What Is a Hackathon and How Do You Prepare for One With Gwendolyn Faraday (S6E11)

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“Hacking” isn’t always a bad word in the tech space anymore—thanks to the growing popularity of “ethical hacking” and events like “hackathons”.

What is a hackathon? Often, the events don’t have anything to do with the ‘breaking in’ connotation of hacking at all. Instead, it’s more like hacking something together, where a group of people come together to collaborate or compete on a coding project.

Gwendolyn FaradaySenior software developer Gwendolyn Faraday loves the power of hackathons to bring beginners together and let them sharpen their skills in a fun and supportive environment. Her first hackathon got her hooked; it turned into attending one every other month and evolved to hosting her own hackathons for beginners.


In the episode below, Gwen talks about why hackathons were so important for her own learning journey, how to prepare for a hackathon and other hackathon tips, what to do if you’re going alone, and more.

This episode was transcribed with the help of an AI transcription tool. Please forgive any typos.

Laurence Bradford 0:08
Hey, and thank you for tuning in to Learn to Code With Me podcast. I'm your host, Laurence Bradford. In this episode, you'll find out how to get involved in hackathons and tech meetups. That's all coming up after a quick word from our sponsors.

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Laurence Bradford 1:14
Hey listeners. In today's episode I talk with Gwendolyn Faraday. Glen is a senior software developer who runs a local groups to teach people how to code and get people interested in new technologies like blockchain. She also writes for the Free Code Camp blog, and speaks at Tech conferences around the world. Today, she is going to tell us all about hackathons, what they are, how you can get involved as a beginner and how to prepare for them. She also discusses how she got into public speaking as an alternative to traditional networking. Before we get started, just a quick heads up that after this episode, we're going to be taking a two week break for the Fourth of July holiday. But we'll be right back with a new episode on July 16. Enjoy the interview.

Laurence Bradford 2:05
Hey, Glen, thank you so much for coming on the show. Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to talk with you today. And to get the to get things going. I would love to hear about your background, and how you first got interested in technology.

Gwendolyn Faraday 2:20
So I've always had an interest in building computers and technology and how games and things worked since I was a teenager. So I went to Boston University, and I actually studied computer engineering there. And I learned c++ and MATLAB and some other computer science topics. But I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do. So I went into some freelancing and did a lot of random jobs for years. And in 2014, that's when I finally sat down and said, Hey, I'm going to make a career out of coding. I'm not going to keep doing tutorials. I'm going to Become a web developer within a year or two. And I started building first swift apps for iOS. And then in 2015, I found Free Code Camp, and I started eating through all of their JavaScript tutorials. And I got pretty good at JavaScript. And then I landed my first job that year in web development. And since then, it's kind of taken a lot of twists and turns have done a lot of consulting a lot of learning on the fly. And yeah, that's pretty much how I got into where I am now, doing a lot of different types of development.

Laurence Bradford 3:42
Got it? So I read that you were homeschooled. And I was wondering, do you think that gave you any advantages or disadvantages and starting your career in tech?

Gwendolyn Faraday 3:53
So there's good and bad to being homeschooled, I think, and I think it really did. Give me an advantage where I was used to teaching myself. And even if you look at the StackOverflow survey, the vast majority of developers teach themselves new skills. And it wasn't like a public school where you go and you have a set curriculum, it was kind of at least after I was maybe eight or nine, I was making my own curriculum and schoolwork. So I really got to do whatever was interesting for me if I wanted to work on a science project for two weeks, I just took those two weeks and built a science project or I liked playing video games. So I incorporated things like Age of Empires into my history curriculum.

Laurence Bradford 4:40
So school was a lot of fun and it really made learning fun for me and for the rest of my life. And I feel like homeschooling gave me an advantage because a lot of kids and people don't feel like that because they've been kind of pushed through school and didn't really enjoy it, where I was able to enjoy what I was doing interesting. Yeah, I could definitely see that. And I could see how it would be really useful. Later when teaching yourself all these different technical things and learning on your own. You were already very used to it and had like the skills in place that made you a strong self teacher. Yeah. But looking at present day, I believe you have two part time jobs at the moment. Could you tell us a bit about those?

