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Growing Together with TechTogether: What I Learned In Each TechTogether Hackathon

TechTogether is the nation’s largest initiative to address the gender inequities in the hackathon community, supporting over 10,000 hackers! Some of those same hackers have continued to grow *with* us over the years.

For example, Crystal Chan has participated in every TechTogether hackathon for the 2021 season and has continued to learn and grow her skillset throughout these past months. Check out her detailed journey below!

Photo from Crystal Chan.

Hey there! I’m Crystal and it has exactly been 1 year since I graduated from University of California, Davis. At that time, I also switched my focus from graphic design to UX design. Like many, I started reading many Medium articles, watching YouTube videos from those already in the field, and attending workshops from Eventbrite and Design Buddies to gain some insight on the new field I was going to tackle.

However, you could only learn a sliver of what is there to learn through reading and watching. Therefore, I started attending hackathons to exercise what I learned.

Start Up Episode 5 scene: building ideas for the hackathon.

If you know the Korean drama, Start Up, I felt that TechTogether gave me the exact environment like this Korean drama (except everything is online for me). People recruit others by asking questions and getting to know them. There are mentors readily available for one-on-one questions (Imagine many Han Ji Pyeong’s). Participants range from many levels and backgrounds, but the focus is everyone must work together to build a final product to pitch to the judges. And with each TechTogether hackathon, I learn different lessons as a designer and as a person.

TechTogether was not my first hackathon (it was my second technically). However, I do keep coming back to TechTogether because of how much I learn every weekend from the mentors, the TechTogether board members, the participants, and my teammates. I haven’t missed a single TechTogether hackathon since TechTogether Atlanta in February 2021! So, allow me to share with you what I learned with each TechTogether hackathon that can help you with starting on that hackathon streak (Trust me, the experience gets addicting).

1. TechTogether Atlanta 2021: Don’t forget about TIME!!

Crystal Chan and Team’s TechTogether Atlanta 2021 Project.

TechTogether Atlanta was my first TechTogether hackathon. My friend and I found the hackathon online through Google searching “hackathons 2021.” If you are hesitant to attend a hackathon, I recommend participating with a friend! It definitely helped ease my nerves having at least one person I know.

A day before the hackathon began, my friend and I scrolled through every participant’s introduction in TechTogether’s Discord channel to form our team of six. We ended up finding four other product designers. Remember to make a group chat and familiarize yourself with everyone! Find their strengths. You’ll be working with your team over the weekend, so it is best to work out any constraints early (i.e different time zones, programs you will be using).

Previous to this hackathon, my friend and I had a wonderful project leader that taught us the beautiful process of design sprints. Letting go of that project leader’s hand, my friend and I did the same design sprint process with our new teammates in TechTogether. Under 48 hours, it was mighty stressful.

We did EVERY aspect of the design process from user personas to developing site maps and user flows, even conducting user interviews! Our team spent a LOT of time brainstorming on Miro and iterating multiple low-fidelity designs. We had trouble making up our minds regarding the UX design and what features to include.

At that point, our final product was 50% done (not sure if that is an overestimate or not), but we had less than 24 hours to finish! It was stressful on the last day of submission, scrambling to write our Devpost and posting our pitch video. I remember I even uploaded our pitch video to YouTube JUST in time for the Devpost submission. My hands were sweating.

From this experience, I advise new hackers to manage your time with your team effectively. Create a schedule. Discuss what goal your team should reach by a certain time frame. Pick out which part of the design process you definitely need to do and parts that you don’t need to do.

2. TechTogether Boston 2021: Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Crystal Chan and Team’s TechTogether Boston 2021 Project.

The beauty of TechTogether hackathons are the numerous and variety of mentors ready to help hackers one-on-one. Some are from the TechTogether board. Some are from their sponsors such as Capital One and Microsoft. Hackers fill out a form from TechTogether’s Discord and wait until they are called into a Zoom meeting. From there, you are in a breakout room with a mentor and can ask any question regardless of where you are in your project.

