After almost 30 years working in restaurants and agriculture, Larry Madeo wanted a career that used his brain rather than his back. He built up his Excel skills and soon shifted his goals towards software engineering. Larry moved from rural Wisconsin to San Francisco to attend Holberton School and hasn’t looked back. Larry tells us about the Holberton application process, being the oldest student in a very diverse class, and how Holberton prepared him for his new job as a DevOps Engineer! Larry also has great advice for other later-stage career changers – read on!
What were you up to before you decided to go to Holberton School?
I'm what you would call a career changer. I was one of the older students at Holberton School, so I have a lot of history. I dropped out of college, I worked in restaurants, and I worked a lot in the agriculture sector, picking fruit and planting trees.
But I decided that my brain might last longer than my back, so I wanted to get a job using my brain. I took a couple of accounting classes at a local technical college and then got a job at a company in Wisconsin doing Excel spreadsheet work. It was good to get into an office job, but there wasn't a path for advancement into a more technical role.
Why did you want to get into software engineering?
At my Excel job, I had the opportunity to improve processes and make things more efficient. But I realized that I would need more technical skills to do things that I knew were possible but I didn't know how to do yet.
It seemed to me that software engineering is a field that empowers you to really change things. Every single company has some technical infrastructure now, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Did you consider teaching yourself how to code? Why choose a coding program?
I thought about a lot of things. I was aware of MOOCs (massive open online courses) on websites like Coursera and edX. I took a couple of really good courses through MIT on edX focused on Python, and that got me moving forward.
I also started volunteering at a local radio station which needed technical help, and that was a great learning experience. But I didn't feel like my skills were progressing fast enough. I felt like I needed to be around fellow students to accelerate my progress.
What stood out to you about Holberton School over other bootcamps?
I was looking to learn on a budget, which is why those free MOOC classes were appealing. I liked the idea of bootcamps but I was dubious about a course that only lasted 14 weeks. I wanted something more in-depth.
When I stumbled upon Holberton School, everything on their website made sense to me, and I saw that their course lasted longer – two years. Their school is only successful if students are successful because tuition was paid via an income sharing agreement. The higher my salary and the more successful I was in finding a job, the more they get paid.
What was the Holberton School application process like – did you find it difficult?
It was actually like a quiz or a game. It started off with some clever little questions and at each stage, you could pass or fail; you either pass or you don't. After a few stages, you realize that you’re building a whole website remotely on a terminal. To me, it was fun.
As I went through the stages, I was able to interact with other applicants. I knew that Holberton was looking for team players, so I reached out to ask for and give advice.
When I passed the final online test, I was invited to an interview by phone or in-person. I could have done it by phone, but I thought, "I really want to look these people in the face and see what the school looks like." So I flew out to San Francisco to interview on site.
What was the transition to San Francisco like?
I'd lived in large cities in the past. It was a change moving from rural Wisconsin to San Francisco, but overall I found people to be pretty friendly in San Francisco. It was a matter of trying to make my expenses/finances work in the most expensive city in the universe. But the deferred tuition was a key part of my decision – that helped me keep my expenses in line.
Once you got to Holberton and started the program, what were the people in your cohort like – was it diverse?
The school was highly diverse. There was nearly an even mix between males and females, and there were people of various nationalities and ethnicities. Honestly, I really enjoyed that – let’s just say that there’s not much diversity in rural Wisconsin.
There were a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, fewer in their 40s, and then me – I turned 50 since I’ve been in San Francisco. But I really appreciated that my fellow students treated me like one of them, because it's possible to get into a situation with a bunch of young people who might offhandedly write you off as the “old guy.” But honestly, that just did not happen. I think there’s a give and take of appreciating the diversity we have at Holberton.
What was the learning style at Holberton?
Assignments were released at midnight on an internal website that only students had access to. On the website there is a list of high-level concepts that you should understand by the time you're done with the assignment, and links to online resources that you can use to learn what you need to know to do the assignment. Many of the assignments were one-day assignments, so each morning we’d see what had been released at midnight, then work on completing the project by midnight that day. There are also larger group projects which might be a week long, where we learned about collaboration.
We were encouraged to collaborate and we were indoctrinated in the Holberton method when we needed help. First, read the documentation. Second, attempt to try to solve the problem yourself, and if you still can’t figure out a problem, then reach out to a classmate. When you ask for help from a classmate, you should be very specific about what you’ve already tried. This method encourages us to basically teach ourselves and then reach out to classmates. Sometimes everyone is confused, and that’s when we might escalate to ask a senior student from a previous batch or reach out to one of the staff at school.
