Changelog Interviews – Episode #536
How do you do, fellow Hack Clubbers?
with Zach Latta
This week we’re joined by Zach Latta, the Founder of Hack Club. At 16, Zach tested out of high school and moved to SF to join Yo as their first engineer. After playing a key role at Yo, he founded Hack Club to help teen hackers start coding clubs around the world. Today, teen hackers can meet IRL, online, at a hackathon, or leverage Hack Club Bank a fiscal sponsor to create their own organization. Hack Club is the program Zach wished he had in high school.
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Postman – Build APIs together — More than 20 million developers use Postman for building and using APIs. Postman simplifies each step of the API lifecycle and streamlines collaboration so you can create better APIs—faster.
Rocky Linux – Enterprise Linux, the open source community way.
Notes & Links
- Invest in the future hacker generation
- Hack Club Bank
- Sprig - The game console where every player is a creator
- Meet the 18-year-old who left his job at ‘Yo’ to spread the joy of coding
- Founders Talk #81: The future of code search with Quinn Slack
- Changelog Interviews #369: Five years of freeCodeCamp
with Quincy Larson
- SSH Tron
- The World’s Longest Hackathon: The Hacker Zephyr, July 2021
Thanks to the “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” meme for this title’s inspiration.
|1||00:00||This week on The Changelog|
|3||04:04||Start the show!|
|4||07:49||Thanks Quinn and Tom|
|5||10:06||Hack Club in our transcripts|
|6||11:40||Let's get into Zach's story|
|7||14:07||I started Bro'ing people|
|8||15:45||$25K started it all|
|11||24:39||I donated $5k to my cousin's Bro app|
|12||27:48||Silicon Valley is too real|
|13||28:44||The future of tech for young people|
|14||32:53||The future of AI and openess|
|15||38:44||The Hack Club structure|
|16||44:26||Hack Club afterschool|
|17||46:59||How do you reach schools and teens?|
|18||49:20||Can older folks get involved?|
|19||54:02||It's best to not be a school program|
|20||58:16||Sponsor: Rocky Linux|
|22||1:05:29||Slack vs Discord for Hack Club|
|23||1:09:42||Remote Hack Clubs|
|24||1:14:16||Running a 25,000+ online community|
|26||1:23:04||Is there incubation in Hack Club?|
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
We’re here with Zach Latta. Zach, you reached out late last year sometime; I want to say you actually called us. Did you call us?
Yeah. Yeah, I called your number on your website.
Gosh… That’s right, man. You’re one of the few, and one of the proud that actually take the phone number, put it into a phone, and make it ring, and then somebody answers. And that somebody is almost always me, because Jerod doesn’t have this connection.
I don’t. I’m not going to answer.
I can forward a call to you, Jerod, but it goes to me usually, because I set it up forever ago. It’s Grasshopper turned something else, I don’t know what it is… But yeah, we have a phone number, and Zach called us, which was the coolest.
So maybe this is related… I actually noticed today, Zach, because I was on your website, hackclub.com, that in the footer there you’ve got a phone number in your footer. And I thought either Zach likes to get phone calls, or maybe he was inspired by Adam actually answering, or maybe that preexisted. I don’t know, was your 800 number, was that a new thing? Or did that preexist this phone call you made?
No, we’ve had it for few years, but it rings my phone number, among others on the team.
And yeah, I mean, I think that it’s important that you can get in touch with a human. And I think that the beauty of technology is that allows us to take away all the things that robots can do to, let us focus on the things that humans can do. And I think that human-to-human connection is kind of important.
Yeah, for sure. How did you feel whenever I answered your call? …a human, given your position.
Well, I think you were driving, and you were “Who is this? Why are you calling?” [laughter] And then we got it going, and I was “Oh, my God, I am so excited to be talking to you one-on-one.” So I was excited when you when you picked up. And the reason I called was every few months a bunch of teenagers at Hack Club come together to build some sort of open source project. And we had just shipped one of our most recent projects, which was an open source game console called Sprig. It’s super-cool. It’s like a combination of a piece of hardware. It’s like a custom PCB board that you can hold, and it’s an online game engine that’s like perfect for people who are just starting to get involved in programming, with game development. And we were reaching out to a few different folks. Hackaday did a profile, front page Hacker News, it was getting popular in different parts of the open source community… So I was reached out because I wanted to share it with you.
I recall that. I like those phone calls. And I’m sorry, because sometimes I get those calls, and I always answer, because I can’t not answer. I have to answer. And then sometimes I forget that it’s potentially this number, our business number calling, and I’m “Why are you calling? Who’s this again?” But either way, we talked for like 30 or 40 minutes and I was just “Man, you all have something cool happening at Hack Club.” I found out about you I think by way of Quinn Slack. He was on Founders Talk a while back, and I know that, if I understand correctly, Tom Preston-Werner, one of the co-founders of GitHub, is an investor, I believe… You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I knew of Hack Club, to some degree, and I was like – I was happy that you called, basically. After I was on the call with you, I was like “Man, this is exciting.”
I mean, we’ve always been a fan of the younger hacker generation. Jerod and I both have children, so we aspire to have children who respect technology, and understand it, and can use it the same way we do it, if not better; hopefully better. But we love the past, present and future hacker generation just as well as anybody, so…
Awesome. Yeah, and Quinn and Tom have both been incredible supporters of the mission. As a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of the technology community to make Hack Club free and available to teenagers today. And both Tom and Quinn have been founding board members of Hack Club; they’ve been involved since the very beginning. And really, so much of the amazing work happening in the community would not be possible without either of them. So a big thank you to both of them.
[08:13] Anybody else you can name? Since we’re naming Quinn and Tom, anybody else you can name that’s founding board members or integral folks there, helping the mission of Hack Club?
Yeah, I mean, the beauty of Hack Club is Hack Club isn’t me, it’s not the staff at the headquarters, it’s not our board members. It’s the community of teenagers all over the country or the world that make this open source movement possible. And there are hundreds and now over a thousand teenagers who develop and spend their time every week building the communities and projects that they themselves want to have, and want to participate in. And they’re the ones who really make Hack Club possible.
We were very lucky to have a great donor community. We operate with 100% transparent finances, so anyone - the public, a teenager, anyone curious can go to bank.hackclub.com/hq and you can literally see our bank account balance, every transaction, every donor. Our supporters range from people who have built prominent open source projects in their free time, like the guy who created Cydia from the jailbroken iPhone. Jay Freeman, he’s a monthly supporter of Hack Club. There’s a number of technology founders that are supporters of Hack Club. Elon Musk is a big supporter of Hack Club. And really, all these different people are coming together, because they have had their lives touched in a way where it transformed them in some way, shape and form through technology, and they want to make that something that’s free and available, and something that’s more supported for the next generation of hackers and makers and doers.
And really, thank you both for having me on, and a chance to kind of share more of the Hack Club mission with the broader audience. It takes a big tent to reach lots and lots and lots of young people, and our partners are so much more than open source contributors or donors. It’s like, we rely on people like you to get the word out as well, so thank you.
Yeah. Happy to have you on. I know that - Jerod, I was looking through our transcripts, and I was looking for Hack Club, like how have we talked – thank the good Lord we’ve got these beautiful, open source, black and white, anybody can contribute transcripts of our podcast, because they’re even a treasure trove for us even. I was on episode 369 of the Changelog here, this show, with Quincy Larson, “Five years of Free Code Camp”, and on that show, Quincy was talking about the financial viability of freeCodeCamp, and what they had done before they kind of got their situation in order, so to speak, to take better donations, and have a more financially sound funnel, I suppose, to support the cause. And Zach, you’d be happy to know that - I don’t know if you know Quincy personally, but he’s a fan of you, and before they were taking donations themselves directly, they were suggesting, Women Who Code, or Hack Club, and Hacker Dojo… This is directly from the transcript. So he was suggesting donations to you all as well as a by proxy supporter.
Yeah. And a huge thank you to Quincy and the broader freeCodeCamp community. I don’t know if they know how big the impact of that at the time was… When they added us to their Donate page, I was 17, on my own. I think I had one team member. So desperately trying to make Hack Club something that existed in the world. And that single Donate page on their site drove more donations than any other source that year.
And it literally meant that we could pay rent. So really, thank you so much to him. And I know we have a lot of crossover and cooperation in our communities. freeCodeCamp is amazing.
