Two grads go from high-end bartending to software engineering

When you’re bartending at one of the top bars and restaurants in the United States, the pressure to get things right and perform well is acute. Just ask Zach Luther and Aharon Kolatch, two Hack Reactor graduates who previously worked together at an NYC bar and restaurant considered one of the best in the country.

“Most people probably don’t realize what goes into it, but at that level of service, it’s extremely technical. There’s a lot of pressure and very little room for error,” said Zach. “That’s how it is when they’re shooting to be the best of the best.”

Bartenders in this sort of environment contend with high customer expectations and are required to do a significant amount of studying outside of shift hours. Zach and Aharon had to memorize the 30+ cocktails on the menu (which could change or rotate routinely), as well as many off-menu classics, wines by the glass, food options, and more – and they needed to put that memorization into practice, ready to create exactly what the customer wants in the blink of an eye.

“Working behind a cocktail bar, you need to master speed and efficiency. It’s all about good systems, repeating those good systems, and refining those good systems,” said Aharon. “The best bartenders in the world will make the same drink the same exact way every single time, with every movement exactly the same.”

For Aharon, a career change that started with a game 

This type of systems approach and mindset translates well to software engineering, which Aharon says he fell into by accident. When the COVID-19 pandemic initially shut down bars, restaurants, and more across the country in March 2020, he found himself out of work and spending a lot of time playing online computer games with friends.

“I started playing Dungeons & Dragons online, pretty much every day, for hours and hours on end,” said Aharon. “The system I used to play online had a way of creating code to automate parts of the game, and I got really into it.”

The more he learned about how to push and prod the system, the more he wanted to know. He eventually found his way to an introductory computer science class online, and about halfway through, he realized he was interested in the material beyond using it to modify games.

“I realized I loved coding and started looking into ways to make it more than just a hobby,” he said. “I really hadn’t thought about leaving hospitality or leaving the beverage industry, because I honestly loved it and still love it. I just happen to love coding as much as I do, too, and it has much better longevity.”

To take his new passion beyond being a hobby, he applied to our Intermediate Coding Bootcamp. According to him, his time in the program helped his interest in systems thinking and helped him learn how to learn.

“The biggest thing I learned from Hack Reactor is refinement and repetition of concepts and the difference between a teach-yourself approach to problem-solving versus a more rigorous, well-designed approach to problem-solving,” he said. “Hack Reactor can teach you how to teach yourself, how to teach yourself properly, and how to solve problems on your own.”

Aharon is now a Full Stack Developer at IBM, where he works on the digital commerce team to build tools used to bring IBM products to market.

Zach’s switch from bartending to working at a “dream company”

Zach’s transition from bartending to software engineering began about a year before Aharon’s and can also be traced back to gaming.

“I was always really interested in computers and I liked the creative problem-solving aspect of them,” he said. “I think my original interest in software engineering comes from playing computer games when I was younger. I spent a lot of time playing StarCraft.”

He pursued other careers first but found his way back to this long-held passion for computing in 2019 when his girlfriend graduated from a coding bootcamp. He was still bartending at the time but had started to feel a pull toward something new.

“I started to follow in her footsteps and teach myself little by little over the course of a year to see if I enjoyed it. And I really did enjoy it. After that year I was like, okay, I still like this, I’m going to take the dive,” he said.

He got into our Intermediate Coding Bootcamp in NYC, though after about 8 weeks, his cohort had to shift to online instruction due to the pandemic.

“I learned an incredible amount during the bootcamp. Not just skills, but things like what the job would look like and how to collaborate, which I think were really important,” said Zach. “I made a lot of friends and good connections from having access to the alumni Slack channel. Both of my post-bootcamp jobs have come through alumni, so having access to the online network has been really awesome.”

He’s currently a Security Engineer at DigitalOcean, a cloud service designed to help developers create modern applications. He builds and automates tools and services for the company’s security team to better and more efficiently protect the company’s users and interests.

“My team is really supportive, and actually the whole security organization is really awesome. This is like my dream company,” said Zach. “They place a really strong emphasis on learning. If I want to take an hour to study something during my day, I can work that into my workday instead of having to do it outside of work, which I love.”

Advice for others looking to change careers 

Both Zach and Aharon agree that there’s more in common between high-end bartending and software engineering than might meet the eye. Both professions require a high level of dedication to the material, careful study, precision in execution, and an openness to continuous learning. And even though bartending might seem like a solitary activity, doing it well often requires working up close and personally with teammates, sharing space and ideas and providing support.

It’s no wonder then, that both Zach and Aharon provided similar responses when asked what advice they’d give to incoming bootcamp students.

“Lean on your cohort mates, even more than you lean on the staff, and be there for your cohort mates,” said Aharon. “When you understand something better than someone else, there’s no better way to solidify that understanding than teaching.”

Zach echoed those sentiments.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your fellow students. That was how we learned the most during our cohort,” he said. “If you’re struggling with something, it’s good to struggle with it for a while – but if you really feel like you’re beating your head against the wall, don’t be afraid to talk to someone and ask what their approach is and talk through it together.”


Want to read more stories from our graduates? Start with Shay Rosner, Hack Reactor graduate who now runs our Telegraph Track program, which runs alongside each bootcamp and was specifically designed to address the challenges faced by underrepresented students in tech and engineering. 

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