CSpotlight: Hackathon Expert

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?

Computers were always my thing from a very young age. Computer science just seemed natural and there isn't much beyond that. I just grew up enjoying computers and playing with LEGO robots. Before I started at the University of Minnesota, I took a gap year to work as a software engineer at a start-up in New York City. After that, I had to decide to either go into the field and do computer science or do something else. Since Minnesota is local, I could graduate early by transferring credits and I have reciprocity from South Dakota. And the University is in a big city. After living in New York City, I knew that I needed to be here compared to a university in a more rural location.

How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?

From a young age, I was around computers a lot. In fourth grade, I was able to get my hands on a LEGO robot from the Boys and Girls Club. No one knew what to do with it so I figured out how to use it. After that, I started making websites in high school. I started selling them and I used that as a vector to make money. My only laptop was a hand me down Sony VAIO, so I would sell websites online to buy a better computer. That's how I got pushed into computer science. I used to do a ton of web development. Up until last year, I was a full-stack website developer – that's what I did at my job in New York. I was a visiting student at Stanford this past summer and I took the graduate level machine learning class there. Now I am shifting towards machine learning and cooler things on the back-end side, mostly because I feel like I’ve kind of plateaued with web and front-end work.

Congratulations on earning the Hopper-Dean Scholarship! How will this scholarship impact your academic and extracurricular work?

With this scholarship it helps me get through school. I get to pick the interesting work rather than the work that pays the most. It’s nice to have that freedom.

Tell us more about your internship experiences.

I took a gap year after high school to work as a software engineer in New York and was paid way too much for an 18 year old, and burned a lot of money. I was able to live in an apartment in Time Square for $3,300 per month when they normally go for $10K a month. That was a lot of fun. The startup was completely remote, I was just vibing in New York making money. That was at Fiveable. Everyone else on the engineering team, there were about 7 or 10 engineers in total, was at least in their late twenties, early thirties. It was all remote and they paid for my WeWork membership. The summer after my freshman year, I worked as an intern at Robinhood, the stock trading app, on their options platform team. I was in Palo Alto and I had a lot of fun working, meeting new people, taking classes at Stanford, etc. That was my first back-end job and it was a lot of fun working on their really cool tech.

Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved? 

I was somewhat involved in a competitive programming club, but I’ve stopped doing that mostly because I started doing a lot of hackathons. Over the last year, I went to a hackathon every two weeks on average, some weeks it would be like three in a row. There is this informal club that I went to with some friends and we rotate through and go to hackathons. So that's my extracurricular as of now, just an informal club of about 20 or so people that I met at hackathons. There's a seven-week period from September to October where I’ll be traveling every single weekend to a different place. I think about five of the places are hackathons, my calendar is mostly filled with hackathons.

What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?

I think hackathons are one of the best ways to get better at coding efficiently, because most of the time you end up writing more code than you would during an entire semester in college. I think that's really helpful, because the more revisions, the more you write, the more you understand it, the better you get. For a lot of these hackathons I’m not really going for myself, I’m mostly taking a new group of people to help them build up their resumes, build up their skills, or do something cool. Winning the hackathons was important to me to keep the team’s motivation high (and it helps pay for the travel), but it’s not so much about winning as much as it is about the networking and the general nutring of skills for both my teammates and myself. I’m trying hard to get more people involved with things like Minnehack and taking kids outside to other hackathons. I think we’re taking 12 students for Iowa’s hackathon and some more to Georgia Tech for their hackathon as well. But it's really just anyone who is interested in hackathons and wants to go. There were 16 students who went to the LA hackathon in May and I was the organizer for that, and my UMN team took second place at the UCLA hackathon.

Have you been involved with any research on campus?

Not yet, I am hoping to do that this year. As I said, I’ve only been here a year and most of that was spent at hackathons. I really want to do research in human development index, like virtual reality (VR) would be really cool with the Vision Pro coming out. In general, I think that there are a lot of user experience things that need to be innovated in the VR space. I've done a lot of machine learning over the summer and I would like to work more with that.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Find experiences that will benefit your programming skills outside of school. I don't think school work is very reflective of the actual job or what you are expected to do. I think that computer science is an art and a science. You have to gain experience outside of school, especially for practical terms. For most programming jobs, I think you should treat school as an apprenticeship to learn. It's almost as if you're going to a career technical education school and you’re learning how to weld, you need to get experience with welding. If you are trying to be a pilot you need to get a certain amount of hours flying before you can fly solo. I think that just the computer science curriculum is like learning the science behind how an airplane flies, instead of how to fly an airplane. I think if you're brand new, you should find ways to make yourself code as much as possible. It doesn't even matter what the product is, whether it's a hackathon or your own personal website, literally anything.

What are your plans after graduation?

I want to live in New York City – I really enjoyed my time there and that's the only thing I know for sure so far.

Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight in the article?

Last year I won Top-50 Major League Hackers globally. That was cool because that was for overall hackathons and felt like a validation of the time I spent at hackathons and extra curricular activities.