30 July 2012

Students, here's why you should do hackNY

Applications for the 2013 hackNY fellow program have opened! Apply here: http://apply.hackny.org. DO IT!

If you want to see the NYC tech scene flourish, share this piece with your networks and encourage any students you know to check out hackNY.

If you’re a student, read this and consider applying for the fellowship when applications open in September. I promise you that it is one of the best things you can do (according to one fellow, “I can CONFIRM that hackNY »»» Google”).

I’m Jesse Pollak, a student at Pomona College. This summer, I was lucky enough to participate in the hackNY fellows program. If you don’t already know, hackNY is a non-profit organization whose mission is to ”to federate the next generation of hackers for the New York innovation community.” In addition to holding twice annual student hackathons, each summer hackNY organizes the hackNY fellows program:

a program that pairs quantitative and computational students with startups which can demonstrate a strong mentoring environment: a problem for a student to work on, a person to mentor them, and a place for them to work. Students enjoy free housing together and a pedagogical lecture series to introduce them to the ins and outs of joining and founding a startup.

On Friday, the program culminated with the hackNY DemoFest (watch here) and on Saturday, I took the bus home for the summer. Accordingly, I thought I’d write a little about my experience, so the internet can know how amazing the program really is.

Living with 30 of the smartest student hackers is unreal

I go to school at Pomona College. There is no doubt that it is a great school, but being a liberal arts college, there isn’t much of a technology scene. Yes, our computer science department is amazing, and it’s merged with the Harvey Mudd department, but the kids I live and interact with on a day to day basis are for the most part not programmers and aren’t that interested in the startup world.

Moving into an apartment with 3 other ‘hackers,’ and having 28 more live down the hall, was a mind-blowing experience. Having 30 programmers within a few steps meant that there was always someone who could help me with a problem or collaborate on a project. And, since these were some smart kids, I felt like I was constantly learning something new. But, don’t trust me on their intelligence and abilities, check out some of the things they built this summer (mostly, in the time they weren’t working a full time job):

Pup
Heads Up Hot Dog
Dablooms
The Facebook Book
Anodyne
Facebook Nanny
Mentor.im
Treasure Hunter
Your Guess Is Wrong
Mr. Schemato Fly Latex

For even more, check out the DemoDay video.

Not only were they all extremely smart and helpful, they were also just a lot of fun. Yes, we spent a lot of time in front of our computers coding, but we always took the time to explore the city. We traveled in a pack on weekend nights to all of the “cool places,” usually being lead by one of the mentors who had been a fellow in the previous years. In fact, more often than not, I was overwhelmed by the dizzying array of social options presented by the fellows for a given weekend night.

New York City is unlike any other city

I grew up in Washington, DC, so I thought I knew what it was like to live in a city. Well, let me tell you that New York City is a whole different ball game. There is always something cool to do; whether you want to go to a tech meetup, a concert, a museum, or an art show, every night there is an absurd number of choices. And, the food. The food is unbelievably delicious and it’s always open. It’s hard to appreciate these benefits of NYC until you live there for awhile, then move somewhere else. Now that I’m home, the only thing I want to do is go back.

I went into the summer almost certain I would spend my next 3 summers in SF and move there after graduation. After living in NYC for 10 weeks, I’m certain I’ll be back.

The startups we work at are amazing

I got to work at BuzzFeed. There, I was given full control over building consumer facing features and was treated like a real member of the team. The people I was working with were unbelievably smart, the office space was beautiful, the free lunches, dinners, and breakfasts were delicious, and everyday I wanted the day to be longer than it was.

And, BuzzFeed wasn’t the only cool place. In fact, all of the startups fellows worked at were leaders in the startup world: 10gen Bit.ly, Art.sy, Tumblr, Sailthru, and Boxee just to name a few. And, unsurprisingly, at each company the fellow had an amazing experience.

No matter where we worked, we all owned our features, made new friends, learned new things, worked in loving environments, and felt like a real part of the team.

The job and living environment wasn’t even the coolest part

Meeting some of the smartest people in the NYC tech scene is. Two or three times a week, the 30 of us sat down for a casual conversation (over a free dinner) with some of the greatest minds in startups. We talked anonymity with moot, SOPA/PIPA with Alexis Ohanian, founding teams with Chris Dixon and investing with Fred Wilson and the Union Square Ventures partners. In 10 weeks, in addition to the above, we were lucky enough to have personal conversations with:

Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski, the founders of Codecademy
Hursh, Cemre, and Josh, the founders of Branch (coming soon, awesome)
Jonah Peretti, the founder of HuffPo and BuzzFeed
Billy Chasen, the technical co-founder of Turntable.fm
Joanne Wilson, a prolific NYC writer and angel investor
Dennis Crowley and Harry Heyman, the co-founders of Foursquare
Peter Bell, the VP of Engineering at GA
Joel Spolsky, the founder of Fog Creek and Stack Overflow
Josh Knowles, the managing director of Pivotal Labs
Anthony Volodkin, the founder of Hype Machine
Thatcher Bell, the managing director of DFJGotham
Whitney Hess, an awesome UX designer
Chad Dickerson, the CEO of Etsy

You can learn a lot from reading Hacker News, but getting to ask whatever question you want to some of the smartest people around is an incomparable learning experience. Plus, all these people are a lot of fun to hang out with.

hackNY is pretty unbeatable

Living with some of the smartest students in the country; working at some of the coolest startups in NYC; meeting some of the most influential people in the startup scene.

This was my first summer in tech, but after talking with other fellows, I can honestly say that this is an unbeatable experience. Yes, Facebook or Google are great, but I promise hackNY is an experience worth having.

The NYC tech scene is growing extremely fast and in order for it to really flourish, we need as many talented engineers as possible. Programs like hackNY and the Turing Fellowship are taking real steps to providing this necessary resource. So, I urge you to apply for the hackNY fellowship program when applications open in the fall. Hopefully I’ll be back in the city next year as a mentor and we’ll get to hang!

Also, attend the hackNY Fall hackathon on September 29-30th.

p.s. if you enjoyed reading this, you should check out the rest of my blog and follow me on twitter.

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