In January I participated in my first Hackathon, winning Second Place for my Slack-integrated chat bot. I had little to no programming experience, but with encouragement from MOSA, I entered the challenge on a whim. 

As a long-time sufferer of Impostor Syndrome, trying new things at which I may fail miserably is often difficult. Activities foregone due to fear of failure include bowling, golfing, karaoke, and math without a calculator. When MOSA first encouraged me to join the Hackathon, I thought, “No way am I making a fool of myself in front of all these Ivy Leaguers.” Negative self-talk often knows no bounds.

Upon my acceptance to Penn for Spring 2020, I immediately thought the Admissions Team was mistaken. Surely someone else was more qualified, smarter, better pedigreed, insert-other-quality-here, but my insecure outlook was misguided. I didn’t apply to Penn to compare myself to others. I applied to become a software engineer, to learn in a top tier institution surrounded by inspiring peers, each with unique experiences and wisdom to share.

Hackathons are great way to test drive a new skill or programming language. My idea for a chat bot was sparked shortly after joining the MCIT Slack channel and reading numerous questions from students about coursework, office hours and other information tidbits. Chat bots can be called upon any time to answer questions, eliminating redundancy and the time lag between asking a question and receiving an answer.

I researched Slack chat bots and planned to use Java coupled with Slack’s API and cloud deployment. I woefully underestimated the additional steps required to getting the API integration operational, resulting in the Java code I initially wrote being far too buggy to work properly. I spent about three days trying to debug—keep in mind all of my programming skills were coming directly from YouTube and Stack Overflow at this point–when I finally gave up and went a different route. Many of the APIs seem to work better with JavaScript, and once I started down that path I was able to successfully interact with the bot until finally deploying it to the cloud. My goal for FAQBot is to ultimately install it to the MCIT Slack channel once a more robust set of conversation skills are coded. My only regret is that I joined the hackathon at the last minute and thus had to go it alone. The development process would have been much more enjoyable with teammates.

To all future MOSA Hackathon participants:

Don’t be afraid to take the leap into the unknown. At worst, you’ll have learned something new to build on in future projects.

Jen Macklin

I look forward to embarking on my next Hackathon adventure and working with my fellow classmates!

A screenshot of a cell phone

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