A Deep Dive into Grace Hopper-2013

I hate networking. There, I said it.

What I mean by that is I really hate "networking events". You know those.  You go, awkwardly nurse a drink, glance down at your phone and wait for 45 respectable minutes to pass by so you can quickly make your exit, a pile of business cards still in your pocket.  I just think there's something so self-promoting about being forced to talk about yourself and your awesome accomplishments to random strangers in a closed room.  I don’t even like speed-networking events. It’s just not natural to me.

I have, however, always been a big believer of building relationships, one at a time,  that last many years or even decades. For me, these are based on some mutual interest or goal. It took me many years to realize that this was the sole purpose of networking events--to build relationships. For me, meeting people at “networking events” didn’t uncover any kind of real mutual interest or goal, other than wanting to meet people. I know it happens: people start having intense, amazing conversations at these things and it changes their lives. For me, it’s never happened because I never stayed long enough!

I can’t say enough about making time to consciously build and nurture relationships as well as taking the time to make introductions for other people. It's amazing how the most simple effort to build a lasting, trustworthy relationship can absolutely change your life and can change the life of the people you interact with.  This has happened to me hundreds of time over the course of my 12 year career in tech, but here is a story that's recent and led me to writing this article today.

I decided to attend that year’s Grace Hopper conference sometime the summer of 2013 while absently browsing the website while I was supposed to be paying attention in a meeting. My sister lived in Minneapolis, so if the conference turned out to be a dud, at least I’d have someone to hang out with. The fear came from the last time I'd been to Grace Hopper before, around 2008. I attend some interesting sessions and workshops during the day, but ate lunch alone and went back to my hotel right after the last session of the day, ordered room service and caught up on work mail.  In other words, I did nothing to build relationships while I was there.  I remember nothing about that Grace Hopper conference, not even what sessions I had found useful.

This past year, I decided to do things differently.  I was determined to make the most of the conference outside of the usual workshops. I made sure to find out who else from Microsoft was going. Two co-workers who I'd always been friendly with, Robin and Subha were both going and we made plans to meet up at the "night-before" mixer that Microsoft was having. Usually, I would have skipped such an event. After all, why would I spend time with people at Grace Hopper that I could easily see at work or in the office?  But, again, this year I was determined to do things differently.  I did warn my sister to keep her evenings open in case I was uninspired by the conference.

At the Microsoft mixer, I said hi to both Robin and Subha, but made it a point to sit down at a table with women who I didn’t know.  A few minutes later, a very attractive brunette woman sat down next to me in the empty spot next to me. She introduced herself to me as Angela Romei, new to Microsoft.  We started talking and she said that my co-worker Robin had sent her to me because she thought Angela and I ought to meet.  We started talking about Angela’s job in PR and how she wanted to be the People Storyteller—telling the stories of the people who built software. I told her that Microsoft was full of people with really fascinating lives, both in and out of work. I told her I was an author of fiction novels and also gave her the example of my friend Rebecca Deutsch, who created a non-profit organization that taught high-schoolers to code. This was later integrated into Code.org. I sent Rebecca and Angela introductory emails and encouraged them to meet.  Angela and I linked to each other on Facebook and I promised her I’d send her the information on the Italian lessons I’d been looking into—turned out we both were interested in traveling to Italy the following year.

The speakers that night at the Microsoft mixer were Julie Larson-Green, who had been the Vice President of Windows for many years and one of my long-time role models. She was as inspirational as always and all the women in the room were starry-eyed as Julie talked about her career and how they, too, could do great things if they only hung in there when things for hard.  The other speaker was Rane Johnson, someone I didn't know. I learned Rane was the Director of Diversity at Microsoft, a role I didn’t think existed. She really moved me with her short, but effective speech about the power of women helping women.  I found Rane really awesome and I made a mental note to thank her for her talk when I got back to a device where I could type better.  

The next morning, I sat with Subha and Robin for Sheryl Sandberg's keynote around Leaning In.  As we listened to Sheryl talk about building "Lean In Circles" for women to help support other women, Subha and I had the same thought, "We need a Lean-In circle in our building!"  The rest of the conference passed similarly. Subha and I found a bug prediction tool at one of the sessions that we wanted to integrate into our daily jobs. I attended a talk on Google Glass that I found interesting.  There was a speed mentoring hour where senior mentors talked to small groups of women about their careers and offered advice. I actually enjoyed this—I listened more than I spoke and connected with several women around issues we both were facing. I also used this time to solidify my relationships with several women who I did know from work as well as visit the Microsoft recruiting booth and offer my services.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Microsoft recruiting and have an open invitation to them: call me if you ever need someone to fill in for last minute interviewing or “selling”.  They have taken me up on it several times over and I’ve learned so much more than I’ve given to these candidates.

Back in Redmond, after a really great Grace Hopper week, I emailed Rane Johnson asking if she would mind if I set up some time with her to get her advice on starting a Lean-In Circle.  She agreed to make some time for me in her busy schedule and we had a really great chat about how I could get more senior women involved in helping the next generation. Her advice was priceless: make your ask clear. Tell them exactly what you want them to do. Something like, "Spend one hour a month with mid-career women answering questions about your experiences" is a much easier thing to commit to than "Join this group and we'll figure out what we want to do."

