Campus Life the first year

So how exactly do I make an app?

A comp sci-illiterate attends HackMIT

It might be exaggeration on my part to say that I’m wholly illiterate, but compared to the ever-expanding language of computers, my programming experience pretty much equates to knowing the alphabet. Two Saturdays ago, equipped with a somewhat functioning knowledge of command prompt and for loops, I entered the cavernous hub of ingenuity that is HackMIT.

For the entire week leading up to the hackathon, I would cringe every time I heard someone discussing coding, apps, or complicated math-y things I’d never heard of — anything related to comp sci. MIT being MIT, I was cringing left and right; such conversations inevitably reminded me of how little I knew, and how utterly unprepared I was.

Yet at the same time, I was terribly excited. I’d had an idea for an app filed away in my brain for a while, and from time to time I’d fantasize about realizing it. The thought of being able to finally turn my thoughts into a working program had me quite giddy.

This dichotomy of feelings lasted all the way through HackMIT. I discovered that I indeed knew very little — certainly insufficient to realize my app idea. My two teammates, though both more proficient than I was, had not the wherewithal to make it either. And it didn’t help that a mentor walking around told us that our app was neither particularly original nor realistically feasible. We decided to ignore him and plough on ahead. From then on it was a long day and night of mixed confusion, frustration, camaraderie, and delight.

There is nothing quite like the euphoria you get from seeing an app that you helped create work for the first time after many dark hours of error messages. This moment came close to the end of the hacking period, and it itself made all the challenges that came before entirely worth it.

And HackMIT provided much more beyond that: I bonded with a team of people I’d never met before; I pitched our admittedly simple app to company reps as if it was a real product, and basked in the warming glow of reciprocated enthusiasm. As for our early skeptic, we never did meet him again.

Our app would still be stuck in Python purgatory if it were not for the devoted help of other mentors, who spent hours at a time not only fixing our programming problems but explaining them thoroughly so that I could actually build my knowledge and experience.

Of even greater help was a friend who, by way of Skype, basically became the fourth member of our team. He gave us enough information to get us started, but not so much that we could not call the project our own. There is no need to shy away from aid at HackMIT; only make sure that you are receiving the right kind.

I saw many different approaches to HackMIT among the myriad participants. There were those who were definitely in it to win it, but there were also many who, like my team, were not. The most relaxed approach consisted of not really competing, but rather going around lending a hand here and there, chatting with different teams, going to company talks, and, indispensably, collecting free swag and eating free food — and everyone who did it had an absolute blast.

I personally chose a middle road: I was focused on accomplishing my goal, but not so singularly as to disavow frivolity. In the middle of our coding session, I decided to borrow a Synaptics sensor — not because I planned on incorporating it into the project, but because who knew when else I’d get to play around with one?

In essence, I think that HackMIT is something of a microcosm of MIT as a whole. It’s intimidating, it’s sometimes hard to get through, but you’ll come through having met the greatest people and passing the most amazing time. So don’t be afraid to dive into programming culture at the deep end that is hacking. You’ll splutter and flounder, but you’ll surface knowing how to swim.

Vivian Zhong is a member of the Class of 2019.