HackUMass, Or The Plight of The Directionless Nerd

I originally planned for HackUMass to be my college dose of questionable life decisions — the kind of stupid reserved for getting wasted at a frat, except with technology, Red Bull, insomnia, and the insistence that it was “educational.” What I would actually build was immaterial.

The way I put it to a few friends:

Yeah, you know “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix? I want that to become literal.
I drank, like, four of these. They don’t taste all that bad.

I wasn’t going to kid myself: I didn’t have the coding or hardware skills to actually build something.

But I should at least try, right? When I walked into the venue for the hackathon, I was still looking for a team to join and an idea to chase. I was hoping for a random-selection process where I got matched with three other coding noobs — like what I did for Blueprint at MIT. Instead, we got an “Idea Jam,” where a bunch of people gathered in a room to dish out 60-second pitches and build teams. I had done these before. They work well with extroverted management students. The didn’t work well with engineer types who didn’t seem willing to talk in front of forty people.

I left pretty early. I decided I would be better off screwing around on my own. I wouldn’t really have a project, but at least I’d learn to code, like I have said I would do for years now. Then I would get a team next year — in advance.

I went to two talks — one by MITRE about Linux and Raspberry Pis and another by a company that, in their words, made embedded systems development, something that is usually a pain in the ass, not a pain in the ass.

Hm. Let’s try embedded systems, I thought. It means working in C, which…I’ve done before. Ish.

I checked out a small ARM board from the hardware rental desk. The platform was cheaper than Arduino and so much more powerful, but I didn’t really get anywhere with it. By the time I got the onboard LED to blink, I realized that the cable I was using to connect to the board was garbage, that it was 1:am, and that I was really tired.

So I went to sleep. In a bed. In my own room. So much for making questionable life choices this weekend.

The next day, I realized that I had a chip in my room that, on the box, said “ARCADE SOUND CHIP.” The person who gave the thing to me said it was literally the same chip used in old ’80s arcades. Let’s make that work! I have the data sheet, right?


After staring at the damn thing for about half an hour and wondering how the hell the registers worked, I started to walk around, hoping in my desperation that someone could help me figure the chip out.

And then I found the person who actually gave me the chip!

I asked him for some help, and he broke the news to me: This chip that was designed in the ’80s was designed to work with computers from the ’80s. Meaning it was looking for pins that had long since been eaten by the nano-scale embedded circuitry. Getting the chip to work the first time was a semester-long project that involved designing a custom circuit board. The on-campus makerspace, M5, had copies of the board somewhere that I could play with, but they were in some drawer or something.

So much for that project.

Well, why not try some tutorials?

Javascript? Nah.
CSound? Nah.
PySynth? Nah.
Xcode? Nah.

Turns out I’m not great with tutorials — I get bored. I should have just taken on a project and run with it, figuring things out on the fly and asking people for help constantly.

But for whatever reason, I felt like it was too late to do that.

I gave back the ARM boards I had rented out, and I checked out a Pebble watch. Let’s do some smartwatch development — in C! (I like making things unnecessarily hard, apparently.)

Turns out I had to use an emulator anyway, but the watch was cool. It pinged my notifications with a buzzer that, compared to my phone, was more noticeable to me and less noticeable to everyone else. All the apps seemed pretty useless to me, as someone who is neither a fitness nor sports buff. But the Pebble is still one of those things where having it for a week wouldn’t convince me to buy one as much as not having it for the next week.

I got through a tutorial and a half on the Pebble development site before the emulator went away. Like, it literally went away. I couldn’t get it back, so I dropped that project, gave back the Pebble, and wandered around the main hall, where sponsor companies had set up tables with representatives.

I eavesdropped on a conversation between a guy who worked at a San Francisco startup, that guy’s friend, and some participant at HackUMass. Startup guy and his friend were talking about how when you’re trying to nab your next round of funding, you have talk in terms of stories. Because features are cool and all, but features don’t really convince people to buy into your product or investors to fund your venture. Instead, you need to focus on…

I jump in: “The ‘So What?’”

That. Exactly.

The conversation continued. The startup guy said that in tech entrepreneurship, the biggest thing you need to do is “find a cofounder.” But your cofounder isn’t just some random person you start a company with. Your cofounder is your buddy — someone you stick with across jobs.

Example: Startup guy’s company has these little groups. One group was at Twitter from the start, and they stuck together. This other group was at Facebook together, and they stuck together.

The right cofounder — the right team of cofounders — would drop their projects to help your project if your idea is more compelling. And you would do the same for them. You don’t necessarily think the same way as your cofounders, but your workflow complements their workflows. Jake does killer UI, Lana can code anything, Raj can present, and together, they are serial ass-kickers.

I jump in: “So the idea isn’t to have a company that defines a team, but to have a team that helps define a string of companies?”

That. Exactly. Startup guy and his friend seemed impressed by me.

The presentation part. I didn’t present anything because I’m a loser with no capacity to make things for myself.


As I walked back to my dorm (I felt like grabbing dinner at the café next door), I started to figure the reasoning behind what is probably the biggest contradiction in my life:

I don’t know anything, yet I know about (almost) everything.

I can’t code for my life. Or actually play the piano. Or write a proper short story. Or draw a face correctly. But if I’m talking to someone, I can catch at least half of their name-drops — no matter who they are.

And that shows in my project list: I don’t really have one. I haven’t made a cool code/electronics project because I haven’t been bothered to start one. I haven’t written that short story I’ve been meaning to write for months because I’ve never gotten around to starting it. And to be honest, my last significant music project was a year and a half ago.

But I’ve still kept busy in college — by signing up for ALL the things! Career fairs. Pitch competitions. Networking events. Talks by professors and guest speakers. Art and music shows. I go everywhere — and a few people have noticed (oops).

If I wanted to, I could clear out all those events and focus on one thing: a video game, a mixtape, an art project, a novella, an app. I could read up on the technique, I could get some help, I could make something real. But I don’t feel like it. Unless someone forces me to actually build something (like for a class project), I won’t motivate myself to do it.

But I’ve also never found a cofounder — or at least, I haven’t founded anything with a cofounder. If the time comes, I could totally be that ideas/research/communication person, or at least learn things quickly enough to do real development work. But I think someone needs to force me to stick to a project. For all the time I’ve spent tipping my toes in a thousand pool parties, perhaps I simply need someone to push me into the deep end.

But in the meantime, my event-going and networking and note-taking (I recently started carrying a small notebook and a pen at all times) is building something else: the “left field index.” I just know weird things. In a class discussion about the health effects of race, I managed to name-drop a Herman Melville novella I was reading in English class, a philosophy article on Rachel Dolezal, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

I can cut through the noise, cross disciplines, ask hard questions, and come out of left field with some new idea.

Names blanked out to protect the [clever epithet].

I figure that will come in handy. At some point.

At the very least, I got, like, five T-shirts and a pile of stickers. And I emailed lots of people.

And I’m all about networking, so that was a success, at least.