HackMIT I guess
Reflections from a newly retired
I retired for the very first time last month from HackMIT! Here are my thoughts.
So I definitely just applied to HackMIT freshmen year because of a few poorly-formed reasons. A. I was a try-hard B. hackathons are cool, I guess, and C. Hack is the largest + cloutest (?) committee on TechX (which, by the way, is the umbrella organization tech-y MIT events like HackMIT fall under). I also thought college students were way more put-together than they actually are, so it kind of came as surprise when my interview started 10 minutes late and the first question I was asked was “Do you want fruit snacks?”. Later Kevin told me all the people that all the people who accepted his fruit snacks got into Hack. Coincidence? I think not.
The interview invite said not to prepare anything, so I literally didn’t even bother to think about any of my past experiences. And then I got grilled for half an hour on technical details on this one Flask project I had done a year ago and asked a ton of what I later learned were called “behaviorals”. In hindsight (and after a few recruitment cycles being on the other side of things), I was probably a very lackluster candidate. I didn’t have much CS experience coming into school, never mind web dev, and even though I applied to both Dev + CR (2 subcommittees within Hack), I was only placed on Dev. Dev these days is very overcrowded, but at the time it was just 5 or 6 really really experienced students. Lucky as I felt, I also had the sense that I had been thrown to the wolves.
One other thing I distinctly remember: during dinner that same night after my interview, I saw Jessica Sun (then director) eating in the dining hall, and my brain went “Yesssss go make friends with the scary HackMIT interviewer”????? Not sure what kind of impression I was trying to make, but I made one anyway.
I spent a semester on Dev, then was elected co-director with Jack shortly after Blueprint 2020. Before running I remember not even being sure what I was doing in Hack — other than the newbies I knew less than everybody else about the event. I think of myself as someone who needs 100% commitment before “going forth” to do a thing, but I think a good 60% of my commitment at the time in running came from external influences. Because director elections occur so shortly after the recruits join Hack, some part of this external motivation makes sense: I spent a good 3 weeks wondering why the hell I was qualified to be director of an organization I had joined less than 4 months ago, but with these things, you really just learn by doing. There was a big pro that Jack pointed out in our 1-on-1, though: I would really get to see the ins and outs of how large-scale student-run events like Hack work, big-picture style.
There was a small period of time after I was elected where I was really overwhelmed with the sudden ramp-up in commitment required from HackMIT, and I wasn’t sure if I was right for the role anymore. Being on Dev meant a one-hour committee meeting and a General meeting (think all-team) a week. As director, however, I was writing meeting notes and leading General meeting every week, attending all 4 committee meetings, and handling various other things that popped up, e.g. specific task meetings, workshops, budget, heads sync, etc. In a regular week, it was at least 5 hours of meetings a week and somewhere between 1–5 hours of work outside of that. We had also just gone virtual due to COVID-19, and it was admittedly a little difficult to keep the team engaged over Zoom.
Something I also really couldn’t handle at the beginning was this crushing weight of responsibility and burden I now felt for the event. If something went wrong, that was on me. It’s unrealistic to expect perfection, but that’s what I did. It was like giving someone a boxing glove and asking them to punch you in the face. The good news is that I got over this after Spectacle, our project submission platform, died mid-Sunday morning during HackMIT 2020 right when projects were due, and we had to use a Google Form and manual labor to schedule students in to be judged. Nothing has been that publicly embarrassing in the last 2 years, and I still survived I think. Very exciting to learn that even complete failure is not the end of the world.
I think I am a little bit of a control freak, so as you can imagine an important lesson I learned was to keep my damn hands off of work I had delegated. Rather than focusing on the itty-bitty details, it turns out that bringing a team (and their work) together is basically the challenge of being a director. Balancing people’s individual desires (AKA what they’re trying to get out of Hack) with the work that we need to get done (run an event?) is pretty hard, I would say, and while I’m probably better at this now I don’t think I did it particularly well during my time as director. In other words, I’m decently good at identifying gaps and work to be done and less good at finding ways to make the team feel like a close-knit environment where we’re just learning and having fun together.
Still, this is not to say that I haven’t found some of my closest friendships through HackMIT. Joining an organization like Hack sort of selects the people you see on a weekly basis and forces you to meet different personalities and people that I probably would never have actively found myself. Being a director was slightly strange because of some accountability dynamics with people the same age as me, but it was also nice in a lot of ways because I was able to connect with almost everybody on the team at some point.
