Caitlin Stanton is a freshman at Cornell, planning to major in Electrical & Computer Engineering. She has been involved with computer science since high school, when she got involved with Girls Who Code. Since then, she has continued to learn and explore, and has participated in (and won) dozens of hackathons. When she was still in high school, Caitlin co-founded def hacks(), the first 24-hour biannual hackathon for high school students, by high school students. She was also a lead organizer for PixieHacks(), a hackathon to immerse more female coders in the tech industry. Caitlin has held internships at #BUILTBYGIRLS, where she helped to push out the next iteration of the Cambio.com, and Ask Applications, at IAC. At Cornell, Caitlin is a developer on the Engineering Career & Fair team, and the Faculty Relations Director for Women in Computing at Cornell.
- Caitlin’s website
- def hacks() website
- @codercaitlin on Twitter
- 20 Under 20: Meet The Next Generation Of STEAM Pioneers, Huffington Post
- Inside a Day at the Girls Who Code Summer Program, Media Planet
- Caitlin Stanton: defining the meaning of swagulous, I’m a Girl Who Codes
- Download Caitlin’s photo (+ more photos as zip file)
Could you start by giving me overview of your work and the aims of your work?
A hackathon is a coding competition where people from all backgrounds and coding levels come and try to make something within 24 hours.
The reason I created def hacks() with my friend, Emily Redler, was because we wanted to create a hackathon environment that was specifically receptive to high-school students, because typically this group is overlooked when it comes to hackathons — college students are more welcome because they have more experience and they’re a little bit older.
We wanted to target high school students because — at the time — we were high school students. Also this group is important because they are younger, which gives them more flexibility to learn. Training the next generation in technology is very important right now. Then, also, hackathons are just really fun.
I find hackathons to be very helpful in learning — even more so than a typical academic course — because you’re doing things hands on. You’re learning to cut corners and stuff, like how it works in the real world. Because of that, we started def hacks() . It started as one hackathon for 24 hours — a whole weekend in New York City.
Since then, we’ve expanded. We now have locations in New York City as well as San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and London. They all are striving towards the same goals: educating high school students in coding and providing a supportive environment. That essentially what we wanted to do with def hacks() and it’s been going pretty well the past couple of years.
How long have you been doing it? When did you start it?
The current iteration of def hacks() officially started two summers ago, so 2015. Previous to that, I had worked on a hackathon that also was called def hacks(). I took the name with me. I continued using it, but that had started a little bit earlier in that spring. The current def hacks() started the summer of 2015, and our first event was held in October of 2015.
Thinking back about this work that you’ve been doing, what’s one example you would pinpoint as a time where you really felt a sense of success?
The way our hackathon works is that you work for about 20 hours straight, because you’ve got food and workshops and stuff like that. Then, at the end of the weekend, the kids come and present what they’ve worked on. There isn’t a specific project or anything that stands out to me right now because they’re all amazing.
I’d say that that chunk of time — those two hours, where the kids are presenting what they’ve spent their time on the last 24 hours — is the most rewarding because we encourage them to explain their background, explain what skills they used, say whether they’ve coded before, and explain whether this is something that they wanted to learn at the hackathon, or if they had used a particular technology before.
Listening to all those stories from high schoolers — freshmen to seniors — and seeing the various levels of experience is really rewarding. Especially when you see someone who’s at their first hackathon. They’ve never coded before, yet they’re able to work together with their team and make a website or make a functional web application — and they’re proud of it.
Seeing them feel proud of themselves for having made something is really rewarding. Also it’s rewarding to see them produce something that allowed them to push themselves a little further.
Is it literally 24 hours through with no sleeping?
Wow. Do you have corners of the room where people are crashed out?
Oh, yeah. We designate a room. We’re like, “This is the sleeping room. If you want to fall asleep, we turn off the lights, and you just go to sleep there.” It runs from noon to noon. Most of the coding starts at 1:00PM on Saturday, and then it’ll end at 9:00 AM on Sunday. Because then you have the awards ceremony and judging and everything. You don’t want participants coding while the judges are judging their projects. It’s very intense.
From my previous experience with hackathons, I know that you normally crash around 3:00AM in the morning. You just fall asleep on a table. It’s intense, but it’s fun because it’s those hours, those wee hours of the night at two in the morning when you have your best ideas.
