Rene Goertzen has always taken her education into her own hands – so she found the self-driven, collaborative classroom at Holberton School to be perfect for her learning style. After learning C and Python at Holberton in San Francisco, Rene landed a remote internship with Alygne. We caught up with Rene to share her tips for working remotely, the importance of building community while learning, and her advice to get the most out of Holberton School.
What were you up to before you went to Holberton School?
In high school, I went to a charter school in a small town. My graduating class was three students. I created a lot of my own curriculum and I did a lot of online classes. During my Junior year of high school, I was taking classes at the local community college to get a majority of my general education classes done.
I graduated at 17 and planned to go to college, but I have an autoimmune disease that was really intense at the time. I had to prioritize surgeries instead of going right into a four-year school. I spent a few years getting healthy and during that time I started working in tech support at an internet service provider (ISP) called Sonic in California. I wanted to work in the most technical environment that I could without getting a degree. I got to help customers with networking and setting up SSL certs, and also saved up money to support myself financially during a coding bootcamp.
When you decided to transition to programming, did you research a lot of coding bootcamps? Why did you choose Holberton School?
I did a ton of research. I am definitely the type of person who likes to know what they're getting into! One of my best friends was one of the first students to go to Holberton School. I watched him go through Holberton from the very beginning and that made me sure that Holberton was the route I wanted to take.
The Holberton teaching style totally matched my own learning style. I was born into a family where you're supposed to get married and have kids – being a woman in STEM is laughable to some in that community. I was used to advocating for my own education. I figured out how to communicate what I needed and who I needed to speak to to get it. After doing all of my research, Holberton seemed like the perfect approach for me.
Did you consider a shorter bootcamp or even a longer computer science degree instead of Holberton School?
I did get into all of the colleges that I applied to. I was older and had the potential to get scholarships. The four-year degree seems like a lot more rote memorization of older techniques. At a coding bootcamp, you learn a specific skill but you don't have an overall understanding of the infrastructure and how it correlates. The two-year program that Holberton offers is a happy medium between a coding bootcamp and a college degree.
Two years is a serious commitment but the approach is different from both college and most bootcamps. I consider myself a lifetime learner. I liked the lifetime access to Holberton’s curriculum and community. That's very valuable.
What was the application process like at Holberton School?
There are multiple stages to their interview process – a short online form about yourself, self-paced online projects, and then building your first website in about two weeks. They're constantly changing the interview process, but I personally had to create a website and I got super into it! I don't even want to specialize in front end but I had a fun time learning CSS. I had no idea how to do any of that before, so it was cool that I could actually learn something through the application.
You have to complete the application process within about two weeks. Then you'll have the option to either do a video call or go to an in-person interview in San Francisco. You have to do some coding and they also make sure you have the support you need, motivation, a place to stay, your finances in order, all of that so that you can be successful. Holberton School will essentially let anyone in who puts in a demonstrated effort on the application process. They're not trying to screen people out who don't know programming. It's about whether you're willing to put in the effort to finish the application.
Tell us about your cohort at Holberton School? What was the community like?
My cohort was often called the "lovey-dovey" cohort. It was the most diverse group of people I've ever had the pleasure of being a part of. There were more women in my cohort than I've ever seen in a STEM area before. I had classmates from Russia, France, South America, the Philippines, and more. Some people were fresh out of high school, and others already had full-on music careers. One of my classmates had worked at Docker for several years. Holberton worked because we were all so vastly different as individuals and we all had something to bring to the table.
This is a key point where my best friend (who also attended Holberton) and I had vastly different experiences at Holberton, but we both still got something out of it because we were motivated. He was less social and more studious – and he was able to do well and get an internship at Pinterest. I like to build a community wherever I go. I have since I was a kid and I do that at my current company, too. It makes me happy. Holberton is a great space for that. The staff at Holberton knew that I love to set things up so they let me set up workshops with other students for my cohort.
Do you still keep in touch with the community at Holberton School?
My cohort still talks all the time, even during this pandemic. I've probably FaceTimed at least 10 of the people from Holberton recently. We set up group vacations. It's a fantastic support network. Holberton School a constant feedback loop. Even though I'm not at school there right now, I'm still very much involved because I want to be and I feel like I'm being helpful.
Sylvain introduced me to an Engineer who's working at Uber and being sponsored by Facebook Developer Circles to create a mentorship program. We obviously can't set up Meetups right now, but we're going to set up mentorship sessions where a student can consult a mentor one-on-one to create a personal connection. We’ve already started gathering mentors! I was connected to that engineer specifically because I helped out at the school and was very vocal about wanting to give back to the student body and Sylvain helped me do that with the introduction.
The Holberton School teaching style is unique because you don’t have traditional instructors and lectures – what’s your advice to get the most out of this student-driven classroom?
At Holberton, you're not going to get anything out of it if you sit in the back of the group and don't participate. But if you’re a shy person, this is also an environment where the community will pull you in to speak in front of the group.
Everyone was at a different experience level so we'd check in with each other a lot. We held external peer learning days (PLDs) where everyone would get together and go over past concepts. We'd do examples, compare code, and decide on best practices together. We'd break down code to decide which was the most readable and which was the most efficient.
Did that independence teach you to be a better remote developer?
You're not only learning how to learn at Holberton. You're learning how to communicate with others which is a skill that you'll need in a team environment. This is especially true in a remote environment. In remote jobs, if you don't have good communication skills, then you're kind of dead in the water. There are a lot of soft skills you're learning at the same time as the technical skills at Holberton. You might not even realize that you're learning them!
