How I’ve ended up being in San Francisco and working in tech.

Sergii Garkusha
14 min readNov 3, 2017

It has been a long time since I wanted to start writing stories for Medium, and today I decided to begin doing so. I always thought that my very first article would be about some hardcore technical stuff, but instead, it is autobiographical, and I have a special reason for it (will appear later).

Chapter I: How everything started

First, let me introduce myself: I am a 31-year-old software developer, who moved to San Francisco by a happy coincidence. I moved from the city, which is little smaller than SF (its population is roughly 500 000), but 10-x cheaper. (By the way, both cities have their City Halls built by people, who probably were inspired by a Buckingham Palace).

San Francisco City Hall, Mykolaiv City Council, and Buckingham Palace

I was in love with history so much that I got my masters degree in the subject and became a research officer at the Mykolaiv Regional Museum of Local History. That was a part of my life, when one of my hobbies, historical reenactment, was compatible with my work. One of the many duties of my profession was to conduct tours for visitors, so I did a ton of that being dressed in the full replica of an outfit of mid-XVII Century Ukrainian Cossack. People were never indifferent to my work (especially children).

My last stand. Mykolaiv, Ukraine, May 18, 2011

There were a lot of historical reenactment events as well as scientific conferences (as a research officer you have to do science too 😊).

I received 3 grants to support this kind of activity (well, they were microgrants — one hundred bucks in Ukraine is still good money 🤣), and we did a bunch of fun stuff with friends and fellow-enthusiasts: wrote a book (or brochure — it has more pictures than text 😊) about fencing techniques of Ukrainian Cossacks, built the replica of a tent from the Viking’s era, shot a short documentary about the historical reenactment movement in our region.

A couple pages from the book

All that was fun, but there’s more to the story. Some aspects of this lifestyle were tough. First and most important: money. As a junior research officer I received 1300 UAH per month which roughly be $260 converted to US dollars, and this money devalued to $160 since the crisis of 2008. It was barely enough to survive, because to feel okay you need at least $300 to cover the basics. That’s why all that time I also worked as a security for one of computer hardware distributors three nights per week. And even being promoted to a Research Officer didn’t change much.

I have a god’s gift (or whoever created this Universe) to be patient, thought sometimes stubborn; I can do the things I believe in, not caring about the circumstances around me. But situations like this can frustrate anyone in the long term. The prospect of being poor, not being able to afford all the necessities without hassle, and not being able to travel the world (it is still one of my biggest dreams) was scary, and I realized that something needed to be done.

To improve my situation, I tried a lot of different things: assembling a furniture, created my own advertising agency (our first client was unable to pay because of the economic crisis), graphical design, etc.

At the end of this search for purpose I had discovered a new industry — tech, and this remind me of my childhood passion — computers. When I was 6 years old, my father bought a computer, and it quickly became on of my favorite activities. It was good old ZX Spectrum: iconic home computer of the eighties. I had spent thousands of hours playing games, drawing animated pictures, making my own digital catalog of MK combos, and in a vain attempts to program my own game. In fact my first programming language was Sinclair BASIC, a dialect of the BASIC programming language.

An example of a simple program, which converts temperature from/to Fahrenheit/Celsius. Image was taken from here

I loved it so much, but neither me, nor my parents never took it seriously. I was a humanitarian, I was good at writing and speaking (of course on both of my native languages, I want to apologize in advance for my English), I liked Philosophy and History. I was bad at math, but good at geometry. So my family thought that Computer Science requires a lot of math and I couldn’t make it as a career of choice. That prevented me from even to try it. Wrong choice.

There’s no way to get rid of your true childhood dream, and I wanted to be a programmer.

However, life is funny and even after all this time, I’ve made it: I have become a coder. And here’s the story how.

It was a friend who was in tech at the moment agreed to show me the path. So we began with HTML, and it was easy (we both studied it at school), and then continued with CSS (was absolutely new to me). In three months I’ve finished with my first production quality web page. It was beginning of 2011, so page had two versions: one with tables and another with divs. It was funny that I only got internet at home on 2010, and on 2011 I’ve started to receive money by doing things for other people online.

My friend was impressed with the speed of my progress and with the quality of my work, so he told me that I could try to apply for job with my new set of skills. And in a month I’d been hired by the company with an eloquent title — GeeksForLess.

My first work day as a coder was on April 4th, (4.04 looks similar to HTTP 404 status code. It’s another sign of the right way)

When I started my journey into coding, I figured out a lot of interesting facts about the industry. Here are some of them:

  • A lot of western companies outsourced their tasks to Ukraine because of relatively low cost of living and high quality of technical education.
  • Average tech salary were 3 times higher than salary among other industries.
  • Tech people receive their money in US dollars. This means their money were covered from devaluation of national currency.
  • An average age in tech in Ukraine was 25, the same as mine at the moment.

That was very good to understand, but the most important thing that I’ve realized was that:

Just like tech industry is dedicated to make future present, I also wish to dedicate my life to future, not to the past. From a historian, I became a futurist.