Or when it’s crunch time and you’re like, “Crap, I need to put this together,” that everything actually works out. It’s make-or-break time. It is really intense, 24-hour hackathons. We wanted to expose them to that because a lot of hackathons are 24 hours.
The majority of high school hackathons are only 12 hours which means you don’t have as much time. And because of that your expectations are typically lower. We wanted to expand their horizons a little bit and give them a full weekend to work on everything.
This makes me think of two things. One is what they put med school students through with residency, with the rationale that they’re going to have to deal with these types situations so better to train for that now. Second, makes me think of the occasional all-nighters I’ve had to pull in my career.
It really helps to emulate those situations because the best times you work are under stress. That’s when you figure out real workflow and how you think. I know, especially in tech, you’re going to be stressed the majority of the time. It’s good to figure out your work strategy under stress.
It’s also not a stress where you’re like, “Oh, I’ve got to finish by this deadline or we lose a hundred thousand dollars.” Or if you might lose a client. This is a stress that’s fun because it’s a competition. You want to win. You want to show off what you’ve done. It’s a positive form of stress.
Then, everybody’s feeling it at the same time, so everybody’s supportive of each other. Everybody’s crashing at four in the morning. They’re all feeling the same thing. It creates more of a community because you get closer to someone once you’ve spent a solid 24 hours working with them. It’s definitely experience to be had.
Do you find that people stay connected after they’ve done this trial by fire together?
Yes. You typically work on a team — because it’s easier to work on a team. You get more done. I’d say maybe half the people come without a full team or anybody else to work with. So what we do is in the first couple of hours we have a couple of activities where you get to know each other. Then if you want to be part of a team, or you want to learn about other people, you can do that instead of starting off coding right away.
Some people will meet their teammates there. Some people will meet new friends there, maybe when they’re taking breaks or eating food. Then we’ll see them after the hackathon. They’ll walk out of the hackathon together, still talking.
We’ve held def hacks() about three times. You’ll see those people come to the next hackathon as a team, because they enjoy working together. When I see that I think, “Okay… I helped make that” which is really cool.
It definitely fosters a community, especially for people who weren’t originally in the technology community. They’re now open to new pathways that they probably hadn’t seen before. They’re opened up to new communities on social media and to other hackathons and stuff where — even if they don’t necessarily interact with the people they met at def hacks() — they’re interacting with more people in the community because of def hacks(). That’s something that every hackathon accomplishes. It helps foster more of community in the tech world.
How about an example of a challenge?
When my friend and I were organizing our first hackathon we were both seniors in high school. We were both 17, which when you’re contacting companies is very difficult. Corporations are less willing to give two 17-year-olds a couple of thousand dollars, just write them a check, because that looks sketchy.
We weren’t a legal organization. We didn’t know we had to have tax IDs for some forms of sponsorship. We didn’t have much really, besides contacts and time. That was a challenge.
Related was the challenge of trying to assert ourselves as two very capable females in tech who wanted to organize a hackathon. When we reached out to potential sponsors our capacity was overshadowed by the fact that we were high school students — they assumed we didn’t know what we were doing.
So just putting the hackathon together in general was difficult because we had to convince big corporations — and even small startups — that what we were doing was actually going to happen. We weren’t just two 17-year-olds trying to scam them or trying to make promises that we couldn’t fulfill.
We were trying to make a difference. The companies that did support us — and still do support us — saw that, which we were very grateful for. But just getting to that point where we were able to prove ourselves was definitely a challenge.
Now that we are more established and are no longer minors, it’s a lot easier. But that challenge is still there whenever you’re making something — to prove to people that it’s going to happen, that it’s going to be successful, and that their support will contribute to something. It’s generally just a big challenge. As minors, it proved to be a little bit more difficult.
How did you break through and get those initial sponsors as minors?
Persistence. We started emailing in July — three months ahead of time. We thought, “OK, we need to give ourselves a lot of time.” I was a student involved with Girls Who Code. I had a lot of connections. I also, at the time, was working for #BUILTBYGIRLS, which is a brand associated with AOL and I had a connection there. And Emily’s dad is the CTO of a company, so she had some connections there.