Gwendolyn Faraday 5:24
Yeah, so I work pretty much four days a week at crossroads education, and we build SAS products for schools and other educational institutions. I'm very passionate about education in particular STEM education. And for the first time, I'm actually getting to run a software team there, which is an amazing experience that I'm learning a lot from how to interact with the client and at the same time, be able to onboard and teach newer developers and interns. It's a challenge but I really, really enjoy that. And my other job is for Omni automation Because I've been studying machine learning for a couple years now. And it really combines my favorite things between Python IoT algorithms and doing machine learning on data. That's a local startup. And so it's kind of me running that whole ml department. So I'm definitely learning a lot of things.

Laurence Bradford 6:21
So if your one job is four days a week, how often are you working at this second one that involves the machine learning automation, it's about 10 hours a week got 10 hours a week, and is that all remote?

Gwendolyn Faraday 6:35
it can be remote, but sometimes we meet or I meet with some of the other people on the team at a co working space. There's in Indianapolis, there's a cool tech initiative. So they're opening all these new co working spaces and they opened a new one the other year called the IoT space. And so they have all these different IoT companies doing really cool projects come together. And kind of collaborate and share what they're learning. And there's also a makerspace in there, and they're building out a woodworking space. And there's a lot of different tools for people that are building this combination of hardware and software together.

Laurence Bradford 7:16
Nice. So you live in Indianapolis then?

Gwendolyn Faraday 7:19

Laurence Bradford 7:19
And is that where you like grew up and where you spend most of your life?

Gwendolyn Faraday 7:24
So I grew up in Boston, and I spent most of my life there. I'm, I moved here several years ago. And so this is really where I've started most of my tech groups, and I have most of my tech network out here. But I definitely love to go back east and I've actually been house shopping back there, but the cost of living is perhaps 10 times greater than here. So it's very easy to stay here. And also these Midwest cities are growing a lot in tech like we see you start There's a lot of new development, new initiatives. And companies are also moving here from higher priced areas.

Laurence Bradford 8:07
Oh, yeah, I can only imagine like the cost of living. I spent several years living in Boston. It's definitely not a super affordable city as far as we go. So yeah, so I totally get that. And you mentioned just now briefly, the community efforts that you're doing, and I really want to talk about that, and all your work there. And one area I'd love to touch on is hackathons. So could you talk a bit about what hackathons are and how they work? Because I believe you've organized several and taking part in a lot, correct?

Gwendolyn Faraday 8:39
So Hackathons are basically events where a bunch of people get together form groups, and they try to build something within a certain amount of time. And usually, they're about 24 to 48 hours, depending on what it is. Now, the ones that I host are beginner friendly hackathons, so they're just Just to get people used to collaborating with each other and get people kind of out of the basement, working together and learning how to basically build projects and work with other people. And so those are about five to six hours, usually on a Sunday, we'll do those. And it really builds confidence when you see that, hey, you can develop not just test projects, but you can actually develop with other people on a team. And so, hackathons, the 24 to 48 hour hackathons that I go to, usually they're civic minded, or we have some kind of theme. Like one of the recent ones I went to was about this food desert problem that these local little grocery stores are closing down around Indianapolis. And so a lot of people in poor areas don't have access to healthy food. So how can we use technology to solve real world problems like that.

Laurence Bradford 9:57
As far as hackathons go, and beginners, I think Feel like it can be really overwhelming to people to go and do something for 24 to 48 hours, they probably don't feel ready, or a lot of folks just starting out may not feel ready. What kind of advice do you have for someone who feels that way?