Anyways, Jack retired a couple of weeks after virtual HackMIT 2020, which we had organized together. As is traditional in the director cycle, this left me Blueprint 2021 to organize as the sole director, and HackMIT 2022 to train the new co-director.
Side thought: I spent a month doing essentially nothing but Blueprint in January over IAP, which was a non-intended effect of intentionally not externing. I had actually initially decided not to work over IAP because I wanted to see if I would actually do some ~personal development~ if given the time to do so. Rather than spend a significant amount of time on personal projects or building up some new skill, though, I just spent more time on Hack. Given that it was supposed to be a vacation, though, I had a general avoidance of “feeling busy”. That is, once I had done work for Blueprint for the day, I decided that I felt accomplished enough and did random stuff for the rest of the day. This ended up being fine because I did a lot of small things instead, like taking walks, playing the guitar, and spending time with family.
We ended up doing Blueprint 2021 virtually as well, and even though all of the non-seniors were back on campus by that time, I still hadn’t met many of the new recruits from the previous fall in person yet. Also, huge mistake I made: apparently virtual events need to have the same registration, participant documentation, and formalization procedures as in-person events to align with MIT Student Activities policy, which was an absolute bummer to discover 1 week prior to Blueprint. I did a solid 5-minute cry after my call with the Student Activities Director, then pulled it together so I could schedule an emergency general meeting for the next day. Feeling like I’m obligated to drop this meme right now. Again, everything did turn out fine, and despite some hiccups here and there, I think the high schoolers were generally pretty satisfied.
Going into HackMIT 2021, I felt pretty confident that we were going to be able to run it completely in person again. In short, I was wrong and COVID sucks. Doing it hybrid wasn’t the worst, but I think it stretched the team pretty thin for having to account for two fronts — both in-person and virtual elements. I have to say, though, being the senior director this time around was quite nice work-life balance-wise. I was generally more hands-off during committee meetings, and by the start of the summer my new co-director Katherine was running most of the show. Although I still did become stressed at times, going through the whole thing fully once already, albeit virtually, was really helpful in anchoring expectations and anticipating problems.
By this point, I had discovered an interesting fact about being director: in general, the committee heads actually carry the weight of most of the tangible deliverables needed for HackMIT, and my most major function involved in these deliverables is making sure they get, well, delivered on time. Even though I was doing small bits and pieces of committee work (minus marketing because I’m awful at design), most of my time spent outside of meetings was doing managerial work, which feels really different from committee work. During the last few months of being director, I was answering a lot of questions and creating a lot of solutions to problems that arose. Apparently, this is the particular niche that I enjoy exploring in an organization, and it doesn’t have the same work-on-this-one-thing-for-2-weeks kind of energy class gives me sometimes.
Lastly, a mistake that many people, myself included, have made is the I can make everybody happy situation. This is a lie. It felt super uncomfortable to me at first that there were always some people on team dissatisfied with one thing or another, and because nobody was telling me what I should do, I struggled to make tough decisions for a pretty long time, worried about what people would think. Sometimes people’s dissatisfactions would be in totally different directions too, like “there’s too much useless information during general meetings” vs. “we need to hear more about what’s going on during general meetings”, which, if my math checks out, seems like I can’t make both of these people happy at the same time.
Cool realization, though: while it’s all fine and well to make people as happy as possible, I technically have no obligation to do so. Some things just need a decision and for someone to bear the weight of that decision. The whole point of being director is that your bird’s eye view should allow you to take in as many viewpoints as possible, but also make the final call when no clear decision appears. And yes, that can create unideal situations, and it can make some people unhappy, but I think that this sort of uneasy feeling comes with the job.
All in all, not a bad two-and-a-half-year run. Somehow over the course of these two-ish years, HackMIT transformed from “just some club” into probably a good 67% of my personality. Even though I hadn’t really been involved with hackathons in high school and I did sort of just join on a whim freshmen year, I’ve truly grown to appreciate the value of the work that we do and the amazing community I’ve found. I thought I would feel a big difference after leaving HackMIT, but honestly, after all that I’ve grown as a leader and person, stepping into retirement felt really natural. I’m sure that 5 or 10 years down the road I’ll look back on this time fondly in nostalgia, but for now, I’m enjoying my newfound time off as a retiree.