TechTogether
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TechTogether

Hacking Away at Your Fear of Hacking: What you Need to Know as a First-time Hacker

If you’re like most people, when you hear the word “hack” you probably think about one of those movie moments where a tech-guru sits in front of a high-tech computer, types in a bunch of nonsense, and somehow hacks into the top-secret government database. I’m not talking about that type of hacking, though it is pretty awesome to watch at the movies.

The type of hacking that I’m talking about is a hackathon, a three-day tech-fest filled with other people that are passionate about innovating, creating, and learning about technology and what it has to offer. I first heard about hackathons through my school’s weekly newsletter, but I had never previously participated in one and I didn’t know a lot about it. I had many preconceived notions about hackathons; I figured you had to be an expert to participate. I thought you had to have a padded resume with top experience in your field. And worst of all, I was completely intimidated by hackathons because I felt like I didn’t “fit in” with the tech world. Looking back on these thoughts now, I wish I could tell my former self that what I thought about hackathons was completely false.

TechTogether completely changed my outlook on hackathons and has helped me gain confidence in both myself and my technical abilities.

The hardest step in the hackathon process was gaining the confidence to join. I had to put aside my fear of not being good enough and decided to take the risk, despite not knowing what to expect and feeling completely nervous (this was my first hackathon after all). I was getting increasingly more nervous as the day of the hackathon was approaching. “What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t contribute to my team? What if I make a fool of myself?” All of these “what ifs” and the fear of the unknown are completely normal. What’s important is that you realize you’re not alone in these thoughts. Everyone feels this way — as if they’re not good enough — but the important thing to remember is that you’re there to learn, to grow, and to contribute to an amazing event and group of people, no matter what your skill level may be.

When hackathon day finally arrived, I was more excited than nervous. The hackathon I attended, TechTogether Boston, was virtual due to COVID-19, so we all joined a Discord where we could meet other hackers and introduce ourselves. An amazing part of TechTogether is that all of the hackers are female/non-binary, and it was amazing to see such an underrepresented group of people in tech come together from all over the world to participate. I am a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, so I found my group by reaching out to another hacker who introduced herself as also being from UMass Amherst. After talking with her through Discord, she added two other women from UMass to our group. Before even touching upon the hacking aspect of the weekend, we took the time to learn about each other, and talk about classes and our experiences. All of those worries I had prior to the event had completely dissipated. I was finally able to meet other people from my university during a time that makes it so difficult to form new friendships.

Our initial idea!

That weekend, we began brainstorming ideas for our project. After long deliberation, we finally decided on our idea. I have to admit, we dreamed big with our first idea. We were all beginners but had a vision of what we wanted our project to look like, we just didn’t have the resources to complete it. We had to come to terms with the fact that it was okay to build a simpler project, and that it didn’t need to be exactly what we had envisioned. Learning to adjust to our team’s skillsets and the short time that we had to build the project was definitely difficult, but ultimately we reimplemented our project into a more achievable plan. We learned to take advantage of each person’s individual strengths and use those strengths within our project. From there, we split up the team into two groups: front end and back end. Two of us had experience working on the back-end, and two of us had experience working on the front-end. When each group had finished their task, we reconvened to put everything together.

Getting hands-on experience while working on our project taught me so much in such a short amount of time, and I have a better understanding of both back-end and front-end development after attending the hackathon. An important aspect of the hackathon that people often overlook is the ability to learn from their peers. Everyone has something they’re able to contribute and teach others in their group. There’s something to be said about being able to apply the skills you’ve learned inside the classroom to a real-life hands-on project. It’s invigorating to start the weekend with only an idea and finish the weekend with a final working product. Attending this hackathon has made me so excited to be in the field I’m in and continue to learn about what technology has to offer!

After working on the project for quite some time, my group mates and I quickly discovered that we had an issue with our code, and we were completely stuck on what to do next.

Luckily, TechTogether provided us with amazing mentors that helped us move on to our next step of the project! We were all super nervous to ask for help, but despite being afraid, we hopped into a mentor table to ask for help.

Our mentor was extremely nice and understanding of the fact that we were beginners, and broke down exactly what we needed to do to continue with the project. I am so appreciative of the mentors that took the time out of their busy schedules to help all of us hackers achieve such amazing results and projects! After working through this challenge with our mentor, we were one step closer to achieving our goals for our project. The mentors are there to help you learn and guide you in the right direction. This was an important life lesson that we all learned during the hackathon. Getting help is never something to be ashamed of.

Our project, ecoFridge

After a long time of coding, and many, many google searches and StackOverflow posts, our team finally had a working project that achieved the goals we had in mind. We submitted our project and, to our amazement, we won Best Data Hack! This was an incredible feeling. As a newcomer, I came into the hackathon with the expectation that I wouldn’t win a prize, and that was completely okay. Hackathons aren’t about winning; the experience, learning, and people that you meet along the way are so much more important than whether or not the project is picked as a winner. Despite this expectation, when our project name, ecoFridge, was announced we were beyond ecstatic. This goes to show that you don’t need to have experience going into the hackathon to excel and create meaningful experiences.

Feeling imposter syndrome, especially as a woman in STEM, is a battle that many people, including myself, experience. Although it can be extremely difficult, programs like TechTogether provide women like myself the ability to perform and show their skills in a non-judgemental environment.

If I could give one piece of advice to newcomers with an interest in technology, it would be to join a hackathon. Don’t be worried about whether or not you’re “good enough”… any experience you can bring to the table is enough! You are unique and special in your own way, and you are good enough, no matter what anyone tells you.

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Emily Cooper

Emily Cooper

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Freshman Computer Science Major at UMass Amherst