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#128 Closing the Digital Skills Gap
on Wed Mar 15 2023 17:00:00 GMT-0700 (Pacific Daylight Time)
In this episode, Darren talks to John Gottfried, co-founder of Major League hacking, about closing the digital skills gap through practical collaborative work using hackathons.
In the episode of Embracing Digital Transformation, Darren interviews John Gottfried, co-founder of Major League Hacking, about his journey into the tech industry. John has always enjoyed tinkering with computers since he was a child and learned technical skills out of necessity to make his computer do what he wanted. He would go to the local public library to borrow books on programming languages like C and PHP and follow the examples in them. John lived through the growth of the internet, from dial-up to gigabit fiber optic internet. Despite earning a history degree in college, John landed his first job as a programmer by parlaying his tinkering skills into a part-time job that paid his bills. He has had the opportunity to do everything from building server racks to writing code for small businesses.
In the past, hosting a website used to be a complex task that required purchasing, setting up, and maintaining a server. However, with the advent of cloud computing services, this has become much simpler. Cloud providers like AWS, Google Cloud, or any other provider offer similar commoditized services to spin up a server in just five minutes. In the early 2000s, after catching mono John started his career as a programmer. He was dragged to tech events and hackathons in New York City by his colleagues and that changed his perspective on the industry. It inspired him to create Major League Hacking, a company that organizes hackathons and coding competitions for students.
Major League Hacking (MLH) was founded with the goal of empowering hackers, a broad term that encompasses anyone who wants to create with technology. The organization’s mission is to provide people with the skills and support network they need to start their careers in tech. MLH’s founders were inspired by their experiences mentoring students on campus and wanted to make an organization out of it. They began by organizing hackathons– weekend-long invention competitions where people came together to build prototype apps and share ideas. Today, MLH has expanded its offerings to include a variety of ways to help people build their skills, including hands-on projects and a supportive community.
Major League Hacking has extended its reach through various programs including meetups, workshops, virtual conferences, and immersive fellowships. Their goal was to bridge the gap between foundational skills and real-world application. The viral spread of their hackathons and events made it possible to connect with different universities and communities without marketing efforts. To support local leaders in building their own communities, they provided mentorship, connected them with other schools, and brought in sponsors. Big corporations and small companies could also get involved by bringing real-world tools, APIs, and proprietary tools to hackers. This way, they provided exposure and mentorship and rewarded them for creating interesting projects.
Hackathons provide a unique learning experience to bring people together that otherwise would not work together. Many hackathons are sponsored by corporate representatives who send engineers, recruiters, or developer evangelists to spend the weekend with students, helping them debug their code and teaching them about APIs. While hackathons are fun and offer free pizza and swag, they also offer valuable education and real-world practice. Hackathons are beneficial for professionals as well and that anyone can benefit from committing to a focused time and place to build something. Hackathon projects are typically open-ended, and prizes are often offered by sponsors for different categories. Project teams form organically at hackathons, and many lifelong bonds and even startups have been founded after meeting at these events.
John shares a story about a team of high school students who built a prototype app at one of their events that automated tasks on the iPhone. Apple acquired their company four years later and made their project a core feature of iOS, which was an impressive achievement for a project that began at a hackathon. John believes that hackathons are an excellent source of intern and new grad talent and may soon replace career fairs. People interested in participating in hackathons can visit MLH’s website to learn more about upcoming events and sponsorship opportunities.
More information can be found about hackathons near you at https://mlh.io/
John, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Darren.
I'm really excited.
Hey, when we first talked andwe only talked briefly because I didn'twant to go too farbecause I wanted my one of mylisteners to hear because, well,you guys are setting up super, super cool.
But before you even get there,you got to tell me how you got started.
Give me your backgroundbecause it's an unusual journey.
Yeah, you know, it's funny.
I had a zig zag path to where I am now.
I, you know, was always one of those kidstinkering with computers and,you know, the generation I'm from.
I started out withdial up Internet and floppy disks,and so slightly beforethe Internet was ubiquitous everywhere.
But I was hooked from the beginning and
I wanted to do interesting things.
And the only way to do it at that point intime was to learn some technical skills.
There was really no other wayto make the computer do what I wanted.
And so I just did it out of necessity.
