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They found love in a software engineering bootcamp

Hack Reactor

Finding love in a bootcamp - Hailey and Crew

For some, enrolling in a software engineering coding bootcamp can be life-changing in unexpected ways. 

The primary goal, of course, is to graduate and land a first job as a software engineer. But during the bootcamp, connections are made, friendships are formed, and sometimes, even romantic relationships begin. 

Hailey and Nick met as students in our 12-week online bootcamp, separated by more than 5,000 miles. At the time, she was located on the west coast of the U.S. while he was in Switzerland. 

Hannah and Crew met in person as students in overlapping cohorts at our former Austin, Texas campus location, where he was assigned to provide her and her pair programming partner with coding feedback. 

Both couples forged romantic connections that have resulted in a mix of moves to new countries and states, new jobs and professional opportunities, new parenthood, and more. We recently caught up with them to learn more about how they met and connected, how the bootcamp experience shaped their careers and relationships, and what they’re up to now. Read their Q&As below, starting with Hailey and Nick, followed by Hannah and Crew.  

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Hailey Balestra-Foster, VP of Operations, Hack Reactor/Galvanize
Nick Balestra-Foster, Software Engineer, Meta 

 
How did each of you find your way to software engineering?

Nick: I had a startup in Switzerland. I was a co-founder, so I was dealing with everything. I had a team of engineers. I was comfortable with the front end, especially static HTML, CSS, and UI, but I did not know proper coding, and so I always needed engineers to get my ideas made. 

At some point, I was frustrated because I was like, “I could move much faster if I had technical knowledge." So I discussed it with the others at the company and decided to do the Hack Reactor program. 

I was in Switzerland at the time, so I did the remote course. It was a bit crazy because, in Switzerland, it's a nine hours time difference, so I did most of the program with all the windows blacked out.

Hailey: My path was definitely very different. I actually had been a middle and high school math and science teacher for a number of years. In my last year of teaching, I was at a school that was starting a computer science 101 class that a different teacher was teaching, but a lot of those kids came to me right after that class for pre-calculus. 

They'd always come in with questions that I had no idea how to answer. I just had no knowledge whatsoever of the comp sci side, but I started to look into it a little bit, so I could maybe help them some. I soon realized that I actually really enjoyed doing that kind of work, too. 

At that point, I was looking for what might be next for me after teaching. I love teaching, but it's a hard job and after finding Hack Reactor, I applied on a whim, and here I am.


What led you to a bootcamp in particular?


Hailey: I have a master's degree in teaching, and I didn't want to have to go back to get another degree. I was already paying student loans, and I wanted something that could be relatively quick. Plus, I really liked just the whole model of diving into the deep end really quickly and then getting out on the other side. 

Nick: I was similar in the sense that I was a strong believer in JavaScript becoming bigger, and bigger, and bigger. That's the type of code that I wanted to start with, and I wanted something practical where you can actually work with a real project. Plus, I love open-source, and you could do a little bit of that during the program. 


Had you two met before the bootcamp?

Hailey: No, we met in the bootcamp and actually were totally just friends for, what, three years? We would catch up occasionally on Slack and stuff, but nothing significant, I would say, until around 2018, a few years after we did the bootcamp, when we started to chat more and thought, "Wouldn't it be fun if we did a trip?" At the time, I hadn't been to Europe yet, and he was talking about all the cool places in Europe. Then I found out he'd only been to San Francisco and Miami in the U.S., so we decided we needed to fix that. We started planning a whole road trip together, a West Coast road trip, for two weeks, where we ended up staying with a bunch of people from Hack Reactor too, couch-surfing our way down the coast.

We started in Seattle, and then we went inland. We ended up visiting my parents and some other family. Then we went down through Central Oregon, and then the east side of the Sierra Nevadas, down to Reno and Tahoe, and then down to San Diego. Then we came back up, and went through Los Angeles, and then along the coast on 101 and 1 up to San Francisco.


That’s such a cool trip. How did that trip turn into what you two have now? To being married and living in the same city? 


Nick: We started chatting more, and started to build some feelings before going on the road trip. So the road trip was also a way of seeing how things went in person, in real life. We had never met in person until then. And it went incredible. From there, we kept traveling and we started a long-distance relationship because, at the time, I was in London. After Hack Reactor, I moved to London for my job. 

Hailey: There were a lot of long-haul flights.

