In 2016 I was looking for an online coding bootcamp. I wanted on that would allow me to keep my full-time job at the time as a Web Developer and Designer, but at the same time help me bring my skills as a Full Stack Developer up to date.

Diving into the tech community

After a lot of research, I found freeCodeCamp, an online coding program, and I started to work on the Curriculum and projects for the Certifications.

This exciting adventure helped me, in 2018, make the decision to start my remote freelance career and dedicate more time to completing the projects for the last certifications on freeCodeCamp.

I started to attend local Meetups to meet other developers and share the same passion for coding. But there was something more that I wanted to peruse: a Hackathon. When FreeCodeCamp announced the online Hackathon in 2018, I just jumped in. Although that was my first experience and my team didn’t win any prizes, I decided to find other Hackathons in my area to repeat the experience.

Hackathons give you that kind of energy that you can’t explain to others. You get to work for 24 hours with a team you met a few minutes before and get to create wonderful projects.

When I found that there was Hack Upstate XIII organized in my area, I didn’t think twice and I signed up right away. I waited impatiently every day for the big day to come.

Hack Upstate XIII (Source: Jesse Peplinski, 2019)

In the meantime, the more you look around the more you see stuff you never saw before. I discovered Albany Can Code, a local coding bootcamp that has Front End and Back End Developer classes. I joined to fulfill my dream to go back to college at least in a different sort of way.

I remember that everything happened so fast in my life that in no time I was doing everything I loved. I had a remote career that allowed me to work my own hours and study to get my certifications. I got the chance to work with a team of classmates in projects using Scrum as an Agile environment. The first projects for graduation were individual projects but the last projects were team projects.

During the class, we went from React Hooks — a hot topic — to React Native just a few weeks before the Hackathon. We worked on a few small projects, nothing fancy. Our instructors introduced us to Expo.io and the particulars of React Native that differentiate it from React.

Time was going by so fast, and I got involved more and more in coding meetups. One situation brings another one, and I was asked to teach Flutter at Google Developer Group of Capital Region. Shortly after I got nominated as a Women Techmakers Ambassador for the same chapter (Capital Region).

In the meantime, my freelance business started to grow. I was working on a few projects that gave me time to attend my coding bootcamp and organize the Google Developer Group CodeLabs and StudyJams though the Meetup Group.

I started to find myself so busy in all kind of activities that I found it difficult to take in more.

The Hackathon

The day before my Hackathon I just had time to pack some stuff I needed for the 48 hours I would be away from home. My husband supported every single decision of mine and made it easier on me to be part of all this craziness.

I arrived at the Hackathon and I had to find a team to join. I hoped to find a project that I could contribute to.

Finding a team

I only knew one girl that I met few weeks before that was going to go to the Hackathon. I was hoping to make a team with her, but when we came in I couldn’t find her in the crowd. The opening ceremony started and I was getting nervous because I didn’t have a team yet and they were already presenting the projects.

I had few chances to find a team before the ceremony, when I heard someone saying that they needed a Graphic and Web Designer. So I introduced myself and suggested that we could form a team. I found out that they were companies looking for talent and they asked me to contact them after the competition. That was nice because I am always open to joining a remote team to work as a Full Stack Developer no matter if in the Front End or the Back-End.

Listening to all the great ideas the groups were putting on the table I was thinking that I might need to work alone on a project. I figured I’d better start to coming up with some ideas.

All of a sudden I heard one of the last groups presenting say that they were looking for a Designer, since they had all the other parts of the team already formed. I didn’t even hear very well what they were going to work on, and everyone started to walk away from the room to find a spot to start to code.

I ran after the two guys that presented their project and introduced myself and told them that I was a Designer and I could join their team. We agreed and we headed to the office area to find a spot for us. We started all to talk about the project we would develop and which of the API’s in the competition we would use.

The tech

I was really hoping to work on a React project since I had some experience with projects I worked on for freeCodeCamp and the Albany Can Code bootcamp. I got hit by a hammer when I heard we would be working on a React Native project — but no one knew React Native. Some guys knew React like I did, and they decided to take care of the Front End functionality that I was hoping to work on. Some other guys knew Python and they were taking care of the Back End using Heroku and a Raspberry Pi to host the server and connect it to the API.

We were going to build an app called Parking Assistant that makes parking easier for drivers in the city by solving two types of problems: 1) managing long-term street parking and 2) addressing crime risks in the immediate area of the parking location.

Demo of “Parking Assistant” that help you know where it’s safe to park your car. (Source: STAE, 2019)

Learning on the fly

I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I found out that I was supposed to take care of the React Native part. I didn’t know what to say. I proposed to the team that we use Expo.io to test our mobile app since I had some experience with it.

A few minutes later I was in front of a whiteboard making sketches of an app that I didn’t have any idea how to build. My team was making plans on how to break the process down into steps and distribute the work to be done between us.

Inside me, I was getting very nervous and found it difficult to concentrate. We finished making plans and deciding what everyone would do. We then started our own adventures and research. Somehow I didn’t pull myself out of this team and project — but I didn’t want to disappoint them and create a disaster.

