Kathryn's participated in dozens of hackathons as a student, and even when things didn't go well, she kept going back. Kathryn shares all the ways hackathons have helped her in her professional coding career, what the real benefits are (spoiler alert: it's not the thing you're hacking on), and how you can get the benefits of a hackathon even if you're not a student.
[00:00:00] (Music) SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie podcast, where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I'm your host Saron and today we’re talking about hackathons. (Music) Kathryn Hodge is a developer.
[00:00:21] KH: Hi, my name is Kathryn Hodge, and I'm a software developer for a media company.
[00:00:26] SY: And she's really into hackathons. She's been to dozens throughout her college experience. So I wanted to know what she loves so much about them and how they've impacted her current role as a software developer. After this.
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[00:03:04] SY: I'm so excited to have you on the show because we have technically covered hackathons before. We did an episode with the woman who does the big TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, which is absolutely huge. And she had so many amazing things to say about the hackathon from the organizer perspective. And you are really, really interesting because you've done dozens of hackathons as a student, and you have just a wide range of experience participating and knowing what that’s like from the inside. So I’m so excited to talk to you.
[00:03:36] KH: Great. Yeah. I, yeah I recently graduated college. And all throughout college there just are so many student hackathons you can attend. You know, you just sign up online. You go to the venue. It's just incredible.
[00:03:48] SY: Ok. So tell me about the very first time you heard of a hackathon. What did you think?
[00:03:55] KH: I remember like kind of seeing them online and being really intimidated by them because it's like this coding event, and you think all of these coding experts going and being there. And they're all like top of their game, and that's, you know, not it at all, you know. It's really a bunch of beginners and people that really want to learn things and learn something new. And it may be, you know, they've been coding forever but had never done anything with VR or they've never done anything with machine learning or voice Alexa skills. Hackathons are just a great place to try out new technologies, and that's just not how they're advertised.
[00:04:34] SY: Yeah. They need some PR help.
[00:04:36] KH: Definitely.
[00:04:37] SY: Ok. So tell me about the first hackathon you ever went to. What was it and what was it like?
[00:04:42] KH: So the first hackathon I ever went to was called MHacks 8. And so it was MHacks, and then they have one every year, every semester. And it was actually in Detroit, Michigan. And I heard about it through... I did this program. It's called like Square Code Camp, and it's a big women and tech program. They invite 20 girls, and we basically sit with their engineers for a week and kind of get an idea of what they do. This is back in college. And when I was there, everyone was just talking about hackathons. Hackathons, hackathons… you gotta go. And I was just kind of like, “really? Like I don’t know.” (Laughter)
[00:05:15] SY: You were skeptical.
[00:05:16] KH: I was very—yeah, I was very skeptical just because I, you know, had seen the things online. I was like, didn't want to go alone and had met a few girls there, and we were all gonna apply. And MHacks—basically you can get sponsorship. And so you apply, and then you can get some travel credit to actually go to the hackathon. So I was going to school in New York at the time, and I applied and got travel credit. And so I got to fly out there for basically for free. And some of my friends got in, too. And we basically got a team together, and we created this hack. We called it Travel Broke because, because we were all broke in college.
[00:05:57] SY: And wanted to travel. Makes sense.
[00:05:59] KH: And so the idea was you had X amount of money, and you don't care really when you're gonna travel or for how long. But you just want to know for three hundred dollars, what can I do this weekend? Or what can I do next month? So it was a way of like how far can $300 get you in various ways. So you could go to New Orleans for two days or you could, you know, drive up to Boston and spend, you know, three nights there. And yeah, it was just absolutely—it was incredible.
[00:06:27] SY: That's awesome. Ok. So you said that you had seen things online and you didn't want to go alone. What did you see online that made you decide that you needed a buddy to do a hackathon?
[00:06:40] KH: I think it's just the term “hackathon.” It sounds scary. It's like a marathon, but we’re coding.
[00:06:46] SY: But hacking, which also has a negative connotation on its own .
[00:06:49] KH: Exactly.
[00:06:49] SY: You know, especially like outside of tech, so that's a good point. Those two together—yeah it needs a rebrand for sure. Ok so for the first hackathon did you go with a friend?
[00:06:58] KH: So yeah, so that first hackathon it was with the women I met at this code camp.
[00:07:02] SY: Ok. So when you got there, what was it like? What did you… what did you do to get started building the finished product?
