Oliver Belanger

AGE: 25
INTERESTS: Learning stuff in general. I like spending time with people, working on projects is something I do often. Trying different experiences, traveling to see friends, going to the gym. Programming, reading, I read a lot. I will go through different phases where I will spend a lot of time with a series of things that I tend to cycle through the year.

Tell us more about where you are from and what shaped you:

I lived in Paris until I was 8 years old. We moved to New York where I attended middle and high school. Afterward, I went to college at Fordham University in the Bronx. I graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, in Psychology and Computer Science, so that was interesting and fun. Towards the end of my senior year of college, I started to go to hackathons. My first was Unhackathon, we ended up winning second place in the design category. Then I was like these hackathon things exist, that is awesome. So I tried to go to as many as I could while I was in college.

I started the hackathons in Fall of 2014. By the time Fall 2015 rolled around I had gone to 23. I participated as an attendee, as a mentor, and as an organizer. Basically, at that point, I had been part of hackathons in every roll except for as a sponsor. One of the hackathons we went to was an AngelHack hackathon and we ended up winning. Winning included being in the hack accelerator program, which was pretty cool.

What did you do before 42?

I was working on a startup. I was in the middle of interviewing with companies. Ultimately I learned when you are interviewing for gigs you shouldn’t try to start a startup at the same time. We were working on that for 3 months then we went to a demo day in San Francisco. We ended up not presenting because within a couple of days of being there it was pretty clear that we were not prepared enough to go up on that stage and try to pitch. So we didn’t demo. We came back to NY after that experience very broke and a little wiser. So we started freelancing, a really common thing when engineering founders run out of money. We continued contracting until eventually, our client didn’t pay us.

We decided to close everything down and go our separate ways. I started freelancing with one of the prospective clients we had been talking to and picked up rails. It was while I was working on that that I ran into the TechCrunch magazine article about 42. This was the article that basically everyone in our piscine read and thought we should try it. I looked at the website and was like man, there is no way this is a scam. It was funny, Charlie (Summers) and I pushed each other into applying. I clicked the first apply button and I went into the game. That was 20 minutes and it was fun, Charlie wanted to play it so I sent him the link.

The next game was 2.5 hours, so I was like, “ I will do that later.” Charlie did it and got into the piscine. I was like, what do you mean that you got in?” And he was like, “do the 2.5-hour game, it is worth it.” Then we went to the piscine about a month later. I was like look, if we are doing this, we are buying our tickets now before we talk to anyone. We bought our tickets and talked to our parents and I let them know I am doing this thing.  They were supportive so that was cool. I lived in New York until I moved to 42 which was 2016 for the August piscine.

Did you have any programming experience before 42?

Yes, an academic amount of C++ which means very little, javascript, HTML, CSS, rails, ruby, python. I had been programming for 4 or 5 years. The amount of programming I had done in college before 42 was overshadowed by the amount I did in the piscine. During the piscine, I was freelancing too since I left NY on short notice. I couldn’t drop out of my contracts, so I was working 15-20 hours per week. During the piscine, I did not sleep much. I remember after the final exam, I was like, I am not sure if I got in. There was no one to compare yourself to because it was the 2nd piscine. We didn’t have enough information to reverse engineer how to get in.

What did you like best about your 42 experience?

I liked that the staff didn’t get in the way. 42 staff in particular, and 42, in general, has a lot of cool philosophical aspects and values that I appreciate. If you go to Gaetan, Jamie or Kwame and let them know about your plan, they are like, “sure, we aren’t going to help you, but you can do what you want.” Whatever you do at 42, you own it. The IP (Intellectual Property) is yours. My favorite part about the experience is the staff would support you if you had a good idea that brings value, success, or follow through. If you try to do that at a traditional school the default answer is no. At 42 the default is yes, but you are on your own.

I like the incentive structure. At 42 students are students, not clients. When you are a student at a traditional school, since you give them money, you feel like they need to do things for you. At 42 they listen. Since you are considered students first and not clients the incentives are to create the best learning experience. They are stakeholders, not shareholders. 42 can stay true to the method of learning they are doing. They can hold a higher standard and not lower the bar. It is an interesting part of our culture where we think free is bad. 42 can have a high bar though because it is free. They don’t have a financial gain, there are other gains that are important.

