Why We Do DevFest

Every February for the past six years, ADI has run DevFest, a week-long workshop and tech talk series that culminates in an 18-hour hackathon. Drawing more than 600 attendees from each of Columbia University’s four undergraduate institutions as well as from several graduate schools, it is one of the largest events held at Columbia each year.

DevFest is set to kick off in just a few days. The event will represent the product of many months of hard work from the entire DevFest team. As one of DevFest’s lead organizers, I think it’s important for us to reflect, before the chaos of the event begins: why is it that we continue to hold DevFest, year after year?

Starting out in tech can be isolating.

I often think back to my first computer science course. I remember the twelve students in my class. I remember collaborating on problems on white boards, sharing a computer with a new partner every day, and thinking about the ways that we could use programming to better our school.

What I don’t remember is sitting alone in my room every night, trying to figure out why exactly my program wouldn’t run, desperately searching the Internet for solutions to my seemingly indescribable problems, constantly thinking that my classmates were miles ahead of me, wondering why I ever decided to take the class in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is how studying computer science at Columbia can feel sometimes. Theoretical assignments leave people wondering what exactly computer science can be used for. A New York city campus that has 3x less space per student than its peer institutions leaves students alone in their dorm rooms, struggling silently with their programming assignments.

Introductory classes that feature upwards of 350 students and crowded TA rooms that make seeking help difficult create environments of stress and competition and drive away those they intend to welcome.

DevFest is meant to show students that there is more to computer science, that there is more to tech.

DevFest is about exploration.

Computer science is about exploring new technologies, taking risks, and building things simply because it’s fun to build. It’s not about fixing bugs and stressing out over language specifics.

Learning computer science is not about learning Java; it’s about creating things you care about.

In years past, DevFest’s workshops have centered around teaching students how to build their first web application. This year, we wanted to encourage an attitude of exploration, so we created a brand-new, track-based curriculum.

DevFest’s six tracks: beginner, data science, game development, mobile, product, and web.

Students will be able to learn from 6 different curricula, prepared by student groups like CDSS, CORE, and CU Game Dev, in topics ranging from data science to product development. Each curriculum will have a project that starts at the beginning and builds upon itself to create something awesome. Additionally, our new “Passport” system will provide students with a stamp for every level of a curriculum they complete, allowing them to remember all of the new things they tried at DevFest.

DevFest is about collaboration.

DevFest is about getting students out of their lecture seats and around tables with their peers. That’s why we’ve worked hard to secure the Carleton Commons, one of the largest spaces on Columbia’s campus in which students can truly collaborate.

Real learning is done around a table of friends, not in a massive lecture hall.

Multiple levels of difficulty for each curriculum will allow attendees to work at their own pace while slowly expanding their comfort zone. Our student mentors are there to encourage them to push through the difficult points and not to get discouraged by bugs or frustrating error messages. Additionally, grouping attendees by curriculum will allow them to tackle bugs together, to overcome the same challenges, and, most importantly, to become friends.

Carleton Commons in Mudd — the location of DevFest’s workspaces.

DevFest is about first impressions.

For 63% of our attendees, DevFest will be their first hackathon. We are committed to providing an awesome experience for them. We want to show everyone who is just starting out that there is a place in tech for them. We want to show them that it’s never to late to learn how to program, and that the best time to start in technology is right now.

At DevFest, everyone can demo. Whether your app is the next Facebook or a basic webpage you built with your friends, we believe everyone should be able to share their work during our post-hackathon demos. We’re proud of the fact that last year, over half of our demos came from first-time app builders. I remember the excitement I felt during my first DevFest when I was able to present my work in front of hundreds of people, and we hope to provide that to many more people this year. In addition, we’ll be giving out several prizes specifically to people who are building for the first time.

Me pitching at DevFest when I was a freshman.

Our Best Event Yet

We’re really excited for DevFest 2016. We feel very grateful to have received the full support of the Columbia administration, our sponsor companies, and everyone else who has been involved throughout the process. We have an amazing week planned, filled with tech talks, engaging curriculum work, and fun bonding events. I am confident that we will deliver on our goal of helping to build the Columbia tech community and bring its students closer together.

If you’re in New York City from January 30th to February 6th, come stop by. You can register for DevFest on our website or RSVP to our Facebook event.

Thanks for reading! Have any suggestions or questions for the DevFest team? Get in touch! We’d love to hear from you.

Thanks to Dan Schlosser, Raymond Xu, Lesley Cordero, Anita Rao, Sam Stultz, and Erik Dyer for reading drafts of this and helping guide the message, as well as the entire DevFest team for all the incredible work they have done.