Hackathons have been spreading around the world; many at university campuses. Major League Hacking, MLH, has been encouraging and helping hackathons.
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00:00:00 Hacking can be thought of as tinkering, taking things apart and putting them back together as an interesting experience. There’s always been some of this as part of software culture, but the people at Major League Hacking have taken this to a whole new level, bringing together tech creators who enjoy playing around with and creating new technology on campuses and now in virtual spaces all over the world. John Gottfried, one of the co founders of Major League Hacking, joins the show to talk about hacker meetups and events. Hackathons what it’s like to go to a hackathon, how to help out with hackathon as an experienced engineer, even virtually as a mentor, hackathon is continuing virtually during the Pandemic, and also because of the Pandemic internships and fellowships on open source projects to help students gain experience. And the Major League Hacking approach to internships is really pretty cool, giving interns a support group, including peers, mentors, and project maintainers.
00:01:08 Welcome to Test and Code today on Test and Code, I am thrilled to have John Gottfried. John is involved with Major League Hacking, and we’re going to find out what that is and how involved he is in just a moment. John, welcome to the show.
00:01:30 Hey, Brian. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited. I’m John Gottfried. I’m one of the co founders of Major League Hacking, and we are the global community for student developers.
00:01:42 Okay. And so that just even opens up tons of questions.
00:01:46 I have lots to unpack there.
00:01:48 Yeah. So Major League Hacking, some people, I guess new or old to software may have a question about what hacking means.
00:01:56 Sometimes that’s referred to as a bad thing. So what do you mean by hacking?
00:02:01 Our definition of hacking is more on the tinkering side of things and the security side. Generally, we’re thinking of hackers as tech creators of some sort. You could be a developer, you could be a designer, you could be a hardware engineer, but you’re someone who enjoys playing around with and creating new technology.
00:02:22 I’m a fan of hacker history myself, read quite a bit about it and experienced some of it. And I think all of the different traditions of hacking kind of come out of the same core curiosity about technology and the idea that things should be taken apart and put back together as an interesting experience. And we lean very heavily into that. But when people think of, like, I don’t know, like, capture the flag security stuff, that’s not really our core focus.
00:02:53 Okay, that’s awesome. So Major League Hacking just to jump in there, what’s Major League Hacking then?
00:02:59 So we’ve been around for about seven years, so relatively recent as far as hacker culture is concerned. And myself and my co founder Swift started the company after working as developer evangelists. So I was at a company called Twilio. He was at Send Grid. Ironically, they are merged since then, but at the time, we were frequent partners and collaborators. And both of us have kind of gotten started as developers, as hackers by attending community events like Hackathons and Meetups and similar things. And I think that at the time we were in a position where as developer evangelists, we were mentoring a lot of up and coming people. We were sponsoring a lot of events. We were really involved with growing the hacker community, specifically in New York, but also traveling quite a bit around the world to do that. And one of the most inspiring things for me was working with students and young people in general because there was an element of not necessarily being acclimated to all of the blockers that I think we take for granted when we get further in our careers. Right. There ends up being a lot more process and bureaucracy and stuff like that. And when we go to these students events, they were so wild and out there and open ended that you could see anything from someone building a homemade self driving car in 24 hours to someone hacking on genetic data. Right. And I think that was so inspiring to us. And we started working with a lot of these student leaders on different campuses. And out of that really like an entire movement form. Over the course of a month, we went from seeing maybe one or two big hacker events a semester to hundreds. And a large part of that was kind of taking all of that knowledge and all those learnings and making it available to a wider group. And that’s kind of remained major League Hacking’s mission over those seven years is making hacker culture accessible to people, bringing new people in and teaching constantly changing generation of organizers and leaders how to bring people together around technology.
00:05:29 That’s awesome. So when you brought up students, is that mostly College students or are you involved with younger people as well?
00:05:36 So we’ve mostly been involved with College students. We do work with a handful of high school students, but at least prepandemic College campuses were quite easy to organize and host events at.