Nick: Yeah, almost every month, or month and a half, either I was coming here or she was coming to Europe. We alternated, and we were doing some remote work. The company I was working for then had an office in San Francisco, so it was easier to travel and work and see each other. 

Hailey: At some point, we realized we had a great thing going. We got married, and then we started the Green Card process from there. That took 17 months in all between the previous administration as well as the pandemic happening during that time. 

And now you live together in Seattle. Was that move for work primarily?

Hailey: Kind of. I have family roots here, probably like five generations or so. My sister's also here now, but the main impetus, I would say, was because Nick has offices here.

Nick: Yeah, I work at Meta, and we did visit Seattle to see how it was, and it was beautiful with the lakes, and it actually reminds me a little bit of Switzerland. 

I’d love to hear more about that, Nick. And you, too, Hailey. What are your current roles, and how are they going? 


Nick: I'm a software engineer at Meta. I work on the ads measurement side of things. I love it. I'm growing a lot and understanding a lot about my strengths. I’m finding out what I like to work on as an engineer.

There is this big separation about front end, back end, but I learned that it's not that useful as a separation. I learned that I'm really a product person. For me, code is a means to provide a feature or enable our customers to achieve something. While I'm less focused on the beautiful purity of the code. 

For me, it's building stuff and building products. I think Meta has been really helpful because they allow us to work on our strengths and understand where we want to work so that they can put you in a team where you do your best work. 

Hailey: I'm still here at Galvanize. I couldn’t quite leave education all the way. 

I really do quite enjoy engineering and had fully intended on going into the job search and getting a job as an engineer, but I got pulled back in. I'm grateful that I did because I had a teaching background, and after the bootcamp, I stayed on as a SEI Resident (similar to the role of Teaching Assistant) and the incoming cohort was pretty big. The team ended up needing somebody to take on what was essentially a cohort lead role. With my teaching background, I was able to do that. 

That translated into a permanent role with the remote bootcamp team, which I loved, because I got to do both what I had learned at Hack Reactor, but also what I had done previously in education. From there, I worked with the remote team for about four years. I was the program lead for a couple of years, then I stepped into the Director of Operations role and now I’m VP of Operations for Hack Reactor. 

My job is getting all the people in the right places to be able to serve our students and support them with the processes, tools, and other things that help us to support them as well as we can.

Nick: Yeah, so we were peers in the same cohort, then we both were colleagues because we were both SEIRs after the bootcamp at the same time. So it's been fun. 

What was it like to go through this intense educational experience together and to have it as a foundation of sorts?

Hailey: It's interesting because I've been both the student and now staff, and so now I’m behind the scenes a lot more. One thing that I say to students anytime they start the program is, "Hey, you're going to be doing a really intense thing together, and you have to collaborate closely on it.”

When you do that, it's like going through a real bootcamp, where the people around you become very important because you're supporting each other and getting to know each other really well. Maybe some conflict will happen, but you have to work through it, so you learn how to do that really effectively too. On top of that, we have a lot of mutual friends as a result of having been through the bootcamp together. That's really nice.

Nick: Yeah, that part has been fantastic because we were in Hack Reactor together, we already have a connection with many others. We know people in pretty much every city that we go to, so that's cool.


For others just starting their own bootcamp experience, what advice do you have for them? How can they get the most out of the program? 

Nick: I would say just enjoy and really rely on the staff and their suggestions and pointers because they know what they’re talking about. And yeah, really just enjoy it. I enjoyed doing the program, and made a lot of friends as well as found a wife, so it was definitely life-changing.

Hailey: Literally life-changing. I agree with all of that. Also, I would say, building on that, to set yourself up to be able to enjoy it.  

I talk to a lot of incoming students, and I always tell them that in the week before they join to do things like inform everybody who’s important to them about what they're about to do this, so that if somebody comes to them halfway through the program and is like, "Hey, can you help me move this weekend?”, they can let them know they’re busy without having to feel guilty. It’s important to inform people ahead of time so that there's no missed expectations, and so you can really focus.

I also suggest doing things like figuring out how you're going to make sure that you're engaging in self-care, so proactively thinking about what you’re going to eat that week that’s quick, healthy, and nutritious. I advise people to think about things like an exercise routine. If you don’t have one in place already, it’s useful to think about how you're going to get some movement in your day, like scheduling a lunchtime walk or scheduling some times where you can get outside too because it can be really easy to just be so on your computer so long that you all the student don’t feel well and have a headache. 

