From the NSA to Hack Reactor to Thich Nhat Hanh, Student's Unlikely Journey Is Just Beginning

While most Hack Reactor graduates take jobs as Software Engineers soon after finishing the program, Michael Munson is exploring a different path. Munson graduated in December, and was the first to participate in the school’s shepherd program, which provides counseling and emotional support for students. From there, he traveled to Paris to study with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Master, poet and peace activist.

Graduate Michael Munson is off to Paris to study with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

Graduate Michael Munson is off to Paris to study with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

“I ran across his books about five years ago. It was pretty transformative for me,” Munson describes.

While this has the markings of a classic quit-the-rat-race-for-a-spiritual-path story, that’s not where this one goes. Munson intends to study meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh, and then offer his services for a venture that the Zen Master has become interested in.

“I heard from the monks that he's lit a fire about building an online monastery,” says Munson. “Mostly I'll show up and practice with them, do a retreat for three weeks on the subject of death, and then show my willingness to contribute and help build that platform.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is a prominent Zen teacher based in Paris.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a prominent Zen teacher based in Paris.

Unlike, say, an offer to be a full-stack Software Engineer at, Munson’s plan doesn’t have the certainty of a contractual agreement.

“It will all depend on what happens when I'm there,” he notes.

Munson suspects that, as the future unfolds, he “may zig and zag” between the worlds of tech and Zen. Though they are very different pursuits, Munson sees similarities between the immersive three months of the Hack Reactor program, and the enveloping nature of a meditation retreat.

“Anytime that you surrender to a period of intense training, I think it's going to transform you,” Munson observes, both about Hack Reactor and meditation retreats.

Michael Munson (in blue) meditates with other Hack Reactor students.

Michael Munson (in blue) meditates with other Hack Reactor students.

“I'm attracted to people who have gone very deep within themselves but with the attention of transforming the world,” Munson explains, in describing the draw of Thich Nhat Hanh. “My interest is seeing how possible it is to integrate a technological life with a life of deep freedom. I think it's something that our civilization hasn't figured out, and I think it's important that we do.”

Munson has tangled with issues of technology and freedom in the past: after scoring exceptionally well on a government-funded math test, he entered into a program in which his undergrad education would be paid for and he would go onto work for the National Security Administration (NSA) during summers and after school. While Munson was grateful for this opportunity, he ultimately found work at the NSA unsatisfying:

“Efforts to create security by force undermine security, first in its deepest or truest sense (our capacity for happiness, to know that we are fundamentally ok) and eventually in every sense.”

Munson has found more satisfaction at Hack Reactor and at meditation retreats.

“The intensity of it is important- the energy of the community. That's why people go to a monastery. Without a community a monk is a bee without a beehive. There's something to surrounding yourself with the energy and the intensity equal to your passion with the desire to change yourself. Hack Reactor is good for that.”

Like many others, Munson found that Hack Reactor doesn’t just produce great programmers, it nurtures students on an emotional level.

“There's a tremendous amount of open-heartedness. That can be hard to maintain at a personal level, but [Hack Reactor’s founders] have found a way because that's who they are and that’s who they have found and accept and hire.”