Subha and I started the Lean-In Circle and our first meeting had a whopping 30 people attend as we kicked it off with a session around Mentorship and Sponsorship with our Director Greg Chapman and my long-time friend and mentor, Katie Frigon.  I got about 20 emails that afternoon telling me how great the hour was and how excited everyone was to have something like this in our building.  I loved being able to bring these women together and was surprised by how much I learned about both being and having a mentor.

In the meantime, I'd stayed in close touch with Rane Johnson and offered to help her how I could. She invited me to participate in a few different diversity events at Microsoft and ones sponsored by Microsoft, including speaking at the Tapia Conference in Seattle, a really cool conference focused on Diversity. There I met several recruiters from Facebook who talked about the need to hire diverse people.  Rane also asked me to give the keynote presentation at the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) conference this past spring.  Mistakenly, I didn't ask how big this conference was supposed to be so I wasn’t appropriately nervous for the event! That morning, I arrived at the auditorium and discovered the audience was huge!  I gave my opening keynote and apparently, people liked it. I had young women coming up to me for hours after telling me that I'd inspired them, that I'd given them some really practical advice for success and they wished they could hear more. "Hmm, I should archive this presentation deck on my website or something," I thought. A seed was born then, but I did nothing with it.

The closing keynote of the WISE conference was the lovely Randi Zuckerberg, who'd started the Marketing department for Facebook back in the mid-2000s.  Randi, Rane and I spent the afternoon talking about life, work, home, boys, everything.  It was pretty incredible to hear how much stuff we had in common and we all promptly started following each other on Twitter.  I was impressed at how Randi, for having built her career around tech, was a big believer in disconnecting and focusing on the real world. I started reading her book Dot Complicated, all about Tech/Life Balance that night.

Meanwhile, back at the office, our Lean-In Circle was still in gear. The women still emailed Subha and I almost every week with new ideas for topics and questions. One of the really cool ones was a talk that Juliana Peña suggested around “How to Ask For a Raise.” She asked one of our Behavioral Scientists (seriously, that’s a real job—awesome), Matt Wallaert to come and talk to us.

At the beginning of this summer, I was standing in Chicago O'Hare airport following a wonderful weekend celebrating my sister's MBA school graduation. I checked my email on my phone and I saw a mail item from one of the women in our Lean-In Circle asking when we were having another meeting. She really wanted to talk about excelling at a new job. She wanted to make a good impression on her new team and thought it would be a great topic for a Lean-In discussion. She was absolutely right, it would be a great topic. It was also a topic we'd covered earlier. How could we document some of these things so the rich discussions and advice didn't get lost.  Maybe we should start a blog series…or maybe…I was an author after all. That seed of an idea that had been planted at Grace Hopper started to take shape and I spent the plane ride home organzing my thoughts. A non-fiction book. For all of those college students I hire and mentor and grow.For all of those people in my Lean-In Circle. For all of the people who were taken by tech at “Hello World”. All about succeeding in this crazy industry. A few key mentorship lessons. Interviews with great mentors.  You Had Me at Hello World.  And my first non-fiction book was born.

So, that’s a lot of threads that tied together pretty neatly, huh? So, whatever happened to that wonderful woman from PR named Angela Romei? We stayed friends for the past year and this summer, she called me with a very special ask: she was having a press tour for 3 friendly journalists and wanted to focus on the “human” side of Microsoft. She asked if I wanted to be interviewed as a part of it. Scary. Wonderful. Amazing.  Once I found out where they were from (Seattle Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and my favorite…IWantHerJob.com), I started sweating. Um, did I really have anything to say that wouldn’t make my company look silly?

I had my interview with these inquisitive press folks and we had a rich discussion about tech, culture, diversity, Millennials and best of all, storytelling. The lovely Brianne Burrowes, the founder of IWantHerJob and one of my personal role models just blew my mind. Here was a woman who had a great job yet she wanted to do something to help other young women find the jobs of their dreams and founded a great site where women can learn about all of the other women out there who were living their dream jobs. Brianne also fosters relationships between people if a woman emails her asking for contact info of one of her “Leading Ladies”.  I love what this woman does.

Brianne, Angela and I knew we needed to know each other more and we went out to a serendipitous lunch the next day where we talked through Brianne’s business plan, talked through my non-fiction writing plan and made a promise to meet at…yep, Grace Hopper this year.

In other news, the Microsoft recruiting team did take me up on my offer to help them how I could and invited me to speak to the University of Michigan interns this summer (GO BLUE!). I was very impressed to meet two young men who asked me about promoting diversity through events like MHacks and realizing that diversity is a very real goal for the next generation.  

One of the interns, Dylan Hurd asked to meet with me before he left for the summer and asked if I’d be willing to write this article talking about hack-a-thons, conferences and general gatherings of tech people with a specific goal.  

