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Alex Jacobs Balances his Career in Tech with Passion for Healing Through Music

Ryan Greis

Alex Jacobs Balances his Career in Tech with Passion for Healing Through Music's Image

Landscape photo courtesy of Pixabay

Hack Reactor was the first bootcamp Alex Jacobs had ever heard of. Before that, he didn’t know there was even such a thing as software engineering bootcamps. His path to Hack Reactor, like many others’, was not a direct one. Nor has it been predictable since:

“I went to a liberal arts college at Grinnell College and majored in Chinese. I have never been someone who was going to do one thing or know what I wanted to be when I grow up. That’s always evolving. I’ve always enjoyed exploration and travel. And working for periods of time to enable periods of not working. I’ve done a lot of moving around and exploring.”
 Alex Jacobs
Alex Jacobs

For one rare period of his life when he held down one job for five years, he embraced the position’s low-pressure responsibilities and plentiful downtime:

“I had a particular position where there was no demand on my mind. All I had to do was be in the chair for 8.5 hours a day. I used that for everything it was worth to explore the internet. I was researching web development, and I got very interested in teaching myself Python and found a mentor that would give me toy problems.”

But eventually Alex hit the same wall many self-studying people hit when they lack guidance or a certain mindset:

“I just gave up on it and did other things. In my mind, there was this bookmark that someday I would love to be a programmer or software engineer. I had been exploring working with computers since I was very young, and I knew that I liked it. But I didn’t know at the time how to take my interest to the next level.”

Having put his interest in programming on hold, he quickly side-stepped to indulge his fascination with music and sound healing, culminating in a certification in therapeutic music:

“I became interested with guitar in high school and have been studying that ever since. After my sound healing studies, I found a program that would take me to the next level, which was to apply the work as a bedside musician in healthcare environments.”

Fast forward to October 2013. Kristen Nash, an Admissions Director at Hack Reactor was introduced to Alex through a mutual friend. So began a pivotal moment in Alex’s life that would redirect his journey:

“I was told Hack Reactor turned beginners into software engineers in 12 weeks. A floodlight went off in my brain. It’s no exaggeration to say that that conversation was the beginning of everything. I was researching Hack Reactor online that evening, got myself a campus tour scheduled that Monday, ran into a guy on the street wearing a Hack Reactor t-shirt on my way in who chatted with me all the way from getting his coffee to going back to campus. It was like this very interesting and smooth entry ramp.”

An avid learner, Alex had boundaries when considering attending school:

“I decided years ago that I’m never going back to school unless there’s something I can’t do without going back to school. I don’t want to go back to school just for the sake of going back to school. So to be able to learn a viable skill in such an accelerated fashion appealed to me.”

Alex applied to Hack Reactor. He failed the Technical Interview the first time. But that did not deter him from trying again:

“It was one of those positive failures where I realized I’m going to have to work harder at this than anything else I’ve worked on in my life. I was used to succeeding in educational environments with an average amount of effort. So I doubled down, got in to the program 10 days later, and started my immersive in February of 2014.”

Alex feels age and experience played a beneficial role for him in the program:

“I started the program at age 39. I knew how to prepare in advance. This was going to be a marathon; not a sprint. Or more like a marathon of sprinting. I prepared mentally and physically. I worked with an herbalist who prepared for me a daily tincture to keep my immune system up. I knew the younger people would have a physical advantage to be able to pull off multiple late nights in row, and do things that my brain just didn’t want to do anymore.”

Alex was motivated to learn again, to tap into his left-brain thinking:

“Prior to learning about the program, I felt my cognitive ability starting to slip away. At the time, I was a therapeutic musician and I worked at Kaiser Hospital playing at the bedside for 8 hours a week for patients. I worked in every part of that hospital, from ICU to a pre-and post-operative center to patients in the general population. I’ve been trained and was very much enjoying my life of bringing helping music to people. But I was only focusing on the right brain, the creative framework. Communicating through music, not through words. People would ask me questions and it was as if I could literally see the shape of what I wanted to say, but I noticed I was having a harder time forming the words and sentences. I needed to blow the dust out of the gears and get into some left brained work. So Hack Reactor presented me with a path where I could start thinking and processing on the logical; not just on the creative, visual, spatial front.”

Early on and often during his immersive course, Alex went through what experts call Imposter Syndrome, in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud:

“I was nervous. I went through imposter syndrome like everyone else. But I assumed mine was worse. I used my “lifeline” telephone call frequently. I remember speaking with my mom during my lunchtime walks a few times a week. I asked her how she felt about being put back into service as an active parent. I remember her saying that she enjoyed it, actually. I just needed an ear to talk through my doubts and fears, as well as my successes. I was a jumble of nerves and emotions. But my brain was firing on all cylinders. I was loving it overall. I was absolutely fascinated with the level of detailed, quality instruction I was experiencing.”

The curriculum pace at which Alex was trying to keep up didn’t seem to let up throughout the 12 week program:

 Jacobs playing guitar for assisted living residents with dementia in Berkeley
Jacobs playing guitar for assisted living residents with dementia in Berkeley
“I felt like I was being dragged through the program by my feet. It was extremely uncomfortable at times and I leaned on my pairs in the pair programming environment pretty heavily. On a daily basis I wanted everything to just stop for like a week so I had time to absorb the material. My mental picture of the immersive has always been of a hard rain on a hard-packed desert soil. Rain is pouring down, but the water just pools because the ground doesn’t have enough time to absorb it. My cohort experience was like a monsoon season.”