[00:07:11] KH: We already kind of knew each other from the camp, so we were just kind of—we spent some time brainstorming. And a lot of times at hackathons, they'll have challenges. We were kind of deciding between either an educational or a travel type of application. And we ended up on travel. And we were like, Airbnb is cool. All these, you know, travel things that we see coming out are interesting, but there's nothing or you could just put a budget and then see what types of experiences you could do with X amount of money. Most of us only had, you know, our core educational theory knowledge. So we knew, you know, the basics of Java, basics of computer science, but we didn't know like how to use an API or how to get different function and really how to create a product. Like we didn't know how to create a product, but we knew the basics of, you know, how do you create tic tac toe? Or how do you create some small little piece of an application but not the overall picture?
[00:08:08] SY: Yeah.
[00:08:08] KH: So we really just kind of picked... Like I wanted to work on more on the UI side, so I chose that. And then some of the others had experience with Python, and so they were going to do some of the back end for it. I think it was decided upon based on what we wanted to learn, and then it just happened. You know, we were all kind of interested in different aspects, and it came together.
[00:08:30] SY: That's so interesting because we have that discussion all the time on the podcast of people who have CS degrees and how applicable is it really to the real world. And it sounds like maybe this was the first time that you were testing that where you had all these ideas and theory and knowledge in the classroom, but this was the first time you were doing something that was closer to what you might build after college. Is that fair?
[00:08:54] KH: Yeah, I mean it was really... it was putting what we had been learning into context. And that's definitely hard at first, you know. It's hard to see when you first start working on something like how is all that stuff I learned in school relevant? And a lot of the times I think with hackathons, you get exposed to so much new technology. Like we built, you know, at this first one a simple web chat. And we had amazing mentors that helped us. I finally learned like how do you create a personal website? Or how do you create some small little thing, you know? And it's your stamp on the world, I guess you could say.
[00:09:28] SY: Yeah.
[00:09:29] KH: And then kind of as I kept going to hackathons, I would pick a new technology each time. And so one time, you know, I picked a mobile app. How do you create an iOS app on your phone? Or how do you create an Android app? What does that process look like? Or how do you create an Alexa skill? It's nothing super advanced in these, it's just learning the basics, understanding the underlying technologies and then applying your real-world experience to it.
[00:09:55] SY: So when you had that first opportunity to give your learning and your education some context, some real-world application, what was your reaction? Was it “wow these skills really are coming in handy?” Or was it “oh my God, I have so much more to learn.”
[00:10:13] KH: Well I think it was both. A lot of times like at the bigger hackathons, you get on a big stage, and you have one chance to present your demo. Whereas a lot of the student hackathons its science fair style. Each team has their own little booth, and they demo their product multiple times, like 50 times, 20 times, you know, just to whoever comes. And they have one hour or so to like visit your booth. So you're constantly demoing this thing. And I think the first time you demo it, you're like oh my God I have no idea what I built because you're so tired. And then you keep presenting it and presenting it. And then you’re really proud of this thing you built. You're like this thing did not exist, you know, 26 hours, 36 hours ago.
[00:10:52] SY: That’s right.
[00:10:53] KH: And I learned stuff, and now, you know, we have it here, and it's this prototype. It's this idea of something that could become bigger. So I think that's really exciting. And I think the fact that you just got a little bit further in what you know in this big world of computer science, I think that's an achievement. But it's also, you know, there's this whole other world of computer science left to know. So I think you do, you leave with this excitement because yeah, you built something, but then you also get to see what everybody else builds. And it's so exciting to see just everyone come together and code, you know, for 24 hours and come out these new products.
[00:11:28] SY: And I love the science fair style because I feel like it gives you an opportunity to hear what people think because what, what kind of sucks about more of the, you know, get on a stage and tell the world what you did is no one's gonna raise their hand and ask questions, like not really. You don't really have a lot of time to get feedback. You don't have time to practice explaining what you did even, right? And I feel like with the science fair, it's not only beneficial to get so many people's reactions, feedback, opinions, questions, but it's also great practice for you to talk hopefully intelligently about, you know, what you built, how you built it. So that seems like a really great format.
[00:12:09] KH: Yeah. It's really interesting because, you know, there's that stereotype coders just code or, you know, computer science or technologists all they do is sit in the corner and code. And you imagine, you know, at these hackathons it’s just the one person in the corner coding, but you have to present these things. Yeah you have to code it, and yeah you gotta figure it out, but you have to have the communication skills to be able to explain your idea to someone else. Because if you can't communicate it, then it's just this black box that no one knows what it does and no one cares about it. If you can't explain what it does, then how is it useful?