My lesson in the TL:DR way is this when you’re faced with a gathering of sorts:

  1.  Ask some people around you if they’re going. If they’re not, suggest going together. Sometimes all people need is to feel “invited”. I know I never felt invited to Hack-A-Thons till someone specifically said, “Dona, you should go. I am. Want to go with me?” Invite others to go.

  2.  If people around you are going, ask what they’re hoping to get out of it and if they mind if you join. I can pretty much guarantee they won’t mind.

  3. Make it a point to introduce people to each other with some things they might have in common. Something simple like, “Angela, please meet Dona. You both did internships last summer on the West Coast,” goes a long, long way.

  4. Make deep connections. Ask people questions and really listen to what they want to get out of the event. If you think someone is cool, follow up with a nice email thanking them for their time and maybe planning to meet up again. That is actually the biggest differentiator between people who build relationships and people who don’t. Every leader I’ve interviewed for the mentoring book has said that: people who follow up really stand out. You’d be surprised to hear that maybe 1% of people follow up.

  5. Attend! Even if you don’t know anything, even if you don’t think you’ll get anything out of it, GO. Make one connection, make it a deep connection. Stay in touch, nurture the relationship. You’ll be shocked at where it can lead.  Trust me, I’m living this.

Now, not even a year later, my life has changed quite pivotally after that epic Grace Hopper conference of 2013. I’m able to help young women connect with each other, senior leaders and mentoring lessons through the Lean-In Circle.  I'm writing a book about the key lessons I've learned from my mentors as well as many visionary leaders in tech such as Rane Johnson, Randi Zuckerberg, Matt Wallaert, Julie Larson-Green, several vice-presidents at Microsoft, Zynga and Facebook and many other companies that I’ve met through my friends in, yep, Microsoft Recruiting. I have a wonderful circle of female supporters such as Rane, Brianne and Angela who I “lean on” almost every single day and I can easily say that I’m the luckiest girl in the world—all thanks to the wonderful relationships in my life.  

I wish you every success in the world and know that if you invest time and energy in building relationships, that success will come much easier.

Dona Sarkar is an engineering manager at Microsoft, a wannabe fashion designer and the published author of several young adult fiction books. YOU HAD ME AT HELLO WORLD: 5 Mentoring Sessions with the Leaders of Tech is her first non-fiction, due out late in 2014. Please visit at http://donasarkar.com or email her atdonasarkar@gmail.com

It Doesn't Take an Engineer to Dive into a Hackathon

During my junior year of college, I lived with five boys, four of whom were engineers.  I regularly awoke to the rooster call of ESPN SportsCenter, and fell fast asleep to the living room soundtrack of my roommates’ triumphs and failures in Super Smash Brothers.  If you were to wander into the corner of that same living room, however, you would find an altogether different scene.  There, a bookshelf was piled high to the sky with my favorite English and Business-major flavored reads—everything from Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and beyond—a colorful contrast to the monochromatic volumes on programming languages that my roommates perused.

Despite the fact that my daytime was peppered with classes that rarely overlapped with those taken by my engineering friends, we were united by basements and backlit screens in the evenings.  My own first foray into tech startups dated back to high school.  Before I was old enough to see a rated-R movie, I’d spent time participating in a business plan competition.  When a mentor urged me to attend a Startup Weekend, I dived right into the deep end and headed to an event that would set me on an entirely new trajectory.  Similar to a hackathon, Startup Weekends are about no talk, and all action.  Bringing together business people, designers, and programmers, teams develop and demo live products to build ventures in the course of 54 hours.

Today, Startup Weekends are happening all over the globe—in 726 cities from Auckland to Port-au-Prince to everywhere in between.  13,000 startups have been created from Startup Weekends, and that rush of creating something from scratch stuck with me through many more weekends to come.

So, when my roommates asked if I wanted to join in on a trip to PennApps in the fall of 2012, it was an instant yes.  I was mildly terrified.  I was self-taught in design, and had put out infographics, slide decks, and print work in the past, but never at a hackathon.  Anxious and apprehensive, we crammed into a few university vans in the middle of the night and headed to Philadelphia.

Given that I wasn’t an engineer, and that I wasn’t particularly loud about my design interests, I received many tentative questions from friends and acquaintances before the trip.  “Are you…spectating?” they asked.  “What are you going to be…doing there?”

"In fact, that is the very magic of a hackathon, or of a Startup Weekend.  You can be an English major and create something incredible.  You can be a saxophone player by day and a hackathon junkie by night. "


No, I wouldn’t be spectating.  Anything but.  In fact, that is the very magic of a hackathon, or of a Startup Weekend.  You can be an English major and create something incredible.  You can be a saxophone player by day and a hackathon junkie by night.  You can.  Can is the name of the game at a hackathon.  It is one of those rare moments where you can set aside your regular universe and run head-first towards creating an entirely new one.

Now, as a fresh college grad, I won’t be hopping into Philadelphia-bound university vans any longer, but hackathons remain a constant in my life.  I’m now a grownup-in-training at Facebook and Parse, where we have recurring company-wide hackathons.  Parse will be traveling the college hackathon circuit this fall, and I’m so looking forward to seeing these new universes live in action.  English majors and saxophone players and designers-in-the-making alike--I’ll see you there.  