Gwendolyn Faraday 10:14
So, hackathons are definitely intimidating. And part of it is because there are a lot of senior developers or more experienced people that go. And also when you walk in there as a beginner, your mind goes to Oh, well, everyone else is experienced except me. So that's one of the reasons why we do host these beginner friendly hackathons to get people used to it. But I would say, if you're going to go to a hackathon, then don't feel like you can't contribute, because there are all kinds of things that the team needs. And it's not just coding and application. That is definitely part of it. But depending on the type of hackathon you go to they also need business people and people who can pitch the product and marketers and designers and all different kinds of skill sets. And even people just come up with ideas. So even just sitting there and ideating with the team is a very valuable resource.

Gwendolyn Faraday 11:14
And also so I recently went to it was an IoT hackathon that's hosted every year here. And we had kind of an emergency services theme. So we ended up building something to help the fire department share resources. And we had, I had one other senior developer on my team, and then one kind of researcher and then I had two brand new people who were just learning. And that was one of my most fun hackathons ever, because we ended up building a mobile app and getting to teach them all of these new skills and that was really rewarding. So instead of using React Native or Maybe native script or something that I would normally use for a mobile app, we just did it simply, we built the cross platform mobile app in Cordova, using skills that they already knew. And they could see that, hey, I can build an app and then demo it live for people in front of everybody in just 24 hours. And they the new people in that hackathon, the two new learners, they actually contributed a lot to the code.

Laurence Bradford 12:28
Oh, yeah, that's really awesome. And I want to ask, what's the best way for someone to prepare for a hackathon if they're going to wine? Or is it even possible to prepare before you go?

Gwendolyn Faraday 12:38
So yes, and no, because when you go to a hackathon, especially if you don't already have a team formed, you really don't know what kind of technology you're going to be working with. The best ways to prepare are to probably read the rules of back athon if you're going to something like a startup weekend. You can go there with that. Ideas already. Or if maybe if you know the theme of a hackathon, you can go with ideas about the build or what kind of company you're going to create or whatever it is. Because generally, you'll have a chance to pitch those ideas in front of everybody. The other way you can prepare is really to get kind of a starter project ready that you can use. For example, if you think you might be building a web app or something, you can say, Okay, well, I'm going to try out Vue. js, and be ready to create it with the view, create command and kind of have it in your mind. And that'll make you a little bit more comfortable when you're starting out.

Laurence Bradford 13:45
And for people who aren't aware, like when you go to a hackathon, and maybe can just vary depending on the one you're going to. Are you assigned a group like as when you show up or do you get to kind of choose who you work with, like how does that work?

Gwendolyn Faraday 14:02
Most hackathons will let you come in with a group. And if you don't come in with a group, then there will be a bunch of people pitching their ideas or what they want to build. Or if they need more team members, they'll be trying to get more team members. So you'll get to pick which team you go on, or if you come in with a group already.

Laurence Bradford 14:19
Gotcha. And then what makes a good hackathon project?

Gwendolyn Faraday 14:24
The very important thing with building a hackathon project is really drilling down into what is the MVP, because it's not a login screen and all those other things that we technically do in applications. It's how can I show what this app does in as few screens and as little detail as possible to build and that's really what makes a good hackathon project is drilling down to the minimum number of features that you can possibly demonstrate this application or technology with.

Laurence Bradford 14:59
Sit tight podcast listeners, we're taking a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors.

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Laurence Bradford 17:27
Yeah, that makes sense, especially if you only have you know, 24 to 48 hours to build this project. I'm very curious. Yeah. When did you first big When was the first one you ever want to?

Gwendolyn Faraday 17:40
I'm not sure if it was 2015 or 2016 when I started, but it's been a few years.

Laurence Bradford 17:46
Nice. And again, just I'm just curious, like, how often are you going to hackathons or organizing them?

Gwendolyn Faraday 17:52
So a few years ago, I was going to them it felt like every other month, I was always planning our Going to a hackathon. Now I've kind of slowed down, I probably go to maybe two year now, not including the ones that I organize. Because I'll probably organize to beginner friendly hackathons a year. But I don't actually participate in those. I'm just there to help people. Mm hmm.