That’s beautiful. Most beautiful.
Well, let’s dive into your story a little bit. Silicon Valley, and tech people… The lore of the founder has a lot of like college dropout vibes, and I was happy to see that you have one-upped the founders of many Silicon Valley companies. Who drops out of college? Anybody can drop out of college. Zach actually drops out of high school, his freshman year, to get this thing going. Do you wanna tell that story?
[12:03] Yeah, sure. So by way of background, I’m Zach, I’m the founder of Hack Club. And I grew up in Southern California, where both my parents were social workers. My mom worked in foster care, and my dad in homelessness, and I went to public schools, that like most schools in America still today didn’t offer any coding classes. And I was really lucky enough to be part of, I think, one of the first generations that really didn’t know a world without the Internet. And when I would get home from school, starting in like third grade, I would just – like, I could not pull myself away from the computer. It felt like “Oh, my God. This is where the secrets of the Universe lie.” And when I realized that you could learn how to code and not just consume stuff from the computer, but be one of the creators, that was the most exciting, interesting idea, and I’m like “Somehow I have to figure out how to be one of these wizards that knows how to do this.”
And I, got involved, I taught myself after school on the internet, and when I made it to high school, I felt so incredibly lonely, because it felt like the one thing I wanted to do with all my time, which was make things with code, was also the one thing I couldn’t do at the one place where I had to spend all my time, which was school. And I think generally – I kind of had felt like there’s this whole path that’s set up for young, ambitious people. First you do x, then you do y, then you do z. And I always felt like a bit of a misfit within that. And I ended up dropping out of high school after my freshman year. I had moved to San Francisco when I was 16 to become a programmer. I helped make one game that became the most popular game at the App Store at the time. It’s called Football Heroes, you can still download it. I was like a junior programmer on the team, and probably held us back more than I contributed… And that was like an incredibly meaningful chance to work on a real piece of software for the first time.
And then I helped build an app called Yo!, which was like Facebook Messenger but the only word you could send to people was the word yo. And the idea was like “What if we build an app that’s like so silly, so ridiculous that it can become viral just from that premise?”
[14:07] “Guys, something interesting just happened… So I downloaded Wajeed’s Bro app out of curiosity, and found it very sticky. I’ve never felt like I was anyone’s bro before. The only people who have used that term with me were assailants… But I started bro-ing people, and getting bro back. And all of a sudden, I’m bros with all kinds of people, including a guy from Branscomb Ventures.
Branscomb? That’s a solid shop.
So we bro-ed about this and that, and then when he heard I worked at Pied Piper, he got excited, he tripled-liked my bro, and he asked about meeting us.
Jared, what did you tell him?
I was waiting a bit to bro him back, so that I don’t seem overeager…
Bro him back, bro him… We’re not dead yet, guys.”
And that just absolutely blew up, and became the number one app on the App Store.
I remember that. What year was that?
That was 2014.
And there were like – the BBC was doing stories on how people in Israel were using Yo! to let people know of missile strikes that were happening… I mean it was really, really crazy.
Love it. Did they develop Morse code style ways of being more complicated, or is it literally they just say “Yo!” and that meant there was a missile strike? Do you know?
You’d get a “Yo!” from an account called “Israel missile strike alert” or something like that, that just said “Yo!”.
It’s kind of like “I am Groot.” I am Groot, he says like “I am Groot!”
It means everything.
That’s what he says, but people take away different things.
Yeah, totally. And that was like the most ridiculous introduction, I think, to the world of technology. I mean, we literally had - Marc Andreessen wrote an article about one-bit communication. And like we ourselves I think were still like trying to figure out if we were serious about this or not. And I used the money from those two opportunities I had - which for me felt like an enormous amount of money, but really, in the grand scheme of things it was like $25,000 - to start Hack Club, to really try and create the sort of community that I so desperately wish I had when I was a teenager.
[16:01] And Hack Club today is a network of over 25,000 teenage programmers from all over the world. We’re in all 50 states, we’re in 38 countries around the world. There’s after school Hack Clubs in high schools, there’s amazing open source projects built by our community… I mean, if you use an iPhone, or an Android phone, or anything that runs – I mean, you literally run code written by Hack Clubbers every single day. And some of the things that alumni do are just amazing.
And I think the broader mission of the organization is - like, every day, thousands of young people are having some sort of spark with technology, where they’re like “Oh, my God, I can be a creator and not just a consumer.” That is the most exciting idea on the planet. And there’s just absolutely nothing to help them carry that forward. And I think we want to live in a world where in the same way you can pursue varsity sports, or the same way you can pursue different subjects as a teenager, where you make that like the primary thing you do outside of class, we want to live in a world where there’s an ecosystem for the coders and for the makers and for the doers, where you can make building things for the joy of it the primary thing to do outside of class as a teenager. And I think that ultimately, when I think about the long term - like, I think young people today need a new cultural institution that really works for them. It needs to be something that’s positive. We’re gaining real skills, we’re connected with like-minded people across zip codes. And I want to live in a world where Hack Club can become as ubiquitous and as universal and as culturally foundational for young people today as groups like the Girl and Boy Scouts have been for young people in the past. I think young people need this, and they want it, and they’re trying to find it. And when you look at what happens in the community - I mean, it’s amazing what teenagers are capable of when we really give them belief and support, and create a community.
Ooh! Take that, put that on a T-shirt… Real long… And wear it!
[laughs] That’s a lot to put on a T-shirt.
I wanna put everything on a T-shirt, Jerod. That’s my thing.
Yeah, you do.
I want to put it on a T-shirt. Yeah, for real, though. I mean, that’s – while we don’t quite embody what you do, Zach, we are there in spirit, because we say… That’s one of the reasons why we have the explicit tag not on our shows. We bleep out curse words, and things like that, because - not just for that younger generation, but just to make sure that everybody who can listen to podcasts, and gain value from this - you know, that that’s possible. But it’s also for those folks out there that are either young and listening to our show, teenagers, and making sure that they’re included and welcome, but also those parents or aunts and uncles or whatever it might be listening to our shows with younger generations in the car. Either by osmosis they get interested, but it’s also just that protective layer. But we want to make sure that everyone is welcome to this community, this Changelog community that we have, and whatever it is currently, and wherever it will go in the future.
We’re not out there doing hackathons, and doing the things you’re doing, but we’re definitely there in spirit. That’s why I thought, when that phone call happened that I was talking about in the first part of the show - like, I knew we had to get you on the show. I knew we had to kind of dig into your personal story. I did not know - this is terrible research of me; I did not know about Yo! It kind of reminds me of “Bro” from Silicon Valley, but I did not know about your involvement in “Yo!” And that’s kind of like the cherry on top of this little cake we’ve got here called Zach.
Well, I’m really happy to be here with you guys, and thank you for saying that.
I hate to do it, because Adam will derail this conversation… But if I just pull that thread on the Silicon Valley thing… Bro, right?
That was “Yo!”, wasn’t it? Like, they’re basically riffing on “Yo!”, aren’t they? That’s to you, Zach.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, when I first moved to San Francisco, I was 16, and I was living in a house of college dropouts who were all three or four years older than me, which felt like enormous at the time. And we would have different – and we were all different people trying to make it in Silicon Valley in some way, shape, or form. And when the TV show came out, we started watching the episodes as a stream each week together…
Oh, my gosh…
And when season two hit, the first episode, we kind of had this “Oh, my God!” moment, because it was about - they’d gotten a bunch of people together at the AT&T Stadium in San Francisco for like a silly VR type event. And one of the people in the house ran that event. She was an associate at the firm that put that together. We were like “This is getting too close to real life.” And then the following week, in the second episode of season two, they did an episode where one of the plotlines was about this ridiculous app called “Bro”, where the only word you can send is the word “Bro.” They get tons of VC money, it totally blows up.
“I think we’re gonna have to crunch your burn rate again. Even with the $50,000 from TechCrunch, we’re not gonna last very long.
Wait, wait, wait. No, no, no. Richard said we were gonna split that money, right? 10,000 each.
I don’t think we can afford to do that anymore.
I just donated $5,000 to my cousin Wajeed’s Kickstarter campaign. He’s trying to get an app called Bro off the ground…
It’s the messaging app that lets you send the word “Bro” to everyone else who was the app. So it’s exactly like the Yo! app.
Yes. But less original.”