Nancy Xiao is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she founded the Creator's Co-op and was on the executive leadership team of MPowered, among many other leadership roles. 

The MHacks Gateway is Here.

“Learning to hack is the easiest thing I’ve ever done”

—Said almost no one.  We get that it isn’t as easy as getting a Geico quote, but we’re making it as easy as we can. All you need is the curiosity to learn and the drive to get it done. 

MHacks has never been about exclusivity. While we have physical limitations of how many people can attend MHacks IV, we're issuing a challenge to first time hackers. Because MHacks isn’t just for the most creative, the most skilled and the most badass hackers in the world— its also for the most driven, regardless of your skill level. 

There are so many students out there that have taken a basic-level Computer Science course, but have never hacked. We need to fix this. 

Therefore, we issue you a challenge. Complete a course with our friends at MakeGamesWithUs and learn iOS, and we’ll automatically admit you to MHacks. No questions asked. MHacks will be #STACKED with iOS mentors, and mentors of many other stripes to help you with your hack, problems you encounter and these mentors will be a connection that will last well past MHacks IV. 

Our MakeGamesWithUs course is designed for those who have a basic level of functions, for loops, and other computer science concepts, and will teach you how to make your own Flappy Bird. Sound epic? Head over to the MHacks Gateway, and get started. 

Take Me To the Gateway

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -Harriet Tubman

From Zero to Hacker

“This time, hopefully, everything works”, I murmured as I committed myself to learning how to program, the unknown and almost hopeless road, again.

Cloudy Confusions

It was an early morning of May 2013, right after I finished my second year coursework in a Math PhD Program. A whole summer with large chunks of free time was there waiting for me to explore. Confused about what to achieve in the math program, I decided to give myself some extra option, something I would be excited about and willing to wake up early for. For me, it had always been “programming”. I just resonated with this geeky thing deep in my heart, whenever I heard the word. However, I dared not overlook the existence of past numerous failing trials for it, ever since I graduated from high school in 2007. Every time I would pick up a book with title likeFundamentals of Data Structures or Introduction to Algorithms, only to find out just a week later that everything was so lifeless and then I completely gave up.

I never lacked any math basics for those data structure or algorithm stuff, but I was always told to start off this coding thing with a solid theoretical base, because of my math major background. Well, while data structures and algorithms are indeed very important, this notion of learning order is simply not true, as I soon would discover.

First Joy of Coding

Anyway, back to that moment of last May, nobody was there to guide me. And my coding experience was only limited to a very simple undergraduate course in C Language basics that taught me how to use arrays and loops. I did not know anything about “object-oriented programming” and had no idea of how people could ever develop dynamic websites or interactive apps. Nevertheless, I was lucky this time, because I bumped into an online course taught by two professors from Rice University, An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python, which promised to teach me how to build simple games right away. When I registered for the course, the session was already over but it did not bother me to catch up with the archive materials at my own pace. I spent two weeks obsessing myself with each module and finished building all the assigned eight mini-projects, from a simple countdown timer to the classic BlackjackPong, and Asteroids games. What I enjoyed most was the exposed well-designed step-by-step instructions before I started to code each mini-project. They made me wonder how I myself would break down the project into executable steps if there was no such roadmap provided to me.

When I completed this Python course from Coursera, I came to know the joy of coding with a graphical user interface from the interactive event-driven programming perspective. And I truly felt proud of myself on possessing a portfolio of mini-projects with just two weeks. Besides, this course walked me over many fundamental computer science concepts in action, such as how to choose from a variety of built-in data structures like list, dictionary or set, and how to design a custom “class” for spaceship in the Asteroidsgame. When it was no longer just lifeless theory, I became hyper-excited.

Go Mobile!

Then it was mid-May 2013. So what’s next? My Python experience conveyed to me the intuition that if I could ever dive deep into any programming field, I must learn by doing and have fun. Since I had always been playing around with mobile apps on iPhone and iPad out of great pleasure, it could not be more natural and logical that I should transfer my Python skills into Objective-C on iOS platform. Therefore, I immediately invested myself with a MacBook Pro, registered for a paid Apple Developer account, and hoped everything would just work out as what I envisioned to be.

I chose a very popular online iPhone Application Programming course offered by some famous institution as my tutorial and set my goal to finish it within one month. However, the teaching style of this course was not fitting me at all. I was just bombed with the complete listing of all properties and methods for a bunch of “classes” in every lecture and then a quick short dry demo. And the assignments were far from interesting. I stuck with it for three weeks, cracked the first four assignments, and decided to abort before getting too bored and losing all my momentum for coding. And I aborted.

Fortunately, within the same week, I found another iOS tutorial themed website raywenderlich.com and it offered me a sequence of four projects (iOS Apprentice) to get boosted on iOS learning. And it happened to be exactly what I needed: “learn by doing fun projects”! Even though just PDF-based, those tutorials illustrated every major iOS concept with nice graphs and each step with an Xcode screenshot, and were packed with occasional humors, just like the Python course. I was brought back to life instantly and started coding again day and night. I consumed the full series of 900-page tutorials within 10 days, implemented all the projects like Checklists,MyLocations and StoreSearch. Some of the concepts like delegate and blocks remained puzzles to me for quite a while. But it didn’t matter. I knew I was on the right track. And nothing matters more than having fun everyday when it comes to learning.

