hackNY alumNY Speak to NYC Generation Tech Students

On Wednesday, five of our alumNY spoke at one of NYC Generation Tech‘s mentorship nights. After sharing their stories and answering questions, they received a standing ovation from the students! Cheryl Wu, Class of 2012, wrote a guest post for our blog reflecting on the evening. Cheryl is a designer and creative coder, who currently works as a Product Designer at Nasdaq while on leave from NYU Gallatin. She is the Swiss Army Knife of [email protected] , where she connects New York City’s student tech leaders as the first community lead. She is passionate about improving lives through design, ecology, and education. Be sure to check out our other recent guest posts, from 2015 Fellows Kim, Keeyon, Chris, Merry, and Shloka!

Cheryl Wu, Class of 2012


Cheryl Wu, Class of 2012

On August 5th, I was one of five hackNY AlumNY honored to speak on a panel and Q&A with the students of NYC Generation Tech. Like hackNY, GenTech nurtures the next generation of technologists and entrepreneurs. GenTech’s free summer program gives curious, motivated public high school students from all five boroughs hands-on experience in building and shipping. GenTech students take a mini-bootcamp in frontend code, imagine an app that helps their communities, learn to pitch and collaborate, and work with mentors from top companies to prototype their mobile apps. As with hackNY’s summer fellowship, the students also get incredible private tours and lectures – tours of Warby Parker and Google, and CEO and VC talks – and make lifelong friendships with peers who want to change the world by building new things.

AlumNY Gerard O’Neill (’12), Valentin Perez (’15), Dan Cadden (’15), Cheryl Wu (’12), and Alan Lin (’13) shared personal stories and insights about the tech industry with students from local high schools

Our AlumNY present were:

Dan Cadden, hackNY 2015 / Temple University, hackNY Fellow at Skillshare

Alan Lin, hackNY 2013 / Boston College, now Software Developer at 2U

Gerard O’Neill, hackNY 2012 / Rutgers University, now Software Engineer at Etsy

Valentin Perez, hackNY 2015 / Brown University, hackNY Fellow at Matchbook

and me, Cheryl Wu, hackNY 2012 / New York University, now Product Designer at Nasdaq.

We introduced ourselves by talking about our experiences in the tech industry and how we each got started. For many of us, tech wasn’t a “natural fit” – finding tech was surprising and we were encouraged by supportive mentors. We didn’t grow up realizing that technology was a career option, and we don’t fit the common stereotypes of engineers. Only Gerard knew he wanted to work on the web since he was a kid.

Dan was an English major for most of college, then switched to computer science in his senior year. He was discouraged from STEM in high school because he moved around a lot and didn’t absorb much math. His win at the hackNY hackathon led him to the summer program, interning with Skillshare, and he has learned a lot in one year by building projects constantly. He told GenTech about his recent fellowship demo: an image-recognition mobile app to find Waldo.

Valentin grew up in Mexico and didn’t know about computer science until college. His talent in math lead him to computer science and developing gorgeous, award-winning iOS applications and websites, which he demoed to the class. He equates his rise to “a little slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept,” where sustained hard work catches up to (and can surpass) a starting advantage. He interned on a tiny team at Matchbook and experienced an early-stage startup firsthand.

Alan is a first-generation college student, the child of Chinese immigrants who never graduated high school. In his own words, he was a “thug” in middle school and didn’t care about academics. His guidance counselor in a NYC public school gave him a list of community and city colleges. Instead, he worked hard to go to Boston College and studied business, where a substitute professor introduced him to programming Excel macros, and later, computer science.


NYC GenTech students from local high schools listen to our alumNY panel.
NYC GenTech students from local high schools listen to our alumNY panel.

Gerard knew he wanted to be a web designer since he was 10, designing and building sites on Geocities. A web development teacher at his high school saw his potential and convinced him to major in computer science at Rutgers. He interned at Etsy during his fellowship and has worked there since. He learned a lot from an 18-hour hack session at Etsy during hackNY (including to avoid hacking for 18 hours straight.)

As for me, I discovered HTML and CSS when I was little and combined design with my love of art. I was intimidated by “real code” and didn’t think I was a developer. In high school, I built experimental web projects with a close friend (and a 2011 hackNY alumnus) – he did backend and JS and I did frontend and design. Charles introduced me to hackNY, and my summer at hackNY motivated me to work with code. I started learning JavaScript two years ago after seeing how satisfying it is to make projects myself.

The five of us had different paths, and we are all empowered by code and technology. Another common denominator is we like to build low-pressure personal projects just to explore new libraries or techniques. We agreed it was important to get over the fear of looking silly and make things, no matter how small or broken. The result is less important than enjoying the process. To survive in a tech industry where you might not fit in, it’s important to believe in yourself even if others want to discourage you. While challenging, a strong network of peers and mentors who love and support you makes it far easier. Diversity and persistence are critical for the best ideas, so never give up!

After our introductions, we were asked insightful questions from the students. They were curious about the tech industry, team dynamics, and how ideas make money. As Valentin said during the Q&A, “You can build anything you can imagine with code.” It’s this generative quality that unites us at hackNY and GenTech. Code is shaping the future and everyone belongs in creating it. Our hackNY experiences inspired us to build more and made relationships for life, which are foundational to becoming better developers and designers. It was amazing to see the vibrant community at GenTech form in the same way. hackNY is grateful to give back to the NYC tech ecosystem that supports us and to help guide other students as they start their careers in technology and startups.