[00:12:42] SY: So one thing that we've talked about a bunch in our community, in our CodeNewbie community, and a concern about hackathons is just the environment. And you kind of mentioned it, too, earlier on when you talked about what you thought it was going to be like and then what it ended up being like. It's just this idea that it's 24 hours. Everyone's up all night working really hard. It's super intense and competitive. It just can feel unhealthy at the very least, and it doesn't feel like an environment that is—yeah particularly healthy, welcoming, inclusive, friendly. You know, like all those other things that we, we try to be. What was your experience like? Was that atmosphere harmful in any way to you or to other people? Or did you feel like that atmosphere, that competitive stay up all night, that rah-rah... like was that a key part to what you did like about hackathons?
[00:13:33] KH: I think it can be really easy to get sucked into that, and that, you know, I have to stay up all night or, you know, I can't go home. I have to be here coding, and I can't sleep. And I think that can be very, very harmful. The thing I think you really have to do is before you even go to the hackathon, set a goal. And your goal shouldn't be to win X prize. You want to come in with a goal of I want to learn something new about X technology because you're always going to achieve that goal. You know, I want to learn how to create an Alexa skill. Or I want to create this VR app or I want to create this AR app. Or I want to learn more about Android or I want to create my own personal website. And just get it a little bit closer to that goal or even you might surprise yourself and complete that goal.
[00:14:22] SY: Interesting. And so with the environment, knowing that, you know, at the end of the day, hopefully that environment is good for you. You know, hopefully it works out. It definitely is an environment that I enjoy. I'm a pretty intense person so intense, competitive environments are totally my thing. But whether or not it is the best environment, how do you recommend—people who decide to try hackathons—how do you recommend they make the most out of that experience?
[00:14:50] KH: I think you have to find mentors. And so mentors are at every hackathon, and a lot of times they're the sponsors. You'll have, you know, really large tech companies sponsor hackathons. And usually you'll have about eight to 10 sponsors, and if it's a really big hackathon, you might have something, you know, like 30 sponsors. And they’ll all, you know, come with their swag. And so it’s always a good reason to go to the booth. But you... usually at the beginning of a hackathon, they'll have the swag there where you walk around all the booths and you can grab the t shirts and the stickers and all the good stuff. And it's a really good opportunity to kind of meet some of the people that work at these companies and kind of understand what they do so that way if you end up working on a mobile app and you happen to meet someone from X company that works on that mobile app or with that framework or with that language, you can go back to them. And you can be like, “hey, you know, I'm working on this application that does this, and I'm trying to make it do this thing, you know. Do you think you can help?” It's a great conversation starter, especially if you're looking for a job, if you’re a student looking for a job, you know, it's a great way to show you’re engaged, that you care about the company. And you'll learn a lot. And so I think getting to know the sponsors, getting to know—and some of the times the mentors will actually be other students, you know. It's a great way to make friends. So focusing on learning I think is the best thing you can do at your first hackathon.
[00:16:14] SY: Oh, I love that so much. And it's actually, it's kind of neat because one of the big, big things with big questions we get in our community is how do I find a mentor? You know, I need to find someone who can help me with definitely technical stuff, hopefully some career advice, as well, point me in the right direction. And going to hackathons might be the solution. You know, like go to hackathons not really to build stuff—I mean if you build something that's great, too—but really just head straight to that mentor table because you're right. Every hackathon has floating people who are a little more experienced, know little bit more and are there to guide you. Start a conversation. Learn about, you know, how they got into code, what their careers, like where they work and that could be the beginning of a great mentorship.
[00:17:00] KH: Hackathons can seem really competitive, and you walk into the room and everyone looks really intense with their big computers and all of their swag. So figuring out how to take yourself out of that mindset and kind of remove yourself from that environment and figure out what is your goal in being at this event, because you're giving up your weekend. I mean, it's a fun event and all…
[00:17:18] SY: That’s true.
[00:17:19] KH: But it's really important to be intentional about your time and being intentional about what you're focusing on in a hackathon. And if (Music) you're focusing on the fact that you're not sleeping like you're not going to get anything out of it.
[00:17:31] SY: Coming up next we talk more about Kathryn’s hackathon experiences and how they helped her test drive different tech careers. We also talk about her YouTube channel and what it's like making coding videos online. After this.
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[00:19:38] When you think about your experiences at a hackathons, overall it definitely sounds like you're a fan. And you’ve had some really, really awesome experiences at hackathons. Have you ever had a bad one, a bad experience?
[00:19:52] KH: I remember… I’d been to a few hackathons, and there was this one hackathon in D.C. that I went to. And I walked into the room, and it was like a stadium. It was like huge, and you know, the tables were already filled with people. And it was like—and I like, I like freaked out. I was like “oh my God. I do do not belong here.” This is like where are the women? You know, no one here looks like me, you know. I don't have anything in common with the people here. And so I think...
[00:20:21] SY: Yeah.
