The Demystification of Silicon Valley

How a Literary Hackathon Reset my Distorted Perception of the World’s Technology Epicentre

Three tired hackers standing on the rooftop of a SoMa apartment building. Photo: Pippin Lee

I’m from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a small city on the Canadian prairies with a disproportionately high F-150-to-human ratio. Most people can’t spell it or pronounce it — much less find it on a map. I left after high school to study computer science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but I’m back home this summer to spend time with friends and family.

I’m like a lot of other young programmers. I’m ambitious and overly confident, with dreams of leaving school, creating the next Facebook and moving to Silicon Valley. As a teen, my favourite superhero movies were The Dark Knight and The Social Network. I used to follow every new startup and obsess over which schools had the best computer science programs — all in preparation to one day make it to the big leagues. As a young kid from rural Canada, I viewed Silicon Valley as a place where genius Stanford and Harvard dropouts gathered to transform venture capital money into world-shaping products through some mysterious alchemy.

But through my obsession, I effectively created a place that, for the most part, only existed inside my head. I had never spent any time there or even talked to other people who had. Everything I thought I knew was conjured through Hollywood movies, Wired articles and other tech folklore, and because of this, Silicon Valley was always a world that felt impossibly far away.

My Journey to the Valley

While working as the web developer at the student newspaper this year, I wrote code for interactive and data journalism projects, most of which I shared online. People began to notice and I made a few well-connected friends, including Pippin Lee, another student involved with a community of journo-coders known as Hacks/Hackers. In mid-June he told me that I might be able to receive a travel stipend to fly to San Francisco and attend the CODEX Hackathon — a three-day event that was part of this year’s annual American Library Association conference.

Intrigued, I went to the website and spent 10 minutes filling out the application form before I hit submit.

Literally, a few moments later, I received a terse email from a hackathon organizer that read something along the lines of “price out your travel expenses and we’ll go from there.” If I were Charlie, that email was my Golden Ticket. Within minutes I had secured a free round-trip flight and accommodations for the weekend. It all happened so fast. I was on my way to my Disneyland.

The goal of CODEX was to put engineers and literary folk in the same room and see what they could build together. Although my experience in a college newsroom somewhat qualified me as a “literary hacker,” I was still overwhelmed when I was asked to attend. I had never been to a real hackathon before, let alone one in the very place I had been dreaming of visiting for so many years. As it turns out, that place is only a three-hour plane ride away from my isolated prairie town.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event. Most hackathons I hear about consist of ultra-lucrative cash prizes that attract hungry, hardcore teams of programmers who stay up all night building outrageous pieces of software and hardware. I was worried that I might not have what it takes to participate in this kind of event, but my friend assured me that a literary-themed hackathon probably wouldn’t be that hardcore.

CODEX was held at the Code for America office in the SoMa district of San Francisco, right near some of the world’s most recognizable tech companies (Twitter’s headquarters is just two blocks away). CfA was like a tech office venue from a Hollywood movie set; the building is designed around a large open space with plenty of couches, worktables, whiteboards and project rooms for hackers to utilize. The fully stocked kitchen and beer-on-tap solidified its status as programmer heaven.

Photo: Jennifer 8. Lee.

At the start of the first day I sat down with the other Canadians I knew (including my friend and teammate Ben, who had also received a Golden Ticket) at a table in the corner of the room. There was a man across from me who (I later learned) is a software engineer at Google. But in that instance he was just another coder. In fact, as I began to learn more about the people around me — some were students from Harvard, one worked at Twitter, another at Dropbox — I began to realize that I was surrounded by extremely talented individuals. The kind of people I aspired to be as a teenager.

But the most surprising thing about it? They were totally normal.

The hackathon officially began and we worked feverishly on our apps for the next 36 hours. Immediately I was amazed by how much fun I was having. Programming is something I often do alone in my bedroom, and being in a place where people had gathered to drink beer and write code made it that much more enjoyable. I had no problem feeling at home amongst the gentle hum of keyboards clicking, laughter, and friendly chatter.

