Terrapin Hackers’ Mentorship Program

I was scared to join Terrapin Hackers last Fall. I didn’t think I could be a “hacker”, whatever that meant. I felt like the club was an exclusive group of seasoned engineers; I had no place as an inexperienced freshman. Trying to overcome my “impostor syndrome”, I reluctantly got on the UMD bus to MHacks 6 in September 2015. I had no friends or team, and subsequently no real guidance on how to take on my first hackathon. People on the bus said, “Just build something cool!”, to which I responded nervously, “Oh yeah… I guess.” I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

When I got there, not much changed. There was no magical moment when I realized that I was going to be fine. I spent the first four hours doing nothing, and then went to the “Web Dev Cortex” for a workshop. I sat through the workshop, learned a little about Twilio, but was still clueless. This downward spiral was reaffirming my previous notion: I don’t belong here.

Sums up everyone at their first hackathon. Source

After the workshop, everyone who did not have a team raised their hands and were paired up. I now had a teammate, but she was almost as lost as me. At least we had each other?

We wandered off to one of the classrooms, sat down, and started talking about potential project ideas. Approaching 5 AM, we decided on a tutor social network; it was a good idea, but we had absolutely no idea how to implement it. We sat there for a good three hours just playing with HTML and skeleton.js — it started to make sense, but it still felt superficial. I was not enjoying myself and I didn’t feel like I was learning something interesting.

Two seats in front of me, someone had already finished their hack — he came to the hackathon for the experience rather than do a crazy project. It took me a couple minutes, but I mustered up the confidence to ask him a question, “I’m building a small social network. What would be a smart way to store all of my data?”

“Firebase could be good.”

“What?”

“Here, let me show you.”

He took about two hours out of his schedule to teach me how to interact with Firebase using javascript and my local web server. Personally, I was now interested; I finally did something cool, and that was a vital moment. He did not help me for the rest of the hackathon, but I no longer needed his help. That initial push was just enough for the rest of MHacks, but I cannot stress how necessary it was.

Startup Shell and Collider

Now, when I work on projects at Collider or the Startup Shell, I no longer feel hopeless. I do run into huge barriers, but my attitude is different. Because of that initial mentorship, I understand that being a “hacker” is not about being inherently brilliant, but rather entails a sense of motivation that relentlessly motivates someone to pursue proper resources. This is hard to believe unless you have a positive experience with someone first.

I wish I didn’t have to go to MHacks to feel like I was capable. I was pretty annoyed the Terrapin Hackers did not have something to address this already.


This semester, I was appointed President of Terrapin Hackers, and the first thing I wanted to change was the image of the club.

  1. Terrapin Hackers is not an exclusive club.
  2. Terrapin Hackers is not only made of crazy geniuses.
  3. Terrapin Hackers is not an unwelcoming environment.

Obviously, just saying this was not going to do anything. So, I decided to do something cool. Create a mentorship program. Everyone I talked to loved the idea. “3 mentees, 1 mentor, a semester to do a project”. Perfect. Time to ask the group about it.

My initial Facebook post about the mentorship program.

82 likes later, I felt on top of the world. Over 230 people had signed up to be mentees. This was amazing. We could not have hoped for a better response. There were 230 people waiting for an opportunity to learn something in a comfortable environment.

But.

There’s always a “but”.

But then I took a look at the mentor form, and only about 15 had signed up. This was a huge issue. There was absolutely no way we could have a little under 20 people per mentor.


Final Program Structure

There was no way I could leave 230 people hanging. We had to figure something out, and we did.

On February 9th at 6:30 PM, everyone interested in the program gathered in the Computer Science Instructional Center to learn about the changes.

  1. There will be teams of four, not three.

This is to mimic hackathons, which normally set the limit on a team to four people. In addition, there were so many people that we had to cut the number of teams down.

2. In each team, one member will be elected as “team leader”.

We knew there were going to be a ton of teams, so this was just to make organization easier on our end. We didn’t want to have to contact all four members each time we needed to talk.

3. Each mentor will have two teams to mentor.

We had way too few mentors sign up for the number of mentees. We had to delegate more to each mentor in order to make the program work. This also establishes another level of accountability. If more help is needed, mentees can use the slack (which has every single person on it).

Making an extra friend or two can never hurt, either. From the first Collider meeting.

4. There will be meetings in Collider every week

Mentees will be working very closely with their teammates during the program. People should talk to not just those on their team, but also hackers experiencing similar problems in different groups.

5. The program will be 8 weeks long, not a semester.

A semester is too long. People will forget about it, or put it off till the last second and do something terrible. Eight weeks is the perfect amount of time to learn something from the ground up, and then create something interesting with it.

6. We will have a demo day.

A big part of hacking is knowing how to communicate why what you built is awesome. So, we are going to make people practice this by having a demo day in the Computer Science Instructional Center in the beginning of April. Hopefully, people from all over campus, including faculty, professors, students, etc., will all come to see what TH is capable of achieving in just eight weeks.


We put out another interest form, and cut the responses at 160. I personally reached out to a lot more people, bringing our mentor count to about 40. This allowed us to assign at least 1 mentor per team.

In total, we have 40 mentors and 40 teams of four mentees.


I hope other hacker communities decide to do something similar. Although TH is only on the second week of the program, I have extremely high hopes. I will be posting a follow-up post in a couple months detailing the (hopeful) success of the program.

Mentorship is necessary in most fields. When someone starts out in anything, they are at a peculiar state where he or she can be either deterred by presumed difficulty, or inspired by potential discovery. A mentor is a catalyst for someone experiencing the latter, and then transitioning onto better, amazing things.


Ishaan is running Terrapin Hackers (UMD’s hacker organization) during the Spring 2016 semester, and is constantly trying to make the organization better. Follow him on Twitter and Medium. Like Terrapin Hackers on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our new Medium publication.