00:05:50 That has always been our sweet spot.
00:05:53 I think last year we hosted something like, I don’t know, maybe close to two or 3000 events on campus.
00:06:02 Yeah. And now all of that has turned virtual but hasn’t really slowed down because people are as hungry for this culture as ever. And so College students definitely have a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of passion and curiosity for new things. And it’s been like a natural breeding ground for, I guess, like getting new people interested in technology.
00:06:23 Okay. And you said you were at Twilio before as an evangelist, is that right?
00:06:28 So as part of that role, you were attending hackathons and stuff and just wanted to run with that more?
00:06:34 Yeah. I think for me, I have a history degree. I didn’t study computer science, but I had always been one of those people that really enjoyed tinkering with technology.
00:06:46 One of my first big projects as a kid was working on a Mud. Most people haven’t heard of those these days, but for me, that was like the coolest thing since sliced bread because I could go online and build a game that people could connect to from anywhere in the world. Right. And so I learned programming through that. And when I went to College, I was kind of turned off by how academic CS was.
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00:08:03 Oh, man, we could talk for an hour about this alone. It is a multi user dungeon. The way I describe it to most people is imagine if World of Warcraft had no graphics. Like if you just played it on the command line.
00:08:18 Okay, got it.
00:08:19 So all of the world was entirely text based. All of the commands were text based. There’s a lot of role playing involved, writing out things almost like you would do in D and D or something similar. And they were really popular in, like, the 80s before a lot of those MMOs. And they’re still kind of a niche subcommittee that’s really interested in them. But that was how I got my start.
00:08:47 Okay, sorry to derail you.
00:08:48 No, it’s totally fine.
00:08:50 But, yeah, in College, I found CS to be very academic and didn’t really focus enough on the fun tinkering part of it that I loved. But I ended up getting, like, these small odd jobs doing development work for different local companies. And at one of those companies, a friend of mine dragged me to my first hackathon, and that totally changed my perspective on the tech industry in general because I had kind of assumed it was like office space where everyone sat in a cubicle and hated their lives and filled out reports. Right?
00:09:24 And certainly some companies are like that. But I think the thing that I learned from the hackathon, which was an event called Music Hack Day, was that it was a lot more multifaceted and a lot more fun. This was an event where it was like musicians and programmers and hardware engineers and designers all collaborating on like Wacky? Totally.
00:09:48 I would say anti utilitarian technology. Right. It was purely fun. Interesting stuff to build for the sake of building it. And that got me super excited about it and led me to working at Twilio and eventually led me to starting MLH because I thought that that was something that more people should have access to. I’ve always lived in New York, and it’s certainly not the Bay Area. It’s not Silicon Valley, but there’s always been a very vibrant hacker culture here and going around and visiting a lot of these College towns and campuses. Clearly it’s something that people were excited about and would benefit from if only they had access.
00:10:29 That’s fascinating.
00:10:30 I’d like to circle around to at some point the CS program didn’t focus on the fun tinkering part. I don’t know if we can solve that, but it’s something I noticed as well. I mean, I got into software because it was fun, and then a lot of the CS stuff was fun, but a lot of it was just a lot of work and a lot of it. I don’t understand why.
00:10:54 A lot of it seemed like artificial barriers put up to try to call people out that weren’t serious about software. And I don’t think we need to be serious about software. It can be fun. The music hack day just sounds like a blast. I would have loved to attended something like that.
00:11:08 Yeah, it was great.
00:11:09 But I have a confession. I’ve never been to a hacker event at all.
00:11:15 And I know that they probably range. There’s probably not a typical one, but if you could pick something and describe like if I show up by signing up for a hackathon or a hack event or something, what’s it going to look like, what’s my day going to be looking like, and what do I need to have ahead of time before I show up?