[00:20:21] KH: That was really, really scary. And then, you know, I walk myself over to the hardware table, and I'm like the only woman in line, so I think the bad experiences just come from just being intimidated. And you feel like why am I here? Everyone looks like they know what they're doing, and I don't, you know. I just started in this thing, you know, I just started going to hackathons or I just started coding. And you just have to figure out how to let that go and be like ok, everyone else here feels the same way because in fact they do. You know, everyone feels. Anyone in college feels like they don't know what they’re doing. So I think figuring out a way to soothe those thoughts in your mind and just be like, “ok, you know, I may not know what I'm doing. I may not know what's next or how to get past this bug, but I'm ok with that, and I'm gonna find, you know, a mentor. I'm gonna find someone that might know what they're doing and hopefully we'll figure this out.
[00:21:18] SY: So it's interesting because I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling whether it's going to a hackathon, going into a meeting, going into, you know, the first day of classe. There’s so many different rooms you can walk into and feel all those feelings and feel insecure or insignificant and just “why am I here?” But for you, even with those feelings, you kept coming back. So what made you keep coming back?
[00:21:45] KH: I think it was two things. One, definitely the friends. I made friends from all across the country just going to these hackathons. And that to me was incredible. To me, that was just so exciting. I had people that I could talk about technology with. And most colleges don't have, you know, VR headsets or AR headsets or all the new tech. I think that was like kind of the second reason is that all of the hackathons—student hackathons—had all of the new tech. They had the Alexa, you know, the Amazon Echo devices before they were mainstream. They had the Oculus Dk2, the developer kits, you know, before the Oculus Rift came out. So I think it was, you know, two, yeah, two things like one, you know, having friends that understood technology, and I could communicate on that level. And then also just all the cool tech was at the hackathons. So I had to come back. I had become, you know, rent a different hardware device each time and just see what I could do with it.
[00:22:44] SY: Yeah. That makes sense. That’s how they, they keep you coming back, (Laughter) like all this good stuff. So we focused basically this whole conversation on student hackathons, but now you're all grown up. You got your software developer job. So do you, do you still go to hackathons?
[00:23:02] KH: It's definitely a lot harder. You, you know, when you have a full time job, there's no napping. But I still try to go to one, you know, every six months or so. And now I go not to necessarily like build the best thing possible or win the hackathon or whatever it is, I more go to just meet more people in technology and see what other people are building, see what other people are doing. You know, how are other people innovating in this space? And that piece is really interesting.
[00:23:32] SY: So you mentioned the inaccessibility of hackathons for a lot of people is in fact the overnight weekend, especially if you have, you know, a family or other dependents, responsibilities. You know, it's really hard to just, you know, “I’ll see you on Monday, family.” So with your experience at hackathons and the value that you've gotten and given that I think, I think it's safe to say most people listening are not students right now, are there other ways that you can get the benefits of a hackathon? You mentioned getting the coolest tech, meeting people that kind of thing, but maybe not with the structure of a hackathon that makes it hard for a lot of people to participate in.
[00:24:13] KH: I think on the education side, there’s so many resources online. Like I know Codecademy is a great resource and Treehouse and Lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning and a lot of other great tutorial websites. You can just go on, take a course, learn everything you want to learn. There are also a lot of blogs, and so if you, you know, just google the topic you're interested in, you can easily find, you know, a walkthrough of something you want to learn. As for the networking, conferences are a great place to go. So those are only during the day, not all night. Yeah, though that's a great place to meet people as well as just meet ups that are in the area.
[00:24:52] SY: So how big of a role have hackathons played in your own development as a software developer?
[00:25:02] KH: They've been absolutely essential. To me, it made me fall in love with computer science. Like I enjoyed computer science, I enjoyed the labs, you know, in my classes, but when I finally began building actual things, that's when it clicked 100 percent for me and that this is what I want to do forever. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I had this idea, and then it's this, you know, we had an idea. And then we built it. And then we got to pitch it to people. And then we got good and bad feedback, and that whole process only took me a day. So I think that is just very inspiring. And it's like, you know, with a keyboard you can do anything. And that, to me, was just like ok, I have to do this. And it was... you're not creating these algorithms that are just, you know, how do I traverse a binary search tree? It's, you know, I want to create this cool thing in VR. I want to create this, you know, really cool mobile app that does this. It's more applicable to like everyday life versus these theory things that are kind of in the air. But it's really important to understand that theory so that way you can create best prototypes you can.
