Bringing Coding to the Masses One School at a Time
Eighteen-year-old Zach Latta, executive director of San Francisco-based Hack Club, is a 2015 recipient of the Thiel Fellowship and one of Forbes Magazine's 30 Under 30 (Education Category) for 2016. He led the Engineering Team at Yo, and was a developer on Football Heroes. (Read our feature article on Hack Club here.)
THE Journal: How long have you been working on Hack Club?
Zach Latta: It has been about a year now. We've been really intent on growing, and this past year we've expanded into 52 schools. [SInce this interview, the figure has reached 69 schools, as of Feb. 22, 2016.]
THE Journal: How involved are students in starting Hack Clubs at their schools?
Latta: Hack Club is built almost entirely by students, for students. The clubs themselves are run by students, not teacher or Hack Club staff, and our club leaders are an integral part of building new curriculum from the moment we start on new content. We've even had many club leaders create entirely new content for the organization on their own.
THE Journal: What happens after a student applies?
Latta: We set up an interview, talk to the student a little bit about his or her experience, why he or she wants to start a Hack Club, and if it's already started, what the existing club looks like. We're looking for leadership ability and for people who take initiative. If we decide to move forward, the next steps are finding a teacher sponsor at the school and working with the club leader to plan for the first two meetings.
THE Journal: Do you look for new applicants, or do students find you?
Latta: Students find us. Everything is through applications with us. We will be at events [like hackathons], and we'll say, "If you want to start a coding club or a Hack Club, go to our Web site, apply, and we'll talk to you."
We also have a large online presence, specifically in the high school and college community. There are a lot of Facebook groups that people talk in. I run a Facebook group for high school students that has about 6,000 high school students in it that are all really into programming. And we've been driving applications through there, and through the collegiate equivalent. The Facebook group I run has high school students from every single state, more than 100 countries, and over 1,000 high schools.
THE Journal: Is hacking, programming, coding all the same thing?
Latta: Within our community, hacking, programming, coding — all of these really mean the same thing. To us, all it means is creating. If you're hacking on something, you're creating something. If you're coding something, you're creating something. The thing is, you're doing it all with code.
THE Journal: How technologically equipped are today's high schools to start Hack Clubs?
Latta: In 2009, there was a survey done by the National Center for Education, and they found that 97 percent of teachers had one or more computers in their classroom every day, and 93 percent had Internet access. And I can only imagine that number has gone up in the past six or seven years.
To start a Hack Club, you need a classroom, computer, and internet access. Generally clubs take place at computer labs or in a regular classroom with school provided computers, like Chromebooks (though sometimes club members are expected to bring their own laptops). All of our tools run in the Web browser on any computer, so you don't need to install anything special, and you can leave off where you want because it's all on the internet.
THE Journal: Are there any major road blocks to creating a Hack Club?
Latta: When we do see hurdles, it's generally getting the school administration on board. Sometimes the word "hack" can be a little scary, and one school actually banned the word "hack" entirely. Other than that, starting a club is usually a pretty smooth process, and it's much faster than starting a computer science class at a school.
THE Journal: What is your opinion of the mindset that banned the "hack" term?
Latta: It's completely understandable. The media paints this picture of hacking being intrusive and breaking things on the Internet. That's certainly a correct use of the term. The reason we like to use the word hacking, for both our name and inside of our clubs, is because this is a term that's used in the software industry to mean building things with code. We want to show students what it's actually like. It can be a little bit difficult at times to explain it, but generally after a quick explanation that we're not using it in a malicious way, schools are on board with it.
THE Journal: What is the biggest misconception about starting a coding/Hack Club?
Latta: People think you need to learn the fundamental concepts of programming first and only then you can do real things such as building apps, games, and websites. One of the most powerful things about coding is that you don't need permission from anyone to do whatever you want. As long as you have Internet access, you have coding at your fingertips. It's always frustrating when people think you need to learn the fundamentals to get going. In our clubs, the members are building real things from the very first meeting.
THE Journal: What type of student shows the most talent for coding?
Latta: One of the really unfortunate misconceptions is that certain people have this inherent ability to be better at coding. I firmly believe that anyone can learn to code, no matter what their background. We have one club leader that literally had never written any code before she started her club, and her club is now one of the most active in the entire country. It's hard to say that a specific type of student makes the best coder. If you want to set out and be a successful coder, all it takes is dedication and willingness to keep going even if you fail and your program breaks.
THE Journal: What type of guidance does your organization offer?
Latta: First and foremost is the community. When you start a Hack Club, you're not just starting a single chapter at your school; you're going to be working with about 100 to 150 club leaders from 12 states and six countries as of today. We just started one in Zimbabwe. [These figures are now at 16 states and seven countries, as of Feb. 22, 2016.]
You're part of this community of people who are really creating what you want to see at your school. We find that when people run into problems, they're not just left being stuck. They immediately have a supportive community of other students who have faced the same problems, and are there to help.
The second thing that we do is provide a curriculum that we build, to bring club members from little or no experience to a point where they are comfortable building things on their own.
THE Journal: What is fundamental goal of Hack Club?
Latta: Our goal is to bring the amazing culture exhibited at hackathons, where everyone is constantly building things, back to high schools and make it something that high school students can experience every single week, and not just once or twice a year.
Right now, if you start a coding club, what it's probably going to look like is you're going to be able to get a room, and advertise your first meeting. You'll probably get 30 to 50 students to come to the first meeting, and you'll be left with this problem which is, okay, we have 30 to 50 people here, but very few if any have ever coded before. You may want to work on projects together, but not be sure how.
THE Journal: What are some of the main aspects of your curriculum?
Latta: We've designed an introductory curriculum that completely focuses on building things that we provide to all of our clubs. So if you're a new club member, by the time you leave the first meeting, you have your first Web site online. By the time you leave the second meeting, you've built a Web site that can call and text your phone. By the time you've left the third meeting, you've built your first game, and it's online, and you can show your friends and family. The same concepts that you use to build your first game, you can use to build things like Flappy Bird, or other apps that you use every single day on your phone. Those are the two main things — community and curriculum.