So for me, I was hired as a first engineer on it, and my job was to make it something that could process millions of push notifications quickly. And we were trying to figure out what the real business behind it would be. But it was just this completely ridiculous, larger than life kind of moment and interaction, and I feel like that era of Silicon Valley, of like 2012 to 2018 - I feel so lucky to have played a small part in that… Because that was a really magical time. I think everyone felt like anything was possible, and that was before a lot of the cynicism today had kind of set it.
[25:43] And it’s interesting working with Hack Clubbers, because as teenagers enter technology today, they read the articles about the cynicism, they read the articles about “You know, maybe all this isn’t so good.” And it’s interesting, because I think that younger people want to feel like they can go on an adventure. They want to do the really exciting, interesting things. And in some ways, I think it’s starting to feel like a lot of the paths that are open in technology are feeling a little closed off. And I think that’s part of where the excitement around things like AI and whatnot are, where it’s like “Oh my God, there’s this new exciting thing that hasn’t really been walked yet as a path.”
For sure. What’s interesting is how uncanny that was to your life in the moment. I mean, how could you be watching Silicon Valley and season two, episode two comes out, it’s basically – I mean, it’s riffing on what you had done with Yo! I mean, it’s totally – I mean, they’re trying to mimic what happened in real life Silicon Valley. What’s even cooler is how that went on to play – like, Bro was acquired by a different company, and they sold it to somebody else… And Majeed I believe is his name - Dinesh’s cousin, who this is all like playing out in real life… And this may be, to some degree, part of your life - he ends up like $60 million as part of this acquisition. So this silly idea, this Yo!/Bro app was acquired by somebody else, and then they were acquired by somebody else… And here’s Dinesh trying to essentially do well in Silicon Valley and get rich. His cousin gets rich. And that money fueled them buy Hooli later on. And it was part of the entire story, of the whole story arc of Silicon Valley… And that was season six. Like, this silly app, Yo!/Bro…
I haven’t seen that season yet, Adam.
Don’t spoil the end.
Well, you say you’re not gonna do it. Watch it already, Jerod…
Well, I reserve the right to act like I’m gonna do it and be disappointed… I mean, I definitely don’t have to watch it now…
Okay, well, there – okay… Well, spoiler alert delayed. My bad. Rewind. Yeah, it just played a critical role, basically. This silly thing played a critical role. And that’s just so wild, because I guess one of the pushbacks when I ask people if they’ve seen this TV show is like “I can’t watch it. It’s too close to real life, and it’s kind of like traumatic.” I guess in your case it was probably not traumatic… But maybe it was. What do you think?
Well, after those two episodes we all felt like we had to stop watching it, because it felt like a parody. I haven’t watched past season two, because after that I was like “This is crazy.”
So you’ve just spoiled it for both of us.
Here’s me ruining it for both of you then.
I had no idea it played a larger role later in the story.
Yeah, it did. Well, I mean, the actual application itself. But I suppose the ramifications of the app being created; the silliness that it was, it became so critical to the long-term story of Silicon Valley, the show. So…
Actually, I hear in season eight there’s gonna be a Hack Club. Have you heard this?
Yeah. Well, they’re coming back for season seven, and they’re beginning with Hack Club, yeah.
That’s why I picked eight. I figured I’d go way out there on a limb… [laughs] It’s gonna be for elementary school.
When you two talk to people, how are you hearing people talk about the future of tech for young people? And how are you hearing people talk about the cynicism as well?
Good question. I guess I don’t hear many people talking about the future of tech for young people.
So they aren’t, I guess. To us, at least. And maybe that some of it is selection bias.
The closest I’ve gotten so far is my son is in GT, and he’s - he’s in first grade. And he’s getting to play with 3D printers, and he’s got special classes he goes to that are like - gifted and talented is a program you have to get selected into. You test for it, and things like that. And you just learn at a different pace, you learn differently. And I haven’t seen the cynicism, but I guess what I have seen, or I guess what I’ve interpreted from this is in this world of Hack Club, or in this world where you want to live in a world where this kind of thing is available, whether it’s GT, or a Hack Club type thing - they’re very similar in nature; not the exact same, because GT is more focused on all things, rather than just coding… I’ve gotta imagine that at some point you have a lack of educators, right? Like, that’s got to be – one, you’ve got political oversight, and financial funding for schooling, and just different stuff like that that sort of gets limited… But it’s great to get the program out there, but you have to have the right kind of people involved to lead the classes, and smart enough to lead the classes… Because this stuff moves so fast. So I guess my personal [unintelligible 00:30:10.03] might be “Okay, great, Zach, you’ve got people buying into this idea of a Hack Club, or a GT type thing for schools… But how do you then get the educators in place to ensure that it actually functions?”
One thing I’ve been thinking about and we’re trying to figure out right now is around the role of AI. And when I think about the operations of Hack Club today, we are only possible because of the open source community. And I think a lot of developers today take open source as a concept for granted. It’s like “Oh yeah, obviously all the technology that we use in the software world is open source by default.” But in my view, that was something that was only really possible because 20 to 40 years ago a handful of individuals had some radical ideas, worked really, really hard to build foundational technology, and a foundational ethos around open source. And we’re really benefiting from it today.
And I think something I’m seeing from a lot of Hack Clubbers is they’re excited about stuff like AI, but it’s so much less approachable than things like web development, because you need expensive GPU clusters; a lot of the stuff is quite impenetrable. Not all of the interesting stuff happening is being open source. And I’m curious for both of you, how do we create a world where the future of AI and some of this new tech is going to be fully open, and something that’s by the people, for the people, rather than owned by the few?
That’s a big question. We just talked about that a couple weeks back with Simon Willison, and we are seeing open source moves into this space. I think one of the most hopeful messages that I’ve learned of late with regard to large language models is that it doesn’t have to get continually larger in order for them to be really, really good, especially once you are able to plug and play different info sources into them; they get to a point where they can be good enough to go find the answers, and not have them all baked in by training. And that’s going to hopefully democratize access to running your own language models on your own hardware. We’re already seeing the software get out there for running these things on commodity devices.
And so there are also open source efforts in this space, that are like, you know, six months, eight months, a year behind the bleeding edge, which in a competitive landscape is not good enough, but over the arc, the S curve of technology quality increase - I can’t put that phrase together, but you know, that curve of innovation, eventually you get to the tail end of it, and the open source stuff can be right there alongside the proprietary stuff… Lacking certain data sources, of course.
[34:16] So I don’t have an answer like “We need to take steps one, two, and three in order to do this”, but I am hopeful now more than I was three months ago, four months ago, because we’re actually starting to see pretty good open source alternatives pop up.
Stuff like Alpaca, and whatnot?
Alpaca, and - let me just grab my notes… There’s a new one. Nope, it’s just an open tab. I don’t have it.
[laughs] Just an open tab. Well, there is lots of effort in this front. You know, it’s the critical mass right now. Like, it’s the hype curve/rapid innovation curve, and there’s a lot happening in this moment… And I think it’s been compared to the invention of the iPhone, the invention of the internet, in terms of its criticalness of the long-term future of - I would even say not just computing, but humanity. This is going to change everything.
We just did this show with Simon, that Jerod was referencing, Simon Willison… And on there I said it’s already changed so much for me. It’s kind of given me, I guess, confidence in a way, because you can search on the internet for a solution to X, but you have to rely upon somebody else ever having that problem. And then you also have to have the time and the willingness to sort of search until the answer is found. And that might live in docs, that might live in a forum post, or wherever it might be, and these language models are really good at matching, pattern matching, and things like that. And so within an instant, ChatGPT, or Copilot X, or Cody, or what have you, can pretty much get you to - at least when it comes to programming, answers, to keep giving you direction. It may not be the final production version of it… Simon mentioned how he had scaffolded like the majority of a Python-based application or website or something like that, and he said, “Well, sure, this isn’t my final production code, but it’s almost there.” It needs that final human touch to kind of get past everything else. And I’m just hopeful that even though we’re in that moment where there’s innovation, and there’s the hype train, so to speak, that somewhere in there there’s enough that has said open source has won, that it makes sense to make this free and available to humanity. Because we talked about that before again with Simon - like, if it’s locked behind one organization’s hands; or will there be a great consolidation…? Yeah, that’s quite possible. That’s still quite possible. But I’m hopeful that this last decade or more - like, even of this show. We began this show in 2009, right alongside of GitHub being founded. GitHub was founded in 2008, and we saw open source moving fast, we said ““We’ve got to keep up”, and we started the blog, we started the show, and here we are almost 14 years later, still writing this open source train, so to speak… And I think it’s won. Like you had said, it’s kind of - you take it for granted almost that it’s gonna be open source. I’m hoping that that truth and the power that that truth brings carries forward into this AI world. That there’s some open models that we can all adopt. And will I do it? Of course not. But am I hopeful? I think I am.