[00:26:12] SY: Yeah, and that's what I was thinking, too. It feels like a hackathon, whether or not you, you know, actually end up building something at the end, it sounds like a really great way to get a little taste of what a job as a software developer might be like. Not because of the overnight thing because hopefully there are not a lot of developers who are, you know, spending all night coding at the office. But just this idea of you have time, set amount of time, you don't really have a ton of time to learn. You can't, you know, like take six months and take a class and then come back to this product, right? You have to kind of learn and build at the same time. It's really collaborative because you have a team—or you're supposed to have a team. I guess technically, you don't have to have one, but you’re supposed to have a team. And then you have to explain to people at the end what you did and how you did it. And so in a lot of ways for people listening who think they might be interested in code not really sure if they want to make a career out of it, it might be strangely a decent way to kind of sample it and see what that world is actually like.
[00:27:51] SY: Yeah. You can test drive a bunch of stuff. And yeah that’s a good point because when you're building a product, there really are a lot of pieces—back end, there’s front-end, there’s design, there’s just focusing on user testing. There's either so many parts to it, so if you look at a hackathon as not so much a way to like build the biggest baddest product but to see what it's like to go through the product development process, then it becomes less stressful and a really great learning opportunity.
[00:28:19] KH: Absolutely. I completely agree.
[00:28:21] SY: So what advice do you have for people who are thinking about doing their first hackathon, trying to get the most out of that opportunity. What advice do you have for them?
[00:28:31] KH: I think it's important to just acknowledge that you're probably gonna feel a little out of place, a little scared, a little nervous but excited at the same time. And just be ok with that. And then the other thing I would say is come in with just a small idea of what you want to work on. And that's not necessarily the idea of like “I want to build X,” but it might be, you know, I want to try front-end this go around, or I want to try learning Android. But just have some kind of idea of the technology you want to work with because that will help narrow it down a little bit, and at the end of it, you'll end up learning something about that technology. You'll learn a little bit more about it, and you'll come out of it feeling like ok, now I understand, you know, what hackathons are like. I understand a little bit more about this technology that I picked, and I made some new friends. And I think that is, you know, a successful hackathon.
[00:29:25] SY: Ok. So you mentioned earlier on in the show that you do a bunch of other stuff outside of your job and outside of your amazing hackathon experience. What are some of the other things that you do?
[00:29:35] KH: Yeah. So I actually have a Youtube channel. It's called blondiebytes, and I essentially just make programming tutorials. When I was starting out, I remember I was just googling, you know, how to do—how to create an iOS app, like that was something I really wanted to do, and I really wanted to know how to do it. So I would go online and I would google like oh “how do you make an iOS app?” And I found there was like definitely just a lack of diversity in the people making tutorials. And so I was really interested in, you know, someday I'm making my own channel. And then a few years ago, I just started making command line tutorials. And so I started, you know, just you know, fun things you, can do in the command line. And then it grew into just other topics that I was interested in and that I thought, you know, content that just needed to be out there. Like there are not a lot of good tutorials on like what an API is or what an SDK is or, you know, how do you use, you know, X technology. And so that was something I was really trying to do with my channel. So if you're interested in any of those topics or just want to get a sense of kind of some of the basic terminology in computer science, I think it might really help you.
[00:30:41] SY: So when you first started doing those YouTube videos, were you nervous at all? Because YouTube is kind of known to be a not-so-friendly place, especially in the comments section. So were you, were you scared or was that like?
[00:30:54] KH: I mean, I was a little nervous, but it was really... it was like back in 2015, and there weren't really a lot of programming channels like none that were like core programming. Like you might have one Youtuber upload a couple of videos and that was it on one very, very specific technology. But this niche didn't really exist yet, and so I wasn't really worried. I was more just doing it because I felt like the content needed to be out there. There needed to be a different voice out there, you know, explaining some of these technical concepts and making them more accessible. And it's something really I wish I would have had when I was starting out. I wish I would have gone, I could have gone on Youtube and found a video that would have explained something that I've been trying to figure out for ages. So that was really, you know, why I created the channel. And as for nerves it's not—this is more nerve wracking than, you know, some of the other stuff (Music) I guess because on YouTube it's not live, so you can just edit out anything.
[00:31:56] SY: Well you're doing a great job. And thank you so much for joining us and talking to us all about hackathons. You want to say goodbye?
[00:32:03] KH: Thank you. Bye bye.
[00:32:04] SY: And that's the end of the episode. Let me know what you think. Tweet me @CodeNewbies or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're in D.C. or Philly, check out our local CodeNewbie meetup groups. We've got community coding sessions and awesome events each month. So if you're looking for real-life human coding interaction, look us up on meetup.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. And join us for our weekly Twitter chat—we've got our Wednesday chats at 9PM EST and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 PM EST. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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