Two years ago, I sat in what is now Mr. Peden’s office. Tyler sat to the right of me, and Mr. Treadwell sat in front. I was slumped in my chair, hands on my cheeks with my elbows on the table. My hair was messy−messier than usual. We all sat there in silence−avoiding eye contact. I stared at the floor, Tyler at the ceiling, and Mr. Treadwell at his computer with Hack HSV’s statistics on the screen.
We didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know it at the time, but ultimately, this experience would teach me that it is important to stay true to my vision, despite the challenges that need to be overcome.
Most of you know the story of how Tyler and I created Alabama’s first high school hackathon, which is just a fancy way of saying computer coding marathon, that we called Hack HSV. For those of you who are not familiar with the story, I first learned about these type of events my sophomore year when I attended one myself for three nights in a Masonic Temple in Michigan. After returning from the Michigan hackathon, I was eager to bring a similar event to Alabama. At the inaugural Hack HSV, the cafeteria here held 41 high school students.
However, what most of you don’t know, is that Hack HSV almost never happened. It wasn’t just one moment, though, that derailed the entire event. There were multiple challenges, and we had to face them all simultaneously.
Starting at the end of my freshman year, through sophomore year, Tyler and I worked tirelessly on this project, and it consumed the majority of our time both in and outside of the School. We missed soccer practices to meet with companies, hoping to get sponsorships. The cubicles in the corner of the library became a second home to me as I spent every free period hunched over my laptop, responding to emails, designing flyers, and coding the website.
While vacations were time off for everyone to relax and unwind, my vacations gave me the extra time needed to work and kickstart this event. At one point, I vividly remember breaking down in the car while my parents were driving me to the beach for our Spring Break soccer trip, out of the sheer level of stress caused by the amount of work planning this event caused.
The most frustrating and disappointing part was that at the end of the 11-month journey, there was hardly any work to show for all this effort. Sure, we had a website running and we had a venue locked down. However, all of this seemed inconsequential. The dozens of emails we had sent to companies ended in some candid responses saying they weren’t interested, or more typically, no response.
Two weeks before the event was supposed to take place, we opened up the signup form to see how many people had signed up for our event, and we were greeted with just 11 students. We had only the money we received from a YLC grant, we had a general outline that we naively called a solid plan, and for 12 hours, 11 students were going to populate the commons of Randolph.
At the same time as we were dealing with these setbacks, we learned that NASA was putting on a hackathon of their own in Huntsville. It was open to the general public, not just high school students, it was 24 hours instead of our 12, was space-themed just like ours, and was scheduled to take place only a week after ours. They had a $6,000 budget for food alone−we had a budget of zero - and they had $20,000 for prizes, while we had just a couple of hundred. I knew NASA’s figures, because Tyler and I had been asked to join their team. While doing so would have provided a great opportunity to see firsthand how professionals plan events, it also would have meant abandoning our own hackathon.
This brings us back to that day that Mr. Treadwell, Tyler, and I sat together motionless. Tyler and I discussed for many hours what the next decision would be. Tyler wanted to postpone Hack HSV for six months, and at the time, I wanted to keep moving forward with the event. Logically, it made more sense to push it back. We had little time, few resources, a tiny budget, and very few participants. Then NASA comes along with a possible lifeline, and says this whole burden can be lifted off our shoulders if we decided to work them instead.
There a lot of people out there whose life dream is to work with NASA on a project, and it was certainly a dream of mine, but as I sat in Mr. Treadwell’s office, I just wanted to pursue our own event. Maybe it was the inherent pride that comes with creating something from the ground up, a.k.a. my ego. While this did play a part, the real deciding factor was when I thought about why we originally created this competition.
Our goal was to unite Alabama’s community of coders, however small that community might be. I wanted other people my age to be able to interact with like-minded students, just like I had in Michigan. By pushing our hackathon back or canceling it altogether, we would be letting down those 11 students who had signed up. As a result, we decided to continue.
Our goal was to unite Alabama’s community of coders.
I’m not giving this speech today to talk about how I was the big man who said “no” to NASA or how we managed to pull this event off. I tell you this to encourage you, in whatever situation you may find yourself, to stick to your vision and let your moral compass direct you; do what you know to be right.
Had I not listened to my gut instinct, who knows if Hack HSV would have ever happened? High school students wouldn’t have met rocket scientists in Alabama, they wouldn’t have stepped out of their comfort zone as they met other students, and they wouldn’t have proved that the Silicon Valley isn’t the only valley in this country that boasts technological innovation. Personally, I wouldn’t have matured as a creator or as a problem-solver, and I wouldn't have learned what I see as a really important lesson.