At age 18, Josh opted out of university in the UK and moved to San Francisco to learn to code at Holberton School. Now he's five months in and about to launch his own app. We spoke to Josh to find out why he decided to do a two-year intensive coding bootcamp, instead of a four-year computer science degree, how he’s adjusting to a new city, and all about his new company!
What was your educational background before you decided to go to Holberton School?
I was about to go to a traditional university in the UK (where I’m from). I'd always been interested in technology. I've been building computers and coding since 11 years old.
I was looking for an excuse to dedicate all of my time to coding, and I had talks with my parents about leaving school. We talked about learning on my own and not going to university because I really didn't like the way the education system worked. My mum wasn't so keen about the idea of me just leaving, but I never felt that I really fit in. I really didn't see myself going to university and studying computer science there, quite frankly because the curriculum just isn't very good. I heard about Holberton through a friend, applied and then a couple of months later, here I am in San Francisco.
How much coding did you know before attending Holberton?
I already knew a couple of programming languages before I came to Holberton. I had been really into computer hardware and then it transitioned over into software. I taught myself Python, and I was working on some projects on the side. Holberton was more of a way to formalize my learning and dive deeper- there are subjects we're covering which I probably would not have been able to unlock on my own.
Did you look at any other coding bootcamps in the UK before deciding on Holberton School?
No, I wasn’t looking at other schools. I heard about General Assembly on Twitter and applied. But once I found out the cost, I decided that I really wasn't looking to pay any money upfront for a bootcamp. That’s also one of the biggest reasons I didn’t want to go to university. I didn't want to end up in a huge amount of debt.
Was the deferred tuition option at Holberton a big part of your decision in terms of cost?
That was a huge part of the decision. I really didn't want to have to take out any loans or spend any of my money or my family's money on the course. Holberton School was a much cheaper option. I was very keen to come to San Francisco. I already had some friends here and they were an active part of Holberton School. One of my friends is a mentor here, so that was another reason why I decided to come.
When you were making the decision to come to Holberton, was it important for you to learn a specific programming language or stack?
At the beginning they didn't exactly tell us the complete core programming languages we were covering. Instead, they focus on making you a full stack engineer who knows a lot of programming languages through projects. They almost said, "Whatever you want to be proficient in, that's up to you, and we're going to help you get to that stage."
What attracted you to a two-year program rather than a 12-week program? There are quite a few other coding bootcamps that offer shorter programs.
I was worried about the level of knowledge you could acquire in a shorter program as opposed to two years because if you spend two years learning, as you can imagine, it’s going to be more in-depth. I just think you would obviously learn more over two years.
How did you find the Holberton School application and interview process?
The application and interview process was split into three stages. The first stage was an essay. The second stage was to create an entire website in any language of your choice. We had to setup our own server and install the website from there, then write some HTML, CSS, and basically create what we needed from scratch. Stage three was just a Skype interview. I thought it was a good way to approach the interview, especially to filter out applicants for the school.
Compared with admission for a university, I knew just from the application process whether I would fit in at Holberton, and what I was going to learn.
For people who are interested but not sure how they're going to get on and how they're going to learn, the Holberton application can help answer those questions. And it's also fun!
I think it should be really important to have a huge interest in programming if it’s going to be your career. If you’re not passionate and interested in it, and doing it in your spare time, you're going to struggle to become the best engineer as you can be. It does require a lot of time.
What's your class like at Holberton?
We're from all over, and the age range is also varied. I am not the youngest; I've got a friend who's 17 and one who is 19. The average age is probably around 25 to 30. My cohort is made up of all nationalities, people from different countries, and different ages.
How have you found the learning experience so far? What is it like learning in this environment?
Holberton School teaches you how to learn. They give you projects; we had one on SQL recently. A mentor would tell us, "Okay, you need to add a person to this database and then you have to go to Google and research how to do that." They give you a project or a task, and then it's up to you to figure out how to go and do it. That's the way it's taught, but we also do have recaps, and we cover key topics together. In the morning, we may cover object-oriented programming in Python for example, or sometimes we've had machine learning meetups where it's a four-hour intensive learning course on machine learning, or a big presentation lead by some industry experts on iOS.
What do you think of this project-based peer learning approach compared with your own experience of learning before, for example when you were at high school?
I definitely prefer it because I'm in charge of what I decide to learn and the way I decide to do it. There are infinite ways and means as to how you want to learn. We recently had a hackathon, and I think this is probably one of the best ways to learn; where you have an idea or you get on a project, and you have to figure out how to build it over a certain amount of time.
