Paulina Sprawka

STUDENT PROFILE: PAULINA

Paulina Sprawka

AGE: 19
INTERESTS: I code all the time, sometimes I read coding and life coaching books. I enjoy the gym, volleyball, and swimming.

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

I am from Lublin, Poland. When I was young I did tons of sports, I was a competitive swimmer for 4-6 years, then a volleyball player. I moved to Warsaw when I was 16 so I could play in a better team. I loved being there. After one year I left Warsaw because I had problems in my personal life. My parents were getting a divorce, thus my family started to fall apart. I came back and hung out with people who weren’t a good influence so I ended up having problems with the law. Half of my family turned their backs on me and I got depressed. My mom was my only trusted friend. I moved out to the countryside so I could sort my life out and that’s when I started to code.

When I left Poland to attend 42 I was too young to graduate high school so I took home-based learning – I learn at home (California) and take high school tests once or twice a year. This is my last year and I am planning on finishing it in April.  

What did you do before 42?

I started to learn how to code at home and began with C++. I was reading different psychology and mind-shaping books. I knew my time was really precious and didn’t want to waste it on useless subjects. I skipped around 49% of classes to code, I would just always do it – after school, at school, during family events, on my way home, literally everywhere. My school was 2 hours away from home by bus, so I would run to my house to get back to code as fast as I could.

In Poland, there is a place called Campus Warsaw, which is a Google Space. I went there to learn with other people – it is like 42 but they don’t have a curriculum, they host hackathons, presentations and networking events. I was looking for a company interested in helping programmers and at the same time, I had a really big dream to get to know American culture. I saw 42 on the internet, took the tests and started the piscine in June 2017.

Did you have any programming experience before 42?

I coded in C++ a little bit, I did some web development – HTML, CSS, and PHP. I thought I knew how to code, but after I got here I quickly realized I had no idea about programming –  on day 5 of the piscine I didn’t know what was going on, so I can surely assume I didn’t have that much experience.

How did you hear about 42?

I googled schools for programmers, found the 42 website and saw a few articles about it.  42 Silicon Valley was brand new then and since 42 is a French school, a lot of the articles were in French. Fortunately, I was fluent in this language, thus I could gain all the information I needed. I also looked up their videos on their YouTube channel.

What did your friends and family think about your decision to attend 42?

No one believed me and people thought I was joking. When my friends realized I was serious they were a bit closed minded. No one expected me to leave for the United States, especially at that young age – I knew it was going to happen. I constantly heard “you will fail,” “you will end up being upset in Poland,”  “you are about to waste your future,” but you know, I just had this vision in my head that I can do whatever I set my mind to and honestly I was so focused on coding I didn’t even pay attention to them being negative.

In terms of family, I had to convince my dad to allow me to go to the United States. Since I was 17 I couldn’t leave without his official permission. Eventually, after explaining my plans and the benefits of attending 42, he agreed. My mom knows this school is great, she has the same personality as I do. She believes in me and sees I’m smart, therefore she trusts me and my decisions. Overall she was really happy about me going to gain more skills and not being afraid of failing or taking the risk. My dad is just really traditional. I know he wants me to stay in my home city and be like everyone else. It’s upsetting he doesn’t even try to see my purpose, but that’s just a consequence of having extraordinary goals – not everyone will understand them.

What was the piscine like?

Incredible. I met tons of personalities from all around the world – amazing people with amazing cultures, different nationalities, languages, and backgrounds. When I came here for the first time I never spoke English before and had never been surrounded by people of different ages than me. It was a completely different experience for me, I really loved and enjoyed it. It wasn’t tough because of the excitement I felt and people I was working with. The piscine brings the community super close and extremely fast, so me and two guys I’ve never met before – Janek and Ri – were good friends by the end of the bootcamp. For one month we did everything together: code, correct each other’s exercises, learn, eat and even visit around. Since we all were passionate and wanted to learn, we finished at really high levels.

The best benefit from the piscine is getting to meet new people fascinated by the same thing as you are. Whenever you have the same goal it is easier to get there together than by yourself. I don’t see the piscine as difficult but rather an incredible and indescribable experience, it was great.

What was it like when you received your post-piscine decision email?

