As a technical writer for 12 years, Zee Adams had always loved new technology, but when she decided to start her own business she realized she needed to learn to code. Now Zee is four months into the two-year, full-time full stack program at Holberton School in San Francisco, CA. The program is made up of nine months of learning on site, a six-month internship, then another nine months of remote learning. We spoke to Zee about why she chose a long form program over a 12-week bootcamp, how her fellow classmates are teaching and learning from each other, and how much she’s enjoyed the Holberton experience right down to the application process!
What’s your pre-bootcamp story? What were you up to until you started Holberton School?
I've been a technical writer for over 12 years and have always found it interesting. It was a great challenge to learn about new things and have to write about them, which is how I kept myself engaged in the tech world. I wrote software manuals, how-tos, study guides, etc.
I've also always been interested in starting my own company. I'm a bit of a techie, and love to follow new tech trends. I found myself with a business partner and a good EdTech idea but no technical skills. We realized we needed to learn how to program.
What did you study at college originally?
My undergraduate degree is in Sociology from the University of Ottawa. After years of working in the tech field as a technical writer, I got a Master's degree in Engineering for Technology Innovation Management at Carleton University.
Did you try to learn to code on your own at all before you thought about a coding bootcamp?
I tried to teach myself on and off for about two and a half years. I did Code Academy, Coursera, Stack Social, and I registered in several online MOOCS. I found that they expected me to have some level of experience. It’s difficult to know what you're getting wrong and how to correct it in an online course.
Because of my college coursework and working full time, I didn't have much time to dedicate to learning online. When you’re learning to code, it's difficult to pinpoint where to begin and how everything is connected. Since I started Holberton School four months ago, I feel like I've learned more in the last four months than those two years of trying to hack away at online courses on my own.
As you researched coding bootcamps, what stood out to you about Holberton School?
When I started researching, I still lived in Canada, so I looked at Lighthouse Labs and I also looked at Make School.
The Holberton application was incredible – it challenged me to actually create a project as part of the application process. I spent about 50 to 60 hours applying for the school. I also liked the way the founders connected and engaged with me - which I found other schools didn’t do.
The opportunity Holberton School provides is something I'd be foolish not to pursue. The learning environment is incredible, but the support system is what really attracted me the most. They have such a strong, vibrant mentor network. When I was first accepted, the students were added to a Slack group with all the mentors. I also like the fact that Holberton School is project-based learning, as opposed to the very formal system you see at university.
Why did you decide on a two-year program over a shorter, 10-12 week coding bootcamp?
I personally needed a more in-depth learning experience with access to a full stack curriculum. I’m learning front end, back end, low-level programming, high-level programming, and gaining soft skills for a technical environment. These things are difficult to teach in a short time period.
Holberton School also includes the opportunity for a six-month internship, which allows you to get firsthand experience. Then you come back to the school to work further on what interests you. It’s hard to put a value on that experience, because you're taking all the cool things you want to do and really getting the chance to focus on them.
Did you ever consider a four-year computer science degree instead of two-year bootcamp?
I did. And my only issue was I already had an undergrad and masters degrees. Many of the courses that fulfill the degree requirements for Computer Science felt like fillers to me. The core courses would not have taken four years to complete.
It seemed too redundant. Whereas at Holberton, I'm focusing on learning the core tech skills I need, but not having to take unnecessary courses.
Holberton School offers a deferred tuition model where you pay your tuition at the end as a percentage of your salary. Was that part of your decision?
Absolutely. A lot of bootcamps ask for $10-15,000 upfront, which is prohibitive, especially if you have to relocate. Plus, it's not cheap to live in San Francisco. The deferred tuition model also shows that Holberton School really believes in the school because they believe you will get a high paying job after graduating. You can't really go wrong with somebody who believes that much in their product.
You mentioned spending 50-60 hours on the Holberton application. What else can you tell us about the interview process?
The first part of the application is a short quiz to see how you handle basic UNIX commands. Then you write a Medium article of why you want to be a student at Holberton School, where you came from, and why you want to be a software engineer.
The second level project is building your own site from scratch. It's pretty intense. They gave us just enough information to be able to use Google sufficiently and links to information like W3Schools, but I had to learn a lot by myself. They wanted us to really understand what's behind each of the technologies we're using.
Then you make a one-minute YouTube video explaining something really cool about yourself. Finally, you have an interview, which is intense because they give you a 20-minute test, and a 20-minute interview.
That sounds like a really intense application process.
It really was. Although it’s easy to dread applications, but we kept telling each other in the Slack channel, "I've never had so much fun applying for something."
How large is your class right now at Holberton? Is it diverse in terms of age, gender, race and backgrounds?
Our cohort is 32 students. Ages range from 17 to 50+. 40% are women, which has been really amazing, and about 44% are minorities or people of color. We've got just about every background here: some have just graduated from high school, others dropped out of college, some studied computer science, and others were in sales and customer service.
The founders of Holberton School truly believe in equality and inclusion. They want the concept of diversity to be the norm. The blind selection process, where candidates go through a number of levels before the interview, showed them that women were quite successful and diversity naturally exists when we remove bias.