Holberton can prepare you for remote work because you have to learn to be self-motivated to get up and get there on time and meet with people, even when attendance isn’t mandatory. A lot of people aren't used to remote work but it's something that I did often at Holberton.
What's been the biggest challenge in your coding journey?
One of my biggest hurdles was going through this personal growth journey. As someone who is used to being at the top of the class, I had to tell myself, “I’m not going to be the top of the class and I'm not going to feel bad about that.” Some of my classmates had years of experience. I’m still working on accepting the fact that I don't know everything and I need to be okay with asking for help.
Was the Holberton team accommodating with your autoimmune disorder?
They are willing to work with you as long as you are willing to communicate. For me, there are times when I need to nap in the middle of the day or I have blood pressure issues and I'll need to lay down. They were willing to work with me as long as they still saw that I was putting in the effort. I just had to ask! A lot of workplaces that I've been in or experiences that I've heard from other students with health issues in bootcamps were a lot less accepting and Holberton is very cognizant of that. If you're needing something modified and it's doable, they'll definitely do it. They're willing to give you support emotionally too – it's kind of like joining a family.
What did you learn in the first 9-months of the curriculum?
Tell us about your internship with Alygne! What are you working on?
I’m a Software Engineering Intern at a startup called Alygne. We are creating a mobile application and an accessible API to help people align their spending with their values. For example, if you wanted to get a membership at Soul Cycle, you can type Soul Cycle into this app and see what causes Soul Cycle supports. For jewelry companies, you can see whether they've been associated with child mining. You can see what a company's values are and decide whether or not that's where you want to put your money.
We really hit it off during our conversations and they extended an offer! I was looking more for a back end role but this is full stack development. I'm happy because I'm learning, I love what they're doing and I’m working with truly passionate intelligent people who sincerely want to make a difference.
Did Holberton School set you up with that internship?
Holberton didn’t set me up directly, but I did end up getting the internship through Holberton. They make opportunities available for you to apply to. They help you do interview prep and there are people in the community to do mock interviews with. I spent four months doing interview prep with other students and staff. They'll give you all the support you need to find a job if you ask, but they won't go out and find the job for you.
It's hard to get an internship. It's hard to get a job in general! There's a job channel for Holberton School and this internship was posted there. Our CEO Corinne knew one of the owners at Holberton.
How do you stay motivated when you’re working or learning remotely?
I’ve noticed recently that I'm fairly externally motivated. I liked that working hard at Holberton would encourage others to work hard, too. I would be there late on the weekends and early in the morning. Even during this internship, I started out going to Holberton every day and being there for other students if they had questions. Now, making sure that I'm available on Slack and video chat for other students to be able to reach out is important to me. It helps me to remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. Helping others in this journey is a motivating factor for me. Remembering that has been extra important these past few months while working remotely.
Are you using everything you learned at Holberton School in your internship?
I am working in Python, AngularJS, Ionic, and I'm also writing some HTML/CSS. I am using almost nothing that I learned at Holberton besides knowing how to learn. We didn't learn about Django at Holberton. We had the option to learn about it for our final project but I used Flask instead. I'm writing full stack for web and app development as well as some server programming. I do understand how things work so even though I don't necessarily understand the syntax of a new language, I do know the logic. I would never have been able to do this job without everything I learned at Holberton School.
Have you learned anything non-technical in your internship?
I'm getting even more out of this internship than I thought I would. I'm learning the technical side but I'm also getting advice on business and personal growth as well. Our CEO, Corinne, is an amazing boss. I've never had a strong female leader as a boss before and that's been heartening and motivating to see.
I also have my own community from Holberton which I can ask for help. I love having that support. I think that if I didn't have that support, then I might feel a lot more uncomfortable in my position but I know that I'm trying and that's all I can do!
What's your advice to someone who is now facing this world of remote work?
I know that I come from a unique background but the main thing that I try to tell people when it comes to this is: make sure that you're taking care of yourself. Make sure you exercise, that you're stretching, and that you're keeping in touch with your community. It's okay to reach out to someone the same way that you would in-person. Tap me on the shoulder with a message! I'll get back to you when I have time. I still actively have to remind myself of these things. Have those check-ins with yourself, and ask why you're doing things. Be intentional.
Do you think your past work background has been useful in your new role as a programmer?
I've had several odd jobs – from picking mushrooms, to shelling crabs and urchins, to in-home caregiving.Those taught me early on to appreciate the stories and wisdom of the people who are older than me. That perspective and patience helped me thrive in tech support; I knew how to make personal connections with people and I knew how to speak to people who had cognitive issues or accents or physical demands. Patience was the main transferable skill I took away from my past career. Today, I’m learning how to turn that patience back onto myself.
After you finish your 6-month Internship, what do you hope to get out of the final 9-month Specialization curriculum?
I expect to understand things at a deeper level. Learning how to code is a trade – it's like being able to make a pair of shoes. You don't necessarily need to know what kind of tree the rubber came from or how it's extracted; you just need to know how to stitch it together. Right now, I’m learning how to properly make the shoe. Once I go back for Specializations, I’ll learn about how things are created, why specifically they're that way, and then I’ll be able to add on to that. I think I’ll focus on the back end; I also enjoy the more mathematical aspect of machine learning.
What’s your advice for someone who’s considering a coding bootcamp or a school like Holberton School?
A lot of people don't feel adequate after they finish an alternative program like a coding bootcamp. You don't have a big piece of paper to hold up to validate your education. But if you can speak passionately and make it palpable that you care, then it will feel valid. You have to learn not to feel inferior when you're working on a team. Learning computer science for yourself can be just as good of an education as a university.