Posted by Lisa Ding

Teen Club: Advice for Participating in Your First Hackathon!

Lisa has been a Teen Club member since April 2016 and is currently a Teen Club Ambassador. She is a high school student who hopes to bridge the STEM gender gap, inspiring girls to develop an interest in tech. Through Teen Club, she has participated in many tech-related events including workshops, industry field trips, tech conferences and has even mentored at Kids Learning Code and Girls Learning Code workshops.

In this blog post, she shares with us her experience and tips for first-time young hackathon participants!

C5ryQ68UoAA24HoOn March 11 and 12 2017, I attended the StarterHacks hackathon held at the University of Waterloo. Now you may be wondering, what is a hackathon? A hackathon is an event where people with different skills, be it coding or designing, come together to solve a particular problem. Personally, I don’t have the most experience with coding. I was convinced that hackathons were only for coding geniuses who knew multiple languages off the top of their head.

That’s where StarterHacks comes in. StarterHacks was created as a learning opportunity for people who have never hacked before to create and collaborate. Knowing this, I felt slightly less intimidated, but nevertheless, there was still this undeniable sense of fear in the pit of my stomach. I hesitated.  

It’s so far.

Everyone who will be there is probably in University.

I have so much school assignments, I don’t have time for this.

What will I even create?

What problem will I solve?  

These thoughts crossed my mind, but I still decided to go. Why? My innate sense of curiosity, excitement, and willingness to learn overcame the doubts I originally had.

After all, as important as school and academics are made out to be, going to hands-on events like hackathons and Ladies Learning Code workshops expose ourselves to different types of learning environments — and that’s important, too. It allows us to build character and develop skills that aren’t usually enforced in a regular school environment, such as problem solving and networking.

But back to the story!

After about four hours of travel on the GO bus, I had the chance to experience an amazing and exciting hackathon. Now if you really like getting free swag like I do, then you’re in luck. StarterHacks gave out many free items–water bottles, stickers, notepads, sunglasses, and even a pillow! They also provided free food!

One of the tricky things was…

When it came to the actual hacking part of the hackathon, I had trouble coming up with an idea, because there was no specific theme – the idea was entirely up to us. With my limited coding knowledge, I didn’t think there was any idea I could pull off. For a couple of hours, my friend and I didn’t do any hacking because we didn’t think we could. However, one of the hackathon’s founders eventually approached us and reminded us that the hackathon was focused more on fostering an idea, rather than creating a tangible product. With her advice, we became much more motivated to create something and ideas just kept flowing!

Credit: StarterHacks

Credit: StarterHacks

We ended up brainstorming an application that allows users to take notes in a hassle free manner. As a user of the pre-installed Sticky Notes app on my laptop, I didn’t like how I couldn’t personalize it with different fonts, how I had to open the app just to create a new note, and that the notes took way too much space on my laptop. So, during Starterhacks, we made a website that displays designs and prototypes of a desktop application for hassle-free note-taking. Our idea was that after typing in a specific shortcut key, users would be able to type whatever they want and the text would automatically become a note. We also wanted the app to allow users flexibility and personalization: users would be able to change fonts, create reminders, and minimize notes in a tab format, like on an internet browser.   

What I loved most about the experience was…

The best part about the hackathon was the welcoming vibe that Starterhacks fostered. Everyone there was really nice, and many of the facilitators, mentors, and even StarterHacks’ founders approached us. They gave us a lot of insight about university, coding, and life in general. Many were surprised to see high school girls participating at the hackathon. They commended us for participating in hackathons this early. One volunteer told us that she ended up in the tech field even though she majored in fashion, which was interesting.  After I confessed my dilemmas I had about going into the STEM field, they responded by getting rid of some of the doubts and insecurities I had about not being good enough and giving me more confidence. They told me that even coming to this hackathon was already a sign that we were going in the right direction. This was really empowering.

My advice to first-time participants would be…

Finally, here are couple tips for when you are at a hackathon:

    • If you’ll be staying overnight, bring a sleeping bag! I tried to sleep without one and I really couldn’t because the building at one point was so cold that I had to keep my jacket on.
    • Network. A hackathon is a perfect chance to get to know people who are also passionate about technology and making a difference in the world so don’t be shy and introduce yourself – they won’t bite.
    • Ask for help. There are plenty of mentors available and I actually regret not asking any questions when I attended StarterHacks so make sure to ask for help when you’re stuck on your project.
    • Take breaks. If you’re too tired or stressed, take some breaks here and there so that you don’t overwhelm yourself.

And most importantly, have fun!

Hopefully, my experience encourages you to participate in Teen Club!