I didn't really understand thatas a career path.
I didn't really think of itas a particular pursuit.
It was just what I needed to doto enjoy playing with my computer.
So how did you do that back then?
Becauseyou can't just go to the Internetwhen the Internet wasn't really there.
So and this may be hardfor some of the younger listeners.
What did you do to build upyour skills gap at that time?
So I would go tothe local public libraryand check out a book.
At that point, it was
I was learning Cand then eventually learned PHP,and a lot of the timesthe books would have a floppy diskor a CD in the back with a compileror interpreter on it.
And I would just follow the examplesin the book and see where that got me.
Well, I think that's howthat's how I learned to.
Yeah, same thing, right?
I'd go get a book at the library,or if I really wanted the book really bad,
I'd spend my lawnmower money for it.
And then start tinkeringand following the examples.
I mean, I always said there's onlyone program ever written in the world.
Yeah, basically, everything else isjust an adaptation to Hello World.
Isn't that right?
Pretty much, yeah. And, you know, I.
It's funny, like, Ikind of, like,lived through the growth of the internet.
Like, I remember very distinctly,you know, when we got DSLand then when we got cable Internet,and then when we got, you know, fiberoptic and like, you know, from the time
I started with computers to the time
I basically got to college,like in that sort of 20 year timeframe,we went from nothing to fiber optic,you know, gigabit Internet.
And so it's pretty cool, like, toto live through that.
And I always like tell, you know, alot of the students that we work with thatmaybe I was like the last generationto grow up without the Internet.
You absolutely probably.
All right. So that's how.
So you tinker pretty young, then?
Yeah. Yeah, pretty young. And
I didn'teven really pursue computer science as.
As a pursuit in college.
Like, I got a history degree.
And so I kept tinkeringand eventually was able to sort of, like,parlaymy tinkering skills into a part time jobthat paid, you know, my billswhen I was in college.
And and that was how I got into tech.
Then there's kind of a funny storyabout how I got my first job, but like,that was how I first got employedas a programmer, a bad programmer.
I used to say during the 1990s
I was in Silicon Valley during the dotcom boom,if you had a pulse and you could type,you were a programmerbecause they were in such short,short supply.
Yeah, that yeah, there were tonsof history majors that were programing.
BHP and back office stuff and yeah,
I was like wow, because I just wentto four years of university and, you know,and learned how to program.
I thought, well, that's a wholenother story.
I mean, the cool thing about itwas that youkind of got to do everythinglike soup to nuts.
Like I was, yeah,
I was building the server rack in the backand then also writing the codethat ran on it,you know,because a lot of thesewere small businesses and they weren't,at least for me, like they didn'thave software engineering teamsand IT teams, it was like meand maybe someone else at that.
Those are the fun times, right?
So it was a lot of fun.
I definitely remember itvery fondly, though.
You know, it's it's
I can certainly accomplish more now.
Yeah. So how has that changed?
How do you think that's changed now?
Do you are therestill some of those small back office?
I need I need a guy to rack and stackor has a cloudcompletely just consumed all that. Sothose jobs still exist?
I think they'll always exist, Butdevelopers are able to get up to speedmuch more quicklyand build much more complex applicationsat the get go.
Like, you know, I verylike I rememberall this frustration of like,how do I even find somewhere to host my HPwebsite without running a full server?
You know, like that is so true. Yeah.
And now it's like you go to a WRC,you go to Google Cloud,you go to literally like any providerout there, and they all sell effectively,like the same service.
It's almost been commoditizedin a lot of waysand you just spin up a serverand you're ready to go 5 minutes later.
Yeah, yeah. Before you used to have to.
Is there an old box somewhere
I can hook up or do I have to go buy one?
I don't want to spend the whole timelike, reminiscing, but like, I, my dadused to take me to these things calledcomputer shows, right where it was new.
AG In real life,you know, like you walk aroundand there's the motherboard standand there's the memory stand.
And there's like, you know, whatever.
And that was how I builtmy first handful of computers.
And it was fun.
I mean, it's kind of nicenot to have to do that now,but it was definitely a cool experienceand a great learning experience.
So all of this background that you have,
How did you get to where you'rea co-founder of Major League Hacking?
Are you picking up that background noise?
No, not at all.
