.
What was your Holberton School cohort like?
It was quite diverse, about 40% female, 60% male, and I liked that. I didn't want to be in a “tech bro” environment. I met people straight out of high school as well as people in their 40s and 50s doing a late career change. It was inspiring to see all these people from all walks of life trying to better themselves and studying the same thing that I was.
That kind of cohort is similar to the idea of studios in classical music. There's usually a small cohort of individuals studying under one teacher in a studio. We spend a lot of time together and give each other feedback. The same rings true for my cohort at Holberton. By learning in that environment, we all got collectively better, faster.
Could you give me an example of a typical day at Holberton School?
In a way, there is no typical day at Holberton because it is self-taught. You can choose to go onsite or not. I mostly worked onsite because I believe that's where the best collaboration happens. People arrive around 10am and dive right into the project for the day. A project is released at midnight and will usually be due the following day at midnight. All of our projects were hosted on GitHub so we learn Git and the command line which I think is an important skill for any engineer.
We had Peer Learning Days or PLDs at the end of each themed section of projects. On those days we didn’t have a project. We were put into small groups within our cohort and we worked together to review what we'd learned through the previous projects. There was no set format. It's essentially a workshop day where you can get the help that you needed.
What was it like to learn in the peer learning environment without teachers?
You have to actively want to learn and ask for help at Holberton. That is key. For anything, you get what you put in, but especially at this school, because there are no teachers to hold you accountable to do your work. Holberton from the beginning emphasizes self-starters.
There is a dedicated Slack channel for each cohort. If we run into problems, we are encouraged to first try to troubleshoot ourselves. If we still can’t find a solution, we can ask our peers in person or on Slack. Holberton emphasizes asking good questions which is something that I've taken into my current work situation. A good question should state your problem and what you've tried to solve it.
What was your favorite project that you worked on at Holberton School?
Pedagogically, the curriculum is set up well to incrementally add concepts and increase their difficulty. The curriculum starts with loops in C and by month three we've put together all of our basic knowledge on control flow and how the operating system works. We had to build a shell at that point and that was the most fun project for me. Realizing that three months ago I didn’t even know what a shell was is crazy! A shell is basically a user interface where you can access the operating system's services. When you open the terminal on the computer you, as a user, are interacting with a shell.
How has your background in music been useful in learning to code?
Music has influenced who I am and my work ethic in all aspects of my life. I am detail-oriented and I believe in daily practice. Classical music has taught me to constantly focus on what I can improve. Those skills are all directly transferable to engineering and to any other part of life.
It all comes down to problem-solving. When you learn how to play music you learn to read symbols on a page. By themselves, these symbols have some meaning but also in the larger context of music this symbol relates to other notes around it. You can learn it on an atomic scale but then once you get better you can see things from further away. You can see nuances between the relationships of symbols. In coding, we're essentially doing the same things. You focus on little things like integers and strings. Once you're writing complex programs, you can see larger blocks of code more easily with more nuance.
You're also never really doing it by yourself. You practice both coding and music by yourself. But when you actually make music you're collaborating with people and that's the same for programming.
How did Holberton prepare you for job hunting?
They prepared us for job hunting by providing us with a set of guidelines to follow to keep you competitive in the job market. They call it the Career Sprint. During Career Sprint, students have to meet a minimum number of applications to be recommended to jobs from the school. That requirement kept me on track.
It goes back to being a self-starter and being driven. I'm lucky in some ways because I had lived in San Francisco for four years previously so I already had a network of people I could reach out to. My network didn't actually get me the job I have today, but it definitely helped in my job hunt and I did get a few referrals from it.
Congratulations on landing your apprenticeship at Pinterest! How did you land the role and what does your job look like so far?
Apprenticeships are geared toward engineers from non-traditional backgrounds. I saw the opportunity online and applied for it. I spent a good amount of time on my cover letter and I think that really helped me get through that initial screening. Right now, I'm working on the activation team which is a sub-team of growth. I'm on the content optimization team which essentially focuses on personalizing content for new users on Pinterest. I work mostly on the back end.
We are taken on as apprentices with the intent of ramping up and getting hired. It's a year-long program. We have three-month benchmarks where we can get nominated to convert to a full-time employee. We have to perform at an L3 Engineer level to convert, which is basically a junior engineer level. The apprenticeship allows us to learn on the job and grow.
Are you using the technologies that you learned at Holberton or are you learning new skills on the job?
Both. I mainly write in Python which I love. At Holberton, we learned Python from month three to month nine. I was looking back at my Holberton journal entries, and a year ago I was beginning my journey into Python – now I write in Python every day!
Most of the other Pinterest Apprentices are Web Developers and they work on the front end writing in React. Holberton did offer extra classes that cover React but otherwise we didn’t cover it. I'm starting to ramp up on front end now, so I'll be doing more React in the next three months. It will be fun to learn something new but it's also a bit scary. I definitely like and know back end work more than front end. But learning React will make me a more valuable team member. Now that I’m working as a Software Engineer, I’ve realized that school was, in retrospect, a breeze.
What would you say was the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to becoming a Software Engineer?
I didn't have many issues at school. I never felt imposter syndrome until I started working as a Software Engineer at Pinterest. I'm surrounded by so many brilliant people here. Getting thrown into that work environment can be a bit jarring. I can be hard on myself. The biggest roadblock has been finding a balance between working hard and knowing when to be kind to myself. I also want to be cognizant of my mental health. I'm figuring out how to do all of that now.
Do you think it would have been possible to get to where you are now by continuing to teach yourself rather than going to Holberton School?
I don't think so. What Holberton did that was so amazing was provide the curriculum. It's set up to be step by step and they guide you through it. One of the hardest things about learning something new is figuring out where to start. It's easy to get cognitive overload. Holberton sets up the learning process so that you learn one atomic thing, then another thing, and they build on top of each other. That guide was amazingly important to my learning.
Since you started your job have you stayed involved with Holberton?
I've kept in touch with the people from my cohort and a few other people from school. There are also a couple of engineers from Holberton who have been hired full time at Pinterest whom I keep in touch with. I have to say, work has been intense, so I don't keep in touch as much as I want to.
What advice do you have for other people who are thinking about making an intensive career change through something like Holberton?
Start coding first. Make sure you really enjoy it. Consider your learning style. If you need the information to be fed to you, I don't think Holberton is a good choice for you. If you are someone who is naturally curious and have a strong work ethic, then I think Holberton would be a great place for you. Even with the income share agreement, it's a huge investment. It's laid out from the beginning. Consider every single thing before you take the leap. It's not a small change.