Will Code for High Fives

Mentoring a Hackathon

A few years ago, a talented high school developer I told me about the student hackathon, Pilot DC. He thought it would be a good idea to be a mentor. I learned more than I mentored and had a great time. It turns out the student became the teacher or something.

I arrived a little after 1pm on Saturday at Microsoft’s office in Chevy Chase , Maryland. One whole floor dedicated to the hackathon.

An aside, hackathons are gatherings for folks who bring an idea to life with software. Usually, it is lasts 24 hours and runs on pizza, caffeine, and passion to create something cool. There are prizes and it is a competition but that is not the point.

240ish students high school students running around finding their friends and their turf. This is madness, my introverted self is getting overwhelmed. I find my name tag and congregate with the other mentors.

We setup shop in one of the startup style conference rooms. This is base camp, the mentors headquarters. We received instructions on how best to mentor and we all got situated. I had a vague notion of what a student high school would need help with in regards to coding. So, I did a walk around the whole floor to get my bearings.

There were groups everywhere in the halls, in conference rooms big and small. The small conference rooms had sliding glass doors and windows.

Pro tip: It gets hot when working in a small space with four or five other people and turning off the lights and wearing the right clothing helps.

Snack bar. Cheez-itz, water, tea, coffee, and other good stuff. Two conference rooms for workshops, check.

Ideation + Creation

Students are deciding what idea to go with and their technology stack. Since different mentors have different skill sets, we wrote a skills matrix on the white board. We then used a Twitter account to dispatch a mentor to a team who needed help. The students asked for help on things like ‘Heroku setup in room 525; using the Twitter handle for the hackathon and a mentor was dispatched.

Being a mentor at a large hackathon is a bit like what I do as a consultant. I have a general technical skill set and I hate saying I don’t know. I just look everything up, for real. I often help folks at their desk and when I look up an answer on Google or Stack Overflow, they say ‘I could have done that’. I respond Han Solo style: ‘I know’.

Back to the hackathon. I expected to get a few questions every now and then about a few different topics. Maybe, what technology stack to use, MEA, Rails, or the newest framework. Instead, I could not walk down a hall without answering questions that ran the spectrum of tech. I had to say I don’t know (it hurt) to iPhone iOs questions but I tried to answer everyting. The topics ranged from how to install Eclipse (don’t j/k), Java Swing layouts (components for desktop apps), Heroku (cloud platform) config, Firebase (cloud realtime datastore) config.

High school students spending a weekend coding. They spent the 24 plus hours at the Microsoft office coding, hanging out, and maybe a little sleep to create something cool. Think about that.

I left at around 2am since my ability to help anyone was nearing nil and I used up all my people interaction skills for two weeks as an introvert. Batteries needed charging via isolation.


  • Try something new quickly, if it doesn’t work, try something else
  • Time constraints are your friend for creativity
  • If you are not passionate about your project quit now because you will later
So very tired and caffeinated at the same time

Final Lesson

One of the best experiences I have in the programming arena is working with others and solving problems. At the hackathon I stopped by and helped a developer who was stuck with an Android problem. He was trying to trigger an event for his Android app to know when the phone unlocked. We tried a bunch of things, Android docs, Stack Overflow and…got it. We instinctively high fived. This is why I am in the game, for the high fives.

Pro tip: to ensure successful high fives focus on your partner’s elbow.