On March 13th, 2019, five of my friends and I met in a random room at UCSD and began brainstorming ideas for a new organization. A little over a year later, we’ve become the largest tech club on campus with over 50 officers, over 60 staff, and over 1000 members. We grew so fast that we now encompass 5 different child organizations. I believe, with confidence, that we successfully rewrote and rebuilt the culture of the computing community at UCSD. I wanted to give insight into the incredible journey that we’ve undergone to get to this point — how we built an active and thriving community from passion, hard work, and care.
Why we started ACM
At UCSD, there have always been dozens of computer science organizations. They were great at hosting events and building projects but I always felt that there was always a barrier to entry — a clear disconnect between students and student orgs.
It was something keeping students from wanting to be involved with a preprofessional org. A culture that welcomed the elite and centered itself on internships, jobs, and research. Whereas other schools were creating new activities to grow students’ interests — capture the flag competitions, computer-human interaction panels, full-stack web development boot camps, entrepreneurship conferences — we were hosting more and more corporate recruiting events all the while rehashing the same workshop content year after year.
From the start, the primary objective of creating ACM wasn’t to be the largest computing organization on campus. If that was our only goal, then we had already accomplished it by the time we had our first-ever meeting and would’ve called it quits there. To us, size only mattered because we wanted to make as many people feel welcome in ACM as possible — to be a home for students. Our real goal was to completely rewrite the culture of the computing community at UCSD.
In our first meetings, we didn’t focus on the actions we needed to take to start ACM. Rather, we spent our time writing mission statements, listing goals, and drafting a 20+ page Constitution. We spent weeks focused on our values and our culture. We took inspiration not only from other preprofessional orgs but also from social clubs, sports teams, and greek frats who didn’t experience this culture problem. I believe our unique issue started because preprofessional societies run the risk of forgetting that they’re first and foremost communities. Many believe they operate like companies or institutions, when in actuality orgs are just groups of students.
Hundreds of hours have been spent developing and revising what we believe is the essence of ACM — our member-first philosophy. We are an organization that’s not built because a faculty member, a corporate sponsor, or an international institution backed us. This surprises people, especially given that we are an official chapter of a global computing society. The reality is that we started ACM with zero dollars in our bank account and zero department support. Each step of the way, our members decided our next steps. They decided which companies we would try to affiliate ourselves with, which departments we would try to get the attention of, and which events we would host.
Our member-first philosophy has created a vibrant and diverse culture forming the foundation of ACM. We’re an org that not only hosts programming tutorials and company talks but also dance workshops and boba runs. It’s encouraged many people to get involved with computing while simultaneously bringing out their true selves. Our members aren’t just coders, designers, and hackers but also fiction novel writers, crazy adventurous backpackers, and Friday-night partyers. We’re a place where people’s professional lives mix with their personal lives and we’re proud of it because we believe that’s what student orgs should be all about.
The team behind it all
Creating such an enormous organization couldn’t have been possible without an insanely strong team of people. When I first started ACM, I recruited the most talented individuals I knew. Some had hosted over a hundred events. Others had started non-profit organizations. Most importantly, every single person was passionate and hardworking.
Our board operates with transparency, encourages new and wild ideas, supports self-initiative, and promotes personal growth. We developed the kind of environment that we wanted to work in and as a result, it has made this team the most fun group of people I have ever worked with in my entire life. New ideas are openly expressed with no fear of judgment or repercussions. This team has generated some of the wildest ideas I’ve seen from an engineering organization — hosting events like League of Legends tournaments and talent shows — marketing through cringey memes and stupid videos. With complete creative freedom, each and every team member doesn’t hesitate to passionately pour hours into what is essentially their own project within ACM. Our technical directors don’t host workshops because they’re expected to — they teach topics that they’re genuinely passionate about. Our community directors don’t host socials because they’re forced to — they host events that they’re interested in regardless of whether the events are even the slightest bit related to computers. And when they’re bored? They have complete freedom to explore other areas in our org, and make any idea they have a reality.
