Hacking the Way to a Better Future: How Major League Hacking is Using Technology for Good, One Student at a Time
When you think of hacking, you might still think of the old stereotype of a pallid, antisocial computer genius wearing a hooded sweatshirt while trying to break down firewalls and access confidential government secrets. Take, for example, Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Or Rami Malek’s character, Elliot Alderson, in Mr. Robot. It’s clear from the introduction of each “hacker” character that they don’t get out much, and “teamwork” might not be a skill they put on their resumes.
But the emergence of hackathons has turned the connotation of a “hacker” on its head, re-framing unparalleled technical prowess as a tool for good and “hacking” as a group activity.
Amongst the many hackathon organizations out there today is Major League Hacking, “the official student hackathon league,” according to their website. Major League Hacking (or MLH for short), aims to inspire students through the many ways they can change the world with technology, turning coding and product development into a fun, game-like team activity and building a community around honing these technological skills.
So what inspired the creation of Major League Hacking? And how are they fostering hands-on learning for students today? To find out, we interviewed Jonathan Gottfried, co-founder of Major League Hacking.
Play the podcast episode above, or download it on iTunes to learn more.
Hannah Nyren: [00:00:01] This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I am speaking with…
John Gottfried: [00:00:03] John Gottfried, one of the co-founders of Major League Hacking.
John Gottfried: [00:00:07] So tell me about Major League Hacking. Where did it all begin? What inspired you to start this company?
John Gottfried: [00:00:13] Major League Hacking started in, I believe August 2013. I founded it with Mike Swift, who is our CEO. And we both kind of found ourselves and made our career as out of hacker communities. I was working as a developer evangelist at Twilio. Swift was working as a developer evangelist at SendGrid. And you know a huge part of our lives, socially and professionally, was building these technical communities — especially with students. And so we quit our jobs at some point to join — to start MLH. And really our mission from the beginning has been to help students learn technology in a novel way by creating community around it on campus. And, you know we’ve grown quite a bit since those early days.
Hannah Nyren: [00:01:05] So in a couple of sentences, can you boil down what it is that you do?
John Gottfried: [00:01:10] So we call ourselves the official student hackathon league. And honestly that’s what most students know us for. We support about 250 university and high school hackathons with about 75,000 participants every single year. Those events take place all across North America and Europe. So it’s becoming a pretty ubiquitous part of, you know, the lives of many C.S. students and people in other disciplines who are really interested in technology. But beyond that we also do more kind of structured education in the form of our MLH local host program which gives students curriculum and activities to teach to their fellow students, so it’s peer learning. And then we also run conferences for people who build technical communities on campus. So everything is focused around tech education and learning. But most people know us for our hackathons.
Hannah Nyren: [00:02:04] So uhh, where have you done hackathons, so far?
John Gottfried: [00:02:07] All over the place. We’ve supported maybe 700 hackathons. And you know during the semester, we have anywhere from three to 15 going on simultaneously every single weekend. So, there’s been a lot. I honestly don’t remember them all. Some of the places we’ve had we’ve got events all over North America and Europe. We have a really big presence in Mexico. There’s a lot of Mexican universities that are really interested in programming and learning and tech. And uhh, you know, we’ve gone everywhere from like Bordeaux and France all the way to Mississippi to Mexico and in between.
Hannah Nyren: [00:02:48] So tell me a little bit about kind of where you’re going next with major league hacking. I know you guys have grown a lot in the past couple of years and you’re doing a lot. But what’s next?
John Gottfried: [00:03:04] Yeah, our big initiative right now is the MLH local host program that I mentioned earlier. We realized that, you know, we interact with a huge percentage of students who are studying CS on campus at our hackathons. And MLH local host gives us an opportunity to help them, you know, on their week nights, learn new skills, connect with employers, and ultimately, you know, have a community that continues after the weekend. And so, you know, we partner with companies like cockroach labs and others to build technical curriculum that students can teach to each other. And what we’ve found is through that model, you’re learning something from someone who has recently learned it themselves. And has much more context around what it takes to actually do that thing when you’re starting from nothing. And that has proven to be really, really effective way for people to learn technical skills. Because, you know, in all likelihood your CS professors haven’t actually worked in the industry in 20 years.
Hannah Nyren: [00:04:07] Right.
John Gottfried: [00:04:08] And so students love it. And honestly companies love it too because it’s an easy way for them distribute, you know, technical education across a lot of campuses.
Hannah Nyren: [00:04:19] What’s your business model? How can you afford to keep going? It seems like a very philanthropic enterprise, but you have to have some sort of business model even if you’re just trying to keep the people who work there.