Yeah. And the really hard math and statistics side of things are hard also for practitioners who are like working in the industry. And so of course it’s going to be overwhelming to youngsters coming to these things. But it’s also overwhelming to us “mature adults”, who are working in software development. We’re very intimidated by those things. But I think what we’re finding is that a lot of the really difficult concepts are being lowered down to a place where you don’t have to know exactly how this works, but you do have to know how to leverage it. And that’s, I think, the power of abstraction.
[37:57] And I think ultimately, what you have is a person who learns how to leverage things, and then as they’re going about leveraging - I know some people hate the term “leverage”, but I’m using it in its literal sense here… As you’re doing that, you run into problems, and you get to a point where you’ve crossed the bounds of what you understand and what you don’t understand… And that’s where just like natural, autodidacts take over and you learn what you need to learn in order to get to that next phase. And eventually, over time, you become the expert. But I think that very much in the spirit of Hack Club, Zach, is that - there’s no teachers there, right? So there’s a lot of people who are at least willing to learn on their own, or to be with other people who learn. Was that part of the mix from the start? You’re like “We’re not going to have teachers. We’re just going to hang out.” I guess maybe backing up a step… What’s the exact structure, like what is Hack Club operationally today? I know it’s hackathons, but what else is there for people to actually interact with?
Yeah. So Hack Club today is a few key programs. The first is there’s a massive online community. It’s all ran through Slack. There are 25,000 teenagers that are a part of it. We’re about to cross 10 million messages sent, and it’s one of the most active online discussion spaces for teenage coders anywhere. And the discussions range from what it’s like being a teenager, to like people do really highly technical software in there.
The second part of that club is just hackathons. So these are 24-hour-long coding marathons that happen on weekends, and they’re all teenager-organized. There’s roughly 50 to 100 that happen a year regionally, and those are all led by teenagers.
The third is there’s hundreds of after school Hack Club chapters where teenagers get together weekly to code together. These tend to be more beginner-oriented, because again, over 50% of high schools in the US don’t offer a single coding class, and then in a lot of the schools this is the coding thing that exists. And what’s cool is when you come to a meeting, it’s not like you’re signing up for a semester-long commitment as a young person; you’re just seeing “Is coding something I’m into for an hour?” And as a result, you’re also writing code that’s meaningful and relevant to you. You’re shipping a project every week. So it’s real contextual, everything you’re doing.
And then finally - you know, the areas where I think Hack Club is really interesting and is really unique is we’re really the first major educational organization, structured and formed after the internet already existed. And what that means is that the internet is part of Hack Club’s DNA in a way where you look at other organizations, they’re still kind of trying to figure out how the Internet affects their organizing. And one thing that happens at Hack Club is anytime teenagers run into problems, internal tools that are open source get built by the community, that everyone starts using.
And that brings us to our final program, which we call Hack Club Bank. This is a financial tool. It’s almost like Stripe Atlas, but for nonprofits, where if you want to start a nonprofit, or if you need a way to receive donations - and we originally formed it because our teenagers kept trying to run these events that had no way to receive money. Because if you’re under the age of 18, you can’t open a bank account in most of the country. It’s a financial tool. If you go to hackclub.com/bank, with one click you can proceed – you get 501(C)3 nonprofit status, you can receive donations, you get physical cards for spending funds, you can manage it with your team… And now there’s 1010 organizations, many of them led by teenagers, that run through Hack Club Bank, and there are millions of dollars that we process on behalf of these groups all over the country each year.
[41:54] So those are kind of our key programs today. So there’s the online community, there’s clubs, there’s hackathons, there’s Hack Club Bank… And then we also do seasonal events and activities. Like, one thing we did a few months ago was we we did a project called Winter Hardware Wonderland. If you go to HackClub.com/winter, where we did an open call and we said “Hey, if you’re a teenager and you want to build a hardware project, and you’ve never done that before, buying components is expensive. So we’ll buy all the components you need up to $250 per project if you submit a pull request to this GitHub repo with your stuff, if you meet the requirements and whatnot.” And in total, we have hundreds of projects built from like dozens of countries all over the world.
The projects ranged from like - there was this one student I think in Greece who built a plant soil monitoring system for their parents’ garden, that helps you understand if the soil has a right components and the right setup to grow the plants that you’re trying to grow. There’s this one student in New York City who built a foldable kayak from scratch; they wanted to get into woodworking, so they wanted – it’s kind of crazy. Their final video submission was them in the kayak, in the Hudson.
So it works.
Yeah. And there’s like everything in between. Yeah, it works.
So that’s kind of a high-level overview. And there’s always new stuff happening. One of the things we’re about to launch is a math game called SineRider. If you go to sinerider.com - that’s going to go live this Friday, and that’s this beautiful math game that a handful of teenagers and an engineer on our team have built together. It’s kind of like if you’ve ever played with a TI-84, or if you’ve ever played with graphing calculators, or now for young people today if you like Desmos, this is like the ultimate game for you. And there’s always stuff like this happening in the community if you get involved.
Super-cool. Let me close a loop on that open tab… Free DALL-E, DALL-E 2.0 was just released today from Databricks. The world’s first truly open instruction-tuned LLM. So this is an LLM open sourced and available to anybody, with the opportunity of giving it instructions. So just another example. Alpaca, a big one…
What was the name again?
This is called Dolly 2.0 from the Databricks team. They just released it today.
Oh, man… They missed the opportunity to call it Open Dolly. Like, “Hello, Dolly.”
They said “Free Dolly.” Maybe they’re just compensating – or you know, they’re wanting to have that word free in there… Like Free Willy maybe. Anyways…
That’s true. Free Willy. Sure.
I just wanted to close that loop, since I left it hanging open, and I’ve found my open tab. Let’s focus in – that’s a lot of different programs, man; like, different wings of Hack Club at this point. Let’s talk about the afterschool programs, because I think there’s so much potential power in that. You’ve got kids that don’t fit in with the sports, maybe they don’t fit in with the drama team, maybe they don’t want to do this, that or the other thing… A lot of times, if you don’t have anything after school, you end up merely either like bored at home, watching TV, or worse, out getting in trouble. And so an after school program around technology I think is just spectacular. How does that work? You mentioned it’s teenager-run… How do people find out about it? How do kids get involved? And then how do you start one?
Yeah. Well, so Hack Clubs are groups of teenagers that get together weekly, after school. Usually, there’s like 5 to 15 teenagers in each club. And the purpose of these is they’re like mini-hackathons that happen every week at your school. If you’re a teenager and you want to start a club, you just go to hackclub.com, there’s a whole registration process; we really work with everyone who wants to. And we have what we kind of call internally like a “club in a box” setup, where there’s a whole set of open source materials that range from workshops that you could do inside of your club meetings, to marketing materials, we print millions of stickers that we ship to clubs all over the world… And if you do this, you’d be joining this global community of other clubs all over the country, all over the world, who are all on the same mission as you.
I think that for a lot of teenagers, you don’t really know other people that share your love and interest for technology, or maybe if you have that first spark, you don’t really know what that best way to get started is. And we really believe in the hacker way, which is that if you want to learn how to code, the best way to do it is just to start writing code. And I think that a lot of kind of education programs around technology can try to be very elite, where Hack Club’s not elite at all.
[46:15] We don’t believe anyone is born with some special abilities that make you better at coding than others. We think your ability as a coder is just a function of how many hours you spent coding. And if you start a club or you join a club at your school, or come together weekly, every week you’re writing code for at least an hour - that’s a great entrypoint into the broader Hack Club ecosystem.
And the reason why we have all these other things that are happening in Hack Club too is that if you’re a club member it’s not super-exciting just to come together weekly, and you write code with the same group of people. You want to feel part of something a lot larger than yourself. So if you’re part of a club, you’re going to hackathons happening near you, there’s online stuff you’re participating in… Kind of a whole gamut of stuff. But the best way to start is just go to HackClub.com and check it out.