There was like a loudmotorcycle in the background.
So this is kind ofthe weird, funny part of the storyof how my careeractually started in college.
Like many people, I call it mono,which is typically not life threatening,but really not fun,you know, sickness to have.
And I took a semester offand I went back to suburban
New York where I, you know,my parents were all my friends were gone.
I had nothing to do.
And once I was feeling better,
I was bored out of my freaking mind. So
I went on Craigslist and started applyingfor programing jobs to fill the time.
And it just so happenedthat there was a EdTech startup in Nyack,
New York, which is like, it's probablythe only startup in like a 50 mile radius.
And they for some reasoninterviewed me off of Craigslistand hired me for apart time programing job. Andit was like this veryscrappy kind of cool little operation.
But there were a few peoplethere who were starting to get involvedwith this, like nascent
New York City tech scenethat was springing up around the time.
And we're talking like early 2000s.
And they dragged me to these, like meetupsand hackathonsthat were going on in the city.
And I honestly,
I wasn't that interested at the beginning,but after I went, itblew my mind and set me on this.
Like course,that is very directly related to thoselike first experiences
I had in the New York tech community.
So you think it all came fromfrom that then?
If I hadn't caught mono, I'd probably bea history teacher right now. Oh,well, we're glad you got mono then.
But there's a lot of students that areprobably missing out on a great teacher,as what I would say.
How did how did Major Leaguehacking form them?
Yeah. Sogoing to those tech eventslike complete
Li changed my perspective of the industry.
Part of why I actually went into historyinstead of computerscience is I really wanted to workwith people writing.
Like I cared a lot about helping peopleand teaching people and mentoring andlike all of these things that I perceivedto not really be part of a tech career.
I think I perceived that incorrectly,but that was my perception at the time,was that going into techwas like the movie office spacewhere you kind of sat in a cubicleand like filled out reports.
That's there's a lot to that, by the way,sometimes.
But, you know,when I went to these community eventsand one of the first events I ever wentto was this hackathon called Music
It was such alike organicand interesting group of people.
Like you had tinkerers, you had musicians,you had hardcore computer scientists,you had all of these different typesgatheringtogether, just like build cool stuff.
And everyone was helping each other.
Everyone was really supportive.
It was incredibly collaborative.
You know,you demoed your half working projectat the end and everyone applauded and likethat just totally blew my mind.
And, you know, after that I was like,wow, Like maybe this is something
I want to do more of.
And so I started goingto, you know, meet ups and hackathonsand all these different tech eventsbasically every, every week.
And eventually someone kind of noticedthat I was super engagedand helping out a lot and recruited mefor a developer evangelist joband you know, from there, you know,in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense.
I ended up doing MLH,but like getting there was this veryconvoluted,convoluted. Yeah, yeah. Oh, very cool.
So explain to me, I mean, we call itwe call this up.
So closing the skills gap. Yeah. Sowhat do youguys do and how does that help close this?
Because there is a huge skillsgap out there.
We talked earlier a little bit.
There's a big one in cybersecurity.
There's absolutely one in A.I. right now.
And and other areaskeep popping up where we've got skillsgaps that we need to do.
So is that why youit sounds like you didn't start thisbecause of the skills gap you startedbecause you like to be a mentor?
I That's what I heard. Yeah.
Do you like teaching?
You like being out thereand helping peoplerealize maybe their dreams?
I mean, the skills gap is aa way of abstracting awaythe, like, really personal problemwe were solving, you know, myselfand my co-founder Swift, Like,that'sexactly how we wanted to be mentors.
We wanted to help people likeand as developer evangelists.
That was a big part of our job.
For me,you know, I started workingwith a lot of these student communitieson campus, you know, going in to speakto two classes of studentshelping out at their hackathons.
And it was kind of inspiring, right?
Like it was very muchthe thing that I wished I hadwhen I was in school,but it didn't quite exist yet.
And so when we put our jobs to start MLHlike, it was very much leaninginto that thing that we were already doingand trying to make,you know, organization out of it.
What we do at MLH,obviously is a little bit differentthan what it looked likewhen we started ten years ago.
So Major League Hacking isa mission driven organization.