To avoid being a copy-and-paste machine for coding, I initiated my own side project right when I embarked on learning the second project Checklists. I stretched quite a bit beyond my then coding skills and devoted myself into making a PrayerList app with an interface that looks like comments below a friend’s post on Facebook, except that this time it would be text or image updates below a certain prayer. My motivation was very simple: because my friends and I in the Chinese church would use such an app to write down prayers and related ensuing updates. Looking back, that was probably one of the best decisions I ever made, apparently in an unconscious way. It was uncomfortable, at first, to step out of my comfort zone where I could just consume well-crafted tutorials and replicate the same codes from the tutorial projects. However, it soon occurred to me obviously that it was the only way to truly learn something, by actively creating instead of just consuming.

I threw myself into this PrayerList app for the next two months, refining every bit of details I could think of. Along the way, I became familiar with how to ask the right questions by Google Search and also accustomed to reading tons of posts on StackOverflow when a mysterious bug hit me and crashed my program. Almost all my mind was occupied by coding and weighing over different designing decisions so as to craft a better product. When the summer ended, I learnt enough to be dangerous and the app was mostly done, just like what I originally planned, with a gorgeous user interface.

To Quit or Not to Quit

However, it was never shipped. Partly because Apple released iOS7 in the beginning of that Fall and as I upgraded my project, there were quite a few incompatibilities to be resolved. The fundamental underlying reason was that the Fall semester started and I had to get back to my PhD program track to fulfill major academic requirements. Don’t get me wrong. I love math, all the time, then and now. And it was purely out of passion that I chose the subject math when I entered college. Graduate school, nevertheless, turned out to be quite a different ball game for me, as I pretty soon realized. The nature of a research Math PhD program invited me to adjust myself into a career path of the “publish or perish” mode. Yes, it was easy for me to compromise with and inattentively slip into that path when I had nothing else to do. But things were no longer the same after the journey of happy coding day and night in a Dunkin Donuts for a whole summer. “To quit or not to quit” seemed not to be a question for me any more. The answer was obvious. I decided to quit.

In the meanwhile, though, there was another huge issue I needed to deal with, namely, my F-1 visa status as an international student. If I did quit, then I had to leave United States in 30 days. I felt tortured by the dilemma. One of my friends in church suggested me to find a job first. Well, sound advice, but how was I ever able to land developer job with work sponsorship included, by merely my 3 to 4 months of amateur learning experience? I battled with the possible choices and consequences for almost a whole semester of three months and eventually made up my mind to stick with programming even if I had to leave this nation. After all, I love my home country China deeply and am always inspired by tons of tech-industry entrepreneur stories, like Jack Ma and his Alibaba empire of revolutionizing the lifestyle of how half a billion Chinese people shop online. This might be my opportunity to just go home and forge my own way as an entrepreneur I have always dreamed of becoming, no matter what the outcome would be.

Out of my wildest surprise, when I finally informed my graduate director of the program-quitting decision in late December 2013, he reacted with kindness and offered me very useful suggestions. Apart from trying to make sure that I had thought through various research math fields, he assured me that I would actually obtain a master degree in math. I never knew that it was possible for me to end up with such a fruitful situation. I was enormously relieved. Wow.

My First Hackathon (MHacks)

Back in mid-September 2013, while I was anxious about my future career and whether and when to leave my program and also this nation, I met a stranger on a MegaBus. Initially, we were both traveling with the same GreyHound first without knowing each other but then the bus just failed us with a cancelled schedule from Pittsburgh to New York City. Out of desperation, I booked a MegaBus ticket of the early morning. It happened to be that he also booked a MegaBus journey with the same route. When the MegaBus stopped at food place, we recognized each other in a Subway restaurant and had the sandwich lunch together. Upon saying the hello and hi stuff, I raised my first question, “Are you a Computer Scientist?”. I said so because he wore a T-Shirt with the phrase “HackNY”. I had no idea what that was but the “Hack” word just caught up my attention!

His name is Dave Fontenot. He then explained about his background and introduced to me a few app developers near Pittsburgh, the city I lived in. He said he just dropped out of school. I said “Wow, I wish I could just do that right away, too!”. It was only a short 10-minute chat and after that we befriended each other on Facebook. Then in the next three months, my Facebook news feed was full of his activity everywhere. I got to know a bit about this almost newly invented hackathon thing since that time on.

