"I could see my heart on a large monitor; only the right half was pumping."
Hyperblinks founder and CEO, Hector Bernal, took some time for a special exclusive interview where he discusses his incredible journey into software engineering, his near brush with death, and his thoughts on college education.
1) You went back to school at 29 years old after taking only a few college units back when you were 20. Why did you decide to return to school after so many years?
After working in the insurance industry for almost a decade and three years in aerospace, I felt there was so much more to accomplish. Regrets of unrealized early ambitions shared by co-workers inspired me to go back to school, only this time with a clear goal in mind.
2) After your first semester back at school while working full-time, you suffered a massive heart attack that lasted 6 hours before a stent was inserted into one of your arteries and saved your life. Why have you never shared this story on social media, and can you take us back to that life-altering day?
Wow! What a day. It was late one Sunday evening. I was about to go to sleep for work the next day at Arconic, where I was a CNC machinist. Suddenly, I felt severe pain in my chest in a way I had never felt before. Also, I felt numbness in my elbows. I was only 29-years-old, so I just assumed it was heartburn; only the pain was much too sharp. I went to my wife and explained what I felt; we had only been married one week. She told me that I looked pale. I told her that I was okay and that I would try to sleep it off, a horrible idea. She fought me on it and begged me to get in the car so that she could take me to the ER. I finally agreed, and we made our way to a local ER. Little did I know that this place would only make matters worse.
I walked through the door, and I explained what I felt to a lady at the front desk. She gave me a clipboard with a sheet to fill out my information. Yup! I was almost an hour into my heart attack, and they had me fill out paperwork in the lobby. Halfway through, I walked back up to the lady, placed my insurance card on the table, and told her, "I need help now!" Once she saw my insurance card, her tone changed, but wait; it soon goes back downhill. They rushed me into a room where an EKG technician checked my heart's activity. He told me I just had a "minor heart attack" and that it would pass shortly. This incorrect diagnosis would cause additional damage to my heart muscle. Thankfully, although after some time, they rushed me to another hospital with a dedicated cardiology department. When I arrived, they ran a new EKG test and confirmed that I was suffering a massive heart attack. The doctors were shocked when they read the prior EKG test results.
Due to my age, the doctors and nurses kept asking me if I had been using cocaine as they took me into the operating room. I replied, "No!" time and time again. Once the results of the drug tests came back negative, they were genuinely dumbfounded. In a matter of minutes, they inserted a tube into my groin area; this is how they would access my completely blocked heart artery. As the primary doctor guided his staff to where they would need to insert the stent, I could see my heart on a large monitor; only the right half was pumping. Then, the doctor asked, "are you okay, Hector?" I said, "yes, the pain is going away. Thank you guys so much!" Just like that, they saved my life. They all did, especially my wife, who would not let my stubbornness win that night. Thank you! Doctors and nurses from the entire hospital walked into my room later that day to see and talk to the 29-year-old man who suffered a massive heart attack for 6 hours with no pre-disposition and lived. Wow! What a day.
3) When you returned to school, your major was initially mechanical engineering. However, you would later change your major to computer science. Why did you decide to make the change to software?
They selected me for a NASA internship program where I worked in a group using Arduino technology to create a regolith (Martian soil) analyzer. We used the C programming language. I instantly fell in love. My mind raced with all the possible tools that I could build with software. Before that, I had only programmed in G-code for the production of aerospace equipment. We presented our project at NASA's Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center. The following semester I took an introductory Java programming course, and the rest is history.
4) You've previously stated that math was never your strong suit. How did you go from remedial college math to completing all the required math courses for your major?
At first, I couldn't find x to save my life [laughs]. I prepped for months on Khan Academy to place into Math 80 (Intermediate Algebra) at the junior college. From there, long nights of studying, countless tutors, and sheer determination. I have now completed my ninth straight math class and know more about solving for variables than I care to share. It's been an incredible and humbling experience for sure.
I remember my Pre-calculus professor said that only half of the students in almost all math classes pass on to the next course. They used that data to determine how many courses to offer for the following semester. If that's true, that means I should have never made it past the sixth math class, Calculus II, starting from a class of 40 students.
I've learned that when people choose not to pursue their goals, it's from lack of being able to humble themselves and start from the bottom, not because it wouldn't be more beneficial when all is said and done. I hope to lead by example; this is a great start.
5) You're now only four college courses from completing your B.S. in Computer Science at California State University, Fullerton. What are you looking forward to learning in your remaining classes?
I'm looking forward to Algorithms this fall — also, Artificial Intelligence. I want to incorporate the latter into some of my upcoming projects. I'm taking game development this fall as well. I made a few games in my prior iOS class, and the next course will allow me to improve upon that work. However, my current focus remains on web development.
6) What do you like to do away from programming and school?
I'm a DJ and love mixing. I started producing hip hop beats at 16 years old (2001) when I got my first steady job and bought a sampler, a Roland CDX-1. I'd stay up late nights working on that machine; it was good times. I completed my DJ setup and started doing house parties, which led to clubs. I was 17 when I got my first club gig from my then boss, who new the owner. I got kicked out for drinking a beer, but they had to let me back in for my final set [laughs]. Clubs are fun, but hip hop is my top pick. Anything after 1992, around 91 bpm, hard drums, smooth samples, thick bass. J Dilla and Pete Rock are typically in heavy rotation. Also, Serato is convenient, and a must for clubs, but nothing beats vinyl. I got a little collection going.
7) Your beautiful wife, Lizandra, is very pronounced on your social media feed. What role has she played in your journey in work, school, and side projects?
She's played a significant role. She's my best friend, my love, and everything in between. She always backs me up in anything I set my mind to; I'm very grateful. She's seen me through this whole journey and has made it so much better. Sometimes we as individuals can get so consumed by our goals that we can lose sight of our well-being. She says, "alright, time for a break!" and that keeps me balanced. She's the greatest!
8) Going to college to learn software has been a hot topic of debate on social media for some years. Do you believe that someone needs to go to college to be successful in software?
No, they don't. Everyone is on a separate journey, and no two are exactly alike. However, I based my decision on 15 years of work experience. I've done customer service, sales, management, and production. At this stage in my life, I know what I like. Do you and let the chips fall where they may.