First, like, it's important to understandthat because it guides everything we do,we're actually structured as a B Corp,which is a modelthat is gaining a lot of prominence,but maybe not everyone's heard of.
It's also known as a public Benefit Corp.
It is a for profit company with a missionthat the board and shareholdershave to hold them to.
Our mission is to empower hackers.
Now wait, when yousay hackers is different kinds of hackers.
These are not cyber securityhackers, are they?
These are like code developer guys, right?
That's the kind of hacker.
Or are you talking both?
Hacker is an intentionally broad term.
To us, it means anyone who wants to createwith technology,we see people at our eventswriting code, frontend developers,backend developers, hardware developers,cybersecurity folks,you know, like multimedia artists,like you see at allsorts of intentionally broad term.
And it is a little bit jargony, right?
Like I think if you asked my grandpawhat a hacker is like, he'dprobably have a very particular like imagecome to mind of like someonetrying to steal his credit card.
Yes, that's kind of what do mean, right?
Like we mean tinkerers and hackersand the,you know, hack the world,hack the planet Sense.
Not that they're hacking into things.
It sounds gotcha.
But you knowwhat we do to empower those hackers isis pretty broad at this point.
So we look at everything through the lensof how do we actually get peoplethe skills and support networkthey need to start their career.
And, you know, that happens in a in ain a lot of different ways.
Hackathons are what we've been knownfor the longest,you know, weekend long inventioncompetitionswhere people come togetherto build prototype apps, have crazy ideaslike they're incredibly popular on collegecampuses.
And, you know, we do about 300 a yearin different schools.
Those events are attended by around
So it's becomea pretty big phenomenon on campus.
But that's really one of the main wayswe help people buildtheir skills is through hands on projects,and that's extendedinto a multitude of different programslike meetups, workshops,virtual conferences, immersive,you know, 12 week fellowships.
But they all revolve around this idea ofhow do you take someonewho has some like foundational interestor skills and then bridge the gap to
I can actually work on thisin the real world and be effective.
So that's really interesting.
Campuses obviously are a primary target.
Do you work really closelywith the individual campuses or theiror do you work closelywith like Atripla or ECM or anything?
I mean, how do you have such a broadyou know, because you said 300.
You're not doing one every day.
You're doing several every week. Yep.
So how do you build that connectionwith universities?
So hacker communitieshave a little bit of a viralspread to them.
What typically happens isall of our hackathonsand many of our other eventsare intercollegiate, so anyone can attendeven nontraditional students, right?
We have a lot of folks from boot campsgoing to events these days.
So what happens is your friend dragsyou to an eventand you have a life changing experienceand you go home and you're like, Oh, wow,
I want to bring that to my school to.
And so that's basicallyhow all ten models are so viral.
It's the funny thing.
It's like we've basically never donemarketing.
Like it's just not something we've touchedand it's all happened by word of mouth.
Wow. That's well,that kind of goes into the wholesocial scene of hackers anyway, right?
It's incredibly collaborative.
It's incredibly like connected.
And I you know,everyone, I think, has it has a similarreaction to I did where they
I go to these events and communitiesand they're like, this is amazing.
Like this is something I want.
And so they figure outhow to make it happen, right?
And it looks slightly differentevery every school and every community.
But they all kind of share that same like,you know, underlying cultural valueof trying to create cool stuff and learn.
So. So what do you guys actuallythen provide?
And let's say that, hey,
I want to do this at my school,or it doesn't evenhave to be a school, does it?
It doesn't have to be a school.
I could do it in
I could do it in Folsom, California.
We're going to have a hackathonin Folsom, California.
And there's actually a number of eventsthat are like off campus.
But for local students. Sowe provide a lot of the, like,mentorshipgetting back to that and connective tissuebetween all these communities, right?
Because they might all existas these isolated groups,we help bridge them together.
So we work with every locallike chapter leader and organizerto help them learn how to put on an eventfor the first time or learnhow to build a thriving community.
We connect them to peopleat other schools.
We help them bring students infrom many different campuses.
We bring in sponsors that helppay for pizza at their events, right?
There's all of these different thingsthat are basically enablementof local leadersto build their own communitiesthat, you know, sharesimilar values and culture,but all have their own flavor as well.
Now that that's super cool. All right.
So I love I love the idea of building thecommunity, getting all that.