The clock was ticking I was talking with the team asking questions and answering others to see how to coordinate our work. All the code I was writing was not working and I was not able to make much progress. I was reading the documentation because I knew that React Native is different than React. I was not using HTML and CSS for the Design part but had a different kind of approach that I needed first to get familiar with.

I got to build a very simple home page for our app with a title and a button and customize it. I made it answer the gestures using the React code that I was more familiar with. React Native was for sure a challenge and the 24 hours we had in our hands to build our app was not enough to get to know all the ins and outs of the language.

That was the first step and gave me more confidence in me. In class, we did some staff in React Native but nothing I needed for my app, so I was on my own.

Now I had to build a compass feature to use in the next component when clicking the button on the homepage. It was not easy, and even though it was getting late into the night we continued our work. After a while, I got to work the Compass and the complexity behind it. We integrated the code step by step one with another and moved over to the next step so we got to see progress and the app taking shape. I felt much better after completing this part of the mission.

Next on my list, I had to build a timer that would show to the user the time left until they needed to move their car to avoid a ticket. I found a library to use but it took me some time to figure out how to customize it. And even though I was following their instructions, it was not working the way I wanted it to work. At least I had the functionality we needed for the app, but I didn’t have too much time to play with it — we needed to add the component to the app so we could test the Compass and get the timer to work and get alerts as a result of using the API.

We started to test the app in the office by choosing points on the map near us and trying to point the compass the way it made sense to make the app work. But it didn’t work correctly.

We had to go out of the building on the street in the night to test the app. There were many things to overcome and work on after our testing. Other research and code debugging and so on. We were getting there and it was almost morning when all of us got some sleep in our sleeping bags on the floors all over the offices. Some people were from the area went home to sleep, lucky them! You couldn’t really sleep but just lying down and trying to close your eyes made you feel a little bit less exhausted. Our minds for sure would not shut off and would keep thinking of ideas to better our project.

After a while, all of our team got together and got to prepare a presentation. We made some slides, a video demo, and so on.

The hosts and the sponsors got us food and drinks for the whole time to get us to concentrate on our mission to deliver innovative projects.

How our hard work paid off

Everyone got ready to present the projects and we started to feel very good about our project and proud somehow. I was hoping in my heart to win at least a prize. The projects were one more innovative than the other, one more interesting than the other. It was not easy for the judges to decide and I got to like some of the projects in the competition myself. But I didn’t lose my focus. I came with the hope to build something but now I was confident and looking to win something.

The judges made their decision and silence came back in my mind and soul, my heart was beating slowly. All of the sudden I heard our app name: Parking Assistant won the Best Use of Stae’s API using a Syracuse Dataset prize. I was screaming inside my brain and threw my hands in the air and congratulated my team. As the list of prizes was getting smaller and smaller and nearer to the top and the Gran Prize, I heard again our app name. We won the First Runner-up prize! This time I started to scream from real from happiness.

It was not for the money, because we were a 7-person team — unusual for this kind of competition were the teams are between 2–5 or so people. The 2 prizes put together we had to divide between us, but we got to bring home $100 each. That was nice to have in our wallets, but the real joy was the fact that others appreciated our project.

The Parking Assistant hack team (Source: Jesse Peplinski, 2019)

How the Hackathon changed my life

When I got home I started to share our success with relatives, friends, colleagues and social networks. The feeling was great, and I saw people start to react to my posts not only on Facebook but on LinkedIn and Twitter also, which are more professional networks.

I turned back to my normal life to organize what I started before the Hackathon: a monthly Flutter Meetup Study Jam. I also celebrated International Women’s Day’19 with a fantastic group of women speakers and a conference room full of almost 50 women and men.

International Women’s Day Celebration (IWD’19) — Women Techmakers and GDG Capital Region

A few days later after the Hackathon, we got contacted by the Stae API staff to interview us about our experience working together on the project. It was nice to meet my team again, this time online. Everyone shared their experiences and future intentions related to our project.

The outcome of the Hackathon was that all of the sudden I got to talk with people more and I become more interested in the experience and my team winning a project at the Hackathon. Not to mention that I got to talk with businesses interested in working on great projects who wanted to get me involved.

I think all of us should consider participating at Hackathons online and in person. It gives you the opportunity to show the world the skills you’ve gained as a self-taught Developer, and your ability to work with a team that you just met to create fully functional and innovative products. Even for those that didn’t win a prize, they still created very interesting apps. We all interacted with them and had fun together, and we connected to work on new projects or open new startup businesses.

Also, before I finished writing this article for you, I got my invitation to the North America GDG Academy at the Google Boulder Office on July 12–13th.

Going out there to attend Meetups and organizing Codelabs and events dedicated to tech put me in contact with many businesses and developers in my community. All of this made my business grow, which would not have happened if I was sitting at my desk in my home office looking for new projects to work on. You get recommendations from people around you that you just met about new projects you can join. Things start to happen to you just by being in the right place at the right time.

So to all of you, I would like to say: get out there and change the world! Even if you think you can’t do it now, if you don’t try it you will never know the outcome. The whole world is waiting for your change and innovation!

Happy Hacking!