Kat Huang Memoji of me making a peace sign

← Back to all writing

Interview: Chris Walker, Hack Club

7 min read, July ‘19

Hi and welcome to the first edition of Figurative Coffee! I launched this newsletter last week and I’m excited and grateful that 160+ people have signed up.

This week, I’m sharing an interview with Chris Walker (@EnDimensions), a 2013 Thiel Fellow and staff member at Hack Club, a worldwide community of student-led coding clubs.

You can find this particular conversation on Repl.it’s latest Developer Spotlight, and also read this and all future articles on Substack.

Kat: Could you tell me about yourself and what you do at Hack Club?

Chris: I’m Chris Walker. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and taught myself to program around 11 or 12. I got really interested in video games—specifically educational games and software—and how to use the Internet to provide positive feedback loops around building things and creatively expressing yourself in playful environments that hold people's attention.

I went to Dartmouth College and dropped out after not very long. I wanted to be a mathematician and found out that that probably wasn't for me, at least in the academic world. I ended up getting the Thiel Fellowship, which is where I met Zach [Latta, founder of Hack Club]. I kept working on educational games, but the edtech world is basically impossible to make a living in.

I worked a couple other jobs and after I quit my last job, I got a call from Zach to catch up. He found out that I had just left my job and was like, “Oh, come work at Hack Club.”

Now, I work mainly on building a playful environment for learning to code, for learning to build communities, and basically turning Hack Club into one big game, where you have people who are looking for some sense of purpose coming in, and then coming out you have fully self-actualized people who have everything they need to make some kind of positive change.

Kat: You recently held the Flagship Summit, a gathering of 80 leaders from high school coding clubs across the country. How did you come up with the idea for Flagship?

Chris: Nine or ten weeks ago, I got a call from Zach saying Make School had contacted us and were interested in running some event for club leaders. I didn't get much context, but we got on a call with Jordan, who ran the event from the Make School side, and Jeremy, co-founder of Make School.

Until then, we'd spent a long time trying to figure out how to use the summer to transition from a model of a couple people calling a long list of clubs and coaching them through their issues every week, to one where we can scale massively beyond that and ideally also do a better job.

In the last year, it became clear that the more clubs we take on, the worse we’ll do with every new person, because it divides the amount of attention that everyone can get. One thought that kept coming up was, “Man, we just gotta get everyone in one place.”

So when Make School said we’ll pay for all the flights, lodging, venue, and all the logistics, it was immediately obvious. We still need to do a lot of work to change the model, but that’s step one. If you want people to talk to each other, get everyone in the room.

Because if your only face-to-face contact with the organization is video calls with the headquarters, then you'll go to headquarters with all your problems. We're probably not going to do as good of a job as somebody who's running a club and has day-to-day experience.

That's how it started. We already had [interns] Mingjie and Fernanda coming on for the summer for other programs. We pushed those programs to the side and said, “All we're going to do for the next two months is focus on running the best possible event.”

Kat: What did the event involve?

Chris: We tried to model it off of two general categories of experiences: 

  1. Hackathons, since that's what this community has a lot of experience with, where a lot of expectations are set, and what we have expertise in running. 
  2. Professional conferences, because our team members have all been to a bunch of conferences. A lot of it was, “How do we have the best parts of hackathons with the logistical smoothness of conferences, without making it feel like a corporate event?”

The first thing that stuck out to us is that we want as much of it as possible to student-led. That's a common theme with Hack Club. Students are, as much as possible, defining the experience for other students, rather than us telling them what to do. We facilitate the core—the eating, breathing, and sleeping things—and students fill in the blanks.

We had student-run sessions, like how to run your first hackathon, how to get creative about marketing and bring new people to your club, interesting activities you can do, and how to facilitate group discussions and do a really good job of keeping people engaged.

These are all topics that students understand better than we do. I can talk about how to run a hackathon, but not as well as [club leader] Lachlan, so we had them talk about running your first event. People at headquarters can provide insight into activities you can do in your club meeting, but the best person to ask about that is [club leader] Dina.

We also tried to allow as much unstructured time as possible. We wanted people to have some experience of being on their own in a city for the first time. I think part of Hack Club is learning to be independent. Coming to a new city and spending time with a bunch of your friends and new friends is a great way to learn how to take care of yourself. We really believe that the more that you treat people like adults, the more they act like adults.

Kat: I love how you mentioned having students explore the city independently. Having grown up in a city myself, I think those experiences have shaped who I am and helped me become independent in ways that maybe kids from other environments don’t get as easily.

Chris: Even things like learning to read a bus map and taking public transit, I feel pretty lucky to have had parents that allowed me to go out and do that stuff on my own.

As an organization, it's important that if we're serious about having students do really hard things—run events, deal with large amounts of money, talk to sponsors, teach, lead—it's important that we give you the space to learn how to do even simpler things, like walk around in the city and not get lost. If we expect you to do these harder things, we have to also trust you to do much simpler things.

In the end, we were rewarded. Nobody did anything stupid, and it was really cool to hear people talk about experiences spending time in San Francisco. I feel really lucky that we have students that we feel we can trust with that kind of responsibility.

Kat: Those hard things—getting high schoolers to contact sponsors, handle large amounts of money, run their own events and clubs—really stick out to me. They’re a core feature of the community as well. How  do you think we can get more students to do those?

Chris: We're not helping people run events on easy mode. They're doing all the work, and we're just providing a certain amount of guidance. The most important step of that, though, is that we're actually trying to demonstrate that, “Hey, this is something you can do.”

You don't need a Ph.D. in anything to run a hackathon. You need to be able to send a lot of emails and be conscientious, but fundamentally you're just getting a bunch of people in a room, feeding them a couple meals, and maybe ordering t-shirts and organizing workshops. None of these things are especially complicated tasks, so it's not that hard to give people the idea that they can do it. You just have to set that context from the beginning.

I think the success of hackathons is largely the fact that unlike a debate tournament, robotics competition, or Girl Scout cookie selling operation, these are not events that are facilitated by parents or teachers. It’s students who do it from the ground up—the entire thing.

When students see these, they don't see them as something that the adult world has set up for them and, “Hey, maybe if I ask an adult, they can set one of these up for me.”

We try and expose students to lots of other people who are doing the same thing, whether it's collegiate organizers or other high schoolers, and the rest happens naturally. When people see that that's something that they're capable of because their peers are doing it, who doesn't want to grow giant code party with 200 people?

Kat: I was talking to [Hack Club intern] Fernanda earlier, and she was basically told to make Flagship her own project and organize the whole event, knowing next to nothing about Hack Club. You’ve been around longer, so what was it like for you to discover the Hack Club community? How would you describe the community?

Chris: Zach told me, “Hey, if you're interested in taking this job, the first thing you should do is check out our Slack channel. That's where everything happens.”

I came in, and people said “hi” in the #welcome channel before I had even said anything. I shared a project that I was working on, and I remember feeling that even as a total stranger, everyone was making an effort to make sure I felt welcomed. It was pretty clear that if this is the experience that this organization can give to students, I'm totally in.

My experience was one of personally seeing that this was not just a bunch of people who knew how to program, but a bunch of really good people interested in building a positive, nice place to be.

I think there are a lot of technical communities that focus a lot on technical competence and don't think very much about making a positive space. That's how you get some of the nasty, toxic stuff in the tech community—people who are really, really focused on programming and not very focused on people. With Hack Club, it was like, “Oh, this can actually be a space for anybody.” And that’s proven to be true, I think.

Older →

2019 Q2 Review: Working on it

← Newer

Interview: Karen Zusi, Broad Institute