How does someonelike a big corporationor even a small company,how do how do they get plugged in eithermaybe send even some of their employeesto enjoy that commentary?
But also how how are we mighthow might somehow injecting.
Hey, I would love if the hacking communityhelped figure out this type of problem.
Is that possible?
And then also of course, I want to hiresome of these people, right?
This is kind of where we get to the wholedigital skills gap.
So even the best computer sciencecurriculums in the worldare probably not using the same toolsthat companies use on a day to daybasis and put out.
No, absolutely not. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
They're teachingfoundational concepts, right?
But it'sstill really importantthat you touch those real world tools.
So where companies come inis a lot of the time they are the onesbringing the tools to the hackers.
These could be tools that are open source,like a react or a pythonor something like that.
They could be APIs and proprietary tools.
Either way, you're giving someone exposureto a piece of technologythat they perhapsnever would have otherwise encountered.
And then you're able to also, like,reward them for doing somethinginteresting with the technology,with things like prizes for projectsand also mentoring them directly on,you know, stumbling blocksand how to make the most of it.
And so a lot of the events like doingdo have corporate reps,like people will sponsor these events,maybe send a couple of engineers,maybe you send a recruiteror maybe you send a developer evangelist,but they spend the weekendwith the students, likedebugging their code at night and talkingabout how cool their APIs and,you know, giving out swag.
And it's honestly a huge partof what makes these these eventsso exciting and successful.
Like, I was talking to someone earlierand I was talking abouthow like hackathons are almost like a baitand switch learning initiative.
Like if you go in and you're like,
I want to have a fun weekendwith my friends and get free pizzaand swag and like, meet some companiesand you leave and you're like, Oh wow.
Like I learned a lot from doing that.
Like you're not going into get a certification or take a courseyou're going in to just like,have fun and build something cool.
But the process is incredibly education.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
I have a boatload of kids.
I have ten kids andhow many are.
So you can all go to hackathons now?
They have they havesome of them have been to hackathons.
Three of them are in the i.t.
Three My boys are in the space andone of my daughters is in the IT space.
And it's interesting, I cantell you which ones are good programmersand I'm not going to say that virtuallyand, but they've had a lot of funat the hackathons.
Yeah they absolutely have.
And it's interesting thatbecause they told me I learned morein a weekend hackathon on whatit's like to work in the real worldbecause three well,all four of those are in the real worldnow working and they're going,
I understand the rules and there's processand things like thatthat you go through.
But the one thing they've all said,especially with COVID hitting,
I miss the collaboration.
So I'm almost thinkingmaybe there needs to be like a hackathonfor, you know, as professionalsand that should be fine, right?
We can go to hackathons, too, right?
That's not a problem. Yeah, absolutely.
It's funny, like student hackathonshave definitely become the norm.
When I was startingout and going to those events in New York,most of the events were professionals.
Like I was actuallyone of the few students there,but it came kind of full 180and now it's mostly students.
I think hackathons are valuable regardlessof someone's stage of their careerlike that.
The underlying concept,if you really distill it down, is likeyou're committing to a focused timeand place to build somethingand that something could be a robot,it could be a website,it could be a mobile app,it could just be like, Hey,like I want to play around withlike the GPT API and see what it does.
Yeah, it doesn't really matter,but like actually having the focused timeand space and people around you doingthe same thing creates this like reallylike unique environment.
Who comes up with the project? Are theythe sponsors?
Do you guys have like a catalog of Hey,here's, here's a whole bunch of thingsthat you guys can do it your catalogto the chapter leader or the chapter?
Yeah, you call themchapter leaders, right?
Yeah, I mean, we call them organizers,we call them translators.
They're all the same thing. Butso the projects areincredibly open endedwhen you go to a hackathon,typically the sponsors are offering prizesfor different things.
It could bemaybe the best project that uses their APIor the best projectthat, you know, is focused on social good.
They could be broad categories,they could be technology specific.
It really depends what the companyis trying to accomplish.
But that's a bigpart of these events is prizes.
No one's required to use any of those.
It's certainly a nice incentive, butpeople can really buildwhatever they want.
Like I mean, I use the exampleslike robot website, mobile app,like homemade self-driving car,like I've seen all of those at hackathon.
