by Marlo Asis

I entered a hackathon with only 13 days of coding experience. Here is what I learned.

Our team’s project and website / Source: Developers.Vegas

I didn’t know I had entered a hackathon. I had heard the term on a CodeNewbie podcast as someone shared their story. What I remember from that podcast was the recommendation to become part of the community.

So, when I saw a post on the freeCodeCamp Las Vegas Facebook group about StartUp Weekend, it caught my attention.

This event, as the name suggested, focused on starting new businesses by bringing entrepreneurs, designers, and developers together. But, according to my freeCodeCamp account, I only had 13 days of coding under my belt. I commented on the post. Asking if I would benefit from such an event despite my lack of knowledge and experience. Mike Ziethlow, the original poster, replied and said I would benefit, but I’d have to work for it.

So I signed up for what I thought qualified as a meetup.

When I arrived, with all confidence, I walked out of the elevator and proceeded to go in the wrong direction. By the time I found the right room, doubt had set in. Meeting friendly people temporarily set those doubts aside. When I met Mike, we discussed how I could participate in this event.

I explained where I was in the freeCodeCamp curriculum. I had just completed the “tribute page” project.

Mike said groups would likely need someone to make a landing page for their business ideas. That helped put me at ease — at least I would be able to do something.

Mike pitching his idea

Choosing a team

The event officially started and participants pitched their business ideas. There was a lot of good ideas. When it was time to choose a team, I wanted to join a team that would challenge me to actually do something.

But, I didn’t want to be the sole developer on the team.

So, I sought out a team that also recruited more experienced developers. It so happened that Mike’s pitch involved building a website to connect entrepreneurs with local developers in Las Vegas. Naturally, developers joined this team since they had a vested interest in the product. Thus, with 5 developers and 2 business analysts, the Developers.Vegas team was born.

A few things affirmed my decision to join this team.

One was when we first met and were discussing our plans and how to prepare. Mike had mentioned that at some point he would need photos. Hoping to be useful, and having experience in photography, I volunteered. Mike was initially happy to accept my help, but then he said no. He told me that this weekend, I was going to be a developer and that I had work to do. I appreciated that — I was here because I wanted to learn how to code, and Mike recognized and respected that.

The other thing that affirmed my decision to join this team was how we had began the first morning. Mike had started off with an ice breaker. We shared a short bio, our goals for the weekend, and answered some other questions which ranged from silly to deep. This took 2 hours, but it was a worthwhile investment. I think this really brought us together as a team and unified us toward creating a working product.

The Developers.Vegas team

Working on a project

Finally, it was time to work (or not). Before this event, all my coding was done via in-browser editors in freeCodeCamp and CodePen. After talking to the team, I downloaded VS Code.

Then I realized, I didn’t know how any of this works. I had to get setup with git, which is a concept that I think I understand now, but I’m sure I still have a lot to learn. I remember somehow working on the master instead of my branch. It was pretty stressful . I kept thinking about how I let the team down. I was relieved to know that I didn’t ruin everything.

Those were only a few of my woes before I was finally able to get to work. I had a few assignments. They all involved creating and styling the text and button over the banner image. I was glad to take the job because it was something I knew how to do, or at least I could figure out how to do.

I was reminded to ask Google when I got stuck. As easy as it sounds, I think there is a technique to it . I had to make sure I was asking the right question and that the answers I found were the answers I needed. Later, I learned that no one wanted to do the job that I had to do. I don’t know enough to understand why everyone hates CSS.

As the event went on, I was able to learn from the other developers.

I learned a little bit about React and how these components work. We talked through code as we figured out how to abstract data from our database so we can display the data on our site. Actually, I helped solve one of our problems when I wanted to push myself to try something new. In the process, we found out why another teammate had been stuck for much of the day . We were handling something as an array when it was actually an object. This was when I finally felt like I was pulling my weight on the team.

Developer tasks and assignments for the weekend

Final Thoughts

Beyond the technical knowledge and experience, I learned a lot from this event. It emphasized the importance of a good team. Others commented on how close-knit we all seemed despite the fact that only two members knew each other before the event. It was also cool to see that everyone was learning. That’s just the thing. We had created an environment that was open to learning while it was focused on productivity. We would check in with each other to see their progress and see if they needed help. We would switch roles when appropriate.

I think a lot of the team’s success also came from its leadership.

From the onset, Mike was passionate about his project. In the 1 minute he had to present his idea, he spent 30 seconds talking about the idea and 30 seconds talking about who he wanted on his team . “Stone Cold Killers.” And that’s who we became — “SCK developers.”

I think his foresight to invest time into meaningful icebreakers paid off in a big way. He also took a facilitator role. Having someone who understood the end goal, and the means to reach it, overseeing the project contributed to our success.

2nd place! The Developers.Vegas team (AKA Stone Cold Killers) + Judges.

I’m glad I participated in this event. Even though it ended my 13 day coding streak on freeCodeCamp, I’d do it again.

I recommend others try doing the same, but make sure you find a good team. I personally plan on going to more of these events — you can plan on seeing me at the next Las Vegas Demo Day. Until then, I’ll be making my way through the freeCodeCamp curriculum. Maybe then, I will finally understand why everyone hates CSS.