00:11:34 Yeah. I always like to describe a hackathon as an invention marathon. Generally they’re held over the weekend, so 24 to 36 hours long.
00:11:44 Most people show up with a laptop, maybe some other supplies if they want to do hardware like Arduino or stuff like that, and a vague inkling of an idea. Not everyone shows up with team members. It’s often a very friendly environment to find new collaborators. And within the first few hours of the event, people kind of organically band together and come up with an interesting idea that they want to play around with and they spend the weekend building a prototype of it. That’s like the core formula. Almost every hackathon culminates in demos. Many of them have prizes, some don’t. And it’s just like a cool place to see what a lot of other people are building and tap into their expertise, but also be in an environment that is very focused and has a lot of people working towards a shared goal of creating something cool.
00:12:41 And that’s pretty much. It often you learn things by going through that process. Often you build really strong like personal relationships, friendships, collaborators for future projects. And that’s like the basic formula. It’s really quite simple when you think about it. It’s a dedicated time and place to build cool stuff with other people.
00:13:01 So I could show up with a laptop and just help out with somebody else’s project if I didn’t have a project in mind.
00:13:08 Yes, absolutely. That’s really common. And I don’t know, the most interesting hackathons I’ve ever worked on were situations where I attended met someone brand new for the first time. They had a cool idea that I wanted to help with and we got to know each other by working together over the weekend.
00:13:29 That’s cool. Now 24 to 36 hours seems like a long time. Is this like constant like people sleeping and eating during that time?
00:13:37 It kind of depends. All of our events, we encourage people to sleep. There are definitely people who power through and stay up the whole time I’ve done that myself, I would not recommend it.
00:13:48 It’s not very fun or healthy, so I would say that usually you’re looking at working a solid like ten to twelve hour day and then sleeping, which sounds like a lot if you’re comparing it to a workday, but if you’re comparing it to like a side project that you’re really excited about at home over the weekend, it’s not that crazy to think about.
00:14:10 Yeah, right, exactly. That just sounds like fun. Definitely something that College students would probably have a lot of fun with.
00:14:17 I would have totally dug that as a College student. So.
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00:15:25 Then how about your education wise or background?
00:15:33 Does everybody need to know coding and stuff before? Or is it a whole range of abilities that show up?
00:15:38 Most hackathons are very, very beginner friendly. Most of the events that MLH has on campus have a wide variety of structured workshops alongside the open ended hacking time. So you’ll see people where it’s like, hey, I’m an engineer at Microsoft teaching you how to do web development for the first time. That kind of stuff is really common and often provides a nice on ramp for people who are not as comfortable or not as experienced. The other thing that is really common is joining a team of more experienced people and just kind of like pairing and having that peer learning. Oh, yeah, I think I’ve probably learned more just like watching someone code and pairing with them at a hackathon than I have in most engineering jobs I’ve had, because I think that you’re forced to figure out creative solutions fairly quickly and talk through them so that, you know, they will net out. Well, yeah, I mean, it’s super beginner friendly.
00:16:38 I’ve been at hackathons with people who have never written a line of code in their life, working alongside someone who has ten years of engineering experience and really everything in between.
00:16:48 Now, is MLH actually putting on these 3000 events or something in a normal non COVID year, or are you working with other people hosting them, or how does that work?
00:17:01 We work with local student organizers. You can almost think of them like chapters of the organization.
00:17:06 So we have a team whose entire job is coaching organizers to put on events. We have a lot of open source docs and resources that talk people through it, and then we have actual coaching calls and discussion groups and things like that to help people with more specific things that come up. So those 3000 events are largely put on by student groups on campus with the guidance of MLH. Frankly, we’re a relatively small organization, and so I don’t think we have the capabilities to organize 3000 events ourselves, but certainly we want to build sustainable communities on campus. And I think the best way to do that is to have students self organized around a lot of it and create whatever the structure is, like a club or a society on campus that can continue running for many years.