A couple of years ago I wanted to make a bitcoin lottery, so I figured it out. I went from having no knowledge of it to figuring out how to do it. And in doing that, I learned three programming languages. I think project-based peer learning is one of the most powerful ways in which we can learn.
I know that you don't have formal teachers at Holberton, but I'm interested in how often you do actually interact with Holberton staff and mentors.
It's more open. It's not on a schedule. If you have a question, you just go over and ask; but only if you can't figure it out yourself. We interact with mentors as much as we need or want to, but there are dedicated time slots for mentors. Mentors will do a meetup at the school or a presentation. We had someone from Uber come in and do a presentation about how Uber managed to scale their backend to reach 99% uptime. I don't think I've ever been at Holberton, unless it's super late or super early, when the founders or mentors weren’t there.
What has been the biggest challenge for you at Holberton so far?
I'd say, perhaps the biggest challenge is learning to fit in with others in my group and learning the soft skills elements. I had to learn how to help someone with their own problem, while seeing their perspective. Holberton School created this unique demographic of people that you wouldn't get if you went to university. It creates an environment where people learn in very different ways, and opens your eyes to other ways of doing things.
Do you work together a lot with the other people in the class?
As much as you want to. If you need help, then you could probably go to anyone in the class and work with them. Sometimes, students do walkthroughs or presentations on technology for others. I could do a live coding session or something on the whiteboard, and everyone could join if they want.
Do you have a way of giving feedback about the program if you have problems?
We have a captain's log. Every Sunday we have to fill in a smiley face- happy, neutral, or sad- to reflect our learning experience. We give feedback on what we learned this week, our biggest breakthrough, etc. Then hopefully they're going to take into account.
What is your favorite project that you've worked on so far at Holberton?
For me it was the hackathon that we did recently. My teammate and I came up with the idea to build an API which could work with Arduinos in your home so anyone could automate their home. And for me, that was one of the coolest things because although we had to use Docker, it was almost completely open as to what we wanted to build and how we wanted to build it, and I learned a lot that way. That was the most exciting to me.
Holberton has an internship section. Are you going to be able to participate in that?
No, I won't be able to do that in the US with my visa, but I could do it in the UK. I'm working on my own app at the moment, so it's likely that I might want to spend the six-month internship developing my own app. Holberton said that rather than doing an internship, you can also do your own startup. So that's another aspect to look at, and I could actually do that here under this visa. Holberton School is generally quite flexible with this kind of things, so it's nice.
What's your overall plan for what you want to do when you graduate from Holberton? Do you want to get a job as a developer?
I'm more likely to start something myself. I'm not too interested in working for someone else in a job. That’s one of the biggest reasons why Holberton was so attractive to me: it was a different way of learning and it allowed for this entrepreneurial type of trajectory.
And are you able to tell us about your app idea or is it a secret?
I've been working on this for four months and we're just finishing it now. The app is called Loop and the idea is that you can send photos or videos to individual areas. If you think of Snapchat and then sending it to a person or story, but instead you're sending it to an area. So if I'm in San Francisco and I've got a party going on, or if I'm at a school like Stanford, and I'm taking a picture of something funny, I can send it to the Stanford loop. Then everyone who's subscribed to that loop can see the post in there. We're very, very close to finishing. My co-founder is creating the Android app. We're both working on the iOS app, and I'm making the API.
You said that you are planning to do your own business when you graduate, but do you know if Holberton provides any help with job searching?
I'm sure they do because the network that the founders have is vast. I speak to the founders quite regularly about my app, and they're always helpful. They tell me that if I want help or need them to put me into contact with the VCs, even the VCs that are investing in Holberton then they are happy to do that. They're definitely going to help you try to get a job.
What has it been like so far, moving countries and living in San Francisco?
I love it really. It was definitely one of the biggest factors in moving here. Moving to San Francisco is like going from a world where I was the only one who was working in tech to then walking down the street, and there's a guy next to you talking about APIs. If you’re in line at Starbucks, it’s almost guaranteed that the guy behind you works in tech. That's really awesome. It's also nice to be away from parents and have your own freedom to do what you want.
What advice do you have for people who are considering going to an intensive bootcamp to learn how to code?
Coming to Holberton has made me realize how much people really don't care about degrees and how much you can learn by yourself. Employers don't really need to see a degree to know how good you are in tech. If this is what you want, then don't worry about going down an untraditional route.
Find out more and read Holberton School reviews on Course Report. Check out the Holberton School website.
Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves exploring technology and education in her work.
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