The magic of Holberton is that they don’t require any prior knowledge of coding, so it attracted diverse people from diverse backgrounds. It makes for a very rich environment. We have good strong debates, and when we are problem solving, everybody has a different way of looking at a problem.
Where is the Holberton School campus and what is it like?
It's in downtown San Francisco's financial district and it's incredible. We're walking distance to many of the tech offices that I visited. It's central, which means that mentors can drop in because they work nearby. We have a single floor location and it's outfitted with all of our computers, a nice kitchen area, meeting rooms, and the administration area.
What's the learning experience like at Holberton School? Tell us about a typical day!
We start our mornings working on the current project. If there is no project available, you expand your knowledge base by researching and learning on your own. Occasionally we have a quick group review of a certain topic if a lot of students have questions. If some students understand a topic better, they can teach others. When somebody has had a really difficult time with a certain topic, they take that learning experience and share it with the group by inviting everyone to a live coding session.
We also host meetups at the school – one of those is with our two artificial intelligence mentors and industry titans, Gregory Renard and Louis Monier. Louis Monier is pretty much the father of the search engine – he created AltaVista. We have fireside chats with different mentors to learn what made them successful in the industry.
Which programming language or technology stack does Holberton use in their curriculum?
I read that Holberton School doesn't have formal teachers. How does that work for you as a student?
We have an intranet where our projects get posted, which is updated in the morning. Each project has a small summary at the top with what documents you need to read, helpful links, a bit of a background, and tasks. We ask for help through the same Intranet. If we get stuck on a task, other students can see who needs assistance. Plus we have our Slack forum to keep track of each other and communicate.
What is your favorite project you've worked on? Did you work on your own or in a group?
My favorite project so far is my Twitter Clone. We usually work on individual projects, but for this we worked as a team and it was a great way to learn the syntax. We also just finished a shell project where we built our own Unix-like shell which was insanely difficult but fun. Some of us did it in a group of two people and others did it on their own.
How many hours do you normally commit to Holberton School each week?
We study six days a week, 8-14 hours per day. Most of the time is spent learning concepts but it's also spent interacting with our classmates to try to build our knowledge base. It's very intense and I think people should know that once you start, all of your time is committed to Holberton.
What has been the biggest challenge for you so far?
The biggest challenge is shifting my mentality out of academia. I’m used to having a syllabus, a book to read, a professor who tells me exactly how I should learn, and a very controlled environment. Here, it's the opposite. I am given instruction in terms of what I need for the project, but there's a lot of value in making my own learning decisions. I decide which information seems really important, and I’m forced to ask questions when I don't know enough. The peer learning process is showing us the difference between giving somebody an answer versus giving somebody a direction to look for the answer.
You’re four months through the nine-month course, and then you’ll go onto an internship. Are you assigned an internship?
From the start, Holberton School is getting us comfortable with networking. We have meetups at the school, and we also do company site visits. I've visited Google, Uber, LinkedIn, Docker, SalesForce, and Github. The mentors tell us which companies have opportunities, and provide a support system to be able to start securing our internship positions in the next two to three months. Internships start at the end of September.
What preparation do you get from Holberton School to help with job hunting?
We stay as engaged as possible online with mentors, people in the industry, and things that are interesting to us. If I'm interested in machine learning, then I would seek out people in that community. We also work on our LinkedIn profiles to ensure they are up to date, and on our social media presence.
We are encouraged to attend meetups in the community on topics that interest us so we can find contacts and create networks. We are also being taught how to interview, to be confident in expressing our skills so we can tell people with confidence about what we've learned.
Is your goal still to start your own business when you graduate? What’s your idea?
I'm really interested in edtech. One of my biggest passions is to be able to expand the potential for edtech in under-served areas, creating technologies to facilitate development of education in third world countries.
And we have the option to also work on our startup and get support in helping us build it if that's what we choose to do, while we're at school, after the first nine months and internship. Holberton is very supportive in that regard. The internship will give me the necessary experience to go out and actually use what I've been learning. I am really intent on pursuing my interest of becoming a startup founder, but I expect to be working as well. Once I'm in a position of having to work full time, my startup will be my part-time passion.
If you choose to start your own company, how does the deferred tuition work?
If you are pursuing a startup, the agreement here is you would be paying a percentage of your salary from the startup equal to the agreed upon amount.
What advice do you have for people who are considering a coding bootcamp or a longer program like Holberton School?
My best advice for anybody researching bootcamps is to look for something specific. Do you want a quick program to get some technical skills to enter into the workforce immediately? Or do you want to have a longer, in-depth learning experience?
Also, be okay with not being good at coding and not knowing enough. If you're a complete beginner, perseverance is the name of the game. You have to overcome your personal demons of feeling like coding isn’t for you. You'll realize very quickly that you have great days and terrible days, but the great days will always outweigh the terrible days. Now that I'm four months into Holberton, I’m having less and less difficult days and more and more great days.
Is there anything else you wanted to add about Holberton School?
I want to emphasize how important the attitude of the founders has been in really creating this environment for us. They've fostered something really special here.