It all started at MHacks. (Which I’m actually mildly frustrated about, given that HackMIT was my first big hackathon, and it would’ve been so much cooler to full-circle it that way. Metaphors. Plot devices. #HallieProblemz)
But when I say, “It all started,” what I really mean is that I finalized my decision then and there. The story of when it actually started goes back much, much further than that. Like, two years ago.
I wrote my first line of code at the beginning of my third semester at Agnes Scott College. It was while enrolled in their equivalent of a computer science class — a physics elective called Scientific Computing, that was mostly taken by physical science and mathematics majors who enjoyed using MatLab (blech) and Maple in their core classes. It also taught C at the time, though I hear they’ve switched it over to being fully Python these days.
I remember really loving that class. I’d entered college as a physics major because it was the only subject I was arguably good at in high school. My understanding of computer science up until that point was limited to the scrolling green text over a black console that you see in the movies, even though I’d had friends who knew how to write apps and had taken AP CS back at Woodward. Back then, I just never thought of it as something I could really do on my own, and hadn’t bothered looking into it before going off to college.
Agnes didn’t even have a formal computer science program, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up for that class. But I fell for it pretty hard, pretty fast. I found myself reading ahead in the textbook and solving problems that weren’t assigned to us. I stopped paying attention in class, and just spent the entire time Googling how to write things that were beyond the scope of what we were covering. Within a few weeks, I was tutoring students who were older than I was, and teaching them how to do what I’d figured out how to do on my own.
There was a five year dual degree program offered with Emory in CS that I managed to find out about and sign up for a few days before the deadline. I took my first official class with them that next semester.
I was off to a great start. For the first couple of months, I was only making 100s on my assignments and projects. My code was clean, my comments were solid, and the programs executed flawlessly. My laptop had broken about halfway through the previous semester, so I could only do work on Emory’s campus. That was fine in the beginning. I was having a rough time, socially, back at Agnes by this point, and liked the escape of being somewhere else — absorbed in working on something that I cared about.
But eventually my depression, and the hopelessness I felt about life in general, started to catch up to me.
I stopped eating. I stopped going to class. I missed exams. Failed all of my courses. Went in to the next semester on academic probation, and started to wonder if I’d get kicked out of school. I wasn’t allowed to continue the dual degree program. Emory wouldn’t even let me register for another CS class.
On the plus side, my mom thought I looked a lot less fat — what with being about 30 pounds lighter than I had been, “Though I think you could stand to lose about five more.” Silver linings and all that jazz, am I right?
I was sitting in the car with my dad, waiting for my sister to come out of the nail salon, when a plan started to formulate in my mind. Maybe all I needed was a little break? Maybe I could try not taking summer classes this year. Maybe I could just relax, and get some rest, and hit the ground running in the fall. It took me a moment to work up the courage to suggest this to him. And, the moment the words stumbled out of my mouth, I instantly regretted it.
He went off.
His voice went up higher and higher as he rattled off statistics about how people who take time off of school almost never go back. He told me that he was disappointed by how lazy and spoiled I was being, and said that he could never support me — emotionally or financially — if I did something that he viewed as so irresponsible.
And that, kids, marked the first day of my non-adolescent life that I cried in front of one of my parents. The tears wouldn’t stop. The look of sheer discomfort and absolute confusion that took over his face was unforgettable.
Through the waterfall of feels, I blubbered out all of the crap I’d been going through for the past decade or so. The neglect and abuse that I’d faced at home when he wasn’t around. The assault I’d been through in college. The loneliness I felt on campus. Life, you know? Crazy stuff.
It took a while for me to finally calm down. But, when I did, he suggested that I leave Atlanta.
What a thought that was.
I could just leave Atlanta.
And so I did. Ended up transferring to Howard University’s school of engineering that next semester.
I was ridiculously excited when I looked at my schedule for the coming fall. It was all computer science classes! I couldn’t believe it. I remember showing up to all of them half an hour early, just to make sure that I wasn’t late. I felt mildly disappointed in myself that, having failed that course at Emory the semester before, I had to retake Intro to CS. But, little did I know, that would quickly become my favorite course — arguably in my entire time at Howard.
You see, that year, Howard just so happened to be going through a trial run of its Googler in Residency program. GIR was an initiative to give students a taste of what’s expected of CS students looking to gain employment out in Silicon Valley by having courses taught by an actual Google employee. My intro class was one of them.
Looking back on it, it wasn’t really that I felt like the course taught by the Googler was harder than any of my other classes (I mean, it was an intro class). It was just more interesting, and he was really fun to interact with. A few months into the semester, he came up to me after class to ask if I was planning to apply for an internship with Google.
Hint: I wasn’t.
To be super honest, the thought just never crossed my mind. I felt really behind as a CS student; and the fact that I’d both transferred two years into my degree and straight-up failed the first “real” class I’d ever taken didn’t help. When he told me to apply, I pretty instantly assumed that he was just saying that out of obligation to his company. Maybe the continuation of the program depended on the number of people he could convince to send in their resumes? I mean, that made the most sense, right? Yes.
Long-story short though, I did apply. I spent a few weeks leading up until my interview doing practice problems with other students under the supervision of the GIR and some TAs. I’d even started taking classes on Udacity and Codecademy to make sure my Python skills were on point. But, even with all of that preparation, I still wasn’t ready when the phone call came in telling me that I’d gotten an offer. I actually had to ask the recruiter on the phone to clarify about six times that she wasn’t pulling some really rude prank before I realized it was a time to celebrate.
That semester continued on an upward trend. I ended up participating in a hackathon at Google’s DC office that was only open to Howard students, and managed to snag first place. I finished all of my classes with a 4.0 — even getting a 160/100 in my Intro class, after extra-credit was factored in. Self-esteem was skyrocketing. My grades the next semester had a few Bs scattered in, but I didn’t care by that point. I felt confident. Nothing could stop me!