Therefore, when I had the cheerful news in late December from my graduate director, I immediately knew that it was probably time for me to have a first-hand experience in the hackathon field. However, it was three months since my intensive summer coding. How was I going to pick up everything and then make even more progress? And ironically all those codes of PrayerListseemed a little unfamiliar to me after this long non-coding period. Coincidentally, one of my friends, an assistant pastor in Beijing, pitched to me the idea of building a mobile Chinese Christian podcast player app. I agreed with every bit of his vision and would like to make this happen so that many people including us two could benefit from such an app. I spent the coming half-month winter holiday coding out a beautiful podcast player app and consequently I learnt a lot more about database storage and also slight integration with a web server. And most importantly, I defined the scope very well this time for the app and shipped it to App Store the moment I reached the version 1.0 standards I set for myself. And right after that, I also immersed myself in TreeHouse experience for five more days and finished learning all of its fun and high-quality iOS video tutorials.

So there I was, building apps again. It was truly a winter of thrill and restoration. And I just could not wait more for my first hackathon! In January, although I was late in registration, Dave Fontenot granted me a ticket to MHacks. Before the event, I checked out the Facebook event page and shot out about twenty messages to other hackers for team making. Somehow deep inside me, I wanted to code together with a bunch of developers because that sounded to me the only way to have fun in such a non-sleeping coding event. That was, again, an act of stepping out of my comfort zone, to reach out to strangers, and to seek potential collaboration. Several teams politely rejected me because I told them it was going to be my first hackathon. I tried my best to understand their concerns and I did not lose heart. Eventually, I made a team of three and I was ready to go!

Yes, the epic MHacks. A dozen of top-tier tech companies like Apple were invited for workshops and API demos (I had no idea what API was before MHacks). It was amazing to see so many developers coding together, each team with some cool idea. I was stunned. But I was also a bit cautious. I wanted to make sure that my team would be able to define a well-suited scope for the idea we had, before we were too ambitious to get nothing finished. What followed then was sleep deprivation, pizzas, coffee, delicious dinners and coding fun! Within 36 hours, my team delivered an app we called EverShare, that enables peer to nearby multi-peer Evernote notes sharing instantly all at once without the need to input recipients’ email addresses. Imagine if you are a speaker at a tech conference and you want to share your slides with the audiences in the room, then with this app, one button tapping does all the work and everybody gets the slide link right away.

Throughout the developing process, my team had very close interactions with the Evernote engineers. They helped us enormously on how to use their API. On the third day, after an intense two-hour demo fair, we were awarded Best Evernote Hack. It was absolutely unbelievable. My team members and I were super excited when the Evernote guy announced the news on the stage. That prize meant a great deal to all of us three guys. We were almost into tears because we clearly remembered that about four hours before the demo fair, we encountered a nasty bug in the app and did not figure it out until the last ten minutes!

Just Can’t Stop the Game!

Well, that was my first hackathon and that was MHacks. I was so motivated by that experience and there was no way I could stop playing the hackathon game. One week later, I showed up at Hack@Brown, a hacking event organized by Brown University. I formed the team on the bus and on the site. It turned out that my team was the most diversified in all of the teams, consisting of an awesome high schooler, a Rhode Island School of Design student, a Brown CS student, a Boston University CS student, and me, a PhD dropout, and a co-founder of Shelby.tv (an NYC startup). We developed Connect, an iOS app that facilitates effective networking with the people around you, by displaying a list of all users over the same Wi-Fi network, including their LinkedIn profiles as well as their customized one-sentence slogans. My team won no prize that time, but I truly enjoyed the whole process of learning, building, hacking, collaborating and growing, which I think, is what hackathons should be all about.

Next stop was Purdue BoilerMake hackathon. One of the teammates I got to know through MHacks, Yi Qin, invited me to go hacking at Purdue University. However, both of us were too late for registration. And there seemed to be no way we could get any tickets through the black market (just kidding…). The BoilerMake organizing committee, instead, came up with a very creative way. They held a PreHack event one week before the BoilerMake hackathon and promised the last several tickets to three winning teams. Because I was so captured by the fun of this hackathon game, I was willing to take a 7-hour bus ride to West Lafayette, Indiana, without hesitation. I showed up at the PreHack event and one of the organizers, Grant, was amazed by my presence. I stayed there for about three days, and Yi Qin hosted me with great hospitality, and I was very grateful for the fresh friendship.

On the 24-hour PreHack day, Yi Qin and I, we created EasyCards, an iOS app that empowers users to design, store and share business cards all on the mobile with a series of super cool animation effects that mimic how people connect and exchange business cards in real-life: the card would just fly off the sender’s phone and then land down on the nearby receiver’s phone seamlessly. This hack came out to be surprising everybody at the place. We won the champion out of twelve teams and successfully grabbed away the last several tickets to BoilerMake.

As a teaching assistant in math, I had to return to Pittsburgh to perform my weekday duties after the PreHack. But when it was about the next weekend, I stood on the bus back to Purdue again for the official hackathon. There were about 500 to 600 hackers for BoilerMake. And this time I had a team of four and built an augmented reality game, Little Feet. This game was about saving Rohan the Penguin away from the erupting volcanos. We incorporated face detection functionalities to emphasize the interaction of game play with the surrounding people outside of the iPhone/iPad. Throughout the building process, we kept an active communication with Apple engineers from the inception of the idea to the successful implementation of this game. Apart from the fact that we made it into Top 7 Hack, these Apple engineers also enjoyed what we did and awarded us Best iOS App. Late that night, literally, I had a hard time falling asleep…

In March, there weren’t too many hackathons. so I rested for a while after four consecutive hacking events in January and February. Later near the end of March, I went to HackPrinceton. And LAHacks at UCLA in mid-April. Not to exaggerate, I was then able to proudly declare that I had been hacking across the nation, from the East, to the Middle and to the West. If I have a time machine and could go back to tell my old self all these would happen, I doubt he would believe it.