Laurence Bradford 18:17
Yeah. And like when you first started going to them, and you said, You're guiding them every other month? How did that impact your learning? Like, how did they help you learn more?

Gwendolyn Faraday 18:28
I think it really helped push my learning forward, because I worked with a lot of different senior developers, and people who knew all different kinds of technologies, from cloud to web to mobile to IoT and other things. So I was really able to learn in kind of a crash course from people who knew a lot.

Laurence Bradford 18:49
Yeah, I feel like I feel like that's such an like a nice upside of them is that obviously you're building a project and you're getting to like meet new people and maybe people in your area like You know, it makes some friendships. And you're also to perhaps really accelerate your learning. So it sounds like they just have a whole bunch of, you know, benefits. Yeah. I would love to know as well have you? Have you ever, like gotten job offers like job opportunities or some are professional opportunities through people you've connected with or companies at a hackathon?

Gwendolyn Faraday 19:22
So I have gotten invited to interviews and people wanted to talk to me about jobs at hackathons. I just it hasn't aligned with when I was looking for a job. But I do know people who have gotten jobs through hackathons. And that's part of the reason why some companies want to sponsor hackathons because they're looking for talent at hackathons. So it's definitely a good opportunity if you're looking for a job to go to events like that.

Laurence Bradford 19:50
Makes sense. So I'm want to change gears a little bit here because aside from all this other work that you're doing, I know you also do quite a bit of public Speaking How did you first get into that?

Gwendolyn Faraday 20:02
So I really wanted to be a public speaker. And I also wanted to get my name out there more, because I was terrible at networking. So I figured it would be easier if I was in front of everybody, everybody would automatically know who I was. And then I wouldn't have to go and introduce myself, they would come and talk to me. So I started off at some local groups. I think I spoke. I spoke at my own Meetup group, and I spoke at the Node JS and just a few local groups. And I was pretty terrible at the beginning. Like I was just reading off a screen or a paper, and my live coding was just crashing all over the place. And I really, really wanted to do it really bad even though I was terrible at it. So I kept trying over and over and over again. And my god answers were always really nice and helpful, almost everybody. And they would offer me feedback and advice and even invite me back even if I didn't do a great job at my talk. And so over time, I just took that advice.

Gwendolyn Faraday 21:15
And I kept practicing, and getting a little bit better at a time. And then I got invited. I think it was the beginning of 2017. When I got invited to my first conference, which was a new conference, they were organizing locally here. And I got invited to do two talks that I've already given locally. And once I had that first conference experience, I got invited to another stage and another conference and then eventually I got invited internationally to speak and from there. Now, a lot of times, I'll just get email invites and I won't even have to apply for conferences anymore, but it's definitely better. A long road and a lot of practice, and even taking classes and practicing in front of the mirror and recording myself, which I really hate to do. But it's pushed me forward a lot.

Laurence Bradford 22:12
Wow. I'm curious, what kind of classes did you take?

Gwendolyn Faraday 22:15
So I've been through several classes from Dale Carnegie, which are excellent. And then I've also found some random classes online and a few courses that were posted on places like YouTube that I went through.

Laurence Bradford 22:34
Got it, and how often are you speaking now at different events or conferences?

Gwendolyn Faraday 22:40
So this year, I've already spoken at one conference and a few local events, and I have one more conference lined up for this year so I'm kind of taking it a bit slower now. I actually turned down a couple conferences. Just because I didn't want to overwhelm myself with everything else I'm doing. But I'm also speaking next year in January already. I have that lined up.

Laurence Bradford 23:08
Wow. And when you're doing these conference talks, or just local events, are you doing the same presentation? Or are you always doing a new one?