Even though we were young, we still had people’s emails. And, although we still hadn’t met people, we had been to coding events before and we had a network. It was just a question of reaching out to them. I was working full time that summer, but I would spend my breaks on calls with companies, trying to persuade them to give us money or give us any support that they were willing to give us.
Emily was writing dozens of emails every day. If we didn’t get response within a week, we’d email them again. If we still didn’t get a response, we’d email them again, try to set up a call, or try to find their office and visit them in person.
It was just not us being annoying but us being persistent. We were constantly there in their inbox and their voicemail, trying to push the fact that we wanted def hacks() to happen and that this was going to be beneficial for high school students and, ultimately, the future of technology.
After I established sponsorships with companies and we became friends with the people that we had worked with in those companies, they would talk to me and Emily and say, “The reason we sponsored you is because we would constantly see your names in our inbox. We were like, ‘Oh, we should probably respond to those girls. They seem like they know what they’re doing. They’re constantly emailing us.'”
def hacks() was always at the top of their mind because we were always in their inbox. They were like, “Yeah, maybe these girls have a point. Maybe they have a shot at whatever they’re doing.” So we were persistent and also reached out to people who were very supportive of what we were trying to do.
Tech companies, I found, are very willing to work with initiatives that are trying to educate the next generation because they realize those are their future employees. They want to train them early. They want to get the word out to them early. Being a sponsor normally gives them a little bit more publicity with kids who probably wouldn’t know about them or probably wouldn’t care about them.
It was a combination of persistence on our end and support from them. It all worked out eventually. Now that we have those connections, we’re like friends now. I’ll email them up and be like, “Yeah, we’re having a hackathon in two months. Can you guys spot us a certain level of sponsorship?” They’ll be like, “Yeah, sure,” because they know that we are doing something that’s been successful.
In listening to you, I am struck by your level of articulateness, professionalism, vision, and confidence. Where do you think you gained those from? Looking at the combined forces in your life and your environment, what would you pick out for me?
My confidence is definitely something my parents have always talked to me about. My Dad always jokes that if he doesn’t deflate my ego, I’ll get too big of a head because I’m very confident of myself and my abilities.
I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I haven’t been confident of myself. I know there’s definitely been times where I haven’t been articulate. I’ve definitely learned, through being a part of Girls Who Code and through having multiple jobs in tech companies, how to present myself and how to interview well and how to best represent myself.
In terms of confidence, I feel like that’s something my family has always tried to instill to me. I’m the oldest child in my family. They definitely reinforced the idea that education is very important. I was in honors programs. I went to a very math- and science-based high school.
When I told my family that I wanted to be an engineer, they were like, “OK, sure. Go for it. We’re not going to stop you.” Because my family was so supportive in my interests and my extra-curriculars and whatever classes I wanted to take, that definitely made me more confident.
I wouldn’t come to them and say, “Oh, I want to take AP computer science,” they wouldn’t say no to that. They’d be like, “OK, sure. Go for it. Why are you coming to us and asking if you can take it? We’re obviously going to say yes.” Because I knew that my family had that support for me, it made me more confident in my decisions. Now I know that whatever I do, they will always be there for me.
My confidence also has come from the people I’ve surrounded myself with. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of honors programs in schools and worked in engineering and coding programs. I’ve also been a part of so many communities that are all full of determined, articulate, well-educated people who want to support each other and learn from each other. Because of that, I have grown to absorb some of those qualities myself.
It’s a question of the environment that I’ve grown up in. I’m very lucky to have had such a supportive group of people behind me, who have never really questioned my motives or my intentions. Because of that, I’ve learned to not question myself as much.
I can’t be more grateful for that. If I hadn’t had people behind me who were willing to listen to me and willing to have me rant about things or talk about things I was passionate about, I don’t think I would have chosen to be an engineer.
I don’t think I would have chosen then to go into computer science because if I found that the people around me, who are closest to me, weren’t willing to listen to what I was going to say, I feel like I wouldn’t have the confidence that I do in the fields that I’ve been pursuing.
May I ask how old are you now?
I’m 18. I’m a freshman in college.
Let’s shift now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, which is keeping the internet open and free. What, for you, is the open internet? I really want to focus on the “for you” — not a proper Mozilla answer.
