Greg was a Collegiate Athletics Director of Operations for the Track & Field program for 6 years before realizing he wanted a new intellectual challenge. He was interested in software development, but felt he needed to learn for longer than 12 weeks. So Greg moved from North Carolina to San Francisco to attend Holberton School’s 2-year software engineering program! Read about Greg’s learning experience and see how he landed a Junior Full Stack Software Engineer role at Atlassian after Year One of Holberton School!
What is your pre-programming story? Walk me through your educational background and your career path before you decided to attend Holberton School.
My background is totally unrelated to software development. Before Holberton School, I was the Director of Operations and Assistant Coach of the Track & Field team at North Carolina State University. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in Sports Administration and Management.
During college, I didn't challenge myself or stretch myself intellectually, as much as I could have. What initially piqued my interest in software development was that, in addition to my job, we ran a high school running camp in the mountains in North Carolina, and had to rebuild the website. As I started working on it, I became more interested in software.
A year ago, I decided that I wanted a different intellectual challenge and a different lifestyle from coaching. I had no interest in being a doctor or a lawyer, and I initially thought software development would be a stretch. But I took some intro to Java classes through my university’s continuing education department.
What made you attend Holberton School to switch careers, rather than going back to college, or teaching yourself?
I didn't necessarily want to go back to university for another four-year degree. But I needed some structure or an in-person immersive environment to learn programming more effectively. It’s like learning a new spoken language – you can try to take classes and do it online, but the best way to learn is to go to a country where they speak that language and figure it out. I wanted to take a similar approach with software engineering.
I had a friend with a similar background who had made a successful transition with a coding bootcamp and he encouraged me to make the jump. But to me, a 12-week program didn't make sense so I was looking for something halfway between a short bootcamp and a more traditional program like a master's degree. I wanted a longer program with stronger fundamentals. That's how I came upon Holberton School.
Did you consider any other coding programs in your research?
It came down to Holberton School and App Academy. App Academy had a good reputation and seemed to have good outcomes. However, Holberton’s income sharing pricing structure was attractive to me. In the bootcamp space, most schools aren't accredited so it's hard to decipher which ones are legitimate. But I liked their shared risk model – the idea that Holberton was willing to take no money up front. If students don't get jobs, then Holberton doesn't get paid. That was a big selling point to me.
It was a challenge for me to make the move here from Charlotte, but I wanted to be in the Bay Area, where the tech industry is centered – finding a program based there was important to me.
Tell us about your interview process with Holberton School – was it hard to get in?
After building that website, I had a video interview. They'd given me some resources on basic command line functions and tools, and there was a coding challenge to see if I’d read and understood the material. I was really nervous during the interview process because you don't know who else is applying. But I enjoyed the process. There were challenging parts, but it wasn't insurmountable. Afterward, I thought, "I think I can do this."
Was your class at Holberton School diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds? How many people were in your cohort?
We started with 50 to 55 students and 40 students graduated with me. Compared to the tech industry as a whole, our class was incredibly diverse. About 30% of the class were women. I found everyone's backgrounds very interesting – some were in the tech industry or a slightly related field, and some people came from a completely unrelated background. One of my good friends from the program was a chef beforehand and in the Navy before that. I really enjoyed learning with people from those diverse and interesting backgrounds.
I made an effort from day one to identify other people in the program with whom I thought I could work well, who had more knowledge than me, or who were sharp, intelligent people. In traditional education, that could be cheating, but that’s how it works in the tech industry. You may have a task to complete, but you have to work with other people to understand what's going on in a code base. Learning those soft skills is really important because companies value them.
Walk us through a typical day at Holberton School. Did the teaching style match your learning style?
Holberton School is project-based, meaning students come in every day and have one-day, two-day, or week-long projects. There are some resources to get you started and the school has a system that they check your code against. But there are no traditional formal lectures. You get resources to get started and then figure it out as you go through. The larger project is broken down into miniature problems with an expected output. The idea is that you need to work with other people in your cohort to problem solve and figure out what you're doing right and wrong.
How did you land your role with Atlassian?! Do you have any advice for others learning to code who are going through their interview processes?
When I moved to San Francisco, I tried to connect with as many people I knew in the Bay Area as I could. It wasn’t important if they had a technical background – you never know who they may know or what company they may work for. I went to a lot of meetups to meet people who were job hunting in the industry, and to get face time with recruiters. Sending applications with no referral is pretty much like sending them into a black hole – for big and small tech companies, it's difficult to sort through 1000 resumes. Forming relationships with people who can help you and having conversations definitely pays dividends in the end. I tried as best I could to build up warm referrals for whatever job I was applying to.