Hackathon as an Education

Most hackathons I attended had hundreds of avid hackers and dozens of sponsoring companies. It was hard not to learn anything throughout this process. To maximize the utility of hackathon as an education, right after each event, I was very hungry and eager to check out all the hacks posted onto ChallengePost or HackerLeague (two websites that provide the infrastructure for hackers to submit their works with brief photo or video demos) and crafted a list of some interesting and handy skills I needed to catch up with. I recognized my limitations very well as a self-starter and therefore determined that it was essential for me to expand my horizon by learning from awesome peer hackers. I probably had reviewed more than a thousand hacks from all the major mega hackathons for the past two years. Some of the hacks were purely mind-refreshing, for example, GooglePlexfrom the latest PennApps hackathon, a Siri hack that extends Siri’s capability to learn new commands, such as playing a song in Spotify.

Above all, what I benefit most from hackathons is the priceless team collaboration experience. At Hack@Brown, I picked up the knowledge of version control (with “git” command) and applied the skills right away to the project we were working on. Through GitHub (and some careful breakdown design of the project), six hackers were able to work on the same app at the same time and then just combine all the work when it was about time to merge at some point. Before MHacks, I was fine with coding alone, but the coming hackathons enlightened me on the possibility of working on a large-scale project in a DIT (Do-It-Together) fashion, rather than the traditional overrated DIY (Do-It-Yourself) mode. More importantly, when I met with similar-interest and like-minded people, I also reaped a ton of friendships. Just as what C.S.Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one…”.

During the whole hackathon season, I almost forgot about the fact that I was actually in need of a Software Engineer job since I would soon be graduated with a master degree in math. I guess, I was just too immersed in the hacking fun and excitement at some point. Then surprisingly at Purdue BoilerMake hackathon, without any anticipation, I had a dinner together with some Apple engineer and discussed about potential full-time opportunities. After that, I passed several rounds of technical interviews and made it to the onsite round at Apple Campus in Cupertino. Despite the fact that eventually I was not granted an offer from Apple, I was inspired enormously by this incident and got prompted onto a journey of learning the computer science fundamentals of data structures and algorithms. Yes, you are not hearing me wrong. Big companies like Apple, Google or Facebook expect candidates to have a good sense of the modern computer science basics.

Honestly, in the beginning, I was very reluctant to go through that process, for the not-so-exciting purpose of just passing the technical interviews to obtain some decent job. After experiencing my first-hand incompetency in technical interviews from companies like Google and Snapchat, I woke up from my self-constructed illusional comfort zone and stepped up to face all the challenges out there. For three weeks, I scratched through the online technical interview practice website LeetCode and cracked all the 150 problems ranging from stack, queue, trees and graphs, to dynamic programming, recursive and backtracking algorithms. Just like how I learnt to code, this technical interview problem solving was also out of my control at first (after all I did not invent these stuff!) but after a while, I began to gain confidence and mastery over it. I only read the essentials of those thick-brick-type books on data structures and algorithms and instead focused right away on real-problem solving on LeetCode for the relevant areas I just covered. In this way, I avoided being too theoretical to tackle coding problems while at the same time learnt much faster and more in depth by intensive practice. It took me tons of hours but eventually all the hard work paid off (and will definitely pay off more in the near future!). Even though at this moment of my life, I am still temporarily unsettled in terms of career (whether to work for an awesome company or choose to build my own startup), I feel blessed everyday because of the hard work I throw in daily and the visible progress I observe weekly.


Looking back, I find the past year to be a very fulfilling and life-changing one. It is still very hard for me to believe that everything just happened in such a coherent and fruitful way. Thank God. Truly, I see His glory and kindness to me! And I am also very grateful for all the friends that inspired and helped me along the road. ☺

Shortly after my graduation, I moved from Pittsburgh to San Francisco. And now I am ready for my next journey. Whatever that will be, the indomitable hacking spirit I developed during my “zero to hacker” journey will accompany and benefit me for the rest of my life.

-Paul Wong

Let Us Be Your First Hackathon

What is MHacks about? Why do we welcome people who have never hacked to the best collegiate hackathon in the world? Because its our culture. No one was born knowing how to hack. Not even @TeenageCoder. At some point, we were all n00bs having no idea what we were doing, what we were learning, and what we would build. For many of us, it wasn’t a class offered in high school, or even a extracurricular. Instead, we had the tools in front of us to build and create what we envisioned in our minds.

"No one was born knowing how to hack. Not even @TeenageCoder. At some stage, we were all n00bs having no idea what we were doing, what we were learning, and what we would build."