There’s another aspect of our team’s culture that makes it so special. We’re not just passionate about our work, we’re passionate about each other. We’re a family. We cook hot pot together and ruin Disney movies for each other. We listen to each others’ relationship problems and tag each other in Facebook memes. After an online meeting, we get together to play Skribbl.io (Kinda like online pictionary) and Stardew Valley. Sometimes, we move the meeting altogether to one of those platforms. I don’t dread commuting to get to an in-person meeting either, because I know that afterward, we’re likely to stay behind just to talk for hours until it’s time for a late-night In-N-Out run.
Our team has grown to nearly ten times its original size. Despite that, it doesn’t feel like much has changed. With each recruitment cycle, we stopped prioritizing skill and experience but began looking for a different trait in our team members. We wanted individuals who wanted to contribute, to change, and better our culture. We found people that worked hard not because they were obligated to but because they wanted to. In exchange, we helped them grow, focusing on their personal development as much as possible so that they would not only excel in ACM, but also in every other area in the rest of their lives. We’re now one of the largest boards on campus and strangely, it still feels like we’re a close group of friends. That’s probably because we are. I’m confident that as our team continues to expand, ACM’s wonderful culture and the team’s tightknit bond will continue to exist. Even once the entirety of the current board is rotated out, I know that each new team member will want to carry on the culture set by their predecessors.
How we did things differently
In recent years, UC San Diego has been promoting the phrase “Break Things Better”. The school believes that we’re a community that challenges the status quo and breaks all the rules. Unfortunately, after years of being in student organizations, I began to believe that we were doing anything but. People repeated the same events year after year. Socials boiled down to alternating between board games and movie nights. When building ACM, we wanted to uphold our school’s new catchphrase. New ideas and passion projects form the foundation of our team’s work. I wanted to talk a bit more about what makes our organization unique. How we deviated from what was expected from us and allowed us to grow into one of the largest orgs on campus in just a few months. Here are just a few ways we broke the norm.
- Our whole atmosphere is completely different from those of other preprofessional orgs. I like to say we’re more similar to a social org than an engineering org. It’s gotten to the point that we made our own meme page. We shoutcast Trap the Mouse as if its a professional sport and we do freestyle raps after our events. We can act serious when we need to be, but we spend 99% of our time shamelessly being ourselves.
- We have guts when it comes to sponsorship. Like most groups, we contact the majority of companies through emails and phone calls. But our Vice President External and our Sponsorship Director are shameless and it’s one of their best traits. I’ve come with them to events that take place at company offices just so they can run around finding potential contacts. I’ve driven these two to startup incubators so that they can find company CEOs to invite to our events.
- We optimized our logistics pipeline far more than any other organization that I’ve seen. I can’t go into details about how our process works as a lot of that knowledge is top secret. To give you an idea of how powerful it is though — in total, we hosted 120 events in this single school year. Split amongst the quarter system, this averages out to 4 events a week, which is a previously unheard-of number at our school, especially for a new organization.
- We find ways to avoid repetitive work. Rather than making individual flyers for every single event, we utilize flyer templates where we can easily swap out information. We’re able to host dozens of workshops because workshops build off of each other. Rather than using one single project to create one single workshop, we use one single project to generate dozens of workshops.
- Speaking of workshops, we teach workshops that our members are interested in. We have a request form that takes in feedback from our members and we host events based on their interests and needs. We’ve also customized our workshops like crazy, using React and CSS to create slide decks and using a custom live streaming platform, ACM Live, because we weren’t happy with Zoom.
- We take design seriously. Design precedes all of our work. We don’t treat making flyers like a chore but rather as serious and essential design work. We don’t just do graphic design but plenty of user interface and user experience design as well. We have weekly multi hour-long design jams where our team of designers collaborates on every single project assigned to them. We make paper prototypes, conduct user research, and build upon multiple iterations. We’re so passionate about design that we even started an ACM Design child organization, which is also going to be our school’s official SIGCHI Chapter.
- We develop our own internal software to support our entire membership ecosystem. Our software is built using industry-inspired practices. We have product managers who host standup meetings and have client meetings with other board members. We precede each project with a design document detailing how it’s to be built. We set up continuous integration, linters, and tests. We follow the Scrum Framework and utilize Kanban boards on Monday to visualize our tasks. Everything is modeled after what we’ve learned from past internships at some of the most well-known software engineering companies in the world.
