My hackathon journey

Why you should immerse yourself in the hackathon culture


I borrowed this blog post from one I wrote for our school hackathon club, but figured it would be just as insightful on here.


I was a college student fresh out of my first year, with a 4.0 GPA, majoring in Business, and having no idea what to do with my life. Nothing got me super pumped or excited about any job that I could possibly have. When companies came to talk about their opportunities, and what types of roles you would have within the company, I never visualized myself doing any of them. They all seemed boring, tedious, routine, and really just not for me.

The following year, I had made the switch to Texas A&M and had been toying with the idea of switching into Computer Science, but I knew very few people that were engaged in the culture that could enlighten me on all of that. I knew I liked innovation, and being at the forefront of learning about the newest and best technologies, but I had never seen how easy it was to get started programming on your own.

Coding Gig 2013

In the beginning, it was just Jose, Nick, and me. Nick had sent us an email aobut a big data hackathon that was being thrown by Dr. Caverlee, one of the professors at A&M. At this point, I had really only heard about the hackathon concept from my sister who went to the University of Pennsylvania, and to be honest, I kind of visualized it somewhat like in the scene from “The Social Network” where Mark Zuckerburg is hosting a coding challenge where everyone is taking shots and people are cheering them on in the back. It was about a 20 hour hackathon, and I figured I had nothing to lose since it was free and we would get fed. So I partnered up with Jose, and another friend named Jeremy, and we decided to hack it out.

Everything that could have gone wrong, went horribly wrong. We were given multiple files with 81 million tweets in them formatted with JSON, and we were instructed to display something cool with them using visualization tools such as D3JS. We struggled opening the files, parsing so much information, and then displaying the little we had parsed with D3Js. The project was not finished, but it was the beginning of a year that changed my life.

Microsoft Hackathon

Despite the epic failure that was my first hackathon, I for whatever reason, really liked the experience. I felt challenged and enjoyed the fact that everyone around me had similar interests and drive. That’s why without hesitation, I also attended the hackathon Microsoft hosted at our campus. Again I partnered up with Jose, and again we ran into problems from the beginning. Since the challenge was to make a Windows app, we needed to both have the same versions of Visual Studio running on Windows 8. We spent the next 7 hours of our time installing, un-installing, re-downloading, and re-installing different versions of Windows 8 and Visual Studio because they weren’t backwards compatible, didn’t work for different versions of Windows, and a plethora of other reasons.

When we finally got it, we ran into issues because we needed a back-end to save some data we required for our app. I know that now, but back then, we were like “Whats the command for saving information locally?!?!?!” We had a nice user interface, so we just ran with that. Of course we didn’t win anything, but I got a different win nonetheless. I had talked to Anthony, the recruiter hosting the event, a few times before where he had given me resume tips. I came up after the event and thanked him for hosting it, along with giving him my resume at which point he mentioned, “Oh, I see you have added some of the things we had talked about”. A week later, I got an interview with Microsoft, and a free trip to Seattle. I still talk to Anthony on a regular basis.

HackTX

About a month later, Jose and I attended HackTX at the University of Texas at Austin. HackTX was MUCH bigger than any of the other previous two we had been to. We realized that we needed a team with more exprienced people, so we partnered up with Gourav, one of the people that we met at the Microsoft Hackathon. He brought along, Harshad, and Prashant to work on the back-end. This was attempt number three, and again, we did not get a working project. For whatever reason, we were not able to connect the front-end and the back-end, to get a working site, but since we used Windows Azure, and the developer evangelist, Ryan Joy, really liked our idea, we won Microsoft developer phones.

Two of the many things I got out of Hack TX were 1. that A&M did not have a hackathon presence anywhere we went as my team was the only one from A&M, and 2. that hackathons were like a career fair in the sense that you network with companies the same way that you would at an actual career fair. I still keep in touch with some of the companies I met there.

PennApps and HackRice

PennApps and HackRice were the hackathons where I started meeting the most amounts of people, and realized that was my favorite part of going to the hackathons. I met, and still talk to, people from Rice and UPenn obviously, but also USC, Baylor, UT, Binghamton, University of Houston, and a few other schools across the country. At the time, I had also started picking up Android Development, and with how busy school was, hackathons were the only times where I was able to attempt meaningful projects, each time getting closer to finally finishing. Both experiences were wonderful.

Facebook Regional Hackathon and LAHacks

Now officially having switched to computer science, and taking the classes. I met Bob and Eleni. Bob has his own company where he develops games, and Eleni is a Biology major minoring in comp sci. I convinced them to go to the Facebook Hackathon where we were now able to take 7 other A&M’ers. We were ecstatic. Because this was Bob and Eleni’s first hackathon, I decided to join their team since I thought I could bring much needed experience. Bob and Eleni killed it. We were done with our project after 12 hours, and just fine tuned some details right before the presentation. We won, and along with the dub, we got Nexus 7 tablets, interview offers, and a free trip the Menlo Park to compete in their Global Hackathon in November.

That win resulted in our school paper, and computer science department wanting to write articles on us. Because we got the exposure, the computer science department was willing to fund our next trip to go to LAHacks! For our trip to LA, we added Walt and worked on Judo, the world’s smallest E-reader. We received such great feedback from everyone who saw it that we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign this summer. Along with that, we met Michael and Don, two Yelp engineers. Both of them were great examples of the type of culture at work at the hackathons, and they got pretty involved with our project.

What did I get from all of this?

So if you've gotten this far, and haven’t been keeping track, let me recap for you.

I had ZERO idea how to program, and knew three ish people in my school that had any sort of computer science experience. I was not a computer science major, and had no connection to anyone in the field. Because of my Hackathon adventure this year, I am in computer science, expanded my network to all across the United States, and even a friend in India, and have relationships with companies and startups that are leading to interviews and trips in the fall that I would not have previously had. Through the Facebook hackathon, I was pulled in to help organize that Hackerbowl at Texas A&M, and in this time we decided to start a A&M’s first hacker club to help get more Aggies going to these events.


I was not blessed with God given programming talent, and am still not overly experienced, but I was able to pull through all of this, and pass up people, in terms of career opportunity, that had been programming for years. Through reaching out to people I had met at these events I was able learn so much about how to better myself, and for all of this, I probably spent about thirty dollars, a few missed quizzes that seem to be paying off, and sacrificed 8 weekends of my semester. I’m still not 100 percent sure where I want to go with what I’m doing, but by doing it, I’m putting myself in the best position to pick whatever I want.


Questions? Comments? Feel free to drop me a line at rmoreno.cesar@gmail.com or tweet at me: @rmorenocesar


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