It's like you gotyou got such a mix of different thingsbecause you have a mixof different people, all right,with different skills and interests.
And one of the coolest things aboutit is like most of the projectteams at these events are formedorganically the day you arrive.
So like you might get thereon a Friday night, you don't know anyoneand then you just kind of like arbitrarilypick someone with a cool ideato work with for the weekendand you spend the next 48 hours togetherand that can be like a lifelong bond,right?
Like it's not uncommon for peopleto like literally, like found startupstogether after meeting at a hackathon.
Oh, I'm glad you brought that up.
Can you tell methe most successful startupthat's come from one of your hackathonsor you're not at liberty to say?
No. I mean, I don't knowwhat the most successful would be.
One of my favorite ones isthere is ateam of high school studentsat one of our eventswho built this like prototype appthat let you automate differenttasks on your iPhone.
So like when I get an emailcopy it to Slack or something like that,they built out of the hackathonthey demoed, they won some prizeand I think like four years later, Appleacquired their companyand made it a core feature of iOS.
So like literally that project,it's like literally millions of iPhonesnow was first built when they werein high school at one of our hackathons,and I have this like demo videothat I found oncethey got acquired where I was like,
Oh yeah, they were like pretty nervous.
And, you know, it didn't really,you know, they were not likethe most excited to be showing that off.
But hey, it went somewhere really cool.
That's super coolbecause not only you're doing this atthe hackathon, you also have to present,you have to know.
So it's more than just writing code,which I love, right?
You're developing something,not just writing code.
It's very different.
Mean like you have to you got to be ableto, like, express your ideaand collaborate with peopleyou've never metand also turn that into functioning code.
Yeah, well, into something that worksright at the end.
All right, so the big question,how do people find out more about thisif they want to do hackathonsin their area?
Do they dothey just try and find a chapter?
Do they reach out to you?
How how does this all work? Yeah. Sothesedays people can go to our website,which is, you know, MLH, I knowwe have tons and tons of events for peopleto get involvedwith sponsorship opportunitiesto, you know, everythingfrom attending to sponsoringand whatever you can imagine in between.
The one thing I would say, like asyou know, that we didn'treally get to in-depth on, but like
I honestly think that this is probablythe best place to find internsand new grad talent.
Like it'sit, you know,they haven't quite yet,but I think they will pretty soonsupplant career fairsas like the main source of campus talentbecause you can't really comparegetting a stack of resumesto seeing someone demoa project and Yeah, or work.
See, I think this is brilliant, right?
Especially being an industry.
If I need to hire good programmers,
I should tell my senior programmersyou're on a hackathon this weekend.
And come back with five candidates from itand sitting on teams with peopleseeing how they work.
Mm hmm. I thinkand seeing if they can lure.
It's to me when I try and hire someone,
I want to see if they're teachable.
If they can pick up on thingsand learn new things.
Or are they just stuck in their ways?
This is brilliant.
And I think one of the likemost special things about itis that method of like sitting and seeinghow someone works or seeing their demoallows people to differentiate themselvesin real life when on paperthey might not be very differentiated.
You know,like I went to a state school in New York,it's a good school, had a great computerscience program, no complaints,but like I had a history degreeand also no onewould rank my school over like the MIT isin Stanford's of the world.
And so, you know,a lot of people are at that likeinherent disadvantage when you go throughresume filtering systemsand hackathons, give them an opportunityto, like stand out.
Yeah, to stand out and make a connectionand get a job that they might not haveotherwise had any chance at allas a cold candidate.
I think it's I think it's a great idea.
I'm goingto take that back to my management,say if we want it, find good,you know, developersor whatever or solutionarchitects, let's go to some hackathons.
These are people
I don't know if you're at a hackathonis because you are passionateabout it. Yep.
You're not going to spend your weekendto do something that you hate. Yes.
It's there'sdefinitely a love of the craft.
Oh, John,it has been wonderful talking to you.
It's gotten me allall pumped up a little bit.
I'm like, Man,
I want to go to a hackathon.
I just can I take a nap?
Because I'm going to need a nap now.
I'm too old to do 48 hours straightlike I used to. Me too.
But we can get you out to a hackathon.
I think that would be great.
Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun.
So, John,thanks again for coming on the show.