Education is one of developers’ most precious assets. Education makes the difference in adapting to changing tech trends and industry perspectives. What’s more, quality educational environments can also help developers network and find jobs.
With this end in mind, Major League Hacking provides unique and intensive learning experiences that allow participants to rapidly progress from novices to confident developers capable of turning abstract concepts into real products.
This episode dives into the world of hackathons as educational platforms and explores how MLH democratizes the tech industry.
Being from “the last generation that grew up without ubiquitous internet,” Jonathan Gottfried recalls that, as a kid, doing anything fun with computers demanded some level of technical expertise. To this end, he became a self-taught programmer. However, his curiosity and passion for tech halted when he moved to college.
After finding out that computer science had little to do with his notion of programming, Jonathan chose to pursue a degree in History, following his other passion: teaching. Still, by what he describes as “a bizarre series of events,” Jonathan ended up participating in tech community events and got right back into software.
Jonathan’s passion for teaching and his predilection for non-academic learning are at the heart of Major League Hacking (MLH), “the largest community of early career developers” he co-founded. Founded over ten years ago, about 650,000 students have participated in MLH programs, accounting for many developers who integrate the industry today.
While MLH started over under the concept of being a hackathon company, Jonathan later cemented it as an education company whose purpose is to offer “all of the extracurriculars that a developer needs to get ready for a career in the industry.” For this reason, novel and vetted developers can find in MLH a variety of free materials and events to build their skills, such as conferences and programs like hackathons and workshops.
MLH’s evolution, tech trends, and shifting industry perceptions
MLH emerged at a time in which “traditional scripting languages (such as PHP)” were the norm and now-popular web development technologies like React and Angular frameworks were just introduced. On the same note, in these last ten years, Jonathan has seen tech trends arrive, evolve, and disappear, and points out that technology’s hype is cyclical: hype builds momentum, where everyone wants to get involved and learn about a given technology, like web3 and VR; eventually, the excitement wears down, even though the technology might remain.
Jonathan also observes that the community has grown more diverse since MLH first started: “Now it’s something like 45% non-male, which is pretty impressive and still significantly more diverse than any computer science classroom I’ve seen.” Likewise, in recent years he noticed that the industry changed its notion of what makes a good developer or engineer, moving from an exclusively technical perspective to a more holistic view that values other skills and non-linear career paths like his. Employers, says Jonathan, “are much more willing to consider non-traditional paths and look at someone’s skills rather than just where they went to school.”
Achieving authentic connections in a virtual world
Jonathan also points out that the developer community has become globalized, especially since the pandemic. He explains that in MLH virtual events you can see “a developer in Arkansas collaborating with a developer in Bangalore.” Thanks to this experience, students benefit from having different perspectives for building new, different products and “ultimately branch out from whatever their local community looks like.” In this regard, the main thing developers find in MLH events is community: “They meet a group of people with shared interests, with shared values who can support them throughout their career,” says Jonathan, adding that this “support network” is where developers meet friends, but also professional contacts.
But despite the success of virtual events, Jonathan also acknowledges that people still value what only manifests in in-person connections, like “at a conference where you run into someone in the hallway that you met at a conference five years ago and you strike up a conversation.” Besides, people don’t show the same level of excitement and engagement during virtual conferences: “You might as well be putting up a bunch of YouTube videos,” he says.
Consequently, Jonathan has concentrated his efforts on enhancing virtual interactions. MLH’s live synchronous events like weekly virtual hackathons, he says, keep “live interactions going on constantly,” and allow “some of that community building, some of those discussions” present during in-person interactions to manifest. Likewise, MLH uses Discord for their virtual events, taking advantage of Discord’s voice channels that allow for “rambling conversation because people could just have it on in the background while they’re working and chatting about whatever.”
Hackathons: A powerful learning experience for developers of all levels
MLH’s most prominent virtual event is Global Hack Week, a thematic monthly event that includes workshops, tech talks, career sessions, and unique opportunities such as trying out new APIs aimed at beginners and experienced programmers alike. The goal of Global Hack Week is to provide participants with the opportunity to learn new skills, build their portfolios, and connect with other hackers in the MLH community. The event is structured around short challenges and activities designed to be easy to participate in and to provide participants with immediate feedback.
Jonathan says proudly that universities wish they could create these “less prescriptive” learning environments that students create in hackathons, and emphasizes how much developers learn from them:
“The process of taking your own idea, scoping it out, building a working prototype with a group of collaborators is such a powerful pressure cooker learning experience where you can go from being a novice at the beginning of a hackathon to feeling really confident and actually understanding how to go from abstract concept to real product in a really short period of time.”
Although most novice students are not even aware of the difference between front-end and back-end developer roles, Hackathons force developers to wear many hats in a short time, from founders to engineering managers, and also provide them with unique experiences like being early adopters of new platforms. MLH’s “path agnostic view” translates into broad and open-ended programs where students are not limited to fit into a single technical role.
From this same perspective, Jonathan points out that in MLH “it’s not uncommon to see people who are in undergraduate computer science programs, working alongside bootcamp students, working alongside people who are teaching themselves on nights and weekends.” There’s no issue in creating a learning environment with different kinds of people together—Even though they might be learning different things or following different paths they are looking to build a “similar skillset.”
On the other hand, MLH also contemplates developers transitioning in their careers, offering MLH’s fellowship programs designed to help them acquire the skills to, for instance, move from developer to DevOps or SRE or teach competent software engineers system-side technologies like Linux. Jonathan affirms these three-month programs can transform a developer’s career, as they allow students “to qualify for SRE or production engineering internships,” even if they arrive at the program unaware of these roles.
The bottom line
On-campus hackathons, Global Hack Week, and other programs from MLH are free for developers to participate in, as they are founded by corporate partners. MLH offers companies the possibility of sponsoring novel developers, “train them up on your platform if you have a developer API or platform, or even help build a more niche skill set.” In this way, MLH is a great way for companies to engage with early career engineers, regardless of their size or industry. Companies can sponsor MLH events, provide mentors and judges, or donate prizes.
What’s more, companies can help students learn about their company, the problems they’re solving, and why they might want to apply for jobs there. In this way, companies can rely on MLH to build lifelong affinity with the engineers of the future.