I love that. So how do you reach schools and teenagers who would have no idea that Hack Club exists? It seems like there are probably a lot of those. And it’s probably like that perfect prototype teenager who’s at their school, wishing for something like this, but they’re just not aware. Are there ambassador programs? Is there ways for adults to help this mission without necessarily start – because you can’t start a Hack Club. But could you help with awareness? Because a lot of our listeners, and myself, for instance - we can’t start Hack Clubs. But we would love to help spread the word somehow. Are there official or better ways of doing that?
Yeah. The reason why everything at Hack Club is student-led is because that is – we’ve found the model that works best through that. Probably the best way if you’re an adult and wanting to help support Hack Club in your community, or if you have kids that are interested in technology, is to go to HackClub.com and there’s an email list at the bottom that you can sign up for. What we’ve found is the best way to help new people get into the ecosystem is every roughly two to three months we’ll launch some sort of new product that teenagers can engage with directly.
One I mentioned earlier was Sprig, which was that open source game console. Another one is SineRider, which we’re doing now. Another one that’s coming up is we’re building this open source almost like CNC machine, where it’s fully 3D printed, it’s really cheap to build… And with all these projects, there’s some element of - like, if you’re a teenager, and you’re an individual, and you do some action that’s educational in nature… Or for example with Sprig, if you build a game and you ship it, we’ll ship you a free console. So the parts to build your own.
With the new drawing machine, if you – we’re doing like a generative art thing where if you make some general piece of art using code and ship it, we’ll then ship you all the components you need to build your own machine that can actually produce that art.
So signing up to that email list and sharing those things with the young people in your life - that tends to be a great entrypoint into Hack Club. Because starting a club out the gate - that’s like a big commitment. And clubs only really succeed or fail at schools based on the student leadership. And sometimes a parent or like a teacher will be like “I really want to start a Hack Club at my school”, and they’ll start meetings, or something like that, but they don’t really have that teenager that falls in love with it and really wants to make it their own. And what happens is it always fizzles out after a few months. You have to have a charismatic leader on the ground. So that’s where we have these kind of other entrypoints for people into the Hack Club ecosystem.
Yeah. What you see on that homepage, or at least the landing page for it - it says “Don’t run your coding club alone. Make it a Hack Club.” So I guess the secret model really is don’t be alone in doing this.
Something that – and Jerod, I don’t know if you were in a fraternity when you were in college or not, but I know my wife, she was in a sorority, and she had a sorority mom. And she’s like our surrogate grandmother to this day; like, she’s super-close in our life. I wonder if you can have – if you’ve thought about models where you can involve… A sorority mom to a sorority isn’t there to sort of guide the sorority; they don’t run it, but they’re there to sort of help with adulty things, I suppose, and to be a guide, and to be a mentor, and to be you an inspiration to some degree with those younger folks in that club, basically. Sorority, fraternity… Similar in nature. Have you guys considered how – is that the extent that you let adults sort of play roles? Like, I get it, they’re gonna fizzle out if you don’t have a teenager who’s really charismatic, as you said, and involved… Is there a model where there’s like a sorority mom type person, that can play a role?
[50:26] Right now, that happens unofficially, but I love the idea. We don’t have anything kind of formal to facilitate that, but I love the idea of Hack Club figuring out how to do that. I mean, when I think about my own story, I feel so lucky to have met adult mentors as a teenager… Because I think if you don’t know any adults that do the thing you want to do, it’s really hard to picture yourself doing it. And we see this particularly among the young women in our community. And we do have some specific programs. For example, we have a new partnership with the Girl Scouts, where we’re partnering with different Girl Scouts’ regional councils - we just did our first one in New York City - to run events that are like 12-hour coding days for local Girl Scouts in that area, ran my Hack Clubbers. And then we’ll put together a dinner afterwards to pair Hack Clubbers with female mentors. And that has been a really effective model so far, and I love the idea of growing that into something a little more formal.
Right now, the way most teenagers hear about Hack Club is we partner with a few different organizations in the space. Namely, GitHub is probably our number one referral partner, where they will send out blast to every student on GitHub about Hack Club, usually every other month or so. And we partner with them on a lot of our programs. And then secondly, we work with FIRST Robotics. They’re the largest engineering education program in the country. They have 600,000 students across America and in the world that do like robotics, and stuff like that. If you’ve ever seen a teenager in robotics, they’re probably part of FIRST. And they’re starting to roll out Hack Club materials to a lot of their teams, because they have teenagers that want to do more coding. But I love that idea of having some more formal mentorship models.
I mean, to give a role, really. I totally get that it needs to be teenager-ran. I totally get that. It even teaches them responsibility. Like “This thing isn’t a Hack Club unless you show up, and the folks that you’ve connected with show up and make it a thing. Here’s some folks that will be assistive with the process of running it”, or maybe there’s an adult require for x… I don’t know, whatever. But something where you’ve got that osmosis from older to younger generation seems to be a thing.
Now, Jerod, I’m thinking too with our audience - sure, we don’t have a teenager audience by any means, but I bet you we’ve got a lot of parents in this audience, right? Somebody’s listening right now thinking, “Gosh, I’ve got kids, and I care about Hack Club.”
Probably both, yeah.
I’d love to find a way where we can help you, Zach, to be similar to GitHub, or FIRST Robotics, to just – I don’t know how we can do that necessarily without just being like “Hey, let’s just put you on blast”, but somehow incorporate something to share with the audience, because I’m sure we’ve got… If not parents, their godmothers, or uncles, or aunts, or whatever, to younger generation folks in their lives, that matter, and they’re going to share the idea and the model of Hack Club with them.
Thank you. Yeah, that would be amazing. And kind of like I mentioned at the beginning, for everyone listening, and for both of you as well - Hack Club was a volunteer-led community and a nonprofit that is here because all of us involved have had some experience where technology has touched us in a personal way, or it’s made us a different person today than we would have been without it. And that is something that is so important for us as a society to give as a gift to the next generation. And Hack Club is such a gift when someone is looking for it. So spreading the word, helping young people become aware of it. So often we’ll hear stories from a young person where they’re like “Well, oh my God, my mom told me about this, and I’ve been looking for something like Hack Club for years. I didn’t even realize there were other people my age that shared my love for this.”
[54:02] The beauty, I think, of separating it from an official school thing is the freedom that you have to sort of like partner up. And it only happens if there’s motivation, right? Like, you’re not going to force Hack Club into a world where it doesn’t need to exist; it kind of happens because the idea of Hack Club makes sense, and that it’s ran by the folks who are really interested in it. I just think like maybe the hurdle I thought you may have faced earlier, like I said before, was like the educators, but clearly, that’s not necessary, because you have sort of individually-ran Hack Clubs. But that’s kind of probably the beauty of it, is it doesn’t have to be like this staple, “This is a funded program, into x”, and then it falls by the wayside, and then next thing you know it’s sort of like not what it began as. Like, you had great ambition for the thing, but eventually it just turned into this not-Hack-Club, essentially.
Yeah. I mean, imagine if to start an open source project you had to get a grant first, and an approval from five different people. There would be no open source community; that’d be crazy. The way I think about it is I think in education there are basically two models of learning. One model is high floor, low ceiling. This is a traditional school, and a traditional school day, where you have guarantees on what everybody’s gonna learn. You have a textbook, you have a curriculum, you have tests… You have ways to make sure everyone leaves with certain competencies. But it’s very challenging for folks to go off that default path.
And then I think there is a second type of learning model where you have a low floor and a high ceiling, where it’s hard to give certain guarantees of what some people will get out of the program, but those who want to go really, really, really far can. And I think open source as a model is a low floor, high ceiling model, and I think that the future of education is blending both of those. And I think that the beauty of Hack Club is that since it is opt-in, so this is something that teenagers really want to be a part of, since we don’t really have a captive audience in the same way that a lot of classrooms do… Like, if you’re a hacker, you actually want to be there. And if for some reason you don’t want to be there, you just don’t show up anymore, and that’s totally fine. It means that when you as a teenager get involved, you’re connecting with other teenagers that are also opting in and making that choice to be there.