That’s how I’ve found my true dream. From a historian, I became a futurist. Before that I always felt weird. I felt that I was going the wrong way even when everything seemed to be great, but now I’ve found the right one. A lot of challenges were passed, many more still ahead, but it’s a big win — to find your direction in life.

Since that time my whole life has been changed. I’ve learned a lot of new stuff: learned jQuery (before vanilla JavaScript, of course 🤣), switched to Linux, discovered what command line is and how to automate things with Bash, learned PHP, tried freelance, was fired, tried Python, was hired by incredible MotoCMS team, started my own company, pass the WordPress Developer test with the best score on oDesk (never got benefits from it), started mentoring others, discovered asynchronous programming with Node.js, traveled to Asia, lived in Thailand, etc.

My score for WordPress APIs test on oDesk, October 2014

In fact there is a Golden Age for programmers in Ukraine. According to the Stack Overflow 2016 survey a purchasing power of Ukrainian developers is roughly the same as their US colleagues. That means that at home we are a rare people with legal source of income, who can afford themselves good apartments, fancy restaurants, latest gadgets, travels abroad, etc. All the things that barely affordable to average Ukrainians.

Some general life insights that I’ve got during the way:

  • If you have motivation or just believe in something, do it.
  • Even if no-one believes that you can make it — keep going.
  • Believe in people while they didn’t prove you shouldn’t.
  • Believe in them anyway. All of us constantly failing and making mistakes, but we can learn from it and became better.
  • Maintain your body: sleep well, eat healthily, exercise every day, use a standing desk. It will help you to avoid sadness and depressions, to feel happier, and to keep your brain ready for new challenges.

Some insights specific to way of programmer:

  • Importance of curiosity: by diving into languages, technologies and domains of knowledge, which are not related to your work, can give you good general outlook and can inspire you to think.
  • Share your knowledge and experience: you will structure it, learn much more at the end and will leave smiling faces behind.
  • Programming is not a Sprint, — it’s Marathon: it’s not a secret that we have to constantly learn new things and forget some of an old ones. Day by day with no stops.

“But how you ended up being is SF, and why I’ve spent 7 minutes reading all that?” — you will ask me. It was necessary to give you more context of how things looked before I moved.

Chapter II: How I ended up being in SF (And why)

As I said before, I’ve moved to San Francisco by a happy coincidence. Well, did you hear about the Diversity Visa Lottery? I’ve heard. I’ve heard about it from two guys, who I met during my trip to Minsk, Belarus in 2014. Later, during my second trip to Minsk, I applied for it. There’s 1 to 50 chances to win the lottery according to the Forbes article, so I didn’t put any expectations on it, and continue to live my life. For the first time in my life I’ve traveled far away from home — to a beautiful Thailand, where we spent amazing days with friends.

In the moment before sunset, Koh Tao, Thailand, 2014

I went back home refreshed and ready for new adventures. And figured out that I won a lottery! That was insane! I was happy and scared at the same time. What challenges does it bring into my life? And what if I could not make it?

Until this moment the United States was far-far away from me, — somewhere in parallel reality. I never thought that I will be able to visit this mythical country from the Hollywood movies, and now I’m going to move there.

But not only that happened to me. During the period of gathering all of the documents for a visa, I met a lovely woman, true love which maybe comes once in a lifetime. And before I flew to the US, I’ve spent my days with her and with her beautiful baby. That was the happiest time in my life when I paid more attention to them than to anything else.

During that time I thought a lot about where exactly to go to the United States. Everyone who is a programmer heard of Silicon Valley. The most challenging, but the most rewarding place, where you can achieve great results, or die. And I started to prepare.
I’ve bought the premium subscription on LinkedIn, started to gather reviews, and brush up my internet presence. I’ve made my own website from scratch using vanilla JS and started to do algorithmic challenges on freeCodeCamp (btw, they have good curriculum). But when I arrived in the US, everything became tough. I knew that no matter how hard you will prepare, reality is always more random, and sometimes more complicated. But still, when you will experience it IRL, you may be shocked.

What shocked me about SF:

  1. Dirt, and crazy people at the Civic Center area. I’ve never seen so much dirt on the streets in my life, not at home, nor in Asia.
  2. Expensive AF. Not affordable for most people even from the US.
  3. Though to find a job as a developer (Surprise!) It sounds weird on the first glance, but here as a developer, you’re competing with the whole world. And yes, it’s tough.

The last thing means that employers will filter candidates with very strict filters and they are fine with false negative results. It means 3–5 steps interviews: phone screens, coding challenges, day-long in-house interviews with white-boarding and bunch of CS theory. Sometimes companies even will not tell you what they’ve decided, or you can wait more than a month just to hear something like “Unfortunately our company decided to move on with another candidate.”

There is a question about how do people live and survive financially in San Francisco, CA? on Quora. I will give you my favorite answer (the language of original is rougher).

There are a few answers to this question:

  1. They don’t.
  2. They make a hack ton of money.
  3. They live with a ton of people.
  4. They’ve lived in the same place forever.

So I’ve ended up living according to an answer # 3. I lived in the hostel and then work there as a house manager to save money. In comparison to home, where I did programming, had my own apartment and lived with people I love, that was terrible.

