How Alec Johnson Went From UCSD Chemical Engineering Major to Hulu Software Engineer

Instead of feeling the rush of excitement that comes from nearing the end of college, Alec Johnson was full of anxiety. He’d majored in Chemical Engineering at UC San Diego and spent his summers interning at biotech companies, trying to avoid chemicals getting on him, for up to eight hours a day. While he found some parts of chemistry interesting, like theory, his experience made him believe his professional future lay elsewhere. But the young, Seattle-area native didn’t know what that would be. So like other guys his age, he let his friends’ choices influence his thinking. Luckily for him, that involved a practical life skill.

“My roommates, CS (Computer Science) majors [at UCSD], said I should try Python. And I did and it was a total blast,” he told us in an interview.

Johnson ended up acquiring Python coding language books to learn its intricacies. He felt an immediate connection to the fun nature of data structures and algorithms, like easter eggs, which led to spending most of his last college quarter learning programming. And while he did progress his understanding of code, he didn’t learn swiftly enough to get a job at a real company. So he started to think about his options and, during a call with a tech founder family friend, found out about App Academy. That person previously hired students from the bootcamp who’d learned Ruby and JavaScript and told Johnson they’d adjusted properly to other languages. To Johnson, that meant an education from App Academy could lead to real opportunity.

“What eventually became the biggest draw [for me] for App Academy was that I needed somebody to tell me what to look at to learn, because I found myself getting really distracted and interested in stuff that wasn’t important and not being able to really produce anything,” he said. For example, he told us, he does not recommend new developers read the CPython source code before they can “stand-up” a web app in the Django web framework.

So he applied to the January 2017 cohort in San Francisco, got in, and spent the next three months working like crazy.

Learning Time

Photo: Alec Johnson Copyright

Because he had experience with math and Python, Johnson wasn’t as exhausted learning SQL and the other foundations of programming taught at App Academy as some of his classmates. Metaprogramming and abstract-thought experiments, in particular, were easier but still challenging early on. But he was surprised at how accurately the workload connected to questions he would face in job interviews and how much other people, even CS majors, didn’t have those skills:

“People who have been in the industry 10 to 15 years, they fail basic algorithm questions because it’s not the stuff regular software [education] teaches you but that is covered at App Academy… all graduates come out ready to nail interviews,” he said.

Johnson said that after he’d been working as an engineer later on, he would realize how important his time at the bootcamp was in learning “how to learn” a specific language and how that same process can be used to learn any other coding language. This is why he says to anyone that goes through the same bootcamp program to essentially “trust the process” and to not forget programming is a skill like any other that needs constant practice and learning.  

Getting Into and Working at Hulu

Photo: The “Well Doors”/Hulu

After pushing himself to learn programming at App Academy, Johnson wanted to get a job as a backend programmer at a company where he could learn on the job. Even though he got a quick job offer from a startup to lead an engineering team, he rejected it, smartly thinking that working with mentors who were better than him would improve his prospects long-term. So in the months following the bootcamp, Johnson focused on strengthening his coding and interview skills to find the right place. When he found out that Hulu, the streaming entertainment platform, was looking for engineers on its ad team, its tech culture and stack seemed to him like a good fit.

“[Hulu] was aware that I was really hungry to learn and they told me immediately that [the company] was a Java shop,” he said.

Johnson also knew another engineer working at Hulu at the time and got broad advice about what to expect, such as knowing how to work with graphs. He also got help from his Hulu recruiter who told him that as an entry level dev, the ability to communicate would be more important than any technical skill. The latter would be especially important because, he knew, even really good bootcamp programmers sometimes face industry skepticism. But once again, Johnson was lucky to be surrounded by people at App Academy who pushed him in the right direction.

“A big revelation was that…companies just want nice people…at [App Academy] they would really critique your personality skills. I got feedback during a practice whiteboarding session about what I was doing with my fingers [like spinning and dropping] a pen like three times. And they were like ‘that’s going to come off like really weirdly in an interview.’ And when I interviewed I stopped because of that feedback,” Johnson told us.

The young programmer would end up getting a job offer from the Los Angeles-based company, starting on the advertising server team. Among the things he worked on right away was to absorb the entire glossary of ads-based terminology for automatic targeting. Most importantly, Johnson came to find out Hulu had been totally open and honest about its learning culture. His first projects were all short-term coding projects focused on identifying his strengths and weaknesses followed by managers pairing him up on other projects that would shore up his gaps in knowledge.

“Once [Hulu] established where I was, it took off a lot of pressure. Like, OK, we know you don’t know Java, so let’s make it very clear. We want you to ask a lot of questions. We want you to look at everyone’s code and do tons and tons of code reviews.”

That time allowed him to learn, catch-up, and get to know the codebase. After six months, his work paid off and he was up to speed, contributing like everyone else and pushing his teammates forward.

How the Support Carried Him Through

Photo: Alec Johnson Copyright

Johnson credits his start in coding and his acceptance into App Academy on the support of his family and friends. They all knew he needed time to study and push himself to get a marketable, long-term skill, a hard situation that involved a lot of man-hours working by himself and moving to a city away from his loved ones. And he made it clear to everyone that he was going to be hard to reach “for a little while.” Once he was at App Academy, though, he was able to lean on the support of people who were at first total strangers: his cohort of fellow App Academy students.

“The big support group was five other App Academy students and the three to four other people who lived in Cohort X [the building where I lived] at the time with other students. They reinforced the [work] mentality… everybody’s there studying, doing something productive, and you realize you need to be pushing yourself more. So we all kind of lifted each other up in that way,” he told us.

Oftentimes, part of the camaraderie of the situation involved re-teaching others at night the concepts they learned in the daytime at the bootcamp. He told us he appreciated how certain students had different ways to learn, one with Anki flashcards, another with practice tests, and how that gave him different ideas about how to best study for himself. They also constantly competed with each other to find the best way to solve coding puzzles and other intricate lessons.

To this day, as a Hulu programmer on his way up, he credits his time with his friends and the environment App Academy created for giving him a leg up on the job process and his career. And he says he’ll always look back on it fondly, and actually looks to give back to people some of what he learned.

“There’s local mentorship [I can do] around here. It’s been really cool to go and sort of do things like that, that give back to the community and teach other people coding,” he told us.

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Written by Jose Fermoso

Jose is a writer covering Silicon Valley and world culture. Follow him on Twitter @fermoso.

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