Rona Chong studied sociology at college, and enjoyed interning in the IT department, but when she graduated she wasn’t sure what career she wanted. Rona had enjoyed dabbling with code as a child, so when her twin sister told her about Holberton School’s two-year program in San Francisco, they both applied and were accepted. Rona has finished the first nine-month on-site learning curriculum, and is now in the six-month internship/job phase before finishing up with a nine-month remote specialization. Rona tells us about the engaging Holberton School application, the freedom of learning at her own pace, and how Holberton School’s connections helped her get a job as a Site Reliability Engineer at Dropbox!
What were you up to before you decided to go to Holberton School?
I went to Scripps College for women, and I bounced around with different majors. I started out in STEM, but not computer science. I then ended up switching from biology to sociology which was a very big shift.
I loved sociology, but career-wise, I wasn’t sure how to implement that knowledge. So when I graduated, I had to think about what sort of profession to pursue. Web development was always a prospect for me because I liked to play with HTML and CSS when I was younger, so it was always on my mind and I liked the idea of web development.
I did an internship towards the end of my undergrad degree at the Scripps College IT department, and continued for a month or two after the end of my classes.
Did you learn any coding while you were working in the IT department at Scripps?
During my downtime, one of the staff members who was a programmer encouraged me to learn some coding, and I spent time learning on ShayHowe and CSS Dog because my mind was still on the idea of web development specifically. Most of my time there was handling tickets and setting up computers. I did a little bit of self-study, but not as much as I wanted.
Did you look at other coding bootcamps around San Francisco before you chose Holberton School?
I actually wasn’t looking at coding bootcamps at the time. It just so happened that when Holberton School opened, my twin sister happened to be subscribed to the publication ZDNet and sent me an article about Holberton School. Because the first cohort was free, I started thinking, "This makes it accessible, and something I would actually consider."
I knew that other bootcamps were $10,000-$20,000 and I wasn't prepared to make that big of an investment. Once the price was taken out of the equation, I was excited to go to a structured program that would accelerate how much I learn.
Holberton School has a deferred tuition program now right?
Yes, it’s 17% of your income for three years.
Did you want to learn a specific programming language? Was that part of your decision making?
When I read about the Holberton School curriculum, which included C and a couple of other languages, I thought it was cool they covered a low-level programming language. Up until that point, I didn't have specific languages in mind other than front end languages.
Did you consider going back to college and studying computer science instead of doing a bootcamp?
Not really. In my mind, a bootcamp is more focused on learning the skills you need to work in the industry. At college you learn a lot more theory, and I wanted to be able to jump right into the industry once I graduated.
What did you think of the Holberton School interview and application process? I've heard it's quite interesting and fun.
It was great, and engaging the whole time. You start off answering a couple questions about information that you have to find online. Or you had to find out how to do small tasks like encrypting a string with a certain cipher. Once you could demonstrate that you could do that much, you had to share more about yourself, write an essay, and create a video.
In the third stage, you're given access to a forum and asked to work on a website. While working on the website, you had to share your process with other applicants. You could interact with the other people who were applying to Holberton who might end up attending the program with you. I thought that was really cool because it made the application more social, and gave us a sense of community. So that was a very positive experience for me.
I also enjoyed the general process of creating something and having a project at the end of the application where you have a lot of freedom to decide what it looks like. That made it very fun for me. I think it took me about a month in total.
Was your class quite diverse in terms of gender, race, age, life and career backgrounds?
I think it was quite diverse. Students came from many different places and backgrounds than me, so Holberton was an interesting and fun way to meet people from backgrounds that I wasn’t familiar with.
A third of our cohort was female. I’m used to all females because I went to a women's college, but I know that's a higher percentage than other bootcamps, and it was definitely nice to have other women to talk to. We also had people from all sorts of racial backgrounds, which I appreciated.
What was the actual learning experience like at Holberton? Give me an example of a typical day and style of learning.
Standup is at 11:30am, which is when I generally arrived. Early on, we got a new project every day. Later on, when we had longer projects, we got a new project about every three days. You can tackle your project however you want. For the most part, you research on the internet about the concept for that project, learn about it, then start to tackle the tasks. Staff members are on site to answer any questions the students might have about projects, and available to do live coding sessions to help clarify particularly difficult concepts.
I enjoyed that style of learning a lot because it felt like you had a puzzle to solve. You're trying to figure out the solution, what information you need, and if you understand the concept properly. Sometimes you might get stuck and ask your peers. I appreciated the Holberton philosophy about not asking for the answer, but asking, "What about my process or my understanding is right and what about it is wrong, and how can I proceed from there?" That way, you weren't just told how to do things. I think it's more gratifying to figure it out yourself. There was a lot of freedom to approach things at your own pace. You want to keep up with the curriculum, but you can decide how to handle the whole day for yourself.
What was your favorite project that you worked on at Holberton?
The one that sticks out to me was setting up our own DNS servers. I had never heard about the underlying process for domain name resolution before so I found it interesting. To make sure your server is actually working, you have to think about what instructions you implemented and if it’s working as intended. So it tested my understanding a lot.
I was able to figure it out at each step, and that was really satisfying for me to see myself move from one place of understanding to another in the process of setting it up. A lot of us had to struggle a little with it, so when I was able to get it to work, I was really happy about it.
I did all the work to make that magically happen.
After nine months of learning, you look for a job or internship, right? What sort of preparation or career guidance did Holberton School give you for t hat?
In a way, it felt like the whole nine months were preparation because the founders, Julien Barbier and Sylvain Kalache, are very focused on the type of skills that employers in the tech industry are looking for.