Gwendolyn Faraday 23:19
Yes. So it's really hard to always do a new presentation, even though I would like to. I do reuse presentations as much as I can. And sometimes hot topics like when I used to talk about React Native or now I have a talk about Vue js. They really desire talks like that on the hot topics at conferences. So they'll invite me and asked me to speak about that specifically. So then I can easily reuse that talk. But I will be upgrading talks. It's never be exactly the same talk because as I go back through it, I'll make edits and changes and upgrade things. I I learned more things.

Laurence Bradford 24:01
Yeah, that makes sense. And it feels like it would be a lot of work to make a new one every single time. And if you've done one that did well, people liked it. It's like, why not do it for another group, especially when you're traveling to different cities to do them? Yeah, yeah. So you assign all this sounds like you just you know, you do so much in your traveling, you're speaking your hackathon. You also run a few local groups. Could you tell us a bit about those.

Gwendolyn Faraday 24:27
So started a few local groups, mostly out of necessity, that I didn't find local groups that were fulfilling certain needs. So I figured there are a lot of people who will want to get involved, but nobody who will start it so I might as well start it and then bring everybody else in. So the first group I started was four years ago. And that was the Free Code Camp or the local chapter Free Code Camp in Indianapolis. And that was one of the I first came to Indianapolis. And that was really to help and support people as they were learning to code and especially if they were teaching themselves or even if they were going through a boot camp, because it's really hard to keep going if you don't have a support system.

Gwendolyn Faraday 25:19
And that was something that I wanted as well. So I wanted to start this and bring everyone else in with me. And that group really took off from there. More recently, I started a blockchain group. I was already investing in cryptocurrency in 2017. And I was looking for blockchain developers locally, that I could kind of bounce ideas off of and learn from but I couldn't find it. Because most people seem to be more interested in trading kryptos and investing and things like that, not necessarily the underlying technology of blockchain. So I started At a blockchain group, just to get a lot of different people together, so I could get ideas and we could learn from each other. And that group is also doing very well, we've built a couple projects as a group. And that's been a lot of fun.

Laurence Bradford 26:16
That's really cool. And, you know, again, you've done all these different things, what is like your main focus now? Or at least maybe the last few months are of 2019? Like, where's a lot of your attention going and of all the things that you're doing?

Gwendolyn Faraday 26:29
So right now, I'm actually writing a book. Um, so basically, because I run this local coding group, and I speak and I contribute to the Free Code Camp community, and I get a lot of questions like, where do I start with coding and what's the best book to read? And there are a lot of awesome resources like your website and Free Code Camp and places like that, but I bought almost every book on Amazon and online in general. And I was looking for something that where to get started, where to find all these other things like how to network and you know, everything else related to coding that isn't necessarily just learning JavaScript or just the technologies.

Gwendolyn Faraday 27:18
And I couldn't find one that kind of fit everything that I thought a new person should learn. So I've spent, I've spent the last maybe two and a half years kind of thinking about this book and putting together different ideas for it in the last few months. I was like, Okay, I really have to get this written. I've always wanted to write a book. And so I'm just going to go ahead and finish that. So that's now in kind of the editing phase, and I'm also getting the cover artwork done for that.

Laurence Bradford 27:52
Oh, wow. That's really awesome. And I can imagine how much effort that's taking and why you've maybe slowed down some of the speaking and the hackathons. and whatnot to focus on that, because I know books can really take a lot. They can take a lot of effort and time and work to get done. So that's really awesome. And when is that? If you have any idea, like, when will that be out around?

Gwendolyn Faraday 28:14
So I'm hoping to put that out officially around September. And I think that's a pretty reasonable estimate, since I'm self publishing.

Laurence Bradford 28:24
Gotcha. Well, that's really exciting. We'll have to definitely share it in the future. Once it's once it's out. I do think that episode will be live for sure before then, but we'll maybe be able to come back and add it to the show notes page or something when it's when it's a lot less when it's live and available for people to get. So I wanted to kind of circle back on something that I didn't ask earlier, but you were mentioning, and that's your interest in blockchain and machine learning. When did you become interested in those areas and I would love to hear advice you have for people listening if they Curious in those areas where they can get started?