But eventually, Alex processed his learnings at a quicker rate, as if his capacity to learn took on new life:

“My brain was starting to balance. I didn’t initially think so but it went in. I think it took at least 6 months before that water seeped in. I was at my first job before things were starting to land. While there, I just knew things that I couldn’t explain where I learned them. But when I look back, I realized I learned them at Hack Reactor. Ultimately, I had really learned how to learn, and that was the most important thing. I continue to improve. It’s been 5 years now and when I confront a new problem, I have a totally different mindset and toolset to figure things out.  If I don’t know how to solve something, I know how to figure it out. The approach to learning that is modeled at Hack Reactor is invaluable. It wouldn’t matter if someone had said, “here’s the Hack Reactor curriculum. Go lock yourself in a room for 12 weeks and do this. It’s about the mindset. You can’t get that from a book.”

Following graduation, Alex spent half a term as a Hacker In Residence. It bought him 6 weeks of volunteer time at Hack Reactor, working on curriculum materials that Hack Reactor was developing for The Last Mile, a career training program being developed for inmates at San Quentin Prison with the goal of reducing recidivism, and serving as a support mechanism for incoming students, all the while allowing the water to continue sinking in:

“That was invaluable for my confidence. When it was time to start the job search, I was ready.”

Alex didn’t approach the job hunt alone. In addition to his career support from Hack Reactor, he had an “accountability buddy”:

“We had a check in every day. Who did you contact today? What did you do. What are you planning to do? What are your blockers? I was already in that mindset from the bootcamp. And I had to keep that momentum up.”

He ultimately found a job in just 43 days on the hunt.

The job was headquartered in Berkeley. He was the first and only front end engineer hired with Solinea, a cloud computing infrastructure company. The company’s location enabled him to move back to the East Bay. Under his specific circumstances, he now found himself largely autonomous:

“It was a remote job. I was the only person I knew from my cohort that was going remote. Those that I knew in the industry didn’t have experience with working remotely, but nobody had anything good to say about it. So I was a little nervous going in. But the more I thought about it, it seemed like it was going to be a great match. What it gave me was the confidence to make independent decisions, to find the answers to my own problems. It gave me the space to have to figure things out on my own.”

Alex stayed in his role with Solinia for 2 years, until a department-wide lay off dissolved his software engineering team, including a project manager, designer, and senior engineers:

“I got all my ducks in a row, fleshed out my resume, wrote a bunch of blog posts, and got ready to jump in to the job search again.”

But, once again, Alex tapped the brakes:

“I thought, ‘wait a minute, I need to give myself some space’. I felt stressed and overloaded, and wasn’t thinking clearly anymore, and was probably burned out. That had been an incredibly steep learning curve, from going through the intensity of the Hack Reactor program straight into my first job. I think I just needed to let everything cool out.”

He decided to take a month off between jobs. But his burnout continued, and his procrastination to get back into programming stretched into 2 months, then a season:

“I thought ‘winter’s a bad season to apply for jobs, I’ll wait until spring… you can see where this is going.”

Eventually the burnout faded. But instead of going back into the workforce, he utilized his programming skills to create personal projects:

“I feel like it’s been this beautiful blossoming into figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. Programming has absolutely been part of that, and I continue to practice on a daily basis. Although my resume won’t necessarily show it that way.”

He began making things, then writing blog posts about it, mixing personal interest with the motivation to just build things and learn. He began with some front-end projects, then some server projects. He eventually moved on to a project that involved making a server that trades bitcoin based on defined rules:

“Although I don’t actually know how to trade. The program works but, all it will do is lose me money. I shut it down pretty quickly. It was a project born from the intersection of my interests, current events, my desire to challenge myself, and to continue learning. I had been siloed at my job to the front end. Anything from database to back end, I didn’t touch. So during this time, I set myself up with various projects where I had to learn how to do everything.”

Alex believes there are a lot of people that just don’t want the intensity of the industry. The full time plus. The weekends:

“I thought ‘how can I do this part-time? There is a part of my spirit that is missing a chance to reach out, connect with people, directly help people, do something positive. That’s not something I found at my first job. I wasn’t sure if I could find that anywhere while working full-time, but I couldn’t find part-time engineering work anywhere. So I kept researching.”

Alex hadn’t looked at the Hack Reactor alumni Slack channel for months. His first time back into it, he saw a post from Hack Reactor looking for an SSP (Structured Study Program) instructor:

“Something in me had that same feeling of ‘yes, go for it’.”

He submitted an application and recorded himself presenting a teaching example. He received a reply from Hack Reactor stating they were all staffed up for now but they would keep his information on file:

“I thought that was their polite way of saying, thanks but no thanks. A polite rejection. So I forgot about it.”

Six weeks later, he received another reply from Hack Reactor:

“We’re expanding our program. We looked again at your application. We’d like to interview you.”

Alex Interviewed and was offered a position. It then dawned on him:

“Suddenly here I am, teaching my first SSP, working remotely. I’m in this position where I’m teaching, actually doing part-time tech. What it showed me was I really love teaching, and I’m getting to do tech, I’m learning more about tech by teaching it, I’m solidifying my knowledge of fundamentals. I’m feeling great about the response I’m getting from the students. I came from a non-tech background. I’ve got this empathy for the students that’s very effective in understanding their challenges and being able to help them.”

In addition to his new role back at Hack Reactor, he is now a mentor with Thinkful. And, last September, he went back to school to learn how to facilitate music circles with seniors with Alzheimer’s-Dementia, a passion that began for him 10 years earlier:

“I sang and played guitar for assisted living residents with dementia once a week at a facility in Berkeley. That led me on the path of getting certified as a therapeutic musician.”

Alex joined the program, graduated, and is now undergoing the certification process:

“I wanted to do something more interactive, something with career potential. The next chapter of my life is still being written. I had some savings from my full-time tech years which I’ve been able to lean on to build up these practices and professions and focus on nurturing the priorities in my life.”

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