A couple of weeks before graduation I had been talking with one of my friends about opportunities in tech and my experiences with job hunting. I had started late and was looking for advice; my friend had been involved in Hacker Fellows the summer before and advised me to keep an eye out for opportunities. I had already applied and shrugging my shoulders, denied it as a possibility; the program was already at capacity. When I got the email a few weeks later letting me know that a spot had opened up in the program and that one of my friends had recommended me for it, I was elated. I couldn’t believe that I could have the opportunity to be a part of such a generous and growth-oriented program. That elation lasted for about two days, and then the nerves set in.
While I was packing my bags for the five week training bootcamp and getting ready to say goodbye to the roommates I had pretty much lived with for the past two years, the nerves really set in! In my head were these giants of CS who I’d be working with, the kids with the 4.0 CSE degrees from the University of Michigan who had been programming since high school, had their own websites showcasing their amazing work and who also managed to be the CEO/CTOs of 3 different startups by graduation. To be honest some of the 2018 fellows fit the bill (but they were extremely down to earth).
On the flip side, I was excited to learn Ruby on Rails and build on my abysmal JS knowledge, but I was legitimately terrified of looking dumb in front of the 14 other 2018 fellows.
Similar to 80% of UofM’s incoming freshman class, I had started off school as a pre-med student. That turned into Biochemistry, then to Biology, there was a strange couple of months where I just knew I needed to become an Environmental Engineer, and then through a couple of twists and turns had settled on Data Science. I’d never seen, much less written, a line of code until my sophomore year of college.
When my roommate (also a 2018 HF Intern) dropped me off at the WSU dorm, I got the chance to connect the fellows before the kickoff of training. There were people with their own startups in the works or even in action, those with passions ranging from video games to fashion to anime, and those like me, who weren’t one hundred percent sure where they wanted their careers in tech to lead them but who loved learning new technologies and seeing what they could build. Each and every one of them I soon learned was welcoming and open to both learning themselves and teaching others. I wondered why I had been so afraid to meet them and started instead to learn from them both technically and personally.
We were a group of programmers, sure -- but we were also a group of opera singers, musicians, anime-fans, athletes, cooking-enthusiasts, and much more. In speaking with my fellow fellows, I soon realized that we are all at least a little nervous for some part of the program or another. Whether it was starting work, launching/maintaining a startup, learning an entirely new language, or moving to a different city; it was nice to know that my nerves were in good company.
The first day of Hacker Fellows, we got to meet some of the previous fellows and interns; bonding over vegan pizza and cider at the midtown Jolly Pumpkin. The alumni told us all about the program and how they had made some of their closest friends during it, where they were working and how much they enjoyed being a part of the Michigan startup community. We got to talk to the fellows about coworkers, how to work your way up, and how to operate as a productive and content programmer.
The next day, we all arrived at the Invest Detroit office promptly at 9am (and definitely kept up that level of punctuality) and got to meet Jason Swett, one of the most relaxed and patient instructors I think any of us had ever had. Over the next few weeks we covered the basics of Ruby on Rails, PostgreSQL and perhaps even more importantly, got to know each other's favorite vegetables, Thanksgiving foods, pizza toppings (apparently, corn on pizza is a thing), and dream travel locations. Community members and Invest Detroit Ventures staff came and shared their own experiences with startups and startup culture, giving us tips for succeeding and things to watch out for as well as introducing us to various opportunities in the area.
The more I got to talk to different people, the more I saw how we were all for the most part struggling with our own iterations of imposter syndrome and that everyone there was working hard to produce the best products they could. My roommate during the program was a prime example, though, of what you could get done if you overcame your own inner dialog and took the initiative to learn, constantly challenge yourself, and in short, get things done. As a result she constantly served as a programming role model both to me and I would argue many others.
I soon learned that most of the fellows were similar to me in that they hadn’t touched a line of code until college and often felt like an imposter even during the program. A few years ago, code might as well have been magic according to several of us. This is why we absolutely loved being able to help out with the Detroit Code 5000 event during Detroit Startup Week. This was where middle and high school kids came from all over Detroit to learn and practice a bit of basic programming. This was definitely one of my favorite experiences. I think just getting yourself to think in the way that programming requires helped me through a lot of my courses in college. I’ve always felt that getting kids exposed to that kind of thinking early on can help humanize the world of tech, making it less of a mystery. It takes this nebulous idea of code and programming and turns it into something you can be a part of and maybe even turn into a career.
Early on in the program, using Jason’s wildly complicated project team name generator, we were split up and assigned to teams to create a 5-week long project. As a collective cohort, we spat out ideas for about half an hour and generated close to 100 possibilities for capstone projects. My team (called ‘Bedeviling Horse’ created by Jason’s name generator) decided to simulate the person most integral to the program, Sam Ging. Working through iteration after iteration of failed chatbots in ruby, we settled on using Google’s Dialogflow for the chatbot interface and moved on to designing the UI.
One theme that we noticed pretty early on across groups was the tendency to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and waste time coding components of the project that could have more easily been pulled from pre-existing sources.
Over the next couple of weeks, we saw some of the seemingly crazy ideas from our list come to life. There was the food app that would give you recipes based on whatever you had in your house at the time, the Octopi Scheduler, the Gingulator, and of course the Alexa-powered toasted that posed to an Instagram-like app to build community around toast. We saw bread burn, the Gingulator spaz out and say the same words on an infinite loop, and struggles with Twilio but in the end, each group had a somewhat-polished final project to present on the final day.
When we weren’t coding or arguing over Poptart preferences, we bonded over spicy ramen and exploring local coffee shops; getting to know each other and discussing our goals for the future.
Hacker Fellows gave us the opportunity to explore Detroit and become more familiar with the rapidly growing startup culture, passion and drive that characterizes the city. Growing up in Dayton, OH which itself was once run by the automotive titans many of whom left once the recession hit, I hadn’t really seen positive representations of Detroit in the media.
Getting to see the dedication Detroiters have to their city and communities was amazing. Speaker after speaker mentioned upcoming opportunities in the area: conferences, organizations, startup ideas and more. Several of the fellows from the Detroit area educated the others on local history and movements popping up across the city and after the first day, it was unquestionable that the perception I grew up with couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The same went for my expectations for the program. Where I expected a tough, straight-lace group who wanted to do nothing but code 98.146% of the time, I found a welcoming, constantly-learning group of people willing to help each other out with programming tips and tricks as well as shared wisdom that I feel has prepared me to take on the responsibilities demanded by my new role.