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Spontaneous Decision Turned Unforgettable Experience: My First Hackathon, HobbyHacks by TechTogether

It was quite the impulsive decision.

Last month, I attended HobbyHacks, a virtual hackathon hosted by TechTogether. Before HobbyHacks, I actually never planned on attending a hackathon. In fact, I was terrified of them — to me, hackathons, although advertised for beginners, were only attended by seasoned programmers. However, I figured that despite these fears, it would be a step out of my comfort zone. I reluctantly signed up with no regrets.

Why I Participated in HobbyHacks

When I found this opportunity through one of the Girl Genius Slack channels, I thought it seemed like a great opportunity to revive my interest in computer science. Recently, I had been doubting my programming skills, even though I took AP Computer Science a couple of years ago. In my second semester, I struggled a bit trying to juggle my demanding classes and ended up doing poorly on the tests. Although I’m certain it was due to my worsened study habits — my study time decreased while the complexity of the concepts increased — it made me question my interest in the subject.

HobbyHacks was just for women and non-binary individuals as well, and women empowerment in technology is very important to me! It’s very ostracizing when you’re one of a handful of girls in a room. TechTogether has done great work in allowing women to explore different fields of tech through the hackathon’s various workshops — over 30, to be exact. In general, I’ve heard great things about hackathons and stepped in hoping that the marketing towards beginners turns out to be correct.

So maybe I rewrote the entire HobbyHacks schedule in PST…

The Hacking Begins

When I woke up at 5:45AM (the downfall of living three hours behind Boston), opening my computer and seeing my new teammates online made me excited but also nervous. Even after cram-studying multiple coding languages the night before, I still felt like I wouldn’t be able to make a significant enough contribution to the project. I didn’t want to be the one person dragging the team down, so I attended most of the workshops throughout the day — the Intro to React, GitHub, and Web Dev, among others. It seemed like there were a lot of people who were beginners, and even people on my team weren’t all-knowing. I turned to my team, which we formed the day before, and began brainstorming, deciding on a project involving music.

Once we discussed how we were going to structure our project, the work began. At first, I planned to work on the backend portion of the project, but I ended up switching to the front-end team to satiate my love for design. We had to make many changes to our project idea due to time and difficulties but eventually, we settled on the idea “Dancing To the Decades,” to take a user through the music of the 1960s to the present. We used HTML and CSS to create our respective pages, largely working on our own with occasional Discord calls throughout the day. The next day, we finished coding the remainder of our project and touching up each of our pages. We barely finished recording and editing our presentation in time to submit!

Image from FreePik

The Virtual Hackathon Experience

I personally loved the virtual hackathon experience. One of the biggest perks of going virtual is that anyone around the world with a working device and internet could participate — not just those in the immediate area. At first, I planned to work by myself, but when my teammate Abby reached out to me, I jumped at the chance to join a group. My teammates and I were spread across the country but were still able to communicate and work effectively through Discord. Working on the west coast does have its cons though — due to the hackathon organizers being three hours ahead, I had to be three hours earlier than the posted time — that meant getting up at 6AM for the 9AM opening ceremony. Fortunately, the excitement made it easier to wake up, even in the early hours of the morning!

Debunking Common Hackathon Misconceptions

I came into HobbyHacks with a lot of misconceptions about what a hackathon is like, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that none of them are true. To address one of them: Sure, a lot of the attendees are familiar with code, but there were so many introductory workshops to choose from so that you’re still able to familiarize yourself with certain aspects of programming. Even without a project, you can learn a lot simply by attending the workshops. If you do choose to work in a team, finding teammates that support you and are willing to help you out is also important. Everyone’s here to learn, and you may teach them something that they didn’t know before!

Advice and Final Words

If I could give one piece of advice to someone who’s unsure about participating in a hackathon, I’d tell them to, as Nike says, just do it! As a girl interested in STEM, I’ve always felt imposter syndrome regarding careers in tech and constantly underestimated myself. However, when I attended HobbyHacks last month, I was surprised to find a safe space for all hackers — even those who were beginners, like me. Although we didn’t win any prizes, I had an amazing experience at HobbyHacks and will be attending more (hopefully in-person) hackathons in the future!

Thank you to those at TechTogether who helped organize this! I hope that more women will become confident in their programming abilities through these hackathons and continue to bridge the gender gap in the tech industry.

💡 To learn more about TechTogether and attend their next hackathon, subscribe to their 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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