From 2013 to 2015 I studied the culture of American technological innovation in graduate school. One key characteristic is shared by regional tech ecosystems across state lines: community. Sometimes the community is small, such as a few freelance developers in a rural area who get together to work out of the same coffee shop on occasion. In other cases, the community is vast, such as in Philadelphia, and the region is home to a slew of meetup groups, workshops, hackathons, conferences and other gatherings throughout the year. As my research fleshed out these common elements shared by different tech communities, I started to feel the pang to get involved. No longer did I want to be an outsider studying tech, but part of of the living, breathing community.
The tech community succeeded in pulling me in. I abandoned my quest to get a PhD and join the rank and file in academia and dove head first into the world of tech in Philadelphia. As any career changer will tell you, piecing together technical skills, hands-on experience and a professional network in your free time is hard work. But it’s a worthwhile price to pay to find your tribe and love what you do. It’s been almost two years since I got my first job in tech, and I’m still piecing together the skills and experience I need to achieve my end goal.
Back when I was researching the tech community, I spoke to developers who said hackathons are a great way for career changers to get hands-on coding experience. As a non-developer, I figured there would be nothing for me to do at a hackathon. Now that I have worked in tech for a while, I realize what a wide array of skills other than writing code go into making digital products. Making great websites, software and mobile apps require people who can research, plan, write requirements, document processes, wireframe, prototype, design, strategize content and the list goes on and on. Hackathons are a great way for non-developers to get hands-on experience in tech.
Even if you’re not sure how your skills will fit in, just show up! Go with the flow and you will find a way to help out. In author Miriam Peskowitz’s post about her experience with her first ever hackathon, the one held by Code for Philly last fall, she lays out a great example of how her skills outside of coding were put to use. Although she was nervous, things worked out well. Her team won an award and they are returning to Code for Philly’s upcoming Civic Engagement Launchpad to continue to improve their product.
I’ll also be there, alongside Miriam, for CfP’s CE Launchpad, starting on Friday, March 24. Whereas most hackathons only last one weekend, this one spans an entire month. More time to plan, research, design and develop means teams can create a better product than what could be made in a single weekend.
During the first weekend of CE Launchpad, teams are formulated and put through an intensive product design workshop. The rest of the weekend is devoted to getting to work. Throughout the rest of the month, teams work and meet independently. If teams want to interact with city government officials to help learn more about a certain problem, the Code for Philly team can help facilitate that. There will also be mentors to help guide teams along the way. If you’re looking for experience, you’ll get plenty during CE Launchpad! On top of that, you’ll become part of a community of people collaborating help improve civic engagement in the city of Philadelphia.
Come out to CE Launchpad if you’re new to tech and don’t know how you fit in, if you know what career you want but aren’t there yet or if you’re already experienced and want to meet other people that love and want to give back to Philly. Coding is not a prerequisite for CE Launchpad; the only requirement is an interest in applying technology to strengthen civic engagement in Philadelphia! I hope to see you there.
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