DEV SPOTLIGHT #11: You can't just focus on code. You have to focus on people, too.
Hail and welcome, friends, to another Developer Spotlight.
A couple of weeks ago, Hack Club had their first major conference, their Flagship Summit. They brought together approximately 80 student leaders from around the country for an almost entirely student-led, coding-focused event. They talked about how one small community of student programmers...totally blew up.
Kat: Could you tell me about yourself and what you do at Hack Club?
Chris: I’m Chris Walker. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and taught myself program around 11 or 12. I got really interested in video games—specifically educational games and software—and how to use the Internet to provide positive feedback loops around building things and creatively expressing yourself in playful environments that hold people's attention.
I went to Dartmouth College and dropped out after not very long. I wanted to be a mathematician and found out that that probably wasn't for me, at least in the academic world. I ended up getting the Thiel Fellowship, which is where I met Zach. I kept working on educational games, but the edtech world is basically impossible to make a living in.
I worked a couple of other jobs and after I quit my last job, I got a call from Zach to catch up.He found out that I had just left my job and was like, “Oh, come work at Hack Club.”
Now I work mainly on how to build a playful environment for learning to code, for learning to build communities, and basically turning Hack Club into one big game, where you have people who are looking for some sense of purpose coming in, and then coming out you have fully self-actualized people who have everything they need to make some kind of positive change.
This year, in particular, that involves a lot of infrastructure around scaling the organization from a couple people calling a long list of clubs and coaching them through their issues every week, to a cross between a hierarchy of members that are involved in running the organization, and a decentralized network of leaders who are all talking to each other and sharing advice.
Kat: Were you part of the team that came up with the idea for the Flagship and the initial planning of it?
Chris: Yeah. Nine or ten weeks ago, I got a call from Zach saying Make School contacted us and they're interested in running some kind of event for club leaders. I didn't really get much context, but we got on a call with Jordan, who ran the event from the Make School side, and Jeremy, the co-founder of Make School.
Up until then, we'd spent a long time trying to figure out how to use the summer to transition from a model of a couple people directly coaching high schoolers to one where we can scale massively beyond that and ideally also do a better job. In the last year, it became clear that the more clubs we take on, the worse we’ll do with every new person who comes on, because it divides the amount of attention that everyone can get. One of the thoughts that kept coming up, at least for me, was, “Man, we just gotta get everyone in one place.”
So when Make School said we’ll pay for all the flights, lodging, provide the venue, and all the logistics, it was immediately obvious. We still need to do a lot of other work to change the model, but that’s step one. If you want people to talk to each other, get everyone in the room.
Because if your only contact with the organization face-to-face is video calls with the headquarters, then you're going to go to headquarters with all your problems. We're probably not gonna do as good of a job as somebody who's actually also running a club and has you know direct day-to-day experience. Every year it's a little bit harder to relate to a high schooler’s experience, because high school is changing and memories fade.
That's how it started. We already had Mingjie and Fernanda coming on for the summer for other programs. We basically pushed those programs to the side and said, “All we're going to do for the next two months is focus on running the best possible event in a short amount of time.”
Kat: What did the event involve?
Chris: We tried to model it off of two general categories of experiences:
1) Hackathons, since that's what this community has a lot of experience with, where a lot of expectations are set, and what we have expertise in running.
2) professional conferences, because our team members have all been to a bunch of conferences. A lot of it was, “How do we have like the best parts of hackathons with the logistical smoothness of conferences without making it feel like a corporate event?”
The first thing that stuck out to us is that we want as much of it as possible to student-led. That's a common theme with Hack Club. Students are, as much as possible, defining the experience for other students, rather than us telling them what to do. We’re facilitating the core—the eating, breathing, and sleeping things— and then students fill in the blanks for the experiences.
We had student-run sessions, like how to run your first hackathon, how to get creative about marketing and bring new people to your club, interesting activities you can do, and how to facilitate discussions in a group setting and do a really good job of keeping people engaged.
These are all topics that students understand better than we do. I can talk about how to run a hackathon, but not as well as Lachlan, so we had Lachlan talk about running your first event. People at headquarters can maybe provide some insight into different activities you can do in your club meeting, but the best person to ask about that is Dina.