I think the internet kind of – it’s interesting when you think about what the future of learning will look. I think one of the biggest transformations that’s happened in education and learning in the past 15 years, that still isn’t really being talked about, is so much of our institutions of learning are built around solving the access problem. How do we simply get all this information that we want people to learn in front of them and available to them? And worldwide we’ve built, in my view, an incredibly effective, really amazing top-down, one-to-many distribution mechanism. Basically, an entire society is literate. It’s amazing. But with the internet, we have this new thing where the access problem is really solved. Every person who has access to a phone and the internet has access to literally all of human history and knowledge in our pockets. And the new challenge of education and learning is not just simply “How do we simply get people access?”, it’s how do we get people to spend their time unlocking the secrets of the Universe, rather than do scrolling through Twitter? And I think the answer is you make it fun, you make it community-oriented, you make it something where…
I think the thing that we’ve really realized with Hack Club, and a lot of other people who are pursuing these models have realized, is that learning and making things and manipulating the world around you - that is like a fundamentally human and satisfying thing that we’ve been doing since the dawn of our species. And once you help someone realize that “Oh my God, I can do this through coding”, or “I could do this through this other subject”, and get really deep into something on the internet - it is so much more exciting, so much more compelling, so much more fun than watching Netflix. And it’s like addictive. You literally can’t pull yourself away from it.
And I think the question of learning of the future is “How do we make learning fun?” I think we’ll see a lot more models like Hack Club, and I think Hack Club needs to be a lot better to better provide that experience for the people where we’re touching them, but not totally having that yet.
Can we break down the flow of getting started, I guess, then? Because you’ve got step one is application, you start by telling you all, Hack Club themselves, who you are, who’s leading etc. Then you have an onboarding call, which I’ve gotta imagine is the funnest time ever for somebody at what you call Hack Club HQ. You hop on a Zoom call with someone… And I assume that’s just to connect the dots, to make sure they’re a real human being and they’re not trying to game the – I can only imagine the fraud, waste and abuse you must have in this process… But we’ll set that aside to focus on what’s actually mattering here.
And then the next one is the first meeting. So you said before, Hack Club in a box. Walk us through that flow, how that works, and that first meeting to the 10th meeting. How do you ensure, without overly handholding the process, that this is successful, and it has the right tooling, and that there’s a certain similarity - or is there a similarity to Hack Club to Hack Club? Does it does it even matter to have similarity?
Yeah, totally. I mean, I think the first thing to understand is clubs are a part of Hack Club, but they’re not like the primary thing. I would say maybe only 25% of students in Hack Club are actually in a club, or engaged in a club.
And that was a transformation that the pandemic really had. We were almost entirely clubs before that. And once the pandemic hit, I think we were very early to realize that things were going to be totally different. And we also saw that the space was arranged in such a way where we thought every other organization, every school was going to try and do exactly what they were doing in person, but in Zoom calls instead… And that’s a terrible idea; what’s gonna be best for the Internet is totally different than what’s best for the person. And we really doubled down on “How do we build an amazing community? How do we build an amazing opportunity for people to contribute to Hack Club beyond clubs? How do we build different flows for people?”
And in the first few months of the pandemic, our community grew 700%, because so many people from other spaces were finding Hack Club as like a space where there was stuff happening that made sense on the internet. For clubs specifically, a lot of it is actually student-led. So if you’re a teenager and you’re like “I want to start a Hack Club”, or “I want to start a club”, you applied, you filled that out… A lot of that is just basically just stick stuff on our end, to make sure that when we send you all the material physically - because we actually send physical materials in a lot of cases - you’re gonna be able to benefit from them. We accept everyone we can.
The real flow and the real magic happens when you join the Slack and when you join the community. And what happens is after you apply, you get an invite, you join the community, and you’re talking with other teenagers your age, from other schools, that are doing the exact same thing as you. And what’s so cool about that is - you know, to kind of get like on a more of a society level - there is this piece in New York Times recently that talked about how cross -ZIP code friendships are one of the number one predictors of whether or not someone will rise in social class. Like, do they have friends in other social classes? And I think it’s such a shame that our education system today is so highly dependent on what ZIP code you happen to be born in, and you really don’t interact much at all with teenagers from other locations, even though they might share your same interests.
[01:03:56.17] So the coolest thing with Hack Cub is like when you join, when you get involved, and when you’re getting started with starting your club, you’re talking to other teenagers that are already doing that activity successfully. You see what it can look like. You’re having one-on-one conversation with them. You’re asking them questions in the public chat, you’re getting on Zoom calls with people where they’re really walking you through things. You’re getting invites to hackathons, where suddenly you’re not like this one weird teenager at your school that has this interest where you’re struggling to find support. You’re like part of a whole community of people that share your love, share your passion, share your interests.
More tangibly, most Hack Clubs are pretty focused on “How do we simply get people in the room? How do we make coding a really fun one-hour activity?” Because our thesis is like - look, if you come in and have a great time, you’re gonna come in again next week. It’s like a party. How do you make it fun? And what we focus on at Hack Club meetings is shipping something, because there’s nothing more satisfying than having the idea and making something that you didn’t think you were capable of doing, possible.
So that first meeting that every Hack Club leader has - their goal is “How do I get 25+ people in the room, and how do I make sure every single person leaves the room having actually made a real project, with a real URL, by making real code?” Even if they don’t understand all the code that they wrote.
We have a lot of training materials and stuff like that, but I would say the beauty of it is really where you’re connecting with teenagers from other schools, where you’re seeing them do it successfully, and you’re realizing that you’re not this weird person on your own. You’re part of this broader community, this broader movement of people your age, that share that love, share that passion, share that interest.
Can we get into the community weeds for a moment? Because I’d love to have your take on Slack as a platform for this community. I noticed on the webpage you say Slack is kind of like Discord. So you’re explaining to your potential members that it’s like Discord, which is something that they must be more familiar with. We have a Slack that we’ve been on for years now, and it’s thousands - less than 10,000, but enough people where it’s like “Okay, moving, this would be difficult.” But there’s things about Slack that we don’t love, and I’m just curious if you’re loving Slack, if that was a choice that you made that you now regret, or if there’s a partnership there… What’s your take on Slack for communities of this size?
Yeah. Well, first I’ll say “Thank you, Slack” for donating to Hack Club, because there’s no way we could afford it.
There you go.
So that’s certainly a part of it. But it’s been really interesting, because – so for me, when I was a teenager, I was on IRC, and I was kind of on the later days of IRC. Most of the people I talked to were like “Oh, you should have seen it in the early 2000s”, or “You should have seed it in the ‘90s. It was so awesome.” And with Slack, we started our Slack in 2015. So we really were there right at the beginning. I remember when Slack launched beta; we were one of the very first users on it. And Discord didn’t exist yet; later, we saw Discord emerge. And we early on had a lot of conversations as to whether it made sense to move the Hack Club community to Discord. And what’s interesting today is like, teenagers do not know what Slack is. They’ve literally never heard of it. For almost every teenager who comes into Hack Club, it’s the first time they’ve heard of Slack. They’re familiar with Discord, all their friends use Discord. They all have group chats on Discord, and stuff like that. Because if you have friends who have Android phones and iPhones, the best way to do group chat is through Discord. So with that, I think Slack is better for communities than Discord is, depending on your community.
The reason why we haven’t switched to Discord is for a few reasons. The first is that if we were to have the Hack Club community be on Discord, the network that you’re part of is Discord, and the server you’re on is Hack Club. So like when you have interactions, Discord is set up in such a way to pull you outside of your individual server as much as possible. Like, when you DM someone, you don’t DM someone within the context of that server, you DM them in the context of Discord. Now, what that means is that as soon as people make friends, or have some sort of connection, rather than contribute back to your community - because you actually can’t make your own channels in Discord, and stuff like that; you have to have the admins make the channel. Or you can have some really clever bot thing, which is extremely confusing for people who aren’t really deep in the weeds with Discord… You go off and make your own server.
[01:08:02.25] And Hack Club only works because teenagers are building the spaces they want within the Hack Club sphere, to make it better for everyone. It’s like a positive sum game. Where Discord - we thought that the dynamic would be such that there’d be a lot of value pulled out of Hack Club and put into the Discord network, rather than kept within the Hack Club community.
The other thing that we like more about Slack and Discord is that - and this is maybe a little specific to our community, but since teenagers don’t know what Slack is, for most of them we’re the only Slack workspace that they’re in, and that means that as a result, there’s basically the Hack Club app on every Hack Clubber’s phone, and the Hack Club app on every Hack Clubber’s computer, without us – like, there’s no way we could afford to build a Hack Club app, or get people to use it, being a small nonprofit without lots of engineers.
