Hacking the Network with Industry Professionals
It’s 11 PM and you can hear chattering throughout the room, not the annoying kind though, it’s more lively and motivational. Everyone’s checked into the hackathon and getting comfortable by meeting each other and forming teams, setting up their laptops, extra desktop monitors, or checking out new gadgets from the hardware lab provided by Major League Hacking (MLH). The room is filled with exciting and intellectual discussions about what problems need to be solved, creative proposals to these solutions, and breakdowns of what languages or programs needed to complete such a challenge as a hackathon.
Welcome to SB Hacks V, the fifth annual hackathon at UC Santa Barbara. It’s a room filled with more than 500 college students and mentors from all across California, some out of state and even out of the country! Students of different backgrounds and levels of experience all gather here with the same goal: gaining a better idea of projects to explore in the future. This also includes an unforgettable experience as they interact with other participants and mentors, each offering their words of wisdom. This is obtained through interacting with other participants, as well as the mentors that visit and offer their words of wisdoms to these students.
Hackathons offer a safe space and the resources for students to learn from their mistakes, as well as explore concepts and fields of computer science and engineering that are not typically included in a college curriculum. This event, along with every other hackathon, is significant toward a student’s education because it provides something that universities cannot — a unique experience for self-discovery. Higher education is meant to be a place for personal and career growth, however, some students may lack the knowledge to navigate through their desired field of interest even with the help of professors and academic advisers. Hackathons such as SB Hacks allows students to seek career advice and connect with people thriving in the industry. In some cases, it is a place for students to discover that they show more passion while working on their personal projects and learning on their own, rather than taking the same tests in class with everyone else. Most importantly, hackathons offer each participant a network of valuable connections that continue on after the hackathon.
“SB Hacks” is the University of California Santa Barbara’s annual hackathon and is organized by an enthusiastic team of students passionate about innovation. This student run organization works endlessly throughout the school year because they believe in learning by doing, and they want to continue bringing students the opportunity to work on company technology or hardware they normally would not have access to. Of course, as a small team of students, the SB Hacks team needs as much support from the community and beyond. This entails a diverse group of sponsors and mentors from Santa Barbara and around the globe.
Since hackathons are a place of personal and professional growth, hackathon organizers often seek mentors from companies to provide participants with an unforgettable experience of working and connecting with the company’s engineering department’s employees. The mentors are usually present to answer any questions regarding the company technology such as their Application Programming Interfaces (API), which are free tools given to software developers who are interested in a company’s services and integrating them into their projects. However, it is also a great opportunity for companies to recognize hard-working individuals who are passionate and enthusiastic about working on their project.
In the past, SB Hacks has had support from companies such as Firebase, IBM, Esri, Lockheed Martin, and LogMeIn. As a sponsor, these companies are offered a table at the hackathon for the 36 hour weekend long event. Representatives and mentors are sent to campus to talk about their company, meet with enthusiastic individuals, give out free company gear, also known as “swag”, and offer their advice and knowledge to students that aspire to become developers, engineers, data scientists, entrepreneurs, or product managers after college. Companies also offer their own challenges and prizes to the participants at a hackathon, which gives them an opportunity to seek out motivated individuals and view their skill sets on the spot.
In fact, some of the teams that have won in the past were the ones that utilized a sponsored company’s API and sought mentorship during the process. By having mentors attend hackathons, the quality of the submitted projects tend to increase, and hackers are able to leave the event with not only a better understanding of their project and technical skills, but they are able to gain interpersonal soft skills as they practice interacting with industry professionals and growing their network.
As SB Hacks is approaching their fifth year as an up and coming organization, they receive more and more applications each year, for there is a growing demand to experience SB Hacks. This means that the organizers face difficulties of providing a seat to everyone that applies. With an increase of applicants, there is an expected increase in quality of the projects submitted at the event. For this reason, they are becoming more selective of their applicants in order to provide sponsors and mentors with hackers that are guaranteed to put in their best efforts to submit quality projects. After all, hackathons are essentially mini career fairs and networking events. The organization wants to improve the hacker and mentor dynamics positively so that both sides can benefit from each other. In order to achieve that goal, SB Hacks is working towards inviting more mentors to the hackathon so that each team of hackers are able to work with a mentor throughout the weekend.
While mentors are there to offer their knowledge and expertise to the hackers and help them improve the quality of their projects, hackers are there to improve their technical and professional skills. Frequently, students are too shy or scared to ask for help in school, whether it be for an assignment, or career advice. Hackathons give participants the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone to seek mentorships. This allows participants to pick up interpersonal communication skills so that they can practice asking questions, not only regarding their project, but questions about life in the industry. These mentor to participant moments at hackathons allow both parties to build a connection with one another that can carry on after the hackathon.
The best mentors are the ones that are able to reflect on their own growth and progress over time. They are the ones that are patient and understanding to help any hackers of different skill levels. They remember how it feels like to start working in a new field after college so that they can relate with the participants. The mentors that are able to communicate their story well and connect to the hackers are the ones who can provide more to the hackathon. By doing so, they are able to create a network with young, excited, and growing engineers that might even join them in the industry down the line.
Hackers benefit from these mentor to participant moments because they learn how to accept feedback and criticism regarding their skills and projects. These hackers are learning how to invest in their future by speaking to professionals in their intended field and learning everything they can about the roles, frameworks, languages, and skill sets required for a company. Ultimately, hackers are able to develop an attitude by interacting with mentors. They become enthusiastic and invested in their goals. By having a mentor to work with during the weekend of the hackathon, hackers are able to commit to their project and develop professional work ethics that will serve them well in the workplace, wherever they may end up. During the weekend of the hackathon, participants will develop their projects, as well as an attitude towards success.
In the future, SB Hacks would like to increase the amount of female hackers and mentors at their events. It is evident that women are highly underrepresented in the field of technology and engineering, and one of the reasons for that is because there are not enough people encouraging girls to stay in the field after college. In the past, SB Hacks has received about 300 female applicants out of 1600 applicants, however, only about 60 females actually show up to the event. SB Hacks believes that an increase in diverse sponsors and mentors can help show that in an environment that is dominant of male developers and engineers, there is space for females and people of color to feel welcome and compete equally. Furthermore, by having more inspiring female mentors and sponsors, SB Hacks believes that they will be able to connect more female programmers and engineers to relatable mentors at the event, and possibly contribute to closing the gender gap in the industry.
Here are some example projects that have been made in the past with the assistance of mentors from sponsoring companies.
CleanBeats.ai is a python script that utilizes machine learning to take an audio file and replaces inappropriate words with another word of the user’s choice. This allows users to be creative with their listening choices or hide explicit music in social settings. Check out the project here.
SB Hacks V is happening over the weekend of January 11–13, 2019 at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
To be part of a mentorship is one of the most valuable experiences that a student can have anytime during their life, whether it be in school or in the workforce. With that said, let us take a moment to appreciate all the mentors out there. Whether you are promoting computer science, engineering, or another field, remember that you are creating an impact on the younger generation, and they truly appreciate your time. Mentors continue to inspire their mentees everyday to create a better tomorrow.
If you or someone you know is interested in keeping the hackathon tradition alive and helping out SB Hacks achieve their goals by offering sponsorships or mentorships to the upcoming hackathon, please visit the SB Hacks website at https://www.sbhacks.com/ or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Diane Phan|Marketing Team Lead