How To Start Programming - Get Thee To A Hackathon!

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Even though I was one of the less experienced people there, there was always something I could contribute to. If I thought of a feature for our app but didn't entirely know how to implement it, I could always find the help I needed. By Catherine Stevens (Contributing Writer, UnCollege)

Last month, I attended my first hackathon, Everyone Hacks, in San Francisco. Prior to that, I had had a little computer science experience, but I had never done any “real” coding: I had never used version control, worked with a team of people on a coding project, or seen how the different aspects of programming come together to create an app.

When the hackathon ended, however, I had done all of those things and more, culminating in the creation of a real (albeit primitive) web application. In addition, I had made new friends and had lots of fascinating conversations.

Hackathons are an invaluable way to get started programming and learn from others in a high-energy, supportive environment.

When I arrived at the hackathon, since I didn't have very much programming experience, I joined a group specifically designated for beginners and we worked on making a website to allow schools in need of textbooks and schools with a surplus of textbooks to find each other and swap books. Our mentor was extremely helpful, patient, and always happy to walk me through whatever coding concepts I had trouble with.

Even though I was one of the less experienced people there, there was always something I could contribute to and if I thought of a feature that would be beneficial to our app but didn't entirely know how to implement it, I could always find the help I needed.

One of the best parts about this hackathon in particular was the fact that even though it was geared towards women, the atmosphere the people weren’t condescending at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite: I felt completely comfortable asking questions and was never pressured or made to feel inadequate if I didn't know something. My first hackathon was a truly amazing experience, and I would recommend that anyone interested in programming attend one.

Here are some tips I’ve compiled based on my experience:

  • Ask for help - Don't be afraid to ask the people around you for advice, or even if you can just look over their shoulders at their code. You may know something that can help them, and at the very least, you'll learn something new.
  • Connect with the people around you - Hackathons are an excellent opportunity to connect with other women in the tech industry. Taking the time to get to know your fellow hackers will help you whether you want to find a mentor, network, or just start integrating yourself into the tech community.
  • Be open to new ideas - At a hackathon, there just isn't enough time for everyone to be able to do exactly what they want, so it is imperative to be able to compromise and cooperate with others.
  • Be flexible and willing to learn - It is very common to have to learn new programming tools or frameworks on the fly, so be prepared to learn quickly. This hackathon was my first experience using GitHub, Twitter Bootstrap and Javascript, and I had to quickly learn what I needed to know in order to write the necessary code.

I‘m very glad I went to the Everyone Hacks hackathon because it made me aware of all the opportunities that become available when you know how to code.

I also learned so much about the impact woman are having on technology, and made connections with many of them. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in technology participate in a hackathon.

Photo credit: Adria Richards on Instagram.

Women 2.0 readers: Have you ever been to a hackathon? Let us know in the comments!

About the guest blogger: Catherine Stevens is a student passionate about the power of technology to improve access to educational resources and allow everyone to learn at their own pace and in a personalized manner. She supports alternative education movements such as UnCollege, MOOCs and other free online classes, which she sees as being the first step towards breaking up the monopoly colleges have on higher education. Follow her on Twitter at @cath_stevens.