Participating in my first hackathon as a senior Economics student

407 students. 6 colleges. 74 projects. 24 hours.

Welcome to TartanHacks.

This past weekend, CMU ScottyLabs hosted TartanHacks – one of CMU’s largest hackathons. ScottyLabs is a club on-campus devoted to helping students learn about and explore interesting topics in technology. They organize educational events, workshops, community activities, as well as TartanHacks throughout the year. During the hackathon, students of all years, majors, and programming skill come together to unleash their own creativities and build projects. Projects range from functional (e.g. ‘marketplace for selling meal blocks on-campus’), educational (virtual science experiments through augmented-reality), environmental (green transportation marketplace using blockchain), social good (hardware-enhancing technology for the vision-impaired) and much more impact areas. With generous support from various students as well as corporate sponsors, teams are truly able to pour their hearts into the work in creating a project of their passions. And of course, the almost endless amount of swag, snacks, and food, again, thanks to ScottyLabs and all the sponsors.

For me, I really have to thank some of my technical friends for encouraging me to participate. I’ve always been curious and wanted to see how it was like in a hackathon, but was always nervous about my own lack of programming and technical skills – since I’ve heard about some of the projects people have done in the past and they really blow my mind. But after much encouragement as well as my taking of 15-110 and (currently) 15-112 as well as this being my senior spring at CMU, I decided to take the leap and signed up. The hacking started Friday night and went until Saturday afternoon (and if you’re wondering, yes, my team and I did end up getting a solid 6 hours of sleep, contrary to some myths out there about hackathons). When we started though, I immediately realized my shortcomings in my programming knowledge. We were working primarily with Javascript, HTML, React (yep! it also took me awhile to become familiar with what these are), and the languages that I had previously worked with were R and Python. And so there was some catching up on tutorials for me to do – and it was definitely quite a lot.

I realized I had felt so ‘helpless’ and ‘useless’ in that my other teammates who were familiar with the languages had already delved into coding and made significant headway. As someone whose definitely conscious about how others might think of me, I was afraid that they might judge me, that they might think of me less. There were definitely moments where I considered just quitting. (I also had some work in my other classes.) But my team members were quite the contrary. They were not only understanding of my shortcomings but also supportive along the way. They didn’t hesitate to stop and answer any questions I had. They welcomed and accepted me for who I am. And that motivated me to push on, and to challenge myself to ‘find my place’ on the team – find my way to harness my own strengths. And I found it in my video-creation skills from being in cmuTV, the campus filming club, an interest in itself was borne about me stepping out of my own comfort zone.

By Saturday when we submitted our project, we had a pretty amazing web-application and video trailer to go with it. But what I really got out of the experience was more than some amazing web-app or video. It was really appreciating the diversity of disciplines and the type of work we can produce when we come together. And this was just 24 hours, so imagine if we had months or years. It was also an important lesson of humility and learning when to lean on others, that it’s okay to not know things, but rather it’s more important to be open to learning them and finding people who do know them and appreciating them. But it’s also important to be confident with oneself and one’s own unique skills and perspectives that one may bring – no matter what it is, it’s there.

So once again, special shoutout to team CrashFacts  – for an amazing and memorable experience. Shoutout to the friends who encouraged me to sign up and believing in me.

My team of 4 – our project CrashFacts, an educational web-app, ended up winning the Educational Hack award sponsored by Bloomberg.


Check out our project here!

Eric Huang | Undergraduate Economics 2019
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