okay i think i maybe understand hackathons now

i spent my last saturday mentoring and judging an all-day hackathon in jersey city with about 100 to 150 kids (it was organized by and took place in an all-boys prep school, but was open to any high school student). it was a very long day but the kids were great and made it well worth the work. plus the commute there and home ruled.

here is a photo of me helping one of the groups organize a brainstorming session in the event:

photo of me at a table of kids talking during a high school hackathon

hackathons were not really a thing i could participate in until recently. when i was getting into web development, i was already an "adult" in college. i couldn't afford to take days off of work to go, and when i did have days off i didn't want to spend it inside a large room with mostly guys. i knew there was value in hackathons, i just didn't know how to tap into that value so i could reap the benefits; i've been told these kinds of events are great for networking, but in my experience it's a lot harder to get strangers to talk to you when you don't look like them especially when there is a contest happening in tandem.

there are so many benefits, though, to being on "the other side" i.e. mentoring and/or judging, as i do quite often today. first off, these kids are SO funny. they're also smart and fearless. i know i could sit at a table for hours and banter with them, either about javascript or why hands don't grow back if they are cut off, and remain entertained and enlightened because i literally did that on saturday.

high schoolers today are also very aware and communicative of their surroundings and company; a couple of girls pointed out to me that this was their first hackathon where a woman was mentoring, and another made note that her small group contained the only black girls in attendance. "you can't be it if you don't see it" also applies to hackathons, and i give hella props to these girls for showing up where i very likely wouldn't have, even as a young adult!

even the project ideas of these kids were more mindful of the problems in society than i see from adults in tech – while the opening keynote speaker evangelized being an entrepreneur and "not average," the kids mostly made projects that were not about their own place in a capitalist society but of making the web and real world space accessible, helping the environment, and about an issue primarily on their minds right now: gun violence.

i've gotta say that i've mentored and judged a bunch of events this year and the best ones, hands down, are the ones organized by the students themselves. saturday's hackathon was a shining example of that. wrangling 100+ participants is no joke. on top of the contest, the student organizers also ran workshops throughout the day so that even those who couldn't code a project in 8 hours could still participate in other ways. i think this was great, especially since the workshops brought the kids into smaller rooms and it was a lot easier for them to meet and socialize with each other while learning things that they can bring to future events.

speaking of workshops, huge shouts out to the mlh localhost folks for providing workshop materials so the student organizers could run workshops like this on their own for free. i helped out with the intro to html/css workshop by getting the materials on glitch so that the students there using chromebooks could participate immediately, no dev environment setup necessary! oh, and that reminds me, there were so many chromebooks at this event. so many different machines in general. usually at tech conferences, all I see are macbooks, but not at these hackathons!

i don't see myself participating in hackathons as a contestant ever, but being a hackathon mentor and judge has given me a chance to talk to more contestants of all ages and learn what value they get or don't get from these kinds of events. and i now have better insight into why hackathons are popular and what some organizers do well over others. this new perspective also convinced me to buy a windows laptop and a chromebook so i can experience what this new generation of coders are dealing with, which is something i'll write about another time (hint: it's not great!).