A reflection on MetroHacks

It’s a little breathtaking, and honestly, a little saddening to say this, but MetroHacks is over.

Over the last couple of days, my team and I have had some time to reflect on the event and all it took to get to the May 21–22 weekend. Most of all, we reflected on our participants and how much fun they had at the event.

MetroHacks was created by high schoolers for high schoolers. Our focus during the event, before the event, and after the event has always been on the participants. And as the planning for next year’s event commences, that focus will not change.

MetroHacks arose out of a mixing pot of many ideas. I was not happy with the disconnect between Computer Science education and the real industry. One of my teammates attended many hackathons and firmly believed he had a way to make the experience better. Another teammate wanted to bring hackathons (usually a collegiate experience) to the high school level. We came together, addressed and analyzed all of our ideas, and came up with a vision for MetroHacks.

I can’t tell you how proud my team is to say this, but, we achieved that vision. We dreamed of an event where participants would not only hack, but make life long friends, take part in game-changing workshops, and work with amazing mentors to overcome many challenges.

The event kicked off and ended with incredible speakers. Representatives from Microsoft, Google, The Institute for the Future of Learning, Intel, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Red Hat were very inspiring. They spoke about the benefit of hackathons, reforming education, how to work well in a group, diversification of ideas, hardware, coding and other important themes of a hackathon. They were all extremely well-spoken, and our participants learned a ton about a diversity of fields.

Our participants were incredibly hard working. They formed teams quickly and got straight to work. You could almost see a sort of invisible silos forged from concentration between each of the teams. While this sounds productive, this was not the collaborative vision of MetroHacks. I immediately set about bringing a more connected aspect to the event and between participants, by getting our hackers to network with each other, talk about their hacks and discuss common problems. That was the real goal of this hackathon — communication.

Students who come out of a CS classroom education are quick to delve into problems by themselves. They limit themselves to a small team or to what a Google search can achieve. However, they often miss what is right in front of them: their peers. At a hackathon, fellow hackers are the greatest resource available. All it takes is a simple “Hey I’ve been stuck on a small problem. Have you ever run into something like this before?”. Peer to peer thinking can create diverse, efficient, and out of the box solutions to a difficult problem. All my team and I had to do were act as a catalyst to get people a little out of their comfort zone and talk with other groups. That is when the magic of a hackathon happens.

Our participants had the opportunity to attend workshops and speeches from some of our sponsors and speakers. My team and I were so impressed by these seminars. Not only were they so well done, but they presented high-level coding and thinking in a way that was easy to grasp. Our participants loved it. I met a couple of groups who even chose to forgo working on their hack. One girl even said “The workshops are just so incredible. I’d love to work on a project, but the amount I’m learning from these workshops just makes me want to keep going to more and more!” My team and I were extremely proud of this. Not only hackers able to hack and learn from others but they were able to attend workshops to learn about things they may have never encountered before.

My team and I are proud of many things that MetroHacks was able to accomplish. However, we are proudest of the culture that MetroHacks cultivated. The organizing team did not solely make this culture. In fact, the culture at a hackathon is something that cannot be pre-engineered. It can’t be planned. It justs happens. We loved the culture that our participants made. It was amazingly non-competitive. Groups worked diligently on their projects, but there was never a sense of competition or one group thinking themselves to be better than any other group. I believe part of this has to do with the diversity that MetroHacks achieved. Not only diversity in its participants, but also diversity in the software used. MetroHacks participants used over 50 different technologies. That’s amazing. Most hackathons focus on a couple of platforms — Android, iOS, Javascript, node.js. Our attendees took up the challenge to explore diverse systems such as Azure or Redshift.

All the different technologies used at MetroHacks

Our culture was also very social. My team witnessed a lot of peer to peer interaction. And while this took a bit of a jump start, we were euphoric to see this sustained throughout the event. We had participants from all over New England, and from more than 40 different high schools. We told the hackers that other coders they met here could become life-long friends, and we know that they took that to heart. But most of all, we were proud of the confidence and determination our hackers showed. For many participants, MetroHacks was their first hackathon. Yet, they dived into their projects with the same level of enthusiasm and dedication as a seasoned veteran hacker. There was no division from the first-timers to the previous hackathon winners. That is something that organizers can only hope for, and we were delighted to see that reality over the whole 24 hours.

As we continue to reflect on MetroHacks, we ask that you share your thoughts as well. Tell us what you liked. Tell us what we could have done better. But most of all, I ask that you remember what you achieved at MetroHacks. Let it serve as inspiration as you tackle more of life’s problems, whether in computer science or your daily lives.

Happy coding, collaborating, and competing!

The MetroHacks organizing team with guest speaker Dr. Paul Reville