A more diverse, inclusive community is a stronger one. We grow when people create hacks that transcend different disciplines, and touch those who don’t use technology the way we do. When we hack--when we create, we reposition our futures back into our hands and in our control. Our culture will keep evolving, and we want you to be a part of it.

"Create your first hack next to someone who’s building their second hack-- all amidst the top hackers in the country."

Create your first hack next to someone who’s building their second hack-- all amidst the top hackers in the country. Take advantage of mentors from Michigan, and from some of the most prestigious technology companies in the world. Let us be your first, the one you’ll look back upon at every future hackathon.

Revolutionizing How We Share Hacks

Last year, Henry and Alex, the co-founders of HackerBracket, met at MHacks III in Detroit. This year, we’re incredibly excited to be launching as the submissions platform for MHacks IV. HackerBracket, however, is not just a submissions platform. It is a community for sharing hacks through video demos; made by hackers, for hackers.

Hacks that are submitted at MHacks are featured throughout HackerBracket, and each one contributes to the overall community.

The philosophy of HackerBracket focuses on more than just the competitive aspect of MHacks and other hackathons. What is most important to us as hackathon participants is not the competition, but instead the hackers themselves. Being hackers, we know that our community builds great things. We are proud of our hacks and have built HackerBracket to help hackers showcase their work and be proud of what they build. To do this, we’ve built a community that focuses on the best and most interesting hacks, not only the hacks that won. MHacks attendees as well as any other users of HackerBracket will be able to vote on the best hacks. What’s popular in the community isn't what got the best press, but what people like (or hell yeah). HackerBracket gives every hacker the opportunity to share their hack with the world.

Hacking doesn’t stop after MHacks. Participants will be able to carry on their hacks and contribute to the community at any time.

Show And Tell For Hackers

As MHacks participants share their hacks on HackerBracket, their profile becomes a portfolio of their projects. Hackers are encouraged to share their work with the world. The world, in return, will share their work with others as well as give feedback. In this respect, HackerBracket acts as more of a “show and tell” for MHacks than a judging platform.

Sometimes expressing what a hack does isn’t possible using just words. For example, Oculus Quidditch built for the Oculus Rift at MHacks Winter 2014 is just one of the many things that is best explained through video. After MHacks is over a live demo is far more difficult. We truly believe in video. HackerBracket makes it super easy to upload a video in one step during a hackathon using a mobile app.

We Make Your Hack Immortal

Hacks that are submitted at MHacks are featured throughout HackerBracket, and each one contributes to the overall community of hacking. This enables hackathon participants to see where they stand amongst the rest of the hackathons as well as among the overall community, and it gives newcomers a good look at what interesting things were built at hackathons. This means that your hack won’t be forgotten in a moment when the hackathon is over.

Better Featured Hacks

Traditionally hackathon submission pages feature only hacks that received prizes. What we’ve made is a way to share accomplishments, not to simply win prizes. HackerBracket is a portfolio that stays with you; projects remain part of it even after MHacks has ended.

During MHacks, hackers sometimes work on a project in hopes of winning API prizes. Winning an API prize doesn't necessarily make the hack more interesting. These hacks should not be given more visibility just because companies with prizes like them. People need to use APIs because they are useful and interesting.  HackerBracket fixes this. Although you are still able to view prize recipients on the hackathon-specific page, whether a hack won a prize or not doesn't affect the placement of that hack across the site.

We'll Be at MHacks to Help

When’s the last time you saw a submissions rep at a hackathon? The HackerBracket team will personally be at MHacks to hack alongside all of the awesome hackers and to help them best share their project with the world. And of course to distribute some swag! Whether you’re a hacker, a VC, a sponsor, organizer, or n00b, you matter to us because you’re the people that make the tech community work. We want to be at MHacks in full support of you.

We invite MHacks blog readers to join the HackerBracket Private Beta using this special link: http://www.hackerbracket.com/user/new/mhackslove ****Update: Invite code fixed

See you at MHacks!

Henry, Alex & Isaiah


Special thanks to Jeff Hilnbrand, Zach Latta, and Tyler Menezes for reviewing this blog post.

Hello World!

We're starting a blog for MHacks. This isn't about promoting MHacks, but #hackathonseason as a whole, and telling the stories and journeys of those who had a defining moment-- where something in their life changes as a result of a hackathon. 

We're incredibly excited to tell these stories, because these are our stories too. As hackathon organizers, we work hard to create amazing hacker experiences because we know that we have an opportunity to touch so many lives, and help people realize their own potential. 

MHacks is launching next week, but theres no reason that the conversation can't start right now. Through this blog, we want to hear from hackathon organizers, hackers, sponsors, and you.

If you're interested in writing for the MHacks Blog, contact us at mhacksblog@umich.edu or on Facebook.  Because this isn't just about MHacks-- this is about spreading the idea of hackathons and action-based education to everyone. We value diversity, new hackers, and creating the best experiences for hackers to catalyze the next great ideas into the next great realities. That's not hyperbole.  Hackathons are for everyone and might be the single greatest educational revolution since the Internet.  

Comment on our blog, write about your first hackathon--we're all writing history together.