- We focus on abstract and intangible topics in our meetings. Many engineers and computer scientists like to focus on numbers and statistics. A lot of people have a tendency to focus on hosting a higher quantity of events or finding ways to increase member count. However, in ACM, we mainly talk about improving culture rather than improving numbers. We focus on the language we use and the atmosphere we present. Our meetings are short but incredibly effective as we get straight to the core of what each problem is.
- We’re quick to break ALL of the above. And more. Our methods are far from consistent and we never will be. We’re quick to switch tools — in under a year we switched our chat platform from Facebook to Slack to Discord and our work platform from Trello to Monday to Notion. We’re also constantly revising our workflow. Our logistics pipeline is being revised each quarter. Our finance system is being rebuilt from the ground up. Our marketing team has just adopted TikTok and Twitter. Our design team has completely recreated our brand. And our org has completely changed in structure in the past few weeks alone. While many are scared of the consequences of pursuing ideas with no proven precedents or success history, we’re willing to take the risks because that’s the only way real progress can be made.
The changes that we’ve made when building ACM have been adopted by so many other organizations. Leaders are starting development teams to create their own membership portals. Teams previously hesitant to grow are multiplying in size. Orgs, previously critical of our decision to adopt a “gamer tool”, are all swapping over to Discord as their primary chat platforms. The same workshops are no longer being rehashed year after year — event hosts are creating brand new, exciting multi-workshop long series. I’m so incredibly happy to see that ACM’s sprint ahead has paved a road for other orgs to follow. However, I’m concerned about the consequences of this as well. If orgs continue to replicate our methods while failing to replicate our culture, I’m worried that our innovations won’t successfully integrate, sending them even farther back from where they began.
The meaning of member-first
Despite ACM’s member-first focus, it’s far from my intent to make this an organization focused on giving to its members. In past organizations that I was a part of, the greatest motivator for all of our work was the idea that we were doing a public service — we were working to provide resources and content to help other students. I’ve grown to realize that this belief caused me to selfishly absorb myself into a self-righteous world where I viewed myself above my peers. That kind of mission ends up attracting members to your organization who are there to benefit themselves, members who feed into your ego by constantly praising you as you feed them all the knowledge and resources you can. They are members who seek internship opportunities and educational content but the moment they have received what they came for, they leave because they feel no attachment to your community.
Now, I’ve escaped from that self-righteous mindset and I’ve realized that I’m doing student organizations for a different, much simpler purpose — I’m here to enjoy time with my friends. As such, when we talk about ACM being a member-first community, we don’t aim to be an organization that simply gives to our members, we aim to be an organization that is made up of our members. We want people to be a part of our organization rather than to just take from our organization.
Of course, people still benefit greatly from being an ACM member. We host workshops that teach our members dozens of skills and present opportunities to get involved with our side projects. But people don’t solely attend events in order to learn something new; they come to spend time with the friends they’ve made. And much like how our workshops have attracted over 1000 people in the past year, our social events have had similar high attendance counts. We’ve done all sorts of activities from playing glow in the dark capture the flag at beach bonfires to going on Pokemon Go raids with professors.
One of our most successful community initiatives has been the creation of our big little program, which we creatively named our Bit-Byte program. In contrast with traditional mentor-mentee programs which we’ve seen collapse many times, our Bit-Byte program pairs upperclassmen and underclassmen not for the sole purpose of mentorship but rather to form a sibling-like relationship. We’ve hosted a bunch of Bit / Byte exclusive events, all of which had little to do with coding or career help. Instead, they were paint nights and cookie decorating socials in order to provide a space for people to simply have fun and get to know each other. We’ve seen some of the most meaningful relationships foster as a result. Bits and Bytes are meeting up constantly to eat Korean BBQ, cook crepes, and work on programming assignments.
Perhaps what’s made me most happy is witnessing the shift in ACM from being a community revolved around our official events to being simply a community of friends. The culture that we’ve shared as a board has trickled down to the entirety of the member-base. In people’s free time, our community is meeting up to make Tik Toks (Follow us at @acmucsd or acmurl.com/tiktok btw) and go on late-night 5k runs. Through quarantine, you can find dozens of members up at 4AM on Discord each night, playing Animal Crossing or crying about CSE homework. Regardless of whether ACM is hosting an event, our members are finding ways to spend time with each other.
