Tales from the Road

I feel like it hasn’t been long since my last post, but the weekend certainly felt like a long time. Part of it may have been because I was basically living by myself in a roadside hotel for the last five days, but I think there’s something to be learned from booking four nights at a cheap hotel (as well as scheduling cheap flights over convenience).

Apart from the hackathon, I’ve been busy planning for the announcement of the National Youth Poet Laureate at Gracie Mansion next week, finishing up my poster for ISEF, trying to finish projects left for spring break, desperately clearing out my inbox, and binge watching 13 Reasons Why.

When I first became a Coach for Major League Hacking, it was actually on a recommendation from my friend Bobby. I didn’t know much about the program apart from the fact that the Coaches seemed to be like developer evangelists (people who go to conferences/hackathons on behalf of companies to help promote their software to developers) except without a product to evangelize.

The initial application on their website was fairly straight forward – it asked for some qualifications, reasons for wanting the job, and personal information. After a few weeks, I received an email from the team requesting an interview. I basically gave a presentation and answered some questions about myself and my hackathon experience.

There was also a fairly difficult role-playing aspect to the interview process before the final interview before the selection. I was pretty surprised (in a good way) to receive an offer around late 2016. Unfortunately, even though Cooper Union was hosting a hackathon in a few weeks, I wasn’t old enough to qualify for the position.

In a few months, however, I finally turned 18 and was able to attend training at Hack the Valley, a hackathon held at the University of Toronto. The Head of Operations at the company brought me and two other Coaches to a training session before we shadowed her throughout the weekend.

It was thrilling to be playing a new role in the hackathon scene. Typically, there are a few different roles that exist in hackathons:

  • Hacker – These are the lifeline of hackathons and why they exist to begin with. Hackers provide the energy, creativity, and drive to complete projects in the 12-24 hour time span of the event.
  • Organizer – These usually consist of the head organizers, committee members, and possible volunteers who help with the planning/logistics of the event (venue, sponsors, food, etc.) and who help make sure all of the individuals involved in the event know where they should be and what they should be doing at all times. There is usually one or two primary organizers who oversee all logistics.
  • Mentor – These are typically experienced developers who travel to hackathons to help newer programmers with any problems they may encounter. They sometimes also run workshops in their area of specialty.
  • Sponsor – These are usually developer evangelists, founders (for smaller companies), or representatives who come to hackathons to help promote their company/product. They don’t usually have anything to do with the donations made to the hackathon and are simply there to talk about why their company is awesome.
  • Judge – These are either professors, engineers, or other qualified individuals in the computer science/developer field. They may have different roles depending on the theme of the hackathon (an astronaut for NASA-themed, a lawyer for legal tech) and typically help with judging the quality of entries for prizes.
  • (MLH Coach) – If the event is Major League Hacking-affiliated, a Coach (or a few, depending on the size) will be sent to help run the hardware lab and provide general help (organization, mentorship, judging, logistics).

I’ve been in the shoes of a hacker, organizer, mentor, judge, and MLH Coach at this point, so I suppose I’m only missing experience on the part of the sponsors to complete my hackathon knowledge.

At any rate, Hack the Valley was a great experience. Not only did I learn more about the reach of MLH in recent years, but there were some incredible hackers at the event with projects ranging from hilarious (Soylent rocket launching game, space unicorn infinite runner) to brilliant (games you can play in the DOM).

One of the best parts about hackathons is how you can view all of the submissions on Devpost after the event. This not only allows you to create a portfolio of projects, but it also allows other hackers to check out the other projects/code afterwards.

A trend I noticed after attending more than 20 hackathons in my career is that the majority of successful hackathon hackers tend to develop their skills between hackathons. This doesn’t exactly mean they hone their skills during the week (although most hackers do tend to do this, whether on purpose or otherwise), but that they work on developing a knowledge and expertise in whatever framework they build in.

For instance, a newbie hacker might learn iOS development at their first hackathon. At the next, they’ll go to an intermediate workshop and continue building their skills. At the one after, they’ll reach out to mentors, so on and so forth until they become fairly well-versed in their environment and can mentor other hackers.

In the meantime, these hackers tend to become fairly well known within the community of their framework/environment and will tend to win a fair number of awards if they also continue to develop their public speaking skills.

This is not mandatory, of course, but rather a trend I have noticed in hackathon hackers who have utilized hackathons to better their skill sets. The other type of hacker is typically one who dabbles in a number of environments, trying out a different language, framework, or API at every event they attend.

While this is fun, it certainly doesn’t provide you with as much of a basis of knowledge that you can use for further development. I think it was this mindset of breadth vs. depth that initially got me to burn out in my first year of attending hackathons. Having a general idea of what you’re building and knowing how you can reach that goal really provides a lot of necessary ease in the hackathon process.

Ever since my first training hackathon, I attended two more training events – BrickHack with the founder of the hackathon and a current commissioner for MLH, and HackBCA, with one of the founders of the company.

Each time, I found it less awkward to talk about myself and my experiences. Having been a hacker and organizer before, it was a little jarring to be on the other side of the booth, having to represent both me and another company. This, along with the mandatory public speaking component, made it a little challenging to attend larger and smaller events, but it was always so worth it once all of the hackers were able to show off their projects and talk about the work they put into completing their apps.

Apart from learning far more about architecture, systems, graphics, and so many other aspects of CS than I would think possible, it’s sometimes really humbling to simply take out the trash at 7 am and realize the role that you’re playing. From the descriptions of roles alone, it’s obvious that running a hackathon is no small endeavor, but as small of a role as I personally may be playing, to even be a part of the enormity of the event is such an awe-inspiring moment.

It’s more than solving problems of efficiency or algorithmic challenges – it’s helping to build a community of support that extends far beyond the weekend of a hackathon. With often a dozen or so events each weekend, MLH is rapidly expanding and even talking to the other Coaches, it’s so apparent that the work we’re doing is nothing compared to the possibilities that hackathons have on completely changing the popular opinion of CS culture.

At my first solo events – TribeHacks and CatHacks – it was similarly surprising (albeit in a different way) to be in the shoes of a Coach. Remembering back to my first interview, it’s absolutely insane how far the program has taken me, both in terms of forging my path in the industry, as well as providing me a perspective into the potential I have within the community.

While I’m far from determining exactly where I’ll be in a few years, it’s pretty easy to see that a lot of my ideas and ambitions have changed in the last few months, but the experiences they’ve brought have been more than worth it.

I had a few fleeting moments during the few hours in the rain after the end of the last hackathon in the season for me (as a Coach) where I considered how incredible it was that so many different perspectives could collaborate so well in one arena.

Hackathons are special because they bring together individuals who are motivated, intelligent, and driven (organizers, sponsors, hackers, etc. alike) and force them to collaborate for at least 24 hours. Whether this is as teammates or running the event, there’s an incredible sense of community that can be drawn in so few hours that could never exist anywhere else.

I have friendships in the community (some based on online interactions more than physical encounters) that extend deeper than relationships I have with my classmates, with whom I’ve probably spent far more hours engaged in conversation. The uniqueness of something like this existing makes it so special every time you leave a hackathon – it’s like leaving behind a small makeshift family you’ve forged over the course of the few hours you’ve spent together.

Of course, I might just be more reflective than normal due to the impending end of the season, but it’s still an incredible feeling to have, knowing that pretty much anywhere you travel in the world, there’s bound to be a member of the hackathon community waiting for you.


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