My Journey to Airbnb — Helena Zarazua | by Lauren Mackevich | The Airbnb Tech Blog

Growing from engineering apprentice to seasoned iOS developerLanguages have always come naturally to Helena Zarazua, who has used this skill to bring people together, whether by teaching English to Chinese businesspeople or by immersing American preschoolers in Spanish. Since then, Helena joined Airbnb through the Connect engineering apprenticeship program and has stayed on as a full-time engineer. She’s picked up new (programming) languages like Swift to specialize in iOS development, and works on features to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere.Read on to hear Helena’s story. from none other than Helena herself.I’ve always dreamt big, but not once did my dreams include software engineering. Despite having an aptitude for mathematics since young, my aspirations emphasized my artistic side — I wanted to be a singer, actress, or anyone involved in film production. Even though (or maybe precisely because) my father was a computer engineer, I had a preconceived notion that I just wasn’t made for the technology industry.That turned out to be completely false, but it’s certainly been a journey to reach where I am today.Growing up in Mexico City, I was firmly on the path to pursuing a career in the arts. I attended an arts high school where I focused on stage acting, producing, and directing, all experiences for which I’m very grateful. I studied other subjects, too, and I had one very inspirational math teacher who helped me see the philosophical side of math, but my plan after high school was to go even deeper into film.Although I received admission to film school, ultimately, it didn’t make financial sense to attend that particular program in the US. Instead, I used this as an opportunity to take a sabbatical and explore my other talents and passions in life. In addition to my knack for math, I realized that languages are another strength of mine — I reached conversational fluency in German just because I once dated somebody from Germany!When I found a remote job opportunity to teach business English with a Chinese company, I used it as a chance to travel the world over a three-year period. It’s quite a nice coincidence that now at Airbnb, I get to help millions of people do the same.My travels brought me to San Francisco, where I decided to settle down. I changed jobs a couple times to try other roles, including one as a teaching assistant at a Spanish immersion daycare. The culture of technology runs high in the Bay Area, though, and some encouragement from my partner at the time made me consider something that was never before on my radar — coding bootcamp.I used to think I wasn’t technical enough to be an engineer, even though I was always good at math. I felt like there was a certain type of person who went into software and that just wasn’t me. But I also felt like I had nothing to lose, so I applied for a software engineering bootcamp in San Francisco. Perhaps a sign that I could succeed in engineering after all, I aced the interview and officially enrolled in the program.A big part of my journey that I’ve yet to talk about is mental health. Throughout my life, I’ve struggled with ADHD and OCD, in addition to clinical depression and anxiety. The intersection of these has been especially challenging, and I’m always cognizant of how to balance my mental health with my career. Bootcamp, as the name suggests, was an extremely intense 16 weeks, not to mention the added stress of the pandemic starting at that time.Given my ADHD, I prefer to work and learn in person, so the shift to a remote bootcamp wasn’t easy. That said, the support network at my bootcamp was really strong, particularly the program’s mentorship and coaching. I put a lot of time and effort into my job search, which was made easier thanks to the help of my advisors.My first contact with Airbnb was through a panel discussion. Hearing from people at Airbnb with non-traditional backgrounds like myself was really reassuring. They emphasized just how accessible and friendly the culture at Airbnb is. It sounded like a great environment that truly values diversity.Much like my foray into the bootcamp, I thought at the very least I’d try applying to Airbnb. The interview process itself reinforced my perception of the company’s warmth. I genuinely enjoyed my interpersonal interview where I got the sense that the interviewer was making an effort to get to know me as a human being. Personally, I felt that Airbnb’s technical interviews weren’t as intimidating as I expected, and the vibe was always constructive.Needless to say, the interviews went well and I joined the second cohort of Airbnb’s Connect program! Connect is a six-month engineering apprenticeship designed to attract non-traditional candidates who would be successful at Airbnb. Structured in two parts, Connect starts with training on Airbnb’s “paved road,” the technical stack engineers need to know to work with a large production codebase. In the program’s second half, apprentices join engineering teams throughout the company and work on real projects with a dedicated team buddy.Airbnb is heavily invested in the success of Connect, with the ultimate goal of participants staying with the company as full-time engineers. The program consistently had a positive atmosphere where I felt set up for success. Notably, the cohort was intentionally small (just ten people) to make sure that every apprentice had enough support and could transition to full-time as long as they put in the work. At no point did I ever feel like I was in competition with my fellow apprentices.The apprentice community was very tight knit and served as a strong support system. When everybody was working remotely, we still found opportunities to gather safely and work together, and now that the office has fully reopened, there’s a group of us who continue to regularly get together even after we’ve graduated.One of the qualities I respect most about Connect is the program’s commitment to feedback and development. The coordinators make an active effort to improve the apprentice experience based on our input, and they care deeply about creating an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds.I’ve learned so much during my time at Airbnb, both as an apprentice and as a full-time engineer. From a purely technical point of view, I’m more confident in my engineering skills and capable of working independently on bigger projects.Originally, I expected to be a full-stack engineer since that was my bootcamp’s focus, but when organizational needs changed and my manager asked if I wanted to try mobile development, I approached that challenge head on. I’m proud to now have some larger product launches under my belt, having built iOS screens from scratch and end-to-end. That hands-on experience has given me a strong understanding of how everything fits together in a way that used to feel much more abstract.It was definitely a steep learning curve, but that process taught me valuable lessons beyond the mechanics of iOS development. As paradoxical as it sounds, I’ve found the key is to get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you’re challenging yourself enough, you’ll constantly be learning and working with unfamiliar technologies. Being accepting of that and approaching problems one step at a time is the most productive way forward.And then there’s communication. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be your biggest advocate (all the more so when working remotely!). Be clear about what you need with your manager, teammates, and collaborators. Especially in a work culture like Airbnb’s, people genuinely want you to succeed. The way to facilitate that is to openly share with your team. In my case, I’ve communicated my mental health needs with my team and that’s been so helpful in shaping my experience for the better.The learnings I’ve made here at Airbnb are a large part of why I’m interested in exploring mentorship and management in the future. The community from both the Connect program and Airbnb at large has taught me so much. I’d love to pay that forward and help future Airbnb employees grow as much as I have. We’re hiring for many roles, so take a look at our career page and who knows, maybe we’ll be working together soon enough.