My team asked the mentors twice. One time was after brainstorming and we wanted to know if our solution had any loopholes that we missed. The second time was after we finished our design interface and we wanted feedback on the UX experience.

Ask for a third-person perspective. Ask the mentors of TechTogether. They are there to help! I even asked some of my friends about my team’s project because I needed an outsider’s perspective on our copywrite. You never know what your project is missing, as you are facing it the entire weekend. Take a break and ask your fellow peers to gain some fresh insight!

3. TechTogether New York 2021: Take on different roles!

Crystal Chan and Team’s TechTogether New York 2021 Project.

Up until this point, I had been holding my friend’s hand. I was merely a listener, follower, and designer. It made me sad how hesitant I was with designing and speaking up because I saw that my friend and teammates were much more capable than I was. They had a lot of experience. I doubted myself a lot and found myself seeking validation from them. So, I proposed to my friend to be on different teams.

Don’t get me wrong. I did suggest going to a hackathon in the start with a friend if you are intimidated with the event. However, I got too comfortable. I was fortunate to have a friend with me during the hackathon. But, what if I was like many other new hackers coming in? How did they feel?

Like I said in the beginning, you can learn immensely from first-hand experience. Switch it up and experiment with a new role in each hackathon! Take on a personal challenge to venture in an uncomfortable environment to grow yourself and your skills.

In TechTogether New York, it was my first time leading as a project leader. It was my first time facilitating a design sprint on my own. It was my first time relying on myself to make final decisions.

The beauty of TechTogether hackathons is that it is a safe space and they encourage participants to learn by providing many resources, workshops, and live Q&A. So take this opportunity to play different roles on your team if you are looking to break into a new career field or just want to practice new skills.

4. TechTogether Seattle 2021: Be open to everyone’s experience level!

Crystal Chan and Team’s TechTogether Seattle 2021 Project.

If you have some experience in designing or coding now, remember when you first started? Don’t forget that you are always learning. Open the opportunity for newcomers to learn with you. If I didn’t work with the project leader in my past hackathon, I wouldn’t have known about design sprints. I wouldn’t have learned about designing with a grid system or accessible colors.

One of my teammates was an aspiring UX designer in TechTogether Seattle’s hackathon. Although she was new, I was inspired by her ambitious nature and creativity. Newcomers can bring fresh insight, so don’t just search for those who are at the same or higher experience level than you. Everyone has something valuable they can bring onto the table. Everyone’s different knowledge can stimulate engaging discussions.

Additional Advice

  • With TechTogether hackathons being online, communication is key. Update your teammates on what you did and what there is left to do. Make sure everyone is on the same page. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion.
  • Utilize Discord’s “pinned messages.” Pin important files for the project so you and your teammate can easily find them. It would also make it easier for you if you were to add the hackathon project as part of your portfolio. I usually pin Figma files, Figjam files, Canva links (for the slide deck), and TechTogether’s Devpost submission link.
  • TAKE A BREAK! You most likely have been facing your screen all day. Take a short break and do an activity you love to boost your energy again. Give your eyes and brain a break. Remember to eat as well to fuel yourself.
  • Sleep, please. I know sometimes all-nighters are inevitable, but maybe you can dream a new idea while resting your eyes.
  • Celebrate yourself, even if you didn’t win. You and your teammates worked hard to the end to finish a project. And that is definitely something worth celebrating for.

I wish you the best of luck and maybe I will see you in the next TechTogether hackathon!

Special thanks to my teammates Cherilyn Seetho, Dominique Phan, Jennifer Mayo, Jenny Tran, Sampada Ganu, and many more for their patience and contributing to my growth and wonderful hackathon experiences. Thank you.

Interested in attending a hackathon and getting access to more articles like this one? Subscribe to TechTogether’s bi-weekly newsletter. 💡

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TechTogether, the nation’s largest initiative to address the gender inequities in the hackathon community, supports over 10,000 hackers. TechTogether is credited in part with increasing the gender diversity of the hackathon community by 18% from 2019 to 2020.

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