The most the most relevant example I can think of is Wikipedia because I grew up in the age of the internet. My parents tell me we had dial-up when I was three or something. I obviously don’t remember that. We’ve had a computer as long as I can remember.
I’ve used the internet in all of my school projects. Whenever I had a phone, I’ve always had connection to the internet. That’s just been something I’ve grown up with.
The internet that I have been a part of, at least, I’ve always found it to be a very supportive and engaging and enlightening community. Depending on which website you’re on — because you’re always going to find those internet trolls or those websites that are just not helpful at all. But, depending on the site that you go to, you’ll find a compilation like Wikipedia — a compilation of knowledge about something that people worked on together.
Even though teachers have told me not to trust Wikipedia, I have grown to learn that Wikipedia is probably one of the more accurate parts of the internet because it’s controlled by so many people that, if you’re wrong, someone is going to call you out on it.
Places like that, where there’s collaboration, where there are pages for a lot of people who are discussing and editing each other and calling each other out and correcting and learning from each other — that’s what I think the open internet is.
The open internet is a place for discussion. It’s a place where there shouldn’t be censorship. It’s a place where issues and topics should be properly discussed. It’s a place of education in all senses of the word — education about social issues, education about history, education about integration in mathematics.
The open internet is being able to access the wide and ever-expanding pool of knowledge that we as humans have started to compile together, and being able to access all that information in the blink of an eye.
If I wasn’t able to access all the information that I have on the internet, I don’t think I would have an open mind on some issues that I’ve learned the other side of. I don’t think that I would have been as exposed to certain branches of technology had I not had the internet, because with an open internet, you’re exposed to more than just your community. You’re exposed to the communities of the people who are interacting with you on the internet.
Because of that, you’re exposed to more opinions, more backgrounds, more ways of thinking. You start to see how other people live and think outside of your own community and outside your own way of life. That’s a very deep explanation of the open internet, but I know that that’s a topic that’s pretty relevant right now.
It’s very important to maintain that the internet be for everybody. It’s like a no-holds-barred kind of place, where anything can be posted and anything can be discussed because you need something like that in this world, where now you can connect with people in the blink of an eye. You want to be able to compile those interactions and that knowledge base in one place.
What about the information or communities on the internet that have a really negative side to them? I’m thinking of conspiracy theory websites that can look somewhat legitimate or these crazy videos on YouTube. How do you manage to navigate those? Do you see people getting sucked in by that?
Definitely. I spend a lot of my time on YouTube. If you go on YouTube a lot, you learn to never go into the YouTube comments because it’s a whole other world.
Sometimes those places are negative and they’re humiliating people, talking about topics that people don’t want to talk about, or are just plain disgusting. Those negative places exist. Obviously, there are people thinking and discussing those things and now they’re able to put them on the internet so more people can hear about it.
Those negative spaces give you an idea of how other people are thinking. Whether or not they’re willing to share it outside of the internet is a whole different story, but they’re thinking those things.
You learn about another facet of the society, however small it may be. Once you’re exposed to that, you realize, “Oh, other people are thinking that.” Maybe that will push you to try to educate them about the issue that they are discussing, or the language that they’re using, or the topic that they’re discussing — and show them another side of what’s happening. Typically, that won’t work because these people are very stubborn.
These people are not as open-minded as you would want them to be, but if you would censor that voice, if you censor that negative space, that would be even worse — because they would know that they’re being censored. They would know that there’s some outside authority that’s trying to shut down their voice. I feel like it would escalate way more than it needs to because on the internet, primarily, it is just words. The words can be very powerful, but if you shut down the ability for someone to talk, that’s even worse.
I try to stay away from those negative spaces, like 4chan or conspiracy websites or weird places on YouTube that you definitely don’t want to be. They’re always going to be there because people are always thinking something along those lines.
Putting them on the internet is allowing more people to see them. That could be a bad thing because it can expand those negative spaces, but it could also be a good thing because then other people can learn more about the people who are in those negative spaces.
It’s a little tricky thing because it’s not fun reading through some of the things. I remember threads on Reddit that are pretty gross. Obviously, I do not want to read through them, but shutting that down, that’s not going to stop those people from thinking those things. That’s just going to stop those people from posting on that specific Reddit thread.