But then I went to Google, and reality slapped me in the face once again.
With the exception of a few of my other Howard friends who’d also gotten internships there that summer, it felt like everyone I’d met was so far beyond my skill level, it wasn’t even funny. I went into Howard feeling self-conscious about the fact that I hadn’t started learning CS freshman year of college. I left Google feeling a crushing sense of shame over not teaching myself to code back in middle school. I didn’t even know what code was back then, but the students I talked with kept repeating the same narrative of writing their first program when they were basically still in diapers. How could I ever get anywhere in life if this is what my competition looked like?
I was overcome with a sense of urgency to learn as much as I could in what little time I had left until graduation. When I went back to school, I took a job as a CS tutor, and started doing research under the guidance of a professor. I started applying to start-ups around the DC area, and ended up with an internship during the school year at a place that did contract work with the Navy. I was working 40 hours a week between these three part-time jobs, on top of the 21 credit hours I was enrolled in each semester.
But the most important thing I did that year, out of all of it, was apply to HackMIT.
The hackathon I’d participated in at Google the year before was nice. I’d liked that I could just sit there, come up with an idea, and turn it into reality in 24 hours. But HackMIT was on a whole different level. Oculus Rifts, Myo armbands, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis— all available for checkout to anyone who wanted to tinker with them. Engineers from top tech companies available to give talks and offer advice.
I formed a team with two people I’d met upon arrival — a guy I’d run into while waiting on the metro, and a girl he’d met at a separate hackathon. We ended up building a tool for helping homeless people find free food, after being inspired by a tech talk earlier in the day. We won a few sponsor prizes for it.
During the time that I’d spent working with them through the night, they told me about this Facebook group they belonged to called Hackathon Hackers, and invited me to join. Through it, I learned about more hackathons that took place — what felt like two or three, every weekend, throughout the school year — and sent in application after application, attending as many as I possibly could.
This was exhausting.
Everything about it was draining. But the thing that started to feel like the biggest burden of all was feeling obligated to go to class in between. With all of the learning that I was doing outside of school, the coursework was beyond easy. I could finish assignments the day before they were due and still get an A. I just didn’t want to. It felt like a waste of my time.
But every time I thought about dropping out, I thought back to all of the times my dad had threatened to disown me. By this point in time, I wasn’t financially dependent on him (like I said before, I was working 40 paid hours a week — equivalent to a full-time job), so I knew I’d be fine on that end. But my relationship with my dad — especially in the year since I moved out to DC with him — had become so important to me, I didn’t want to risk losing it over calling it quits a year before I was set to graduate. I mean, my dad dropped out of high school at 16, ran away from home, and moved to the other side of the country in the 1960s — from integrated Los Angeles to segregated Atlanta — just to go to college at Morehouse. By the time he was my age, he had his Masters degree, and was teaching classes at Spelman. He has a PhD. He was a college president. Besides sitting on a number of education boards at random schools, his full-time job, right now, is raising money for the express purpose of sending kids to college. This was not someone I felt like I could go up to and say, “School’s just not doing it for me right now.”
Fast-forward to this past summer: I ended up with an internship through the Kleiner Perkins Engineering Fellowship, working at an energy-saving company out in San Francisco. I’d been making a bunch of friends through the Hackathon Hackers group, and wound up spending a ton of time with them throughout the summer. When I realized my internship was coming to a close, I dreaded the idea of leaving it all behind, and returning to a school that was slowly starting to make me feel miserable. I ended up rescheduling my departure date to give myself two more weeks in the Bay, even after my internship was over. Even though it meant missing a week of school.
Going back to class was even worse than I imagined. I was frustrated with how unorganized my professors were. The smallest thing would set me off. I was actually yelling — not even exaggerating — in the middle of classes, I was so upset by everything.
When MHacks rolled around, it was just the escape that I needed. I remember sitting in a glass room with a few of my friends from over the summer who’d all come to the hack as well. I felt like all I was doing was complaining about how much I didn’t want to go back to school on Monday. And that’s when I started thinking about how I didn’t have to go back to school on Monday. How, next thing I knew, I was telling them all that I wasn’t going back to school on Monday.
I was going to drop out of college.
I rallied all of the people I could get my hands on at the hack. I sent out text messages to managers I’d had during my past internships, telling them that I had to talk to them in the coming week. I needed advice, and I needed to know that the people I respected believed in me. And they did. By the end of the weekend, everyone I’d talked to had told me that this was what I was supposed to do. Everyone, except the one person I’d been too afraid to contact — my dad.
It wasn’t until I was on the bus ride home that Sunday that I sent him the text message no one ever wants to see: “We need to talk.”
Within five minutes of my pressing send, my phone started ringing. Before I could barely get in a, “Hey,” he interrupted me and asked, “Are you dropping out of school?” That’s when I realized — he knew, and he’d seen it coming from a mile away.
Before he could get too worked up, I told him I didn’t want to talk about it over the phone. We made plans to meet up the next night for dinner. And that’s when he told me he’d spent the day calling people around him, trying to get their perspective on my situation, in the same way I had asked the people around me over the weekend. He’d even called the former president of Howard to hear what he had to say.
And that’s when he let me know that he supported me, and believed in my ability to make it in this big ‘ole world without a formal degree. He admitted that it wasn’t the path he’d have chosen for himself; but he recognized that the two of us are two very different people, with very different directions to go. With his support I was ready to dive right in.
The next step? Getting a f**king job.
To be continued….here
Thanks to Dave for being supra crazy awesome and making sure this essay series got off to a decent start!