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The Man of the (Hacker) Hour

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As part of our efforts to give back to New York City’s vibrant tech community, we’ve begun offering free programming help sessions at our Manhattan office. For fellow enthusiasts of Scala and the Typesafe platform, we’ve launched Scala Hacker Hours NYC; for the iPhone-adoring crowd, we’ve partnered up with the team at Code Coalition to co-organize iOS Office Hours. Both groups meet every other week from 6:30 to 8:30 PM and feature at least one or two participants from our engineering team, who answer attendees’ questions and talk about our technologies.

We’d love to take credit for the Hacker Hours concept, but we can’t. That privilege goes to Aidan Feldman: a developer at the online art platform Artsy, JavaScript instructor at NYU, and (when he’s not coding or showing others how to code) professional dancer. After graduating from the University of Michigan a few years ago, Aidan moved to NYC and started his first full-time developer job. To find his way around his new hometown and its lively tech scene, he began attending hackathons and meetups. Along the way, he kept running into people who were trying to teach themselves how to code.

“I had always assumed that most people who wanted to get serious about programming went through the traditional four-year program like I did,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine trying to learn this stuff without having classmates and instructors around for help and guidance.”

Aidan was doing a bit of one-on-one tutoring on the side, but that instructional format started to seem limiting and inefficient. What if he made himself available to a whole group of people at one time? Then he could provide feedback and help people to get past hurdles so they could work through the rest of their projects or exercises on their own time. This realization inspired him to create Hacker Hours.

The first Hacker Hours took place at Aidan’s then-workplace in a conference room that held eight people. To promote the meetup, he announced it on his blog and some local mailing lists. When the time came, he wasn’t sure how many people would actually show up. “I sat there by myself for the first hour and a half and was ready to give up,” he recalls, “but then a single person walked in. We talked through the bug he was having, and he was so grateful, that it gave me just enough confidence to do it again.” The next Hacker Hours drew four people; the one after that, eight people, then the next, a dozen. “Every time since, more than 15 people have attended.”

The crowds at those first few Hacker Hours meetups were almost exclusively absolute beginners, Aidan says. “They’d line up with questions, and I’d run around frantically trying to get to everyone.” Growing attendance required him to move the gatherings to a NYC coffee shop. With the change of scenery came a change in the group’s vibe. “Now, we get a lot of regulars and a mix of skill levels, so it’s as much about the co-working and community as about the help.”

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Hacking at Hacker Hours. Image credit: Aidan Feldman.

In Midtown Manhattan, Aidan holds Hacker Hours every Sunday at the AlleyNYC co-working space. Former Hacker Hours regular Karl Baum has also started organizing them on weekdays, and a variety of language/framework-specific office hours (including ours) have popped up across the city. The concept has spread west of the Hudson River: there’s now a Hacker Hours Boulder, and other groups are forming nationwide. To help aspiring organizers get started, Aidan has created a Hacker Hours guide with advice and tips. The guide is open source so that other organizers can share their ideas for alternate formats and tweaks.

Spending so much time helping others learn how to code has its advantages. In addition to meeting people who are similarly passionate about programming and technology, Aidan has also met some of his best friends via Hacker Hours. “I benefit a great deal from the work of others, through attending their talks and using their open-source software, so this is my main way of paying it forward,” he says. “I also think that having more and better developers in the industry benefits everyone, so that we can spend less time reading recruiter emails and more time building stuff.” Networking and notoriety—“writ small, of course”—are other pluses. “My long-term personal goal is to become the Neil deGrasse Tyson of coding, and explaining concepts to beginners helps me to clarify my assumptions.”

How should people prepare to attend a Hacker Hours event? Help the group’s mentors (anyone who’s willing to answer questions) help you by bringing specific questions, Aidan suggests: “Even if those questions are on the order of, ‘what should I learn first?’ or ‘what’s a good resource for X?’” Picking a goal is also advisable. “There’s a big difference in what you need to know in order to tweak a WordPress theme, versus how to get a full-time job as a developer. Both are perfectly valid, but require different sets of skills.“

Hacker Hours 1 Scala Hacker Hours NYC 1 iOS Office Hours 6 Aidan Feldman 2 AlleyNYC 5