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Hacking for (mostly) Fun and (a little) Profit—How I Got into Programming through Hackathons

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Jennie Lamere, the now-18-year-old winner of Hill Holliday's TVnext Hack, describes how she got into computer programming, the challenge of taking programming classes at an all-girls school, and the events that led to her create Twivo—the hack that got her an internship at Twitter.
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I live in New Hampshire, so hiking in the White Mountains has always been a hobby of mine. My Dad and I go as often as we can. While the topics of our conversations change, we inevitably talk about his work. My Dad works at The Echonest, a company whose product is their music API. My Dad was always going to music hackathons. (Hackathons are not when people try to break into computers, but rather when people try to develop new apps—75 to 200 people working nonstop for 24 hours to bring their ideas to life.) As we hiked, my Dad would tell me about his latest hack. One hike, he asked me for ideas. Together, we came up with the idea for what would soon be known as Jennie’s Ultimate Roadtrip. The user inputs artists and the start and end location, and receives a map of a tour he should take based on where artists are touring. I ended up tagging along with my Dad and helped him out with the hack. Granted, he did most of the work, but being at the event and playing around with HTML definitely sparked an interest.

From there, I started taking some classes in computer science. Although they weren’t exactly challenging, they kept me interested, and I built a solid foundation in programming. I went to an all-girls school, so finding computer science classes to take was difficult. The lack of classes and the lack of interest by other girls in the school made it challenging for me to learn about coding in school. I ended up taking an online class in computer science this year. There’s always a lot of talk about what people can do to get girls interested in programming, which is why I found it weird that there weren’t more resources at my school. I had to go to a nearby coed school to be on a FIRST Robotics team. At my graduation, awards were presented to students in all subjects, such as art, science, history and music—but there was no award for computer classes. Overall, I found that I wasn’t able to learn what I felt I needed to know at school, which is why I hacked instead.

In all, I’ve gone to five hackathons. It’s at these events that I was able to develop the skills needed to be a computer programmer. Each time I attend I learn a new skill—JavaScript and APIs were foreign concepts to me before hackathons. Just this year, I started taking hackathons more seriously. I went to the Music Hack Day in Boston in November with my friend Barbara Duckworth. It was her first hackathon, and my first one working without my Dad. The first few hours were pretty rough, but once we got into it, time flew by. We only knew how to code in Java, but ended up writing in JavaScript. Our hack was called High Five Hero, and used a tool called MaKey MaKey to add a soundtrack to hand clapping games. Although it didn’t even compare to some of the other hacks, it wasn’t too shabby for our first hack.

More importantly, this hackathon got Barbie and I excited about programming. Although music hackathons were the only ones we had ever gone to, we decided to sign up for the Tufts Hackathon in February. We made a hack called Cinemusic (code viewable at https://github.com/jlamere/cinemusic) written in Java. Although it was challenging, Barbie and I had gotten the hang of working together. The user inputs music artists, and then receives movies he should watch based on the soundtrack. After that hackathon, where we received the Rookie Award, I figured that would be the last hackathon of the year.

A few months later, my Dad started talking to me about the Hill Holliday TVNext Hackathon. We started talking about different hacks he could do, which led him to tell me that I should sign up. I thought about it for a few days, but ultimately decided to sign up. The day before, we were still brainstorming. As we started talking about Twitter, I came up with the idea that would hide Tweets of a TV show until the user is ready to watch them, at which point they would stream down, as if the Tweets were live. As we talked about the app, I realized my Dad expected me to work on my own. This made me pretty nervous, as I had never worked on my own before. I had no idea how to do the app, but I thought it would give it a try anyway.

The hackathon itself was very nice. It was well planned and had beautiful views. It was the usual hackathon scene—lots of guys who look at least ten years older than me. There were a few other girls, but I don’t think any of them ended up presenting. The other hackers were all super friendly and were eager to start their projects. This hackathon was a little different than most. First of all, the stakes were much bigger than normal, as there were big prizes. Second, there were categories in which people competed. The following day the category winners competed against each other for the grand prize.

My hack, which I decided to call Twivo, was probably the shortest hack I’ve ever written. It was nice to be able to sit next to my Dad, who was able to help me with a few obstacles that were unfamiliar to me. I used a tool called Greasemonkey, which was super helpful, but also caused a few unexpected problems. All in all, I was able to get a fairly decent night of sleep—something unusual at hackathons. The next day, I would have to present in front of other hackers and a panel of judges. I much prefer to sit behind a computer, not stand in front of a large group, so I was pretty nervous. When I’m that nervous my hands start shaking, which makes a job like using a computer very difficult, so I even pre-typed what I needed to present. Then, I practiced and practiced. Finally, it was my turn to present. I said everything that I knew needed to be said, and thought that others reacted nicely to my hack. Then, it was time for the judges to ask questions. Again, I thought I did well enough to possibly win my category. I wanted to win the Klout prize for using their API in my hack. I ended up winning the Mashery prize as well. Finally, I won my category prize. I was super pumped—I wasn’t even expecting to be a contender for that prize. It was completely amazing.

The next day, I got to go in front of another panel at the Hill Holliday TVNext Summit. This time, I was more confident in my hack, after receiving some positive feedback. Again, I won. It was crazy to see the live voting go down, especially because I was winning. Because all of the hacks were awesome, we all got a $2,500 prize! As I was eating dinner with my Dad that night, he said “Everything is crazy right now, but trust me, it will all die down in about three days.” Boy, was he wrong.

The media slowly picked up on my story. First there was the story on Evolver.FM. Then, it slowly got picked up by other media. A week or two later, things got crazy. I was doing over 10 interviews a day, there were camera crews coming to my house, and here I was just trying to graduate high school. In all, I have been on the BBC, LA Times, Good Morning America and Fox News, to name a few. Originally, I was going to work at a summer camp as a junior counselor. Now, I’m preparing to start at Twitter in Boston as an intern. My fifteen minutes of fame have been absolutely crazy. I never would have expected that ten hours of code could have led to all of this. While I’ve enjoyed it all, I am excited to enjoy my time at Twitter this summer, and then start at Rochester Institute of Technology, for Software Engineering.

For more articles and resources, visit our Women in Technology page.

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