Being negative is inherent in human nature. The internet just amplifies our perception of it. It’s never going to go away, unfortunately. You’ve just got to accept that that’s a part of society and try to educate them about the other side of whatever they’re talking about. Hopefully, they’ll learn to think in a different way or see a different perspective or something like that.
Could you give me an example of how the open aspects of the internet have been important for you? You’ve already mentioned some of this, so you can skip this question or provide more details.
To expand on what I’ve mentioned, I could focus on social media. I use social media a lot, which isn’t always a good thing. The good thing about social media is that I’ve been able to meet and interact with people that I normally wouldn’t have met or I normally wouldn’t have even known existed.
Before I came to college, I was that person on Facebook who was friending everybody who went to Cornell, because I was like, “I want to make friends before I get to this university. I want to make sure that I have established a friend network before I get here.”
Although that’s very specific to social media — that aspect of connecting with people — it’s something that the open internet fosters. It’s a sense of community. Not just a community — a space for people to network and find common ground or debate or just to interact with each other in some way, even if they’re not in the same country or place.
Before the internet, you would have to write a letter or call someone or walk over to their house. Now, with the internet, you could tweet at someone, or you can find their website and leave a comment. There are so many ways to interact with people. There are so many ways to discuss all the topics that are relevant to today’s society.
That’s something that open internet definitely fosters because it makes sure that nothing is censored. If you want to talk about something that has a trigger warning or something that’s a bit taboo, you will be able to do that on the internet. It allows people to talk to other people about different topics and learn different perspectives or stick within the same perspective. It depends on the kind of person that you are. It fosters communities, definitely.
Getting more specific about Mozilla now, how did you get involved with them? What has that been like?
I think it was Emily — it was my partner who emailed Mozilla. I don’t remember. One of us emailed Mozilla for the first hackathon we organized. We were like, “Look, we’ve heard Mozilla loves supporting education initiatives. Would you guys like to help?”
I believe I talked to Lainie [DeCoursy]. At that point, it was too late for Mozilla to work with our fall hackathon. But Lainie got on a call with me and talked about what they would be able to do for us after.
She said, “Look, I know you guys are probably organizing a spring hackathon. We’d definitely love to be involved. And we want you to be involved in our network. This is a partnership that we could see happening in the future. It’s not going to happen right now because it’s very short notice, but we can see this happening in the future.”
After our fall hackathon, Emily and I were like, “Yes, we want to plan for spring hackathon.” We emailed all of the people that we had emailed for the first hackathon, including Mozilla. When we told them that we were organizing another hackathon they were very excited.
When you hold multiple events within the same initiative, it seems more successful. Others could tell that def hacks() was going somewhere because we had enough of a participant base to hold another event. The first one wasn’t a flop. We were doing good.
We continued talking to Lainie and other people in Mozilla. They were very excited about what we were doing. The first time they fully supported us in terms of a monetary sponsorship was the last hackathon we held, which was in the fall of 2016. They sponsored us at our highest level.
We were like, “Yo, that’s pretty cool,” because not a lot of companies want to give a substantial amount of money. Not that others don’t believe in the initiative, but it can be a little bit too much money to spend on a one-time hackathon.
Mozilla wanted to be a long-term supporter. They wanted to be a part of def hacks() as it grew. They wanted to be there as a consistent supporting entity. That was great. Mozilla is a company that I’ve obviously heard of — the computers at school use Firefox. It’s a pretty well-known company. Small, but well known.
Hearing from the people that we were talking to at Mozilla that they fully supported what we were doing with def hacks() and that they wanted to be more than just a sponsor — they wanted to work with us continuously — was really cool because it was not something we expected.
We expected to gain long-term monetary supporters, the same companies sponsor us time and time again. But Mozilla offered us not only sponsorship but also connections in the network to meet other people who are doing the same kind of initiatives, so we could grow our spot in the education technology space. That was crazy. It’s been awesome.
Emily and I have not been working with def hacks() as much lately because we are in college. We’re more managers of our little network of def hacks() hackathons. Now our head organizers, Aram and Robbie, have been in contact with Mozilla frequently.
The opportunities that Mozilla has presented to us have been amazing. The monetary support, obviously fantastic. That’s helped us actually run our events and to attend a showcase in New York City where we brought one of our def hacks() winners to show off what they created. We were also invited to apply for MozFest and other opportunities like that. In the future, we will have more opportunities as def hacks() grows bigger.