We also tried to allow as much unstructured time as possible for people to interact and hang out. We wanted people to have some independent experience of being on their own in a city for the first time. I think part of Hack Club is learning to be independent. We wanted to set the tone, but students provide the content.
Kat: I really like how you mentioned having students explore the city independently. Having grown up in a city myself, I feel like those experiences have shaped who I am and helped me become independent in ways that maybe kids from other environments have to try harder to get.
Chris: Even things like learning to read a bus map and taking public transit, I feel pretty lucky to have had parents that allowed me to go out and do that stuff on my own.
I think as an organization it's important that if we're serious about having students be able to do all these really hard things—“you should be able to run events, you should be able to deal with large amounts of money, you should be able to like talk to sponsors, you should be able to teach, you should be able to lead”—it's really important that we actually give you the space to learn how to do even simpler things, like walk around in the city and not get lost. If we expect you to do these much harder things, we have to then also trust you to do these much simpler things.
In the end, we were rewarded. Nobody did anything stupid, and it was really cool to hear people talk about experiences spending time in San Francisco. I feel really lucky that we have students that we feel we can trust with that kind of responsibility. If this was a community I didn't really have contact with, I don't know if I would take a random sampling of teenagers and put them in the middle of San Francisco and expect them to be totally responsible.
Kat: Those hard things—getting high schoolers to contact sponsors, handle large amounts of money, run their own events and clubs—really stick out to me. They’re a really core feature of the community as well. What are your thoughts on getting more students to do more of those?
Chris: We're not helping people run events on easy mode. They're going to be doing all the work, and we're just providing a certain amount of framework and guidance. The most important step of that, though, is that we're actually trying to demonstrate that hey there's just something you can do - it's not that hard to run a hackathon it's a lot of work but none of it is like
You don't need a PhD in anything to run a hackathon. You need to be able to send a lot of emails, you need to be conscientious, but fundamentally you're just getting a bunch of people in a room, feeding them a couple of meals, and maybe ordering some t-shirts and organizing workshops. None of these things are especially complicated tasks, so it's not that hard to give people the idea that they can do it. You just have to set that context from the beginning.
I think the success of hackathons is largely the fact that unlike a debate tournament, robotics competition, or Girl Scout cookie selling operation, these are not events that are facilitated by parents or teachers. It’s students who do it from the ground up—the entire thing.
When students see these, they don't see them as something that the adult world has set up for them and, “Hey, maybe if I ask an adult, they can set one of these up for me.” No, some other students ran this event on their own and now I can do it.
We try and expose them to lots of other people who are doing the same thing, whether it's collegiate organizers or other high schoolers, and the rest happens naturally. When people see that that's something that they're capable of because their peers are doing it, who doesn't want to grow giant code party with 200 people at it?
Kat: I was talking to [your intern] Fernanda earlier, and she was basically told to make the project her own and organize the whole event, knowing next to nothing about Hack Club. You’ve been around longer, but what was it like for you to discover the Hack Club community? How would you describe the community?
Chris: I’ve been here for a little bit longer. I will say that we definitely put Fernanda into the deep end of the pool and it's a testament to her competence that this thing went as well as it did. She really did run this event and owned it, more than I did.
As for my experience coming into the community, Zach told me, “Hey, if you're interested in taking this job, the first thing you should do is check out our Slack channel. That's where everything happens.”
I came in, and people said “hi” in #welcome channel before I had even said anything. Obviously, I didn't need that as much as some people, because I was thinking of taking a job with Hack Club. But it was pretty clear from that experience that if this is the experience that this organization can give to students, I'm totally in.
My experience was one of coming in and personally seeing that this was not just a bunch of people who knew how to program, but it was a bunch of really good people who were interested in building a positive, nice place to be. I think there are a lot of technical communities that focus a lot on technical competence and don't think very much about making a positive space. That's how you get some of the really nasty toxic stuff in the tech community---people who are really really focused on programming and just not very focused on people.
Kat: 10x engineers?
Chris: Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of those engineers wouldn't be where they are today if they hadn't found some community where maybe it wasn't welcoming to everybody, but it was at least welcoming to them. It was clear coming in that even just an abstract, empty profile picture, people were really welcoming me. It was like, “Oh, this can actually be a space for anybody.” And that’s proven to be true, I think.