Dear family: I Hack.

That doesn’t mean I crack code- I hack it.

As I type, I currently sit in a greyhound bus during the final leg of my overall 32-hour journey to and from Montreal for McHacks. I’d like to give a huge shout out to my parents who for some reason continue to support me through all of my Hackathon/Hacker Society and CS ridiculousness. I’d also like to share what on earth I’m up to (while simultaneously placating my relatives, who probably think I spend my weekends breaking into mainframes).

The media portrays “hacking” as breaking in and gaining illegal access to information. That’s not hacking. At all. Remotely. That’s Cyberterrorism.

Before I start, some brief context: when I was in high school, my entire French class went on a trip to Quebec. I ended up staying back with 2 other kids due to being A Broke Highschool Student. While I currently have graduated to the level of Sort-of-Broke College student, I’m still ecstatic that I was able to go on this trip. How was this doable?

  1. Hackathons typically give at least some travel reimbursement to students traveling out of town, which was able to justify my $150 bus ticket purchase.
  2. I’ve had a work-study job since freshman year that I work hard at so that I can do things like pay tuition and buy textbooks and go to Canada.
  3. I chose the right field. Employers are actively seeking employees, and these employers have money. This means that not only are they sponsoring these events, but also actively recruiting at them- I’ll be spending this summer with Verizon, making more in a day than I currently do in a week. And I’m just a sophomore!
  4. Determination and a little bit of magic.

Before I get into hacker things, I’d like to first touch on how wonderful it was to be in Montreal. I arrived Friday morning, meeting with my longtime best friend and computer comrade Seth Rait (this is the kid who introduced me to Case and is part of the reason I discovered Computer Science- I could write an article on just him alone).

Seth refusing to believe that the coffee we were currently drinking was, in fact, real.

From the first ten minutes to the last ten of our trip in the city, we spent the entire time periodically addressing the fact that we would be completely OK with dropping out of school to become full-time French Canadians.

My lunch at Juliette & Chocolat

I’ll admit I did dip a bit more into last week’s paycheck than I’d have liked, but there was no way I was going to be in Montreal and leave the food UN-experienced.

(Life advice- always keep a conservative grip on your wallet, unless you’re going to spend money on good food or to further your career)

We went out to dinner at a little place called Grenadine, where Seth and I each ordered tasting platters and split a bottle of Rosé.

For those of you unfamiliar-a tasting platter is usually a 5-course meal that your chef uses to exhibit his skills as well as his own personal style. My chef was phenomenal. I had escargot, lamb, duck, beef and pork- and half of the meats exhibited a tendency to be served on the “raw” side. Now, the six-year-old in me can’t believe I’m saying this, but it was delicious. Quite honestly I’ll be thinking about that meal for the rest of my life. The only thing that concerns me: as I continue to travel, my taste in food has definitely not become cheaper.

After dinner, Seth and I returned to the Airbnb we ended up splitting. Our host was extremely kind, and for $40 we had a room nicer than most hotel rooms I’ve seen. We showered, slept, and first thing in the morning we were out the door to the hackathon.

Opening ceremonies at McHacks, as hackers begin to trickle in. (Feminist side note: check out the gender ratio. Fact: this is actually an improvement upon previous years.)
Seth trying to get Unity to work with Android’s SDK for Google Cardboard, before we had completely given up.

The hackathon was amazing. Which means, of course, that nothing worked for the first 5 hours. We started off with one really strong idea for an education application for Google cardboard. 5 hours in, still having issues installing and pairing some of the required software (I’m looking at you, Unity and Android SDK), we made an executive decision to switch ideas. Since we had less than twenty hours left, we decided to make a decidedly less interesting or useful project: a simple webapp for largescale games of Assassin (Gotcha/Paranoia, depending on where you grew up).

While writing the actual algorithms were extremely simple, the hard part was creating a decent looking website and using javascript to access a database. Before yesterday, I had only touched javascript a few times, but now I can confirm that after hacking for 20 hours straight I’m confident in my javascript skills, as well as basic JSON and simple database access. However, by the end, our product only had the basic functionality, was extremely buggy, and did not look too impressive.

I was so proud of it.

This is the reason why I love hackathons: even if things don’t work out, no matter what, you walk out with an entirely new skill set. Sure, I wasn’t able to create my virtual reality app- I can do that another time, at another hackathon. Instead, I created dontassassinate.me. It’s a project that didn’t solve any big problems, doesn’t really help anyone (maybe some campus HvZ groups), or have the potential to preform in market. But in 20 hours I learned more applicable skills than I usually do in a month at school(Not bashing school of course- I have no desire to discredit the incredibly important theory I’m learning in class that is making me a good computer scientist).

Things You Learn at Hackathons, and not in School:

How to manage a team: As someone who likes to see a finalized product, I enjoy taking the project-manager role at hackathons. I’ve learned to do this by outlining what needs to be done to create the project, what skills we have in our group, and then assigning jobs to people best fit to handle them.
How to communicate and work with others: At hackathons, many decide to stay up the entire event. While I’ve seen this lead to impressive displays of creativity, it also causes people to get groggy, distracted, and hard to work with. If you’re working in a group on a new project, chances are you will both have to teach and be taught at some point in the event. In order to be productive, you learn to drop the baroque words, and stop trying to impress with scientific explanations. You learn to explain something like you’re speaking to a six-year-old (which is essentially the same thing as a sleep-deprived college student). Not only is this a good skill to have in the field, but I also believe it’s a good skill to have in general as an engineer to make what you’re working on understandable, if not accessible, to others.
How to use git/github (version control): When you’re working on a project with multiple people, git allows you to all make edits to the same code. It does this by branching off the main code “clones” that allow different people to work on different parts, and then merge it all together. All you need is an internet connection. Version control is one of the absolute most important practices in the professional field (ask literally any recruiter for any tech company), and for some reason they don’t teach us this in school until it’s too late.
How to choose what’s important under time constraints: At the beginning of a hackathon, everyone’s excited about what they’re going to make. Most likely, by the end of the first hour, hackers have comprised a list of elaborate bells and whistles- what their project could do. However, you need to build a basic moving skeleton of your project before you can begin to have fun with it. The ability to focus on what your project must do before all else is the important thing. Hackathons teach you to be realistic- but you never lose that hour-one ambition.

So, to conclude:

Mom, the hackathon went great- thanks for asking.

I only took my first programming class a little over a year ago, yet I’ve traveled around the country (and even out of it) breathing code everywhere I step. It’s all thanks to these Hackathons, where I develop more as a programmer at than I generally do in a month at class (not to discredit the importance of class- the actual theory I learn there allows me to develop as a good programmer). Hackathons are great because you don’t need to know a thing about coding to start hacking- hackathons are all about learning. I hope to see nothing but growth in the hacker culture, as these people and events are beginning to remove the technological part of the entry barrier into CS.

Anyway, I’ve spoken enough and it is time for me to rest. Above I’ve put the last shot of our trip- Seth standing dumbfounded on the street after we accidentally walked through Montréal’s Fête de la Lumière, a winter festival that apparently is thrown by the city every year.

Oh, we’ll be back, Montréal. We’ll be back.

Thanks for listening!

Looking forward to Codestellation: The Friendly Hackathon @Brandeis University in March.

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