For, and Against, Hackathons

Or, why I am currently on a hackathon hiatus.

Getting Hooked: the Beginning

I went to my first hackathon in October of my freshman year. That summer, I had attended a few San Francisco Women who Code meetups, completed some online courses, and was taking my school’s Intro course. Honestly? I thought I was pretty smart.

YHack, that first hackathon I attended, showed me I wasn’t.

YHack was magical, in more ways than one.

My “team” didn’t build anything, yet we still had fun. We attended workshops, picking up new skills, snatching up swag, and feeding off of the passions of hackers around us. Though I can see now how being surrounded by college-aged guys who knew eons more than me and who were guzzling caffeine and hacking for hours on end could be intimidating, I left feeling driven to work hard. I wanted to one day hack like them, and that’s what mattered — that’s what I decided to focus on.

Feeding the Hackathon Addiction

Three months later, I did just that at the Tri-Co (Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges) Hackathon. My team was both the youngest and the only all-women one, and though we struggled, we persisted, pushing through. Our web app analyzed a user’s tweets, categorizing their most-used hashtags with the Twitter API.

Demoing and derping at Tri-Co Hackathon, January 2015

With some more complex web apps under my belt from my summer internship, I now cringe just thinking about that messy front-end code I spent hours on.

Like Y-Hack, however, the Tri-Co Hackathon left me wanting more — to do more, learn more, and be more. To do those things, I went to three more hackathons that summer (SGHack50, where my team built an iOS map and database Watch app;

SGHack50 team (❤ Yangfan, Savvy, and Horace).

Piazza Hack, where my team built a Node.JS/MongoDB/Express webapp; and Hack the Planet, where my team built an iOS bitcoin game.) Sophomore year, I attended two PennApps’s, Bay Bit Hack, and CalHacks (bless their travel reimbursement!)

On stage as Piazza Hack finalists w/ judges — CEO Pooja Sankar + Stanford CS prof. Paul Hegarty (❤ David + Purag)

Now, why did I attend all those? Why should you attend a hackathon?

  1. Confidence-building. You should leave the event with a project under your belt, and this feels good. It’s neat to see something from start to finish, to push yourself, and to complete something, even if it is small.

2. Crazy connections. I’ve met quite a few recruiters at hackathons, sometimes getting interviews from them. I’ve met engineers, evangelists, founders — you name it, and they may be there. Use them as resources, as they can help and teach you.

3. Friends. I still keep in touch with teammates, mentors, and other people I encountered, meeting up in the future at other hackathons, on social media, at conferences, etc. It’s neat to continue to learn from them, seeing what they’re up to after that weekend.

4. New skills. Never done iOS before? Only dabbled in web? Why not try it out or hone those skills that weekend! Honestly, my teams at both Hack the Planet and Piazza Hack carried me, and you know what? That’s okay, because if I hadn’t struggled, I wouldn’t have succeeded in other cases in the future. I wouldn’t have improved, learned, and later been able to carry my own teams.

I told some Twitter Girls who Code Summer Immersion program grads to attend hackathons when they visited PubNub

5. Inspiration. You are surrounded by others who are giving up around 12–48 hours they could spend literally anywhere else. They have unique ideas, backgrounds, and knowledge that you may not have — it’s important to learn from both them and what they build. Sure, Justin, a Braintree developer evangelist and HtP mentor, helped me with iOS. But one year later, I remember more about him talking about anything but iOS, and introducing me to developer evangelism. This helped lead me to my own devangelist internship (which was a blast — see more here.)

6. Resume-and-portfolio-builder. When I applied to and interviewed for internships, guess what I talked about? Hackathons I attended. Hackathon projects I led, struggled with, and also failed at, as well as teammates who made me better, and also ones that I ended up making better.

So then why write this Medium post?

Since PennApps Winter 2016, I have not been to a hackathon (I attended Spectra as an organizer and workshop leader — which does not count in this case!)

Speaking at Spectra Hackathon. Not hacking.

Why I’m Currently on a “Hackathon Hiatus”

1. They’re short-term. I did pick up skills, but they were in-the-moment, mainly me just Googling things. I was not really focused on an end goal past that weekend, and though some people are, I just wanted to finish my hack.

2. Bad code. With that time crunch, the last thing on my mind was writing readable, clean, production-quality code. This summer, I spent a day and a half rewriting code so I wouldn’t have to copy-and-paste lines, even though I knew that would get the job done. It was annoying, but dang, I was both proud and smarter by the end.

3. Shortcuts, or unrealistic. This summer, I realized what it is really like to see a project from start-to-finish. There are so many processes and iterations, including brainstorming, designing, outlining, developing, and then going back and making changes. These are just not done at hackathons, where you probably don’t have the time to edit or delete code.

4. Unhealthy. I like challenges, and I like building things. Hell, I also like stress and pressure, and pushing myself. Hackathons are all of these things, to the fullest extent — and unfortunately, that takes a toll on one’s body.

5. Depth. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot from hackathons by building some cool iOS and web apps that I’m still proud of. This summer, however, I realized that just because I could build an app did not mean I knew things that a web developer should, like ES6, Babel, and closures. (And even if I thought I knew them, I did not know them as well, or as much about them, as I should have.)

6. Too much of a good thing. As my mock interviewer at #TwitterEarlyBirdCamp said, what is one more hackathon when I have almost ten under my belt? Do I really need to expand my portfolio with more hacks? Is it worth my time?

How many company hoodies, tees, and stickers does one need?

Does this mean they’re not worthwhile for first-time hackers? Veteran hackers? No. Does this list apply to all? No!

Then what’s next?

I’m grateful to hackathons for giving me a passion for building things, and for giving me the idea for organizing a Code Day as a She++ Ambassador. I’m grateful to them for giving me the confidence to apply for She++, Clarifai Champions (a devangelist-in-training program), internships, scholarships, and conferences like Google I/O and Ubiquity Dev Summit. I’m grateful for Cal Hacks’ travel reimbursement which let me see my grandfather one last time before he passed away.

This semester, however, I’m focusing on classes (the toughest one in the major, as well as the one I TA for), a side project or two (time-permitting), and Clarifai Champions. This may mean attending a hackathon or two to mentor or lead a workshop, but not to hack.

Overall, I’m focusing on myself, and on being a better student; Android, iOS, and web developer; devangelist; daughter; twin sister; teammate; TA…whatever it is, I’ll be it.

Questions? Thoughts? Tweet at me or comment!