Gwendolyn Faraday 29:04
So I got started in those A few years ago, I've always kind of been interested in new technologies, and I get really excited about trying new things. What I got into web development, a while back, I knew that that wasn't my end goal that was just kind of the first step to getting an actual full time job and being more professional in my career. So I thought maybe I was going to get into embedded systems or do c++ again, or something like that. Um, but I ended up taking a different turn, I really fell in love with data and Python. And so that's, I kind of started doing machine learning out of there. And taking Coursera classes and building my knowledge playing with all the data sets on kaggle and stuff like like that.

Gwendolyn Faraday 30:01
And then with Blockchain that was from investing in cryptocurrencies and getting interested in this new technology that people were calling the future web or the new internet, which was really exciting that all these new promises were coming about as a result of AI and blockchain. And maybe I could be a part of that. And even try to figure out if we could use these different technologies together. Because the inner intersection of technologies is also a very exciting space to see how everything fits together. And as far as learning those are learning machine learning and learning about blockchain, I actually wrote a couple articles for Free Code Camp on those so one's called resources I used to teach myself blockchain development and the others the best resources I use to teach myself machine learning And there are just so many resources that I used that I kind of sum them all up in maybe seven or eight minute articles apiece.

Laurence Bradford 31:10
Oh, yeah, we'll definitely have to link to those in the show notes. That's, that's perfect if you already have two articles that sums up where you learned about both of those things. And just to wrap up, I would love to hear some high level advice you have for someone listening, just getting started, especially since you're writing this book, it seems very apt like the timing, what is like the first thing they should do if they're brand new, they want to explore technology, and they don't know where to start?

Gwendolyn Faraday 31:36
So I would say the very first thing that I would recommend if you're interested in specifically learning to code, I would say check out a website like Free Code Camp, start working through some of the challenges and get to building one of the projects as soon as possible. Because once you start building I think that's what Where you can really see if this is something you're interested in, because you have to deal with bugs in your program and all the different challenges of being a developer.

Laurence Bradford 32:11
Awesome, great advice. And thank you again for coming on the show. Where can people find you online?

Gwendolyn Faraday 32:18
So I have all of my links and info on my website, gwenfaraday.com. You can also find me pretty much anywhere by typing in Gwen Faraday, there are to many people with that name. I'm on Twitter at Gwen_Faraday.

Laurence Bradford 32:34
Awesome. We'll definitely add those to the show notes. And thank you again for coming on.

Gwendolyn Faraday 32:39
Yeah, thank you. This is great.

Laurence Bradford 32:46
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Gwen. If you missed any of that, or would like a recap, remember the Show Notes for this episode, and every other episode can be found over on the website at learntocodewith.me/podcast. If you're listening to this episode in the future, you can click the Search icon in the upper navigation and type in one's name. Also, remember, you can get our brand new ebook which showcases 28 Different Ways To Earn A Side Income While Learning How To Code. This resource is totally free and you can get it over on the website side gig dot tech. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, we're going to be taking a short break for two weeks while we celebrate the Fourth of July. We'll be back with more episodes starting on July 16. So we'll see you then. Thank you so much for tuning in and have a great rest of the week.

Key Takeaways:

  • Hackathons are great for beginners because they can help you build your confidence, your skills, and your experience collaborating and working closely with a team of other developers.
  • Hackathons can be intimidating, but if you’re going to go to one, don’t feel like you can’t contribute because everyone seems more experienced than you. The team will need all sorts of skills, even non-tech-related ones like business acumen, marketing, designing, etc.
  • The best way to prepare for a hackathon is simply to read the rules for the event, and go prepared with a few ideas or even the start of a basic project that you think might be useful.
  • If you’re on your own, don’t worry! A lot of people turn up with a ready-formed group, but there are also people who go alone and will need people to join their team after they pitch an idea.

Links and mentions from the episode:

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