To fix this situation finding a job was crucial. So I have to change the strategy and this time I’ve bet on the thing which I can do really well — on socializing. I’ve been attending a lot of different meetups: JavaScript, React, Node, even WordPress.

On WPSFO meetup, San Francisco, June 8, 2016

I’ve got a proposal to be a CTO (it’s cool but a moment wasn’t right), got WordPress + React contract job, and ended up being hired by Zentist — amazing startup with brilliant people. But at the time when I did it, I’ve realized that my relationships at home were about to break. You have to prioritize what is more important, and I’ve chosen to go home to fix the situation.

So I went back to Ukraine and spent three months trying to fix the relationships, but no matter how hard I tried, I was refused all the time. Hardly disappointed, with all money spent on the chase of love, I went back to the US, with a feeling that there’s no turning back until I will find purpose and achieve something outstanding. I don’t believe in faith, but this seems to be the case. In fact, I still love this person and her baby, but it is time to focus on present challenges.

Fortunately, before my trip to Ukraine, we rent a house with friends in SF, near Daly City BART Station. The original idea of it was similar to the hostel, where I used to work as a house manager, but with more focus on the community. All three founders of the house were related with Tech industry (two software devs and one 500 Startups manager), and we wanted to surround ourselves with like-minded people. By sacrificing our privacy, we benefit a lot from the fact that we do have a tech hub at home. Many talented people wanted to live with us.

Brainstorming idea of a startup, @ home

Here, at my home, I quickly found a job as a Full Stack Web Developer at SentiSum (thanks to my Node.js experience and MongoDB certificate). In fact, the Co-founder just simply moved to my house, figured out who am I, and propose me to work for his company, which came from London, UK to participate in 500 Startups acceleration program. Pure luck and fun.

The SentiSum team on a Batch 20 Companies Wall

So we spend four amazing months at 814 Mission St, at 500 Startups SF office with a diverse group of fellow-founders from all over the world. Most of the days were full of hard work and meetings with people (like Gary Swart, Scott Farquhar, Jason Lemkin, Jay Hum, etc) who already succeeded at the Silicon Valley, and wanted to share their knowledge and/or invest in the promising startup.

Five Hundred Strong

That time was very productive and refreshing. We’ve built the new version of a product from scratch, we met many wonderful people, we even did a couple meetups about AI and it’s future. Personally, I did project architecture and a lot of backend stuff for a product. Besides that, I started running every day, discovered Machine Learning as new work passion and photography as a hobby and ran San Francisco Marathon, second half.

500 Startups Batch 20 Moments

That was definitely a great time, but also short. Guys from SentiSum received funding at home, in UK, and decided not to incorporate in the US. The strict requirement of the investors was that whole team must be in-house in London. And guys back home, while I decided to stay in SF.

In fact, I was the only representative of the company for the rest of the acceleration program. I gained knowledge about how to become a founder of a tech company from fellow founders and developed a priceless network of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors.

We played ping-pong with Scott Farquhar, Co-founder of Atlassian

After the Batch 20 Demo Day, I was in search of a job as a full stack software engineer, but that was tough again. The fact that I learned Web development by myself (If you forgot, I do have Major in History), played badly with me. Because here, in Silicon Valley, no matter how many technologies and frameworks you know, you must know CS fundamentals and have to be able to write code on a whiteboard. It’s totally possible to learn this stuff on your own, but it’s a skill that you need to practice constantly. Otherwise, your brain will quickly forget some of the crucial parts, and you wouldn’t be able to perform well during the interview. Add here the crazy amount of new information which you have to process every single day as a web developer (That JavaScript framework fatigue), and fact that I burned out of doing Web for 7 years, and you will understand the complexity of a task which I’m going to solve.

I worked for a couple other startups for a short period of time, but it doesn’t go well. In fact, working for an early stage startup means small money, crazy-fast pace, long (sometimes 15-hours-long) workday without compensation and huge price of mistakes.

All work and no joy makes Jack a dull boy. I will advise: don’t work for an early stage startup unless you are a founder of it.

At this point I realized that with the current state of things I need an outstanding solution. And I have found it.

One of my friends, the smartest developer I currently know, left his job at Facebook, to go to the Holberton School — a project-based college alternative for the next generation of software engineers. I realized, that it’s my chance to improve myself and to become a true Computer Science expert.

Inside the Holberton School

I believe that knowledge of the fundamentals will help me to pursue my dream. That’s why I’m going to the Holberton School.

Since then, I focused on studying of two things: the C language and Machine Learning. While C is old, it’s still the most fundamental language, and Machine Learning is my current passion. I do believe that with both of them under the belt, I will become unstoppable in my willingness to achieve everything I dreamed about and to make an impact on the future of humanity.

Another good news is that I’ve already found a job as a Machine Learning Engineer for two months before Holberton classes. It is yet a secret where and how, but I believe that it will be a part of another story. Thanks for reading!

And what’s your story, what advise can you give for those who came or about to come to conquer the Silicon Valley?

That’s all folks, Peace and Love



Sergii Garkusha

Hacker. 500 Startups Alumni. Envato Elite. School of AI Dean. Runner. Ukrainian. I write about software, AI & life. SF 🌁