Hack Club: Empowering Students to Tap Into Their Coding Super Power

August 2, 2016 | Tech Nonprofits

Hack Club: Empowering Students to Tap Into Their Coding Super Power

Growing up, most kids dream of having a super power. Whether it’s spinning webs like Spiderman, flying like Superwoman, or—being a ’90s kid myself—casting spells like Harry Potter. But today there’s a new super power youth seek, and it’s a power with far more utility than shooting spider webs out of your wrist: coding.

While coding can truly feel like a super power, it’s more than that. The ability to code empowers anyone to create their own products and use technology to drive the change they want to see in the world. Not to mention about half of the high paying jobs in the U.S. today require coding, a skill that most people in today’s work force were never exposed to in high school. As coding becomes a form of digital literacy in nearly every possible career path, it’s more important than ever that students tap into this skill at an early age.

Zach Latta discovered coding early-on and launched Hack Club, a platform empowering high schoolers to start awesome after-school coding clubs, as a solution to the lack of support for computer science programs in the U.S. Only 1 in 4 high schools in the U.S. offer coding classes, and with rigid restrictions and lots of red tape to cut through to get coding programs approved on a school or district-wide level, Zach decided to build a platform that put the power to code directly in students’ hands.

Since founding Hack Club in 2014, the tech nonprofit has reached over 1,500 students in 82 schools across 7 countries and 16 states. This is just the beginning for Hack Club, though. Read our interview with Zach Latta to learn more about how the program and how it has enabled unlikely coders across the U.S. to discover their inner super power.

Can you tell me more about how Hack Club works?

Hack Club helps high schoolers start awesome after-school coding clubs. We provide a “club in a box” that includes everything a high schooler needs to start a chapter – curriculum, leadership training, an online community, and events.

Students are fed up with waiting for their schools to implement solutions and now they’re taking matters into their own hands through Hack Club to step in where their schools have fallen short.

What do the resources look like?

It’s like a “club in a box.” We treat each chapter like a franchise and provide students with an A-to-Z guide on how to run an amazing experience. This includes leadership guidelines, details on how to actually put the club together, and written workshops for every club meeting.

Each workshop walks club members through the process of making something. In the first meeting members create their own website. By the third meeting they’ve created their first game. By the fifth meeting you build an online collaborative sketchpad. Club members are building real stuff every step of the way.

Here’s a couple examples of what hackers built during their first few days: https://sohuang.github.io, https://jluo9612.github.io/shouty-flap/, https://jocyhe.github.io/jocyhe/

What was your inspiration for launching Hack Club?

I was not exposed to tech while I was growing up, but one day felt compelled to learn how to build a website. By simply Googling, “How to build a website,” I discovered a whole new world that I never knew existed. I always assumed computers were a black box I would never figure out. I learned how to code and instantly was hooked. Coding changed by life and gave me meaning.

When I entered high school I was really disappointed to find that, like 75% of schools in the US, my school didn’t offer any coding classes. A friend and I got together and decided that we were going to build the computer science program we wish our school had—through an after school club.

After meeting other high schoolers from around the world who had also started coding clubs for the same reason we did, I decided to start Hack Club to unite us and make coding as common as after-school sports in high schools around the world.

How do you plan to scale?

We already have the inbound; we’re receiving applications for clubs every day. Students find out about us through Google, traditional press, and word of mouth. And once one Hack Club chapter in a district is started, the other schools tend to follow.

Our big challenge is building a process for onboarding clubs that’s both high touch and scalable. Long term, we’re planning on training our community of club leaders to become “account executives” for every new club that joins our community.

What’s your vision or ideal use case for students in Hack Club?

Our goal with Hack Club is to build a pipeline of makers in high school. Within a year of Hack Club, students in our community are building real stuff, which allows them to see the immediate impact of coding. In the long term we want every single student to have access to a Hack Club regardless of location, race, or socioeconomic status. This is the most life changing skill anyone can have. We want to scale so we can give every single student the opportunity to join a community of people building things. Coding gives anyone the ability to create the change they want to see in the world. This is a form of enlightenment.

What matters to us is that people apply coding in a way that makes a difference for them. Some people want to build art and exhibit in galleries, for others it’s a means of economic empowerment and a way to start their own business. A few stories about our community members demonstrate the power of coding:

Mariano is one of our Hack Club leaders who just graduated high school. He grew up in Boyle Heights, a low-income neighborhood in L.A. Growing up he was not exposed to technology at home. He was never surrounded by cell phones, computers, or internet access. One day when he was young, though, he took apart the television and then put it back together. Something about being able to see inside that box made him realize he had a greater calling. A few years later he entered high school and decided he wanted to learn how to code. Every day after school he went to the local public library and taught himself to code using online resources. From there, he started building websites for local businesses to supplement his mom’s income. Coding was his way out.

While attending Roosevelt High, which has a 43% dropout rate, Mariano reached out to start a Hack Club because he wanted other students at the school to be able to cultivate their coding superpowers too. He set up a Hack Club at Roosevelt High and we were blown away to find out 26 students attended the first meeting. Over the course of the first week Mariano stayed in contact and sent me photos of our Hack Club stickers all over the school. Students loved them and said when they went to the Hack Club meeting they realized coding was actually in the realm of possibility for them for the first time ever. Coding is a form of literacy.

What has been the greatest challenge so far?

For myself, personal challenge wise, I’ve learned the importance of having a firm worldview and being confident in that. One of the biggest challenges early on was conveying why you do what you do or why someone should work for you. It’s so difficult to communicate something new if you don’t have a strong and established worldview. You can change that worldview but you need something concrete to go from.

The challenge with Hack Club is to maintain quality as a franchise organization. We operate as a franchise in that every chapter is completely independent. It’s difficult to collect data and get people to change things if we integrate a new program. Students start Hack Clubs out of their own will, so we don’t have a high degree of control over them. This makes curriculum changes difficult, because each Hack Club functions differently. However the autonomy allows more students to have access to coding resources.

What has been most rewarding about running this company?

The most rewarding thing in the world is when you see the spark in a new programmer’s eye at the moment they realize, “Woah! I had no idea I could do this.” It’s the highest high. You know that person is going to go home and really think about things. That’s easily it.

Would you ever consider partnering directly with schools to make Hack Club part of the curriculum?

No. Perhaps we would consider providing our curriculum to schools for computer science programs, but it’s not our curriculum that’s so powerful. It’s our community. We’ve created an in-group of students, and we want to maintain our focus which is students.

What’s your 5-year company vision?

It’s more the 5-year vision for our members. We will be in thousands of high schools and build a really high quality program along the way. If Hack Club still exists 5 years from now, you’re going to see members from Hack Clubs building tools, software, and hardware just as influential as devices like the iPhone. If you look at the University of Michigan and U Penn hackathons, (they fly out 1,300 people for these events – the best people from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, China, Europe) last year half the winners were high schoolers and every single one of those students were part of their high school hack clubs. In 5 years it’s going to be crazy to experience: Hack Club’s students will be building absolutely incredible things.

What’s the best entrepreneurial advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t listen to entrepreneurial advice. You have to go through the motions yourself. This comedian Bo Burnham tells aspiring comedians, “Don’t listen to advice from people like us. Listening to someone who is doing a high-risk thing and made it to the top is like listening to someone who won the lottery and is telling you to liquidize your assets and buy lottery tickets.” Circumstances are so individual it’s hard to give serious advice. If I could go to my former self with advice, though, I would say value rationalism, value truth, don’t be afraid of being wrong, it’s ok to throw out work, and surround yourself with the smartest people in the room.