Four things I learned at my first hackathon

I spent last weekend coding in a cafeteria in Pasadena, CA from 8 AM – 6 PM each day (while being supplied with free food). The event was Website Weekend, a hackathon hosted by Girl Develop It LA where developers teamed up to build websites for nonprofits. I worked on a great team to improve the website of Thero, a mental health organization. The event was full of excitement, intensity, and M&Ms. Here are some things I learned in the whirlwind:

1. A ton of tech skills! I got to use common industry tools like Gulp and Sass, develop with Git in a team, and explore the PHP monster of the web, WordPress. I was lucky to be put in a group with two other experienced WordPress developers who were supportive and didn’t mind showing others the ropes.

2. I will never know everything about web development. Even though I currently work with PHP as a web developer, I was total newbie at developing with WordPress (and from conversations I overheard, I wasn’t alone). It was tempting to feel intimidated by others’ knowledge and experience with WP, but I tried to just focus on the good we were doing for a nonprofit and their website. (Plus, I was able to contribute my front-end skills!)

Complimentary Girl Develop It swag. There was also a sticker that said “Talk Nerdy to Me,” but I fear that will invite people to bother me in Starbucks.

3. Hackathons are terrible for your body. Basically, you sit all day and eat a lot of sugar. If I were less self-conscious, I would have brought one of my makeshift standing desks! And if I were more responsible, I would have brought a bag of apples to eat instead of succumbing to the temptation of M&Ms. When I got home on Sunday night, I immediately worked out and feasted on fruit.

4. You can make a difference through coding. When I left my last teaching job to work in software, one of my biggest concerns was that I was being socially irresponsible. I’d heard on Software Engineering Daily that according to surveys, people who were most concerned about social impact were least interested in coding — which was unfortunate, since technology could actually enable you to make a broader social impact.

But it doesn’t always feel like you’re making an impact when you’re coding alone in a cafe. This weekend, however, one of the best moments for me was when I used some CSS magic to put an outline around the “Donate” button for Thero’s website. The people from Thero said they’d been trying to do that for a year, and research showed that it would increase their donations by as much as 40%! Who knew some negative CSS margins could have such an effect?

It was a busy weekend, but I’m so glad I got to participate in this hackathon. Thank you, Girl Develop It LA!