What is interesting is that the people at 42 are amazing. The bocal and the staff really do care. If there is something in their control that they can change for the better they are going to change it. There is passively caring about things and being willing to do something about things. They have a high concentration of people who care, support each other and want to change stuff. It is nice to be surrounded by people who do things, even if you mess it up, it is fine. I worked on the hackathon program, I had a lot of hackathon experience so I helped Jamie. My understanding is that 42 hosts hackathons quite often now.

Is there anything that you do now at work that you don’t think would come as easily if you hadn’t attended 42?

When you are working on your projects they give you spec requirements that aren’t clear and that you have to interpret, which is like the real world. They give you a starting point, where it is interesting but sometimes not. But again, like what a manager might present to you. Then they are like, “your resources are your peers and the internet” and you are on your own. This is what working as an engineer is like in the real world. At 42 you are forced to make your own decisions. There is freedom to make decisions. 42 students will talk to their friends and come to a consensus. Part of the program is forcing you to make technical decisions with your project.

In traditional academia you don’t have that freedom, you just need to pass. At 42 you don’t need to pass, it is okay to fail. It is an important part of the job. You make judgment calls based on our interpretations of our requirements, the vague statement from our managers, feedback from our peers, a stack of overflow comments recommending one way or another. The process of working through things at 42 mirrors more closely to the workplace. Although in the workplace you have better resources available to you, plus the impact is bigger. At 42 you can play around, but at work, it is bigger. Even though the impact is less, you learn the process of how to work in that environment.

There is the entire process of learning how to work in the industry such as the high level of techniques and time management. No one in the industry is clocking you in. Generally, no one keeps track of your hours or where you need to be. There are meetings, but in engineering, no one cares how you do the work. They just care that you provide quality results. If you are empowered to manage your time, like at 42, you are evaluated in the same exact way as you are in the industry. There is the learning aspect, self-directed learning. In industry rarely you have no idea how to do the things you are responsible for. You are now the resident expert if you have touched something.

The difficult part of the project is figuring out how things work. Finding a bunch of unstructured resources and assembling the information together so you have a deep understanding of what the problem is and how to solve it (versus being told how to do it). You may have to go back to your manager and say you can’t do this. That means less work, and less investment if you figure out if it is feasible beforehand. 42 has a system that forces you to develop those skills that are applicable to the workplace.

From a technical side, when I was active in the program, we were doing everything in C. It is a good learning tool, but everyone has to go out and learn what industry is using. From the technical side, there isn’t a lot of overlap. On the soft skills side, there is complete overlap. The 42 environment forces you to learn all the skills you need (to learn at 42 to succeed) that will help you in the workplace. Which is another way that 42 prepares you. The last thing is, at 42 you are explicitly responsible for yourself, which is not true at other places.

There is no real safety net at 42. You have resources and a community around you to ask, but ultimately and undeniably you are responsible for yourself and improving your life is up to you. It is unstructured, traditional college is highly structured. If you start doing badly in your class your professor may come up to you and ask what is going on. There are a lot of people who check in on you and try to kick your ass into gear. That doesn’t exist at 42. That depends on your values, how you feel about that. I see it as positive because there is no doubt you are responsible for yourself. If you want a great outcome at 42 it is up to you, no one will do it for you.

We have these really well-built systems at college that takes away that agency for you. 42 forces you to develop a degree of radical agency. Very few places have a sandbox where you can mess up. Personal agency is hard and you will be wrong and make mistakes. The failure you experience at 42 has an emotional impact. It feels like it has an impact and hurts but it actually has less of an impact than a zero at a traditional school.

Getting a zero or failing a class at a traditional school is a loss of investment in a financial sense because you paid so much. You figure it is an investment to get a good job and get stability. If you don’t get value with your time, you never get that back. At 42 you can fail, you can always invest more time. It is set up to desensitize you to failure which is super important in the workplace.

How did you get your foot in the door where you work?