The last thing I’ll say on this is that Slack, given that it’s meant for companies, has extensive APIs, and you can heavily customize the Slack experience, in a way that you just can’t with Discord. And as a result, there’s all this magic that happens in Hack Club that I think wouldn’t be happening if it was through Discord.
One good example of this is, you know, a couple years ago some Hack Clubbers decided to make a channel for the count to a million, where they said, “You know what, let’s count to a million together, one message at a time. You’re not allowed to put two numbers in a row.” And like this whole ecosystem of bots emerged around like enforcing the rules, having leaderboards, seeing who’s doing well. And that’s the sort of thing that can’t happen on Discord, because people can’t make their own channels. So I would say the reason why we sticked with Slack instead of Discord is just we think of Hack Club as its own ecosystem, not as one part of the broader Discord ecosystem.
I didn’t quite consider that the pandemic would have hit you guys like that. It totally makes sense now in retrospect, because I just wasn’t thinking about… It’s the before times , it’s post-pandemic to some degree in a lot of ways, and so I’m like “Okay, that never happened. Just forget that two years, or whatever it was”, right?
[laughs] “It never happened…”
It’s just gone… So I’d forgotten that getting together with people face-to-face was a challenge, and now it’s less so now; it’s still a challenge, because you still have concerns and issues… But it says down here “Events on Zoom that don’t suck.” You’ve got AMA’s, you’ve got Hack Night, you’ve got Minecraft, you’ve got Community Funds… So you’re doing what you would have normally done in the hour after school in remote ways, or distributed ways. I’ve gotta imagine that’s helped with growth, but also just with inventiveness. With the whole ZIP code idea - I agree with that; the social possibility for a human being that knows somebody beyond their own zip code has gotta be greater. I’d love to dig into the stats behind that, but this lets you join a cohort.
My wife right now is in a book club for like the last year or so; she started to lead it, and it has been one of the most positive things I’ve ever seen happen in her life. This book club has become like sisters to her. And I’m seeing this idea of clubs, and – you need to belong somewhere. And as a kid, where do you belong initially, right? Or as a teenager. Well, you’ve got your home base, you’ve got your family, and that’s obviously where you fit… Unless you don’t fit in, and you have home issues, and that’s just an absolute shame… But the next place you fit obviously is school, because that’s by nature sort of forced on you as a child; you have no other choice but to go to school. You want to learn, but is that the place you want to go? Maybe not. But you’re forced to go to school, so you have that following, and that group. Where else do you get it at? You’ve got sports, or other things, like Jared was saying, like chess club, drama club, sports etc. But if you don’t fit in those things, you need somewhere to belong. And this I think is such an interesting way. Like, if you’re in this world where coding or technology matters to you, you don’t have to have an after school program; you could just go online and join the Slack, no matter where you’re at, and join one of these AMA’s, or the Minecraft thing, or whatever thing, to be across ZIP codes and meet some people. That’s so cool. But “Events on Zoom that don’t suck” is the premise there, but that’s so cool that you can like do Hack Club, but not have to be in-person.
[01:12:02.29] Well, we’re building on that. Like, when you think – and that was a huge realization we had during the pandemic. We were like “Oh, snap! This is way better, and it actually helps people have better in-person experiences, too.” It also means that the perpetual challenge pre-pandemic was “How do we have a relationship as Hack Club, as a brand and as an HQ, with members?” Because we have this intermediary who are leaders. And both the best part and the worst part with Hack Club is that every year all of our most experienced people become alumni. Because you don’t go to high school to stay there forever, you go to high school to graduate. And on one hand, that means there’s always room for fresh blood, there’s always new leadership opportunities. There’s always new voices in the room. But on the other hand, it means that it’s very hard to build up institutional knowledge. And we had basically thrown the towel in and were like “You know what - after a leader graduates, that club’s dead. If someone else wants to, they can restart a club at that school.” And we consider it a new club, not a continuation to the same one, because nobody wants to inherit something. You want to be the founder of your own thing.
For sure, yeah.
And what we realized post-pandemic was like, wow, actually, Hack Club - like with a lot of education groups, or a lot of similarly structured things like the scouts, if you ask the question “What is the fundamental unit of this thing?”, it’s the group. The fundamental unit of schools is the classroom; the fundamental unit of scouts is a troop. The fundamental unit of Hack Club was the club. But simply, if you think about it, that’s a constraint of the physical world, because you can only have relationships with so many people. When you’re going to the internet, the fundamental unit could be the individual. And we’ve really shifted the Hack Club approach to be something where you don’t need to be part of a club, you don’t need to run a club. You can engage with Hack Club directly, as an individual, and if you later start a club or join a club, that’s great. But we don’t really recommend that as a starting point anymore.
One of the best calls to action right now is if you’re a teenager and you want to make a video game, go to hackclub.com/Sprig. It’s a really awesome, really fun way to get started with game development. And if you ship a game, you get a free console that’s open source, mailed to you for free. And we have lots and lots and lots of calls to action like that that we do now, and those have been great ways for people to get involved in the community. And I think the future of education is like more things where the fundamental unit of the interaction is the individual, rather than the group.
So a large online community of 25,000+ teens, or post-teens; I assume you can probably continue to hang out. You don’t get booted at age 22, do you? You get to hang out still…
You don’t get booted, but the social expectations is you should make room for…
People kind of age out eventually. That makes sense. But what I’m over here thinking is how much time and effort and distraction I guess perhaps is involved with moderation? Because teenagers can get rambunctious. I remember myself when I was a teen; you wouldn’t want me in your Slack necessarily. Has that been a problem, or have there been a lot of incidents? Is it not an issue, or do you have a team that just sits around and makes sure everybody’s abiding by the code of conduct, and doing what they’re supposed to do?
Yeah, so at this point, with all the different programs that we have, I would say there’s probably somewhere between 50 and 100 teenagers that kind of have like official positions in some way, shape or form, helping Hack Club happen. And a handful those positions are on the moderation team in the community.
Most of the stuff is pretty minor. I mean, we have a pretty robust code of conduct, and we’re pretty, I think, proactive in our moderation approach. Like, sorry, but Hack Club is not a democracy. We have certain things that we’re okay with, and certain things we’re not okay with, and it’s not going to be decided by consensus. It’s like, you put the foot down. So most things get nipped in the bud early.
I’d say we have some sort of moderation incident like every other month, or something like that… And really, I think one thing that’s totally unique about us is that since we work with teenagers, change is fundamentally part of what it means to be a teenager. So in a lot of communities, you get permanently banned, you get permanently kicked out, where like “No, we’re never going to give you a chance again.” In Hack Club, our whole moderation approach is built on this idea that people grow, people change, and the thing that we primarily look for is good faith behavior.
[01:16:06.08] So to answer your question, I don’t think we have anything that’s very extensive as issues. Occasionally we’ve had stuff blow up, but the beauty of Hack Club is that people also tend to self-moderate. One thing we see that a lot of teenagers get a lot of value out of Hack Club and one thing they like a lot about Hack Club is in a lot of online spaces - and this really, I think, accelerated towards the end of the pandemic - people began to realize that it’s easier to get attention through being outrageous than through being helpful…
And particularly in spaces where you’re gathering over some technical interests, you would see very loud people dominating a lot of the conversations. And I think one thing teenagers really like about Hack Club is that our two values in our online spaces are 1) wholesome, and 2) being technical. So if you’re a teenager where you just want a low-drama space to build as a coder, get recognition, work with other people, chat with other like-minded people, Hack Club is a very wholesome place, and people are invested in keeping it a wholesome place. And we’re very deliberate about making sure that the only way to rise in like the social hierarchy of the community is through contributing, being helpful, giving more than you take, rather than being loud, outrageous etc. And I think that those are values that compound over time as you hold them.
I love that emphasis on wholesome, because technology is very powerful, and especially when you start to learn how to wield it - I used the word “leverage” earlier, and you are operating at high leverage, right? You can do a lot with a little. And I know that it’s tantalizing, and sometimes cool to do things that are perhaps malicious, because you can; like pranky, sinister, like “Ooh, we can get away with this, because I know how.” And it’s easy to get riled up around those things, these bad ideas that float; somebody floats a bad idea… But if you have wholesome as a core value - and I’m not sure if this actually weaves its way through your code of conduct or not, because I haven’t read it, but certainly your moderation teams and your leadership, which will emphasize these things… Like, those bad ideas that sound good, and maybe they’d be funny, maybe they’d be interesting, it’d be hard to do there - if they’re doing damage, they’re not wholesome. So having a wholesome as this core part of what Hack Club is I think will go a long way to combat what is kind of natural for young people when they have some power that they find, is like doing things along the fringes of damaging. So I think that’s going to serve you well.