John Gottfried: [00:04:31] MLH is a B-Corp. B-Corps are a type of mission driven for-profit company. So what that means is our mission as a company is to empower hackers. But the way we do that is by essentially selling sponsorships. So we’ll be partnering with companies that are either looking to hire really talented technical students, or who are looking to teach them about the technology that they have like you know something like AWS. And we help them reach all of those students across hundreds of different events because most companies don’t have that kind of internal like event marketing workforce.
John Gottfried: [00:05:10] You know that’s been really mutually beneficial for the companies and the students, right? Because students get to learn technologies that they would never touch in the classroom, that are actually relevant in like the tech industry and companies get this distribution channel that really never existed before, that you know exposes people to what they’re working on. And, you know, we never require anyone to use specific technologies, but we do give them promo codes and resources to get on.
Hannah Nyren: [00:05:40] That’s a really good idea. I think that that could be very useful especially with the demand for those computing skills continuously increases.
Hannah Nyren: [00:05:50] So tell me a little bit about what you were doing at the Forbes Under 30 Summit. You and your co-founder were both on the list and you were leading the hackathon.
Hannah Nyren: [00:06:02] So tell me about how that all came to pass, and what you did at this hackathon this year.
John Gottfried: [00:06:08] This is the second year we’ve partnered with Forbes on their hack day. The first year, we actually weren’t on the Under 30 list yet. We had just gotten introduced to them through one of our partners, General Catalyst, and Rough Draft ventures. And you know it was a really good effect because they’re working with the same audience we are. A ton of our students are going to the Under 30 summit, and the hack day is for a good cause. You know this year it was around disaster recovery or recovery and relief, and last year it was around kind of civic tech issues. And you know after we were named to the list for 2017 in the education category, Forbes, you know, reached out to us about continuing the partnership.
John Gottfried: [00:06:51] You know we basically worked with them as a consultant the entire time they were planning that hack day, to make sure it was, you know going to be a good event, going to be beneficial to hackers, and you know going to be something that created something of value. And you know I’m really happy with how both of them turned out. I think it’s a different model than most of our hackathons, which are typically 24 to 36 hours. You know it’s really valuable experience for people to get to work with experts in these industries that they haven’t been exposed to before.
Hannah Nyren: [00:07:21] So you did it last year as well. We ordered them last year. So you think the results varied this year from last year? Did you see any differences I know of a different subject but do you think there was more of an output less of an output this year compared to last year.
John Gottfried: [00:07:39] Obviously, it is a very different problem set. But I think that the the main difference was that the solutions I saw this year had a little bit more technical underpinning. That was one of our takeaways from the first year, is that we needed more people with that skillset to come in and be part of this. And so everything I saw had — you know, if not a kind of planned-out roadmap of how to build it — It had something that was informing, you know, what the solution was. So is this tech possible? Does it exist already? Is there some recent innovation that will enable a better solution than has existed before?
John Gottfried: [00:08:17] All of those things were taken into account this year, and it created really really cool proposals that, you know, hopefully some of them get worked on in the future because this is only growing area of concern in terms of using technology to help disaster recovery.
Hannah Nyren: [00:08:33] Do you think that, you know, given the amount of time that they had what was it eight hours — not even — five hours? Do you think that people are able to produce enough in this period of time? Do you think the 24 hour model is better? Would you consider doing potentially a 3-day model or something of that sort to get more thought-through results.
John Gottfried: [00:08:57] So in the first six hours of a hackathon, that’s typically when a team gets together, plans out their project, plans out kind of a roadmap for what they’re going to build and figures out what their solution is. And that’s really what happened in the scope of this hack day. So I think that you’d get like basically all the work you can without really writing code yet. You know, personally, I would love to see a longer Hack Day, and I think that that would make a great addition to the conference. I haven’t really talked to anyone at Forbes about that yet. But I think that it would be really cool to see people building actual technical solutions to this kind of thing.
John Gottfried: [00:09:35] You know, it’s a different experience. Like one of them is really more focused on research and expertise, and working with people in the industry to leverage their knowledge about different problems. And the other one is about, you know, building a proof of concept very quickly based on your own problems. So I don’t think that one is inherently better than the other. But you know, I would love to at least try a longer event if that’s possible. That would be really cool.
Hannah Nyren: [00:10:02] Well, thanks for speaking with me today, John. I learned a lot about Major League Hacking, and I can’t wait to see what you guys do next.
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT FOR TAYLOR CULLIVER
Hannah Nyren: [00:00:00] This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I’m speaking with Taylor Culliver from Forbes Media. Hi Taylor. How’s it going?
