NHacks: The Founding of a High School Hackathon

This past weekend, I attended NHacks II, a hackathon for high schoolers based in Novi, MI, where I volunteered and was a guest speaker.

For those unfamiliar, hackathons are a marathon competition in which participants build apps, games, hardware integrations, and other tech, generally within a 24 or 48 hour window. Hackathon events have been gaining a lot of traction around the country in recent years — but almost all are focused toward college students with formal or applied coding experience. NHacks is a little different in that it focuses on high schoolers, encouraging them to dive into the tech world and start developing technical skills at a young age.

NHacks was the first high school hackathon to come to Michigan and was founded by two of my friends, Max You and Ronit Tiwary, who are rising seniors at Novi High School. I’d also like to shout out the other student organizers: Jason Israilov, Eleanor Wang, and Advay Muchoor. I was incredibly impressed by the production quality of the event, especially given that the founders and organizers are still in high school and have been very independent in putting it together! The event garnered over 170 registrants and featured catered meals from Jimmy John’s and Domino’s, free snacks and drinks, over $1000 in prizes (pictured), and a number of workshops hosted by experienced individuals and local tech companies including Nexcess (Southfield, MI) and Duo Security (Ann Arbor, MI). An impressive list of 24 sponsors including Microsoft, Linode, TEALS, and Soylent helped make this all possible.

Some seriously impressive prizes!

I had a ton of fun at the event and wanted to share the story behind NHacks, a community effort to raise a generation of tech-savvy leaders. Here are some excerpts from my interview with Max and Ronit:

NHacks founders Ronit Tiwary (left), Max You (right), and a bonus, thrilled participant!

Why did you start NHacks?

Max: “Ronit and I went to MHacks 6 (University of Michigan Hackathon) a few years back and were just amazed at the event. We didn’t really know what a hackathon was, but we saw free food, free swag, free admission, and decided to check it out. We saw people building interactive websites, 3D printers, and other amazing projects in a matter of hours, and had never seen something like that before. It was so much cooler than just doing I/O in terminal like we had done in class”

Ronit: “Hackathons were a newer idea back then than now, and most high schoolers hadn’t heard of hackathons. When we came back and told all our friends about it, they didn’t really believe us! Everyone wanted to go to MHacks now. A bunch of us applied for MHacks 7 the next year but we all got rejected. So we decided, ‘Why don’t we just start our own hackathon?’ ”

What’s the vision? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Max: “In general, we want to bring the hackathon culture to high schoolers and make it a lot more accessible than it was when we started up. Some volunteers and mentors were enthusiastic about what we were doing because they had perceived a lack of access to computer science classes and resources in their school districts, and we hope to help with that.”

Students learning basic web development in a workshop

Ronit: “Our friends who went to or wanted to go to MHacks all became more motivated to learn CS skills, maybe through class at school or online resources, which we thought was really cool. One of our participants from NHacks I actually went on to start his own hackathon out of Bloomfield Hills High School. Spreading the community and inspiring others to create these kinds of opportunities is a great feeling.”

What Were Some Challenges You Guys Faced Putting On NHacks?

Max: “For the first NHacks, we didn’t really know anything about event planning. For example, our initial budget was really excessive, we had a hard time finding sponsors, and we didn’t have connections with people in the area who had done this type of event before. Money was a struggle. We got a $300 sponsorship literally the day of the event, which made a lot of things possible without which our event would have sucked. ”

Ronit: “For NHacks II, we wanted to scale up a lot and do a much better job than the first time around. One challenge was picking the right organizers for the event. A lot of people wanted to be on the team just to have something to put on a resume or college app — we wanted to make sure people were working on the event for the right reasons. We had to cut somebody from the team really close to the day of the event.”

Teams work on their projects. Note the huge stack of free t-shirts (red) in the back!

How did your approach change between NHacks I and NHacks II? What did you learn?

Max: “Reachout became much easier for NHacks II. We got much better at cold calling, were much better at finding people who might be able to help us and were more methodical about our reachout. We used more spreadsheets, we used a lot of checklists, we had better budgeting, were more organized. Just way better execution — in the first year, we had to learn all of that stuff.”

Ronit: “In the first year Max and I tried to do everything ourselves. This year we recruited a team of student organizers who were invested in the idea, but it was difficult to delegate responsibilities, deal with some team members’ workloads being heavy at certain times when others’ would be light, and so on.”

Absolutely amazing display of initiative and passion from Max and Ronit. When I was in high school, I hadn’t coded my first “Hello World” and struggled to get a few friends together for a hangout! And best of all is that they did it out of a love for the community and a desire to improve access to incredible opportunities in the rapidly growing world of tech. Congratulations on a successful NHacks II, and can’t wait to see NHacks III.