These connections are helping us all grow and learn tremendously fast. We’re giving each other all sorts of life advice whether it be career guidance or dating tips. Members are meeting up to review resumes and conduct mock interviews outside of ACM events. The vast support network that ACM has formed has resulted in some of the most successful students that this school has ever seen. In a single year, we’ve secured internships and job offers at dozens of companies, including offers from every single Big N company. We’ve received prestigious research positions at labs within our school’s CSE, ECE, Data Science, and Cognitive Science departments. The key to all of this? We’re doing almost everything together. We’re working together to land the same internships and we’re helping each other get into the same labs. We’ve signed up for hackathons and programming competitions together, taking home some of the biggest wins our school’s ever seen. Some of us are even starting companies together because we trust the work and character of our peers.
I’m so incredibly proud to see the progress we’ve made towards ACM’s goal of forming a member-first community. We aimed to change the culture of the computing community at our school. In doing so, we’ve made students more connected to each other than ever before. We founded ACM with the belief that the best rewards to be had from joining a student organization come from the relationships we form. We’re so incredibly grateful that our values have not only led to great success but have continued to be carried on by each member of our community.
Concluding this chapter
A year ago, I mentioned that I was going to start a new chapter — “A Chapter Made by the values instilled upon me through all of the people I’ve met”. Today marks the conclusion of that chapter. My time as ACM @ UCSD’s President has officially reached its end. I’m staying involved with ACM as an advisor and I’m working on a few secret side projects. But I’m no longer going to be involved in its day to day operations.
This has been the most incredible journey in my life thus far and it will definitely go down as the most meaningful thing I did in college. My friends and I built an organization from absolutely nothing. We took it beyond what we thought was possible, creating the largest computing organization our campus had ever seen in a few short months. We hosted a record-breaking number of events and attracted a record-breaking number of students. But, what’s more important, what’s absolutely dear to my heart, is that through all of our incredible growth, we never lost sight of our values along the way.
This has been a journey that has changed me to my core. It’s uprooted the personal goal that drove me to work hard a year ago and replaced it with a much more grounded one. It’s reminded me of the importance of my friendships and my need to balance my personal and professional lives. These are the lessons that I’m going to carry with me forever.
To the 1000+ ACM Members, I want to thank each and every single one of you for helping us not only realize, but surpass, the dreams and ambitions we laid out for our organization. You all have guided us to where we are now. I hope that you all continue to stick with ACM as it continues to grow.
To the new 50+ person board, I want to say that you are the most incredible students I’ve ever met. You are a group that is so much brighter, smarter, and more capable than I am, and that excites me. Have confidence in yourselves! I fully trust the future of ACM in your hands and I know that this organization will continue to prosper because of y’all!
Finally, to my team this past year, I want to say thank you all for being here with me. Thank you for believing in me when I approached you at a Burger King and claimed that I was going to build the largest tech org on campus. Thank you for putting in thousands of hours of work to bring my stupid ideas to fruition. Thank you for sticking by my side through every disagreement, conflict, and hardship. You’re all crazy for joining me, but I’m glad that this is what the craziness led to! Now let’s go enjoy a nice, long retirement! 🏖️
Aaron Eason, Adam Lee, Alan Apte, Amy An, Andrea Sudharta, Brian Lam, Bryce Tsuyuki, Casey Price, Calvin Qin, Clark Phan, Cora Xing, Daniel Truong, Elias Fang, Garrett Luu, Igor Vivcharenko, Ivy Chan, Jack Yang, Jaden Padua, Jennifer Pham, Jeff Ha, Justin Nguyen, Kendall Nakai, Kyle Hu, Nalin Bhardwaj, Nick Nebel, Paul Pan, Prothit Halder, Ronak Shah, Shungo Najima, Stanley Lee, Stone Tao, Sumeet Bansal, Trisa Leung, Thang Phan, Victoria Edeeva, Vincent You, Ysabelle Lam
and the rest of my ACM family ❤