I probably sent in over 70 applications, and I had a bunch of phone interviews but I was fortunate enough that the only in-person interview was at Atlassian. Someone whom I knew from a prior relationship was able to give me a referral that got me the initial phone call.
Holberton School students oftentimes land jobs after their first year. What’s your plan to finish Holberton’s program?
I started Holberton School in January 2018, but I was fortunate to get this role at Atlassian in October 2018, before the end of the program. So I'll do the second year of Holberton School part-time. My original intention was to do an internship, then do the second year, but getting a full-time role in San Francisco made a lot of sense from a financial perspective.
Tell me about the interview process with Atlassian.
The first phone call was about 25 minutes where I talked about my background. Then there was a technical screening, a coding assessment, and another behavioral interview with one of the team leads of the product I'm working on now. Finally, there was a seven-hour, in-person interview of serious coding challenges and system design questions. That was a grind for sure.
Tell us about Atlassian and what you work on day-to-day!
I'm a Junior Full Stack Developer at Atlassian, which makes software to help teams collaborate and communicate better. I work on status pages, where users can essentially see the status of their systems and the downtime of their applications. If your website does crash, you can use the status page to put out a message about what's going on and the expected downtime.
I’ve gotten to deal with interesting engineering problems. I'm working on networking issues and back end development – I’ve learned to scale very quickly if a website goes down and all that traffic gets pushed to your page. Also, I work on a relatively small product within a much larger company, so in some ways, it feels like I'm working in a startup environment, but within a company with thousands of people, which is really nice.
Which programming languages do you use at Atlassian? Did you learn all of those at Holberton School?
Has your background in university athletics been useful in your new job as a Software Engineer?
The ability to work with a team and understand team dynamics relates well to software engineering. I've drawn some parallels – in long-distance running, you create a 15-week plan with an end goal, and there are some process goals along the way. Laying out that training and the process of getting there was something you had to enjoy and relish, rather than just focusing on the race day for 15 weeks.
It's similar for me now in the software world – we work in similar cycles of 6-12 weeks towards a product at the end. But you've got to enjoy the little goals throughout the process. You have to find some motivation in those day-to-day process of building little features, instead of just building towards a larger product. So that was easy for me to get on board with. I'm fine with that delayed gratification of waiting until the end to ship something. It takes time to build features and see some return.
How has Atlassian helped you ramp up and continue to learn? Do you have mentorship?
They gave me a 90-day onboarding plan, with a checklist of everything I need to do by the end of those 90 days. It's designed to take the pressure off. In my first couple weeks, they tested me on some of my fundamentals because they wanted to make sure that my foundational knowledge was strong.
Atlassian matched me with a mentor whom I meet every other week for coffee, to talk about not just what's going on at work, but just life in general. That's been really cool. My mentor was the CEO of the status product I work on (before it got acquired). So he has a ton of knowledge about the product and about the company in general. The team at Atlassian aims to live by a lot of their values. One is – “No BS.” They don't expect you to be perfect from day one. They will take you along slowly. I liked that they were very open and honest with me about those expectations.
What's been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to software development?
The hardest thing for me, even with Holberton’s income sharing model, was quitting my job in Charlotte and moving to the Bay Area. Living in San Francisco with no income for almost a year is really difficult. People need to be very aware that if they're going to make that move, San Francisco is an expensive place.
Within the program, there were some people who came in with more knowledge than others, and you have to be okay with accepting that, "This is where I'm at right now and I'm going to get to other people's levels, but it's not going to happen overnight." Comparing yourself to others and what they know, or their experience, can drive you crazy.
What advice do you have for future #LearnToCode-ers who are also thinking about making a career change into software development?
During the job hunt process, accept that you're going to fail more than you will succeed. I was fortunate that my first in-person interview went very well, but I had a ton of failed phone screens and online coding challenges. You’ll see some problems and know you can solve them. Other times, you don't even know where to begin, or you just struggle through it and it doesn't pan out. This doesn't mean you're a bad engineer. The interview process is not perfect by any means, so don't beat yourself up over that. It's going to be uncomfortable, and you're going to fail at certain times.
During my interview at Atlassian, they told me that in-person interviews are meant to test what your knowledge limits are. They want to make you feel like you don't know anything when you walk out. That's the point; they need to see what you do know, but also what you do not know. As a junior engineer, you're not expected to know everything, but you can't worry about that. Go into interviews saying, "This is what I know, this is what I can do," and be comfortable with that.