A Hackathon, a Hacker, and a Mentor

A year ago I was one of the hackers in need of mentorship, and only a professional developer for about three months when this [hackathon] came up. However, I’ve also learned over the past year that it’s far more rewarding to “shoot your shot” and miss than to sit on the bench watching everyone else.

A Hackathon, a Hacker, and a Mentor

One year ago, on a warm September night, I pulled into downtown Austin at 6pm after an 8 hour drive from Amarillo. I was here for the annual Women Who Code ATX’s Diversity Hackathon along with several others from my bootcamp. Nervous for my first hackathon, and even more nervous to meet schoolmates I had only met online, I would eventually make better friends and learn more than I could have ever imagined. That trip would set off a number of future decisions and eventually lead me to July of this year, when I would propose to my new employer BigCommerce that we provide donations and volunteers for that same hackathon, and I’d eventually volunteer myself to be a mentor.

Selfie at the Women Who Code (WWC) Diversity Hackathon 2018

The Diversity Hackathon is both a celebration and an encouragement of diversity in tech. According to their website, the hackathon commits to providing “a space for people of all backgrounds who want to start building their tech portfolio or finish up a tech project while learning new skills...” and organizers stress that previous tech experience is not required. This was clear when project pitches began – there were recruiters, founders, students, developers, and even one or two people outside the tech industry, all looking for teams to work with – and the project ideas clearly reflected the diversity of the groups. From affordable housing and accessibility trackers to food waste reduction and a ballet sequence generator, they were all unique and informative.

WWC Diversity Hackathon logo/sticker

Having attended at least three diversity and inclusion or employee resource events in my first two months at BC, I was fired up about being in a place that prioritized D&I so highly and felt that the hackathon would align perfectly with the culture I was coming to know. When I first pitched the idea of donating to the hackathon, I didn’t expect to get a yes since I was totally new and had never done anything like this before. But after the pitch was accepted, I realized I’d have to actually follow through with planning. So I finished coordinating the donation and made the request to coworkers to come volunteer with me. We had a few signups, and three of us were able to make it – myself, Nabil Cheikh, and Jason Zamora.

As a new developer, I wasn’t altogether confident in my place as a mentor – just a year ago I was one of the hackers in need of mentorship, and only a professional developer for about three months when this came up. However, I’ve also learned over the past year that it’s far more rewarding to “shoot your shot” and miss than to sit on the bench watching everyone else, so I showed up ready to help. As it turns out, I was able to do a lot! I worked with more than half of the teams on various issues, from typos and bugs to flex styling and everything in between. I was surprised by how many of the teams were using simple vanilla JS with HTML and CSS to build their frontends, and even more pleasantly surprised by how much of my experience applied to each project. I don’t think anything has bolstered my confidence as a junior engineer more than being able to mentor at the hackathon.

WWC Diversity Hackathon 2019 attendees mid-hack

Nabil, one of my coworkers and a volunteer mentor, stated of the experience "Hackathons embody a great deal of the product development cycle beyond just coding and everyone most likely has something to offer to the participants. The experience was also very helpful for me on a day to day when working with others as well as seeking to help and mentoring others." Our other coworker, Jason, said the hackathon was "definitely something I would do again for the fun and personal growth that comes with teaching others and re-evaluating your own knowledge base." As for myself, I feel as though my job at BigCommerce will be improved by the confidence, leadership perspective, and focus on improving diversity that I've left with each time. Moreover, I feel as though I'll be a more effective presenter and mentor at BC in the future. Each of us walked away from the experience with something valuable, and we bring our experiences back with us to continue to positively influence BC culture, environment, and habits.

WWC Diversity Hackathon 2019 attendees watching project presentations

I greatly enjoyed learning about my own mentorship style and how I work with different kinds of groups and their idiosyncrasies. It was also interesting to mentor mid- and senior-level backend developers and data scientists who would be mentoring me in just about any other setting. There were senior Ruby developers who needed need help understanding the quirks of JavaScript (sometimes dot notation vs bracket notation really matters) and data wizards who needed a hand grasping the CSS cascade and how classes worked. All of that was right up my alley and I felt effective when helping each team come to a solution. Being proud of what you do and what you know shouldn't be underestimated, especially when you're still learning.

Returning to the WWC Diversity Hackathon as a mentor was a great experience. It reminded me I can be helpful even while I'm still learning. More importantly, it reminded me that our field is full of diversity of thought, expression, and background that create incredible ideas and innovation in our industry. It's clear that embracing diversity not only strengthens us as individuals but as a community as well, and I'm proud to work for a company that does, too.

Students from my former bootcamp who attended the WWC Diversity Hackathon 2019