All of it makes a difference. Those are typically my biggest tips for folks. It's about getting ready ahead of time so you can really focus as much as you can on the program.

And last thing. The three-month program is great. It sets you up really well. You learn a ton from it, but I think the biggest value you get from all of it is the community you have going through it and that you can maintain afterward. But it's not delivered to you on a silver platter. You have to be an active part of it and give to the community in order to get as much as you can out of it.


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Hannah Spence, Software Engineer, Talroo
Crew Spence, Director of Career Services, Hack Reactor/Galvanize

What drew both of you to software engineering?

Hannah: I was in retail, at Victoria’s Secret, for five years and at some point, our traffic was down over 60% and we just couldn't get sales up in-store. My brother and my sister, who are both engineers, encouraged me to do a bootcamp, specifically Hack Reactor, because of its reputation. So I left retail and taught myself some basics in Python and JavaScript. I did the Prep course for Hack Reactor, and to my surprise and delight, I got in. I’ve been an engineer ever since. 

Crew: I never considered being an engineer prior to the bootcamp. I actually joined Hack Reactor as a career coach and then became the Director of Career Services. I did that for four and a half years or so. And then when we got acquired by Galvanize, there were plenty of really strong, seasoned people on the career services team, so I felt like I had done the job I was supposed to do, which was to build out a strong team. At that point, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do next, so I thought I would just take advantage of the program I'd been helping people through.

I had been told by some of the instructors that I had a good mind for this. I was essentially doing system design all the time with my career services job. And that's a lot of what you do in software engineering. So I took the plunge and decided to do that right around the same time as Hannah, unknowingly.

How was your overall bootcamp experience?

Hannah: It was hard work but very rewarding because I didn't think I was really capable of buckling down and doing something really difficult, especially in a new city where I didn't know anyone. I didn't have any family or friends in Austin. I just left Missouri and came to Austin, so accomplishing this is definitely something I’m proud of. It’s also an interesting place to meet people because people go to Hack Reactor to change something about their lives. So they’re ready for a change and if they’re also ready to meet friends, I think they're going to be less obtuse about what they’re looking for in either a relationship or a friendship.

Crew: Yeah, to her point, because the people who come to Hack Reactor are trying to make an improvement in their lives, it sort of selects for a certain kind of personality. There's a certain openness when you're making friends. People weren’t afraid to say where they were coming from and where they wanted to go. It broke down some of the apprehension you might have when you first meet a stranger.

I would say it was the hardest educational experience I've had because of the pace. It’s a very challenging pace, but I think that it ended up helping me in a number of other ways in my life, too. Now, when things are rapidly changing in any aspect of my life, I feel like I'm better able to adapt and get a lay of the land and learn whatever it is I need to learn.

I think that's a big thing in the beginning of the program. Hack Reactor focuses on teaching you about how people learn. That can be applied to learning JavaScript and modern JavaScript technologies, but you also have the ability to go learn anything pretty quickly because now you understand how your brain works. 

And as far as the personal side, of course, I met my wife, and I also have other lifelong friends that were in my cohort. We’re actually going out to eat with some of them tonight.

Were you in the same cohort or how did you initially meet? 

Crew: I was in the cohort that started right before Hannah. At Hack Reactor, we do this thing where those in the senior phase of their cohort will introduce themselves to those just starting out in the junior phase of the next cohort. The seniors have to give code reviews to the juniors. I introduced myself to Hannah and everybody else in her cohort, and then later in the week, I was matched up with her and her pair programming partner to give her a code review. This is when I realized that Hannah was a better engineer than me, because I gave feedback that just wasn't correct, and she was not afraid to tell me that. In no uncertain terms, she pointed out why she was right and I was wrong. And there wasn't like a continual headbutting after that. She’s really good at explaining her work, so I understood why I was wrong right away. I was like, "Oh yeah, you’re right". And I've been saying you’re right ever since.

Hannah: Yeah, it was funny after I did that, because I thought, "Oh no, I've already made an enemy here.” And I remember telling my brother about it and saying, I think he doesn’t like me. But turns out, it was all good.

And did you start dating soon after that? 