We were also sometimes assigned to write blog posts. Technical writing is a very important part of software engineering and actually, I impressed companies where I interviewed because I included a link to some of my blog posts in my resume.
How did Holberton prepare you for job hunting?
The Holberton curriculum provides you with a very applicable skill set to use to compete against other job applicants who may have four-year CS degrees. I learned things in the first week at Holberton that were applicable when I was doing technical interviews.
We were encouraged to network because that's really an important part of finding a job. San Francisco is crawling with meetups where you can actually meet working software engineers. I was able to create my own connections, and I actually got my job because I networked with someone who said, “Give me your resume and I'll let the hiring manager know about it."
Holberton School also has industry connections and would tell us about companies who were hiring, and offer to put us in touch. It’s a great help to have a referral when you apply for a job.
Congratulations on your job! What is the role and where are you working?
I'm scheduled to start on July 9 as a Cloud Infrastructure Engineer at a company in San Mateo called Snowflake. Snowflake provides a data warehouse in the cloud. I'm going to learn some tools to automate the deployment of virtual machines (and whatever else they ask me to do)! This role falls in the realm of DevOps, which to me is the modern iteration of what a SysAdmin used to do.
How did Holberton School prepare you for working in DevOps?
By the end of our first nine months at Holberton, we had been exposed to many parts of web development – front end, back end, full stack, and DevOps. If someone's interested in getting involved in DevOps, then I really don't know a better place to get your training than Holberton. After nine months, you will be the highly familiar with the Linux command line, and you'll be well trained using C, which is a low-level building block for so many things. You will also be very good at Python, which is one of the most popular scripting languages to automate DevOps tasks, and you will have done actual troubleshooting of misconfigured virtual machines.
To get into DevOps, you need to know a combination of SysAdmin topics plus programming – and Holberton provides that. It's really incredible and I think that there's going to be increased demand for people who can work in DevOps. I think that Holberton prepared me well and I'm just tickled pink about it.
Do you think your past experience in Excel (and even doing work in agriculture before that) is going to be useful in this new career as in DevOps?
I worked in a corporate environment for five years, so I have insight into how offices work. I’ve learned how to not to step on people's toes in an office environment and that was valuable.
Then also having an agricultural background, I know what hard work is (even though physical and mental hard work are different). A person coming into the software engineering field needs to be prepared to work hard. I put in long hours at Holberton School and I expect that, especially in the beginning at my job, I'm going to work hard to train myself up.
What was the interview process like for your DevOps job at Snowflake?
I was applying for a position that wasn't even advertised – Snowflake advertised a position for a senior Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) and once I talked to one of their employees, he told me that Snowflake was actually looking for a junior SRE as well. That points to the importance of networking – there are a lot of junior positions that companies try to fill through their network rather than advertising the job.
Once I applied, an internal recruiter called me and I had an opportunity to sell myself, and discuss my skills and background. Soon after that, the recruiter scheduled a time to for me to talk on the phone with the hiring manager. I wasn't asked technical questions – it was more informal – then they arranged for me to do an online screen test with an engineer from the team. That went well and the internal recruiter invited me to an onsite interview.
The onsite interview involved six or seven separate interviews over the course of seven hours. Each interview had a technical component, some whiteboarding and time to get to know each other. I was very nervous, but I felt that I represented my skills as well as I could. A couple of days later I got the callback and they offered me the job.
Well done! Holberton offers a 9-month track after an internship where you continue studying – do you plan on doing that?
There are two ways that you can complete the last nine months of Holberton. One is to pursue one of their tracks on my own schedule. Or my supervisor can tell Holberton about what I’ve been learning and that I’ve fulfilled the requirements to complete the program. As a student in good standing at Holberton, I would have access to all their advanced study tracks.
Do you have advice for other folks making a later-stage career change by going through a program like Holberton?
I'll try to mention a couple of factors that would help an older student. It is good to be young at heart and to not have the attitude that you're entitled to deference because you're senior in age. There will be a lot of people who are younger than you, but “senior” to you in terms of skills. Respect goes to the person who has the most knowledge and who can most graciously share that knowledge. You need to be okay with that.
Also during your time at Holberton, it’s best to set the whole rest of your life to the side during that nine-month period. If you have a family, it's going to be more challenging; it just depends what your external obligations are.
Also as a word of encouragement, remember that career changers have some insight into how the world works. You can use your experience to your advantage. And whatever advantage you have – make use of it.