I went back to Poland to wait for the answer. I was on my phone all the time and the moment I saw the acceptance email I was super thrilled. I told only my mom and asked her to keep it a secret. I ran 15 km (9.3 miles!) to my grandma’s house to share the good news but they already knew about it. In fact, my entire family knew. My mom was too excited to keep it to herself, she was so proud of me. I was really hoping I would get in here because this was a necessary step towards my final goal. I started the program as soon as possible, on September 18th, 2017.

How does Starfleet Academy differ from the piscine?

I was the first and only woman in Starfleet Academy and I am the first one who is going to finish it. Starfleet, when it comes to intensity, is like the piscine for one year. You need to put in 80+ hours per week to get stuff done. There were days I would work 48 hours straight on a certain project. This program is like a continuation of the piscine. So if you want to keep the intensity and the pace of learning – pick Starfleet. I have multiple projects at one time that span over multiple weeks. In the piscine, there are fewer projects and shorter deadlines.

Before Starfleet I was a cadet for 3 months and it was a lot more relaxed, I didn’t have the same deadlines. I was able to do other things like a writing club, running club, so I had a lot of activities. With both 42 programs, I was surprised at how understanding the guys were and the entire experience wasn’t intimidating at all.

How do you find help with your projects?

Thankfully in Starfleet, we work together on the same projects. At the beginning of each assignment we talk about it, go through it on a whiteboard and break it down into smaller components. Whenever someone doesn’t understand something, we all go through it and people give input if they understand certain parts.

The other thing that really helps is googling things since Google is a huge source of knowledge. Coding books are really great and teach a lot. The other people that helped me were cadets with more experience or staff like Gaetan.

What do you like best about 42?

I don’t have to waste time on things that aren’t important to my future. I can follow the path I want to go on, I have freedom when it comes to choosing projects. I don’t need to do what everyone else is doing, like at a traditional school where all the students need to complete the same curriculum. At 42 there are multiple pathways, I don’t think there are two students who finish the program with the same exact projects.

What is the most challenging aspect?

I think teamwork. We cried a lot during projects and went through the subjects that were very difficult without any idea how to even start them. Different perceptions, different languages,  different technologies, different approaches – it’s tough. It is important to learn to be a good team player, listen to people and be able to express yourself, which is more difficult than it may seem to be in the tech industry. These soft skills are core values. When it comes to teamwork, that is how you are going to work on big projects in real life.

What do you like to do in the Bay Area?

When I have time (I usually code) I love going to San Francisco and seeing the famous tourist spots like Golden Gate Bridge or the streets that go up and down. Walking for hours throughout the city and looking at all those great buildings is a lot of fun. I also love to drive through Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park – all the rich, tech cities – and sightsee those houses, Tesla cars, watch successful people who do the same thing I am about to do and just see myself amongst them. The headquarters for tech giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, those places that you see on tv and don’t even dream about visiting them, knowing they are easily accessible here is just wonderful. I have awesome opportunities to go to those companies and see them in person thanks to other cadets and 42.

What is your dream job?

I would love to be an embedded systems engineer. It allows you to control the flow between the software and hardware side of a project which is crazy. I find it more interesting and challenging than “normal” coding. I want to work for a government so I can hack and snatch data without being arrested. In addition, I also plan to have my own company. It is something I wanted to do ever since I was 14 – I kept doing things to make my own money, so I think it’s just in my blood.

What is your favorite quote?

“Anything is possible.” – simple, but unappreciated. I’ve built my life and character proving people what I can do and showing you can do anything you wish in your life – “Tell me I can’t and I’ll prove you wrong.”

I also would love to share a part of a great speech by Les Brown:

“What if all of us took that attitude after we face a rejection and a no, or we have a meeting and no one shows up? Or somebody says “You can count on me.” and they don’t come through. What if we had that kind of attitude? The car’s repossessed, nobody believes in you, you’ve lost again, and again, and again. The lights are cut off, but you still are looking at your dream, reviewing it every day and say to yourself, “It’s not over until I win!“

And remember! “When life knocks you down, try to land on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up. Let your reason get you back up!” – Les Brown

Connect with Paulina on LinkedIn


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

Interview by: Stacey Faucett

published by Stacey Faucett – September 25, 2018