Ben and I teamed up to create an app that would use the new MailChimp API to re-think email newsletters. We wanted to harness the traditional model of an email blast and use it as a way to collect “everyday stories from everyday people” that were somehow linked to a larger theme, an idea inspired by StoryCorps. Users would receive writing prompts from subscribed lists in their inboxes, and then respond by replying to the emails. Responses would be gathered and showcased on the website, where other users could leave feedback and vote for the responses they liked best.

CODEX attendees gather for project presentations and demos. Photo: Jennifer 8. Lee.

But our demo was a disaster. The fancy livestream feature we had built failed to function, and it was as embarrassing as it was frustrating; we had spent the weekend building something cool, only to have it fail when we needed it most. For a few minutes I felt like the organizers had made a mistake in bringing me to the hackathon. “They should have invited somebody who could actually build something,” I thought.

Luckily I was able to redeem myself by doing a few one-on-one demos once we got the app working again. The problem during the live-demo was that the volume of responses from the audience clogged up the system. Lesson learned: load testing before a live run is important.

Others liked what we had built, and I was able leave that night without any lingering shame. I had just participated in my first hackathon, I had a lot of fun, I met a lot of people, and my app didn’t totally suck.

It’s a Different World

I spent the rest of the night with friends from the hackathon — some new, some old — at a trendy loft apartment just down the street from Code for America. It belonged to Jennifer 8. Lee, the mastermind behind CODEX, as well as the founder of Plympton — a literary studio focused on digital innovation publishing. Put simply, she’s a big deal in the publishing and technology world. And there we were, four twenty-year-old university students sitting on her white sofa eating potato chips and hummus while reflecting on the weekend.

That’s when it began to hit me. I had just flown half-way across the continent to participate in a programming event in the Hollywood of the tech industry, not because I had attended an Ivy League university or created a killer app, but because I had simply demonstrated a passion that others also shared.

I had started my CODEX weekend with the opening Friday reception at the remarkable GitHub headquarters. Near their full-scale replica of the Oval Office, I mingled with other hackathon attendees and industry professionals, all of whom were incredibly friendly — which for some reason took me by surprise.

I had expected a culture of eliteness and stunning intellect — a cropping of people who didn’t feel the need to chat with a young Canadian student who, compared to them, knew very little. But after speaking with several people — one who went from telling me about his Nvidia robotics engineering work to giving me advice about which local bars I should hit up — I was proven wrong. Nobody cared about which school I went to or where I worked; it was a party, and they were there to have fun.

The truth is that I expected these people to judge me by my resumé because that’s how I was judging them. In my ignorance, I was sizing people up as part of the artificial Silicon Valley I had constructed in my mind. When I realized they were just people who also really liked computers (just like me), I began to feel less intimidated.

The tech culture I had imagined was not the one I experienced that weekend; I anticipated a world that would spit me out as soon as I arrived, but instead it was overwhelmingly welcoming.

I brought that new mindset with me when I went to have lunch at Twitter with someone I had met at CODEX later that week. Between sips of kombucha (which they have on tap in one of the three cafeterias we visited), I looked around with a fresh set of eyes. Sure, the Twitter offices were just as glamorous as I had imagined, but the people who inhabited them were just like anybody else I had met. I even passed Jack Dorsey on the street outside, and if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve seen him on numerous magazine covers, I would have had no idea who he was. He just looked like an ordinary person having an ordinary day. (He has trimmed down his beard).

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps my naiveté was unique, and the mirage I created is one that few can relate to. But I like to think that it isn’t. I don’t think I’m the only one who has crafted false expectations from childhood aspirations. In my mind I viewed Silicon Valley as some kind of exclusive club, but after seeing the real thing, it now feels far more accessible. I believe that this shift in thinking — from distorted perception to refreshing reality — could be shared by the other aspiring engineers, entrepreneurs, and hackers who imagine themselves one day starring in their own Silicon Valley superhero movie.

I’m not saying I’ve made it, and maybe I never will. All I’m saying is that Silicon Valley isn’t just a place for the pre-ordained elite — it’s a place where smart, hardworking, ordinary people gather to drive innovation. And it’s not as far away as I had imagined.

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