00:17:57 Okay. And now one of the things I actually heard about MLH through somebody talking about an internship, and I’m looking around your website, and there’s things like internships and also fellowship. So tell me, what are these things?
00:18:11 So back in I guess it was April. Now, we started to see a lot of news coming out that internship programs were getting canceled because of COVID. Certainly many companies converted to remote programs, but many more canceled them outright or rescinded offers. And as we started to think about that and kind of the disproportionate impact that had on students who are entering the industry, we started brainstorming ways that we could supplement what people got out of internships. So we ended up kind of coming up with this idea for an open source fellowship program and launching it. And within a matter of weeks, we got about 20,000 applications of those applications, we were able to bring on about 150 fellows and we were actually able to pay them all a scholarship like Stipend to work on open source over the summer under the guidance of a mentor. So all those 150 students got paired up with peer groups who had similar skill sets, experienced engineers who could mentor them, and then open source maintainers that they could contribute to and ended up being really successful.
00:19:23 We were definitely building the bridge as we crossed it. It was a very chaotic sprint to creating and launching this program over a matter of weeks, but it ended up working super well. And people made major contributions to projects that are used by millions of developers, like things like Homebrew or React or Zshell or Flask, or there’s 30 or 40 of them I could list, and it was super impressive. And students got a lot out of it and many of them felt like it was a better experience than they got through traditional internship. And from our perspective, it is a much more public artifact of their work and code quality that they can use in the future. And many of them are continuing to contribute to these projects now that the fellowship is over. So all around, I feel like it was a huge success, relaunched it for the fall semester. It’s starting in a couple of weeks, and then we’re going to be running another batch in the spring and the coming summer. And I think it’s a really fun addition to the options out there for students. We’re not the first program to offer, like an open source fellowship. We definitely have our own twist on it with the mentors and things like that. But frankly, like, the demand is so high that I’m hoping there will be many more opportunities like this for students in the future.
00:20:46 Okay, so you’re paying some of these people or the fellowship program is a paid thing. Where is that money coming from? Do you have sponsors paying for that?
00:20:54 Yeah, we have corporate partners who paid for that. So GitHub was the main sponsor, and then they’re continuing to be a sponsor of the program.
00:21:02 Facebook Open Source has been really involved. Royal bank of Canada Dev two Twilio, and there’s kind of a laundry list of companies that largely are invested in the open source community already and see this as a way of kind of onboarding future contributors and maintainers, hopefully.
00:21:25 That’s incredible, actually. And the resume building part of it is phenomenal as well. The building software that you can have in your project portfolio and talk about for future job interviews and whatever, because like you said, original. I mean, a lot of in house internships, you’re going to be working on something that you can’t share with anybody. You can talk about the project, but you can’t share the code because the code is part of a company’s code set.
00:21:52 Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Right. Like, I feel like is an awesome feeling as a developer to create something that other people are using. Right. And to do that as someone who probably has never had a job in the industry before is amazing. These students can go out and be like, hey, you know that React profiling tool set you use every day at your web development job? I created that. Right. And that’s like wild.
00:22:21 Yeah, it’s really amazing. And there’s a lot of stuff with a Ton pack as well. I think it’s neat that you’re providing matching people up with peers and mentors and hooking people up with maintainers that can also work with them to try to find ways to contribute. And then these people are probably going to end up being, as they enter industry, more basically as good of a remote worker as everybody else that shows up.
00:22:49 Yeah, that was definitely something of the time. I think if not for everyone being sheltered in place, it’s possible we would have run this program in person. And I think it’s kind of probably better experience that they’re learning how to do it remotely.
00:23:06 Like having remote stand ups, pair programming over Zoom. I think certainly that’s going to be a valuable skillset in the coming couple of years.
00:23:14 Right. And you can also match people up with a mentor that doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same city as the person.
00:23:20 Yeah. I mean, the program ended up being incredibly global.