For the interview and job search process specifically, Holberton brought in three or four recruiters from different companies such as Palantir and Dropbox. They talked about what they look for in a new hire, what they expect from candidates, and the relationship between a recruiter and a recruitee.
Holberton also started asking us whiteboarding questions that you might get asked in an interview. A couple of them were logic puzzles, and a couple of them were more focused on coding. Holberton wanted us to get practice solving a problem on demand like in an interview. We also had Refineries, which are days devoted to making sure you understand concepts that have been covered in the class, and during those exercises you are also expected to talk through every piece of code you write, like you would in an interview
Holberton also did quite a bit of networking for us and then connected a lot of us to interviews and jobs.
Is that how you found your role at Dropbox?
Yes, definitely. We were asked to apply to jobs on our own, and also apply to any positions that Holberton found that we were interested in. Sylvain reached out to me and a couple of other students who he knew or imagined would be able to do well in the Dropbox interview. Of course, I was interested!
Then Holberton’s contact at Dropbox, Tammy, brought a group of students to the Dropbox office for lunch and we got to meet their team and some people who would likely interview us. We learned about the company and talked to them about ourselves in an informal context. It was a nice way to work out whether we were interested in this opportunity or not, and experience their culture. We then had a week to study a couple of topics to prepare for the on-site interview.
On on-site day, we spent the day at Dropbox being interviewed by several different people, with a different exercise to do in each segment. We all had a very positive experience from that. I think Dropbox spent a lot of time making that interview process engaging and accessible regardless of our experience, while also still finding out if you have the qualities that they're looking for. After that, we had a take-home exercise where we had to create a daemon-like process that monitored log files and produced a report or a summary of the most recent stats every 10 seconds. That was fun and also similar to the problems we were asked to figure out at Holberton. Holberton is unique in that they have one portion of the curriculum focused on Sys Admin/DevOps. I'm not aware of any other program that has that domain in their curriculum.
What are you working on at Dropbox – tell us about the role!
So far, I’ve been in Dropbox’s 4-6 week residency onboarding program. We’ve had a lot of presentations on the architecture of Dropbox software, infrastructure, product, and the company organization.
I'm on the databases team, specifically as a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE), which means I am helping make databases more reliable, more durable, and more accessible. I have a mentor who has been giving me sessions where he focuses on giving me more context about how databases work, how MySQL works, and how Dropbox approaches database and data storage.
Once I’m ramped up on those topics, I'll start on a couple of interesting tasks. One is optimizing the process for backing up data, which is a pretty interesting problem. Then, I can make my first code deployments and learn how code is deployed at Dropbox. It's all been busy but cool.
Have you had to learn many new technologies or programming languages since you started at Dropbox?
Yes, new in the sense that I haven't dealt with it as extensively until now. For my infrastructure onboarding project, they're asking us to code in Go, which I’ve barely used until now. I have been reading about it, trying to understand how it works and trying it out, which is great for me. At Holberton, we had workshops to familiarize ourselves with a couple of different languages. We had one “Discover Go” workshop. For me, it's like revisiting the language and then getting much more hands-on experience with it.
In terms of technology, Dropbox has a lot of different internal tools. They have a specific workflow, so there's a lot for me to learn.
What are your plans for the future? Will you stay at Dropbox full-time or go back to Holberton to continue studying?
The Holberton School curriculum is ideal for me, because after this six-month period in the workforce, there is an optional track to go back to specialize in a certain topic at Holberton, like higher-level learning, systems administration or low-level systems. Dropbox expects employees to build up a lot of technical expertise, so continuing to study with Holberton is another way for me to work up to that.
The Holberton School founders want to make sure that we can participate at Holberton and work at the same time. I definitely plan on going through the extra nine months of specialization, but I'll be working at Dropbox at the same time. I’m on a six-month contract at Dropbox, and then if all goes well, I’ll get hired as a full-time Dropbox employee. My position at Dropbox is a really good opportunity for me to learn and develop expertise on a topic that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. There are lots of experienced mentors who I can draw from while working on interesting technological problems.
If you continue studying with Holberton School after six months will you do that remotely, part-time while you're working?
I think I will study remotely, part-time with Holberton, but there’s also the option to go back on-site. Holberton is similar to a lot of tech companies in that you're given quite a bit of freedom in how and when you work.
Did you enjoy learning with your twin sister at Holberton School?
My sister and I share a lot of interests. We went to the same college, so it was just like a continuation of that pattern. She was actually hired before me, and was one of the first students to get hired. It’s funny because she got hired at another storage solutions company called Scality, so we ended up being in these similar niche industries. It's a much smaller company, so we get to trade our experiences and compare, which is a lot of fun.
Now that you're in this job, are you able to stay in touch with the other Holberton students?
Since I started working, I've been really busy, but we’re a tight community – we just spent nine months around each other full-time. We still text each other, we invite each other to events. We're all on Slack, which is how we communicated at Holberton. We also participate in hackathons together and see each other at Holberton events.
What is your advice for someone who's thinking about making a career change and going to a coding bootcamp?
If they're hesitating because they're not sure about outcomes, remember that the tech industry has such a high demand for qualified developers right now. If you have time and persistence to keep plugging away at it, this is definitely an industry that you can enter.
To make that transition easier, it's helpful to spend time learning and coding a little bit before actually starting a coding bootcamp. The process of not understanding a concept, then breaking it down and resolving any information you don't know, is useful. Because that's actually a lot of your experience at a program like Holberton, and when you're on the job. I feel that if you get familiar with that process, anyone can do this.