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From Hacker to Organizer: My PennApps Experience

The first time I heard of a hackathon was during a summer program my junior year of high school, where Mike Swift, co-founder of Major League Hacking, came in to talk about his experience with hackathons. By the time he concluded his talk, I was excited to learn more and attend one of these so-called “hackathons”. It sounded like a place where students grow and learn from one another, all while creating projects that can win prizes and have a positive impact on society. And most importantly, I didn’t need to know how to code well, as hackathons offered workshops and mentors to teach you. That night I signed up for ​PennApps XVI​, and by September I was at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, going into what would become a tipping point in my life.

PennApps​ is the original college hackathon and one of the largest hackathons in the world, bringing in over 1200 students world-wide for this 36-hour event. During my three days at PennApps, our team created ​TattooCare​, a temporary tattoo that measures a person’s EMG signals, intended to reduce rehabilitation time for hospital patients. I had no technical experience and barely understood what my teammates were doing, and spent most of my time observing my teammates, asking lots of questions, and attending workshops.

I came to PennApps thinking I would come out as a better coder, but I did not write a single line of code during my time there. Then why am I calling it a tipping point? By talking with other hackers, PennApps opened a door of opportunities and resources that I didn’t know existed before. I may not have learned any code, but I’ve learned of the resources available where I can teach myself code, including Codecademy and My school may not offer any Arduino classes, but I can buy an Arduino set and follow tutorials online to create my own projects.

I could have figured a lot of these things out myself. After all, I didn’t need to go to PennApps to learn how to do a Google search. But my years of schooling had hard-wired me to believe that I could only learn in a school setting, through instructors and textbooks. With high school inundated with SATs, APs, and subject tests, I was occupied with school work and never bothered to learn anything outside of school. But everyone at PennApps was enthusiastically hard at work learning and making their own projects, showing me that I, too, had the ability to learn and create anything I wanted.

A year later I found myself back at Penn, this time as an undergraduate student. Upon arriving on campus, I knew that I wanted to join the PennApps organizing team. PennApps helped me in so many unspeakable ways, and I wanted to provide that same experience and opportunity to other students. Indeed, this past iteration I was fortunate enough to be the Co-Head of Outreach for ​PennApps XX​, which took place this past September 6th-8th. I was excited to take on the role, but also nervous, for many reasons; I was the least-experienced person on the executive team, my own committee members had more experience than I had, and I didn’t know anyone on my team. Fortunately all the members, past the present, were all really supportive throughout the entire summer when we were organizing PennApps.

For context, the Outreach committee is responsible for being the face of PennApps throughout the entire application process. That means reaching out to schools and organizations to promote PennApps, running the application and grading process, deciding admissions, distributing reimbursement, and running check in during the event. Being Outreach Co-Head this past summer was undoubtedly the most work I had put in for any organization. Every spare minute I had between my summer classes and commuting was spent on PennApps, whether it be replying to emails (1,436 emails to date!), video chatting with my co-head, or working on the dozens of spreadsheets we had (keep in mind we had roughly 3000 applications). There were days where I did nothing but PennApps morning to night, to the point where PennApps essentially became a full-time job.

The role challenged me in many ways, particularly on my decisiveness and attention to detail. Historically, these two were my greatest weaknesses. But I knew that every action I took affected a person’s ability and decision to attend PennApps, which influences their career and even their life. An erroneous press of a button changes a hacker’s status from accepted to waitlisted; a decision to organize a bus for a particular location means less reimbursement allocated to other hackers. As a result, I learned to double and triple check my work to ensure everything was accurate, and made sure I was thoughtful in my choices and consulted with my peers before coming to any decision.

Before long, it was the weekend of PennApps XX, and being at PennApps not as a hacker but as an organizer was incredible. Seeing the long line for food and walking past tables of laptops and hackers jogged my memory of when I was in their shoes not long ago. As sleep-deprived as I was during the event, I could still sense the hackers’ passion when talking to new friends about their ideas, their dedication while working on their projects, and their eagerness to learn new languages and topics at workshops. My favorite part as an organizer was the midnight surprise where we handed out the t-shirts, stickers, and cake to the hackers. Seeing the excitement of all the hackers, who came from all over the world just to be here, made it worth it.

Looking back, it’s amazing to see how a single hackathon, PennApps, have brought me so far in my journey. Just two years ago, I heard the term “hackathon” for the first time. Little did I expect that I would be participating and organizing one of the largest hackathons in the world two years later. My experience as a hacker and as an organizer taught me to be appreciative of all the work people put in to make a hackathon happen. If it weren’t for the organizers back at PennApps XVI, I wouldn’t be here organizing PennApps XX today. And I was only one organizer playing a small role out of a hundred other organizers, mentors, judges, and volunteers working to make PennApps XX possible.

To all the previous and current PennApps organizers and hackers: thank you. Without your efforts and presence I would not be where I am today.

Nina Chung- RTC fellow, 2nd year computer science student at the University of Pennsylvania

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