00:23:26 We had students from, I think, close to 30 countries participating, and a lot of these tech industry opportunities tend to be very US or North America centric. And that was definitely I think one of the highlights of the program is that you had students in India collaborating with a student in Nigeria collaborating with a student in Mississippi, all on the same open source project.
00:23:50 Okay. So MLH, is this a company or how do you guys make money?
00:23:56 Yeah. So we’re structured as a public benefit Corp or a B Corp, which is kind of like a new model of company that’s a mission driven, for profit company.
00:24:09 The biggest difference between that and a traditional Corporation is that you are legally required to consider your mission alongside the corporate profit motive that every company has. So what that looks like in reality is it gives us the kind of authority to turn down opportunities that we feel are counterproductive to our mission, even if they might generate a lot of money, allows us to measure our impact every single year in, like, a public report, and it goes into a lot more depth beyond that.
00:24:44 It’s kind of a cool model. I see it personally as an alternative to a nonprofit. It has a lot of the flexibility of being a for profit company from a regulatory perspective with a lot of the mission and impact that nonprofits often talk about. Some other B Corps that people probably are more familiar with is like Patagonia or Warby Parker or Etsy, I think for a long time where they kind of, like, had this mission and business motive working in parallel.
00:25:14 I’d like to see more of those. Yeah.
00:25:16 And then, sorry to answer the second part of your question.
00:25:19 We make money from corporate sponsors, so all the student services we provide are free to them. Like all the hackathons workshops, organizer, training.
00:25:28 We basically just provide that to them as an Inkind service, and it’s funded by different folks who are invested in academic, like, tech education. Right. So companies like GitHub, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etcetera.
00:25:44 Yes. The people that really want to make College programming still fun, even if they’re classes or not.
00:25:50 Yeah, absolutely. And I think that we done a really good job of making these mutually beneficial partnerships where we can fund our programs, fund our staff, and give a lot to students as a result. And I think it’s a cool model that more companies should think about. Right. It’s definitely kind of unique.
00:26:10 If somebody wants to get involved with helping hackathons, how do you get involved with hackathons as an adult?
00:26:16 Yeah, totally.
00:26:18 If you go to our website, which is MLH. Io or Majorleaghacking.com, there are tons of hackathons up there, and almost all of them are looking for mentors, especially virtually, which often involves, like, you logging onto a discord or a Slack server over the weekend and answering tech questions as they come up. That’s a really easy way to get involved. Beyond that, all of the hackathons and MLH ourselves have sponsorship opportunities. For example, if your company is looking to hire interns or something along those lines, you can sponsor hackathon and work with them more directly. And beyond that, in the fellowship, we are hiring mentors, which is a full time role, mentoring students and how to contribute to open source. And we’re also always looking for maintainers, which is a free way to get involved, aside from the time that you would put into helping new contributors. And you can find all the info about that on our website. But people are also welcome to email me. I’m John at MLH. Io. Always happy to hear from folks in the community.
00:27:22 Okay, well, this has been really fun, and I’m just excited that hackathons and hacking is the thing still and growing in popularity. And I hope that your company and hackathons in general just take off and are more of a normal thing everywhere.
00:27:36 Thank you. I’m really excited about it, too.
00:27:38 And thanks for joining us. You said MLH is MLH. Io. If people want to know more about you specifically, is there somewhere to find you?
00:27:47 Yeah, I’m on basically every social network or website, as Johnmark Go, that’s Jonmarkgo on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, you name it.
00:27:59 Okay, cool. Well, thanks a lot for your time today.
00:28:01 Awesome. Thank you.
00:28:05 Thank you, John. And Major link hacking for this amazing resource for students around the world. Thank you Datadog for sponsoring check them out at testandcode.com Datadog thank you Monday.com for sponsoring join their contest at Monday. Comcontest and thank you to all the listeners who support the show through Patreon join them by going to testandcode.com support all of those links are in the show notes at test and Code.com 133. That’s all for now. Now go out and test something.