From healthcare, medtech, and education to software engineering: how three IGNITE apprentices found themselves (and stayed) at Dropbox

Each and every journey to Dropbox is a little different, but some of our employees have had particularly interesting beginnings — especially our IGNITE apprentices. Originally launched in 2018, the IGNITE Engineering Apprenticeship Program provides opportunities to new software engineers from non-traditional CS backgrounds for mentorship and hands-on learning. Apprentices are brought on for 6 months, and most of the time, they never end up leaving! We chatted with former apprentices Angela Chan, Bryan Villa, and Gabriela Balicas to learn a little more about their experiences — and why they’re proud to still call themselves Dropboxers today.

Can you tell us a little about your professional background before you ended up at Dropbox?

  • Angela: “Alt-E-S-V” and “index-match” were my best friends. In other words, I was a Financial Analyst and working in healthcare. There I learned and fell in love with Excel VBA macros. The projects I built with them were praised as technological mastery, and so, with a naive half-confidence, taking the coding bootcamp plunge felt like the next step.
  • Bryan: I majored in Linguistics in college and became an an English teacher in Shiga, Japan. Although it was extremely fun and rewarding, for years I had dreamed of becoming a software engineer — like Angela, I fell in love with VBA and used it to make educational PowerPoint games like Wheel of Fortune. However, I never thought I could actually become an engineer. That was until my sister left her marketing job, attended a bootcamp, and got an apprenticeship at IBM, all within nine months. She inspired me to do the same, so I sold all of my stuff and moved to the Bay Area to attend 42 Silicon Valley, a non-profit free coding school.
Bryan’s life under quarantine
  • Gabriela: I worked at a medtech startup in a customer facing role. My role was purely non-technical, but I got to eat lunch at times with the engineers at the company to learn more about their day-to-days.

What drew you to apply to IGNITE?

  • Gabriela: I was drawn to apply for a variety of reasons. First of all, Dropbox was clearly really intentional in structuring the program in a way where the apprentices had dedicated mentorship. I have friends who did apprenticeships at other big name companies that were not provided mentorship and had to go find those mentors on their own, which can be pretty daunting. Secondly, I happened to be reading Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World by Joseph Menn which talked about an interesting case back around ~2012/2013 where the hacker group raised a security vulnerability to Dropbox, which was promptly patched by the engineering team. I found the technical details around why it was a vulnerability in the first place and how they were able to patch it extremely interesting, which is when I really started developing a more voracious curiosity for the technical aspects of file storage.
  • Angela: IGNITE was a sought after role for many in my bootcamp’s cohort, so word of it spread as soon as the application came out. There’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Excalibur in the stone, and for bootcampers — the apprenticeship opportunity at Dropbox.

What was your favorite thing about your apprenticeship?

  • Angela: I had a challenging project with no shortage of things needing to be done, nor lack of friends and mentors to help unlock the path to learning along the way. I also particularly enjoyed my mentor’s deep dives into our system’s architecture. I was in awe not only of the details that went into building the system itself, but of his ability to translate complex concepts into simple ideas, and I was excited to build out that skill during my time at Dropbox.
  • Bryan: From day one I was treated as a full-fledged engineer. I was given projects to run on my own, and was trusted 100% to drive them to completion even when I had no clue what I was doing. To this day, my manager still looks for opportunities to grow and stretch me past my abilities, despite all of the mistakes I make. Great people, tons of opportunities to grow, and meaningful work is pretty hard to beat.
  • Gabriela: From day one my voice mattered. I loved being able to be an active participant in brainstorming meetings, risk assessments, and frankly any meeting that required a discussion. I was taken to Chaos Conference and the SRE summit where I got a seat at the table next to senior as well as staff engineers.

Have you been involved in the apprenticeship program as a full-time employee?

  • Angela: I’ve continued to attend events and coffee chats with the new cohort and had the honor of working with my apprentice peers in a Hack Week project this year. Once an IGNITER, always an IGNITER — we have hoodies, after all!
  • Bryan: I’m involved in the Connections buddy program where two IGNITE alumni meet regularly with a few current apprentices as another layer of support. I got involved because I really would love to see this program grow and help create a stable pipeline for people who are not always so privileged to have taken the traditional route.
  • Gabriela: I’ve been a buddy for the IGNITE apprentices this year. For me, it’s a way to pay forward all of the help and support I got from my mentors, managers, colleagues, and peers to get me to where I am now.

What’s your favorite thing about working Virtual First?

  • Angela: We have been able to experiment with “digital nomadism” and I’ve also gotten many, irreplaceable weeks at home with my parents. And… no commute!
Angela digital nomading in Hawaii and France — beautiful views and lots of food!
Angela enjoying another perk of Virtual First, which is midday yoga breaks — unless your dog hogs your yoga mat
  • Bryan: The five second commute is pretty amazing. On top of that, with Core Collaboration Hours, I get to decide how I schedule half my day. Sometimes I shift my afternoon schedule to the night so I can enjoy a little bit of warm sun at Golden Gate Park.
Bryan’s view from taking walks up Potrero Hill
  • Gabriela: I can work in my pajamas all day every day. I love wearing comfy and baggy clothing! And I think that despite not being able to see my teammates in person during Virtual First we have actually gotten a lot closer during this time. Early on I set up a recurring game night on Fridays which has gotten pretty consistent attendance. I wouldn’t have spent this much time in an informal setting getting to know my teammates if we had been doing all of this in person. I’ve made friends I hope to keep for life.

Inspired by our apprentices’ stories? If the IGNITE Apprenticeship Program sounds like a fit for you, the application period for the next cohort will be between January 18–23, 2022. Mark your calendars (the window is only a week long!) and keep an eye on our jobs site to apply!

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Get to know the people of Dropbox and the stories of how we’re making the world work better. Want to learn more about current opportunities? Check out: https://www.dropbox.com/jobs

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