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.