I got really lucky. So back in April of 2017 42 hosted their first internship fair. I was working as an ambassador and helping Jamie get the fair set up.  I was running around the entire day making sure everything was right and setting everything up. Towards the end of the day, there were two representatives from companies I sat next to.  I sat down next to my future boss and started talking to him. They asked me to interview and I got interviewed and I didn’t hear back for a month then I got an offer. I got my foot in the door because I worked as a 42 ambassador.

Describe what you do:

I don’t do much of the actual cybersecurity stuff which is a good thing because I shouldn’t be doing that because I am young and inexperienced. We are a cybersecurity company, and we can’t be wrong. I am set in the context of security and when I build stuff I need to make sure I am not doing anything dumb. For now, I am working frontend, but I have been on the backend, all over the stack. I also have done R&D, I have done bug fixes, very varied work which is awesome because that is what I like.

What does your typical workday look like?

It is more of a startup environment so I go in between 5 am and 11 am. I leave anywhere between 4 pm and 11 pm. We do have meetings anytime between 11 am and 3 pm. There is a meeting range, so we usually have a meeting around 11 am. I kind of need to be in the office between those times, but outside of that I have a lot of flexibility. I usually get in around 10 am-10:30 am and leave around 7:30 pm or 8 pm.  We have deployment night once a week so you may get in at 2 pm and leave around 11 pm.

Would you recommend the 42 program and if so, why?

Yeah for sure, I recommend 42 pretty constantly. I would recommend with caveats because for one, you need to go out and do your own research. It is not for everyone. It is a long-term investment. I would not recommend it for people who are trying to catch up quickly. If you are not trying to become an engineer I would still recommend it because it shows you what engineering is like. I would recommend it if you are on the fence. At the piscine you will know whether you want to do this full time or not. If you don’t have a relative risk tolerance, I wouldn’t recommend it. And if you are not able to not work for 6 months for whatever reason, I wouldn’t recommend it.

You have to be completely in. Not that people can’t do it, the first 6 months of the program if you are working at the same time it is really hard. Soft skills, the most important skills are the self-management, the willingness to make technical decisions, the process of learning which you are forced to learn at 42. There are the technical foundation and skills set. But the soft skills are more valuable, especially coming from a non-entrepreneurial background. If you come from a technical background, the soft skills are far more valuable.

Do you have any advice for 42 students when it comes to securing an internship or job?

So my advice for 42 ambassadors, go to meetings would be the #1 thing I would say. Your job as an ambassador is to interact with people outside of 42 and help them have a good time. If guests are coming to this school your job is to make them have a pleasant experience.  Your job as a 42 ambassador is to network and interact with people from cool companies. This is an opportunity that 42 has provided so you can gain access to people you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. People like to help people but they don’t want to waste their time. As long as you can show them you won’t be a waste of their time or resources they will help.

At 42 we focus on getting stuff done and putting our heads down to work. But you also need to talk to people and interact with people. When you are interacting with them, tell them what you care about, what you are interested in. Especially if you make it to a point where you can get an internship, bring it up in conversation. People like hiring people who care and will put in an effort. Go talk to people, find a way to interact with people, that are in the industry and outside of 42, in a non-aggressive way such as meetups etc. Most people don’t know when you are looking for a job. People want to help you but if they don’t know how they won’t be able to.

Lastly, become familiar with what the recruiting process is like and target specific stages of the funnel. If you are at the beginning of your search, what you are looking for is just getting phone screens. Usually, the recruiting process is the resume, phone screens, in-person interview and then an offer. First try to send out a bunch of resumes, if you send out 100 you may get 1 phone screen. Once you can reliably get to the phone screen stage, it’s about getting interview experience. You are just trying to get as many interviews as you can.

Once you have a reliable method and know how to sell yourself, it is about getting the best offer that you can. There is this one quote a speaker at 42 said, “Don’t accept an offer until you have 3 offers on the table.” Personally, I took the first offer I got and am happy. But, if you can get 3 offers on the table that would be great. Oftentimes people try to skip steps and it’s not very effective.

Connect with Oliver on LinkedIn

Photos by 42’s in-house photographer, Priscilla Vongdara

Interview by: Stacey Faucett