Crew: Not immediately. We were just friends for probably the first four or five weeks of the bootcamp. We would hang out at lunch and dinner sometimes and occasionally talk about the program. I think she was walking to campus a lot and I was taking the bus, but on weekends, I had a truck, so I offered to give her a ride home one Saturday because it's really hot in Austin. She was talking about how she didn't really know much about Austin, and then I actually wrote to her in code, saying that if she wanted, I could show her around. She responded to me in code, as well. But it wasn't explicitly a date. It was just like, let’s go eat. But when we were eating, she asked, "So, is this a date?” Going back to the idea of being open at the beginning of the bootcamp, we didn’t have any apprehension. So much that I even said after that first date, "Just so you know, I'm interested in ultimately getting married and having children and I would hate for us to not be aligned in what we want. So, if you're thinking you don't really want that, then we should just be friends. But if you do want that, then just know that as we're dating, I'm assuming that's what we're working toward.” 

Hannah: Under more normal circumstances, I think when people are dating, they try to keep things to themselves, to try to stretch out the relationship until they have to let the skeletons out of the closet. But I think because we were both taking the bootcamp to transform our lives, we were very open right away with where we wanted to go. So it was very upfront, which maybe doesn't sound romantic. But I think it was still off-set with romantic gestures.


Let’s shift a bit to what you’re both doing now, in terms of career. What are your current roles? 

Hannah: I am a software engineer for a company called Talroo. It's a job search company. Our main product is our job search API. So if you're on pretty much any job search site, other than indeed, then you’re probably getting jobs from our API. 

I've also been working on a tool to help people post jobs themselves and to help companies do it without as many headaches. We want companies to be able to easily control their budgets and create hiring events and things like that, which have been making a comeback. 

Crew: I ended up coming back to Galvanize as the Director of Career Services for the whole company, but a lot of what I do involves building our systems for tracking student progress, reporting student progress, and optimizing so that we can improve the job search success rate. Some of that actually does involve code, and so the systems we've built, I maintain the code base in those and update when necessary.

Congrats on your new role as parents! How has it been balancing careers and being a new mother and father?

Hannah: I'm grateful for being a software engineer because that tends to involve companies that want to have competitive benefits packages. I've been able to have time off to focus on our son. That's been a huge benefit. I'm also grateful that the company I work for has a lot of people who are supportive of parenthood in general. They're really excited to see pictures of him and my boss told me to just take all the time I possibly can. I've been really grateful for that. Also, working remotely during the pregnancy was really great. The remote work was a side effect of COVID, but it made it much more comfortable for me. 

Crew: I definitely think that tech, in general, enables that kind of flexibility, so for instance, we're moving to another state, and we're doing that because we don't have any family where we are now. We have some close friends, but with family, you can really lean on them for things like watching the kid when something comes up, and our family wants to do that.

Remote work flexibility allows us to presume a certain amount of security, knowing that you could still work from a different location and not think, “Well, I have this skill, but it's only useful in this city.” Instead, that skill is useful anywhere. 

And since it does tend to be the case that there’s some flexibility in the tech industry, maybe there's a day like we’re going to have tomorrow when we have some doctor's appointments, and I can start my day later and work later. That flexibility is there based on a certain amount of trust that you're going to get your work done.

Do either of you have any advice for someone in your former shoes, who's about to step into their first day of the bootcamp? 

Crew: I’d share advice that my cousin gave me when I was about to go into the bootcamp for the Army. He said to experience this as if you're watching a movie. What he meant by that was, there's going to be a lot of really difficult things, really emotional things that happen because you're really focused on this thing for a long time, for many hours a day. And it's very easy to get swept away emotionally and have a bunch of ups and downs. But instead, if you're somewhat detached from it emotionally, and just kind of let this process happen to you, while doing your best to stay up to date, it’s good to think of this as a temporary stressor.

If you look at it from that perspective, it makes it feel somewhat more manageable. It’s not going to be easy, but you know it's for a designated period of time. 

Hannah: Software engineering is the kind of field where you can always learn. You will never feel like a complete expert. So just absorb what you can and focus on the task in front of you and then move on and you will be fine. As he said, it's easy to get swept up and feel like there's no end in sight, but by just focusing, treating it like an algorithm, and breaking it down into what needs to be done, you can check things off as best you can. 

And also, cook your meals in advance.

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Want more alumni stories? Read how these grads switched careers to software engineering.