Having a bigger, well-known company be a primary supporter of def hacks() — not just as a sponsor but a supporter in the mentality and in the actual initiative of def hacks() itself — has been really great. We feel validated because we know that a bigger company is just as excited as us about this kind of initiative and that they believe in us a lot.
I was going to just ask about a time that Mozilla had some impact on your life, your work, or your organization. You’ve talked about that a lot, but again, perhaps you want to say a bit more, add a little bit more detail, or highlight one specific type of impact?
The way that Mozilla has impacted me is they’re a tech company but not primarily a tech company. I’m trying to think of a company. I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but they’re not like a tech company that just happens to give money to tech initiatives — just to claim that they have supported something.
From how I have interacted with Mozilla, they don’t seem to do this for a ton of publicity. They don’t do this to look better. They do this because they genuinely want to expand whatever aspect of tech that the initiative is working on. Whether it’s teaching people how to code or educating children or something like that, they genuinely are just as passionate as the founders of those initiatives in what they’re doing.
With the majority of our sponsors, that’s not something that we see very often. They obviously believe in our cause, but they’re not there to support in any other way besides giving money or giving swag or providing mentors or something like that. They’re not trying to help out with the process or help out with the publicity unless we explicitly ask them to.
I remember when we were talking to Mozilla, they were like, “We can’t give you money this time around, but would you want us to send an email blast to all of the people in our network about your hackathon, or would you like us to write a blog post about your hackathon?”
Whenever we would get on a call with them, they would ask, “How was the last event? How did it go? What about the future?” They were just as excited as us with def hacks() and with the future of def hacks(), which is definitely something that we want.
They are more into the idea of the initiative itself rather than the benefits to them of supporting the initiative, which is something that gives us a little more confidence in what we’re doing. A bigger company not only believes in our idea at that moment but believes in the continuity of that idea and the longevity of that idea as it moves forward.
What feedback would you have for Mozilla? Were there any things that didn’t work out so well or experiences that didn’t meet your expectations?
The one thing that I had a little bit of trouble with is that when we were supported by them, they were still developing their network — deciding on the different levels and how each organization fit in. Because they were supporting us and wanted us to be a part of their network, we expected to support them in different ways — but our specific commitments weren’t outlined at the beginning.
That was totally fine and we were able to get the support we needed for def hacks(), but we also wanted to be a part of that network as soon as possible. Not only for our gain, but also to thank Mozilla and be like, “Yes, you supported us. Now we’re going to do you guys a solid and support you as well.”
When we were first working with them and they were providing monetary sponsorship, they didn’t have the levels outlined in the network. They didn’t have the specific duties outlined for youth ambassadors in the network. We waited on that and now Aram and Robbie are following through on those commitments.
We started working with that program at an early time in its conception. It was not fully finished. They’re getting there, as far as I know with the updates. They’ve made great steps to fully flesh out the ideas that they wanted to tackle. It was just that, when we first got involved, not everything was set up, so we weren’t able to give back to them as much as we had wanted.
We’re collecting stories from different types of people across the Mozilla network. How might what we’re collecting be useful to you, if at all?
They’d be useful to me in that they’re examples of how other people are interacting within the tech world — this is something I tackle in every interview. In every job application, they’ll have a question that’s along the lines of, “Why are you involved in tech?” or “Why do you like to code?” or something like that.
My answer is always because technology is so big. It’s basically limitless at this point. You’re constantly learning about every little subtopic and every little knowledge base that you never knew existed before. Technology is something you dig into.
Because of that, these stories can give me, and the participants of def hacks() and all the people that I know, a little bit more insight into the other facets of technology.
I know Mozilla has initiatives for education and open internet and code-learning initiatives and stuff like that. Hearing about all those initiatives and all the people who have made those initiatives would just open me up to more opinions and more backgrounds and more ways of thinking.
I would get to learn about why they decided to make that initiative and why they thought that was important to them and learn about their process and stuff like that.
What this interview is to you guys, the other interviews would be to me. It would be an educational experience — learning what other people have done and how they have gone about doing it. It’s inspirational and educational to hear about what other people are doing in tech or whatever field that they’re working in. Being able to read those first-hand experiences would definitely be helpful in that regard.