Taylor Culliver: [00:00:07] Great, how are you?
Hannah Nyren: [00:00:08] Good. So I’m here today at the Under 30 Summit hackathon. So tell me a little bit about this hackathon and why you have it as part of the Under 30 Summit.
Taylor Culliver: [00:00:18] Yeah. So every Wednesday to kind of top off the Under 30 Summit and put a, put a lid on it, we do a service day which has multiple components all around the city. Our hackathon is actually a hackathon for good. And so we always partner with a sponsor or corporation who basically challenges or puts forth a challenge for, for our attendees to try and help solve some kind of social issue through technology. So we do it as a way to try and get people geared around giving back. We actually, you know, we love — we absolutely love — coming into Boston and having our event here. We like to give back to the city as much as we can. We like to think, you know, locally and globally. It’s what the Under 30 Summit is kind of all about. How can we use our talents to make the world a better place? And so, the hackathon is a great way to kind of put a cap on everything that we’ve done for the past three days.
Hannah Nyren: [00:01:06] And so what was the project this year. What was the problem that they were trying to solve?
Taylor Culliver: [00:01:10] Yeah. So JP Morgan Chase, who was our partner, they were really interested in the recent hurricanes and natural disasters, earthquakes, and everything going on throughout the past couple of months in disaster relief and recovery. And so, they challenged the attendees to come up with technological solutions to make disaster relief and recovery more efficient and more accessible in ways that will hopefully benefit people who go through these natural disasters year in and year out.
Hannah Nyren: [00:01:38] And who are the attendees at this particular event?
Taylor Culliver: [00:01:41] So at this particular event, we brought in our Under 30 Scholars. So the Under 30 Scholars program, in its second year, was designed to bring in a diverse pool of students from around the country. So we really focus on the diversity element, which is why you see and why we’re so happy and proud to have such a diverse group of people in the room. And these scholars are juniors, seniors, grad students from different colleges and universities all throughout the country.
Hannah Nyren: [00:02:06] So tell me about who won the competition, and why was their solution the best option for this competition?
Taylor Culliver: [00:02:14] It was this group of guys, mostly from the University of Maryland, one from MIT, who came up with this product called LEH. Why? I don’t know. We never figured out why that was the name. But it was a wrist band in the same way that on a boat you have life jackets or in a plane you have the like the seats that will serve as inflatable devices. They wanted to create a wrist band that was accessible in any home. So that if a natural disaster, if you know what’s going to occur, or if it just happened, you can literally reach up to the closet or the nightstand, grab the wristband, put it on your wrist and it will help first responders recognize where the biggest problem areas are through different sensory technology. The…this group was chosen specifically because of the innovativeness and the out-of-the-box-ness of the idea. A lot of the ideas that we heard today were amazing, really great, and all around making things that already exist more efficient. This was one that we all thought took it to the next level. And kind of came up with something that, you know, most people aren’t even thinking about at this point. And so, and the impact that it can have on communities, we just thought it was going to be the greatest. And so that’s why, that’s why it was chosen.
Hannah Nyren: [00:03:25] So what did you do to create this? And who is behind the creation of this, how many people did it take? And you know, how much effort is Forbes putting in to this doing good project?
Taylor Culliver: [00:03:36] Forbes is all about doing good. We try to weave doing good into everything that we do. Especially with live events, because there’s so many ways of bringing people together and the convening power for that you can really make a difference. And so, for the hackathon specifically, myself, John from Major League Hacking, and Julia from J.P. Morgan Chase really sat down and worked together to kind of come up with all of the structure, the attendee list, who is going to be invited. Everything from start to finish, the three of us worked pretty diligently throughout the past two months to make sure this was a great experience for everyone.
Hannah Nyren: [00:04:11] Well thanks for speaking with me today.
Taylor Culliver: [00:04:12] Thank you.
This past October, at the 2017 Forbes Under 30 Summit, Major League Hacking joined forces with Forbes Media and JP Morgan Chase for a Hackathon for Good. During the hackathon, a group of select students, called Under 30 Scholars, joined together to solve a major problem facing the community today.
This year, the focus was disaster relief. With record-breaking hurricane devastation wreaking havoc across the U.S. and the Caribbean in 2017, it’s no wonder that the orgnanizers thought that solving this problem was crucial to the economic success of the United States.
To learn more about the motivation behind the hackathon and the solutions the Under 30 Scholars brought to the table, we spoke to event organizer Taylor Culliver, from Forbes Media.
Play the podcast episode below, or download it on iTunes to learn more.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.