My First Hackathon

September 23, 2015

H/T to Shriyash for his post on the impact of our shared experience at MHacks. In honor of MHacks II’s birthday, I wanted to reflect on how it affected this past year for me.

After my second semester studying Computer Science, I didn’t feel comfortable enough with my field of study — it seemed to click sooner for my friends than it did for me. I felt like Computer Science had been a year-long battle, and I certainly didn’t feel like coding for fun. I had landed an internship to gain experience in testing, and faired well, but I wasn’t passionate about my work. In August of 2013, the Chair of ACM sent this e-mail out to our chapter, and after some convincing from a friend I decided to sign up for my first hackathon: MHacks.

ACM Email

My conversation with said friend about languages and frameworks made me question my preparedness.

Needless to say, I questioned what I had gotten myself into: whether I knew enough to compete with those who had been programming for years versus my mere year and a half. More about this here.

There was something about being surrounded by people with whom I felt like I shared an identity, the fervency that I felt as we worked on this Red Bull-fueled project. After 36 sleep-deprived hours, the sun rose in the Big House and we emerged with a working demo. The “International Surveillance Agency” mapped public tweets with geolocation and used AlchemyAPI to plot their sentiment in geographic areas. Stretch goals included determining the correlation between a tweet’s sentiment and the weather when the tweet was published.

^ Does that sound useful at all? It wasn’t meant to be. It was just a project that a couple of kids made in order to learn more about…everything.

Working on a team that was genuinely passionate about what we were building was a completely new experience. Every other assignment in school felt leeched by team members who didn’t pull their weight, and who clearly were not interested in what we were building. However, building something for the sake of building—I had only dreamed of this before. 

With my friends helping me along the way, I learned basic HTML, CSS, and PHP; the Google Maps API was the first I had ever used (luckily it was well-documented). While this may seem trivial to some, it was a huge step for me, coming from a C, C++, and Java background. This was the first web app I had ever built. A personal barrier was removed — the handicap I felt was preventing me from teaching myself how to learn. I was so proud of our team, that it didn’t matter if we won a prize or not— we didn’t go to win, we went to learn.

MHacks was surely one of the first of its kind, preeminent among the hackathons. I hadn’t heard of PennApps, today’s original premier collegiate hackathon, until two weeks after the event. I came back to school thinking, Man, I need to go to these more often. And I did. While HackDuke was the only other one I went to that fall of 2013, I had caught the bug: I had found another side project taking more of my time, which made it difficult to leave Grounds on the weekends.

Some friends I made from MHacks and another PennApps attendee got together to organize our own hackathon at our UVA. And the rest…is the present ☺

If there is anything I have learned beyond technical skills at hackathons, it is how to enrich my life by learning for fun. Professors generally wont go out of their way to suggest going to a hackathon—you have to take it upon yourself to work on a side project you care about. Sure, I could have gone out those weekends, or worked more hours on homework and gotten a reasonable amount of sleep, but I wouldn’t be the same person I am today.

If you had a similar experience to mine, I’d love to hear about it!