Thank you. Yeah, and when I think about the long-term mission of Hack Club, I think values and being a space where young people can find really positive values – and actually, so often when you’re in programmer spaces, particularly as a young person, the people who are more technical will be kind of cynical, or be a little mean, or be a little short-tempered, or stuff like that… Particularly I think though the people who tend to be more technical than you, who hang out and spend time with people younger than them, they kind of want to be put in that mentor position. I’m sure both of you have experienced that with others in some way, shape, or form. I think it’s really important that there’s a path where you’re like “I can be really successful and really ambitious, and really want to be someone who writes myself into the pages of history, and I can be a nice, wholesome, positive person.” And when you look at groups like the girl or boy scouts, I think they do a really great job with that. If you talk to anyone who made it to an Eagle Scout, they’re pretty consistently good people, and have shared values, and talk about how that experience really helped them become the person they are today. And I think a lot of young, ambitious people right now, particularly because of things like the college application process - I don’t know how old your kids are, but are you in that stage with them yet, or no?
My oldest is turning 15 soon. I’ve got 15 down to 4, so…
I go from 18 down to 3.
[01:19:52.17] Okay, so you’ve experienced some of this then, or maybe you’re currently experiencing it.
I think for a lot of young people who are very ambitious, the path that they see to being successful, which I think is reinforced through things like the college application process, the way to succeed is to basically lie, cheat, exaggerate and steal. And I think that our ambitious colleges are turning a generation of young ambitious people into sociopaths. And I think one thing – yeah, and it’s crazy. I mean, I don’t know how much you’ve dug into it, but when we saw the George Santos stuff happen, we were like “Yeah, this is literally what Stanford is asking for. It’s crazy.” And I think Hack Club can help be part of a path where people will kind of feel like they don’t need to do that, but can still be successful at those ages. That values component is very important to our community.
Well, where does it go from here? You seem to be off to a good start; you’ve got a base, you’ve got supporters, you have a lot of programs, there’s excitement, there’s infrastructure, there’s – you know, the core is there. And so what happens next, or what are you trying to accomplish? Is it just get this into the wheelhouses of more people? Is it build and become bigger than the current offerings? What’s next?
Yeah. So today, if you’re a young person and you have that spark with technology, there’s very few things to support you in doing that. And we want to live in a world where – right now there’s about 15 million high school students in the U.S. I want to live in a world where about a million of them can kind of choose that hacker/maker path to be the primary thing they’re doing outside of class. And I want Hack Club to meaningfully contribute to building the ecosystem where there’s a whole bunch of different touch points that they’re a part of, that are supporting them on that path.
Today, I would say when you look at all of our different programs, there are probably about 25,000 teenagers around the world who would say that yeah, Hack Club’s like a meaningful part of what’s going on for them; they would identify as that. But that’s a tiny percentage, and a tiny fraction of the number of people who would love to be a part of Hack Club if they simply heard of it.
So the way I see it is like we need to grow Hack Club to be something that every young person who wants to be a part of it knows about it, knows the right things about it, and has the right folks to become a part of the community. And I want to live in a world where every high school has a group of teenagers who are like “This is our thing.” They’re nice, kind people, with really positive values, and where if you are someone who wants to pursue this thing, there’s a path for you.
I felt like I had to drop out of high school and move hundreds of miles away from home to find my people, and to find that path for myself, and I feel like I mostly got lucky in being able to find that. Coding is something that changes lives; it shouldn’t be something that’s left to chance. And it’s important that those of us who have been lucky enough to kind of be the beneficiaries of the current technology revolution, that we give that gift to the next generation, and make sure that they see that path for themselves, too.
One more Silicon Valley reference. I have to bring it up, I’m sorry… [laughter] Does this act like an incubator in any way, shape, or form? Have you gotten to the point where you’ve got folks, or young folks, or teenagers, or whatever label you apply to those - I think you call them Hack Clubbers - that they get to a point where they’re like “You know what, I’m aging out, and I’m gonna create this thing”, and they need not so much venture capital necessarily, but maybe angels, or pre-seed, or early seed, or… Are you at a point where you’re actually helping to assist in that next trajectory, which is like “Hey, I needed a place to belong when I was young, I needed a place to learn, I needed to make friends, and I did all that. And Hack Club served me well. And now I’m at a point where I’m in a launch point, and I was in the Hack Club (for a lack of better terms) incubator”, like Erlich Bachman’s incubator, “and I’m ready to spread my wings and create my Yo! app, or my Bro app”, or whatever it might be. What’s the scenario for you?
Yeah, so today our oldest alumni are probably in their early 20s, and it’s been really interesting seeing what Hack Clubbers do. There is a number of Hack Club alumns who raised millions of dollars for startups, and are doing really serious stuff. And again, there’s a handful of Hack Club alums who have built open source projects that are now used by like millions and millions and millions of people.
[01:24:17.26] I think that the primary purpose of Hack Club is and should always be to help young people become the best versions of themselves. Once you turn 18, I think there’s like a really great network of support and stuff like that afterwards. And I think that if we’re going to do – I think the one thing that will kill the org is focus. So like “Let’s pick one thing and try to make it the most amazing, beautiful, incredible gift that you’ve ever experienced for people of age 13-18”, and then afterwards maybe we’ll have some alumni support, but… I don’t really want Hack Club to be an incubator, because the problem with being an incubator is that the people who are in power get to choose who gets opportunities and who don’t, and Hack Club only works because everyone is building the spaces that they themselves want. If suddenly there’s a dynamic where you got more by being friends with staff, or like doing certain things, I think it would make Hack Club feel a lot more competitive, a lot less community-driven… And there’s already so many spaces like that. Like, go to Y Combinator. Y Combinator is great. And there’s a bunch of Hack Clubbers who have gone to Y Combinator. Like, just do that. There’s a ton of stuff like that already, and I think that we would just end up doing a lower-quality version of it.
I was thinking more on the naturalness of it; less like the explicit, like, “Hey, we are an incubator”, and more like just by nature of your mission you’ve got to incubate, to some degree. Like a coding school, or a boot camp, there may be – on the other side of that they may partner up with opportunities, for example. I just wondered if that was – because you’ve got connections, like Tom Preston-Werner, he is very into funding startups, and other folks are into seed investing. I know Quinn Slack is an angel to several startups, I’m sure. And you’ve got friends in that area, and it would just make sense, I would think, to not so much implicitly say that “Okay, since you’re a Hack Clubber, you get X opportunity”, but more just by natural operation you’re going to incubate some opportunity for somebody. I just wondered if there was anything that you’re doing around that front, or just connecting those dots for folks.
Yeah, nothing official at this stage. Because again, I want the role of Hack Club to be to help you become the best version of yourself. The thing is, Hack Club is a human network, right? There’s thousands of people involved. Inevitably, board members like Tom get connected with some Hack Clubbers, and stuff like that. But I’m not the one making the connections, and HQ isn’t. Actually, one of the key things you learn at Hack Club is how to send really good cold emails if you’re running a hackathon. And that is a skill that really serves you later on.
Oh yeah, for sure.
And there’s a really robust alumni network. There’s a handful of Hack Clubbers who run a series of group houses in San Francisco, and stuff like that… It’s a broad world, and I want Hack Club to – I don’t know, there’s something that feels a little wrong to me about staff going out of their way to connect certain people and not others. I think it would change the dynamic a little bit, and it’d make it a little more transactional, I think.
Yeah. I appreciate the focus. We have this thing right here, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” And there’s nothing worse in life than a focus person who’s distracted. Because they’re not focused anymore, right?! I love the fact that you have that focus, and that’s good, because - I mean, that gives you your Northstar, right? And anytime you – like, that’s even for us… One of our North Stars around here is “Slow and steady.” Now, “Slow and steady” doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re literally going slow, because to go steady, you have to go the pace that makes sense to keep the thing steady. So slow is just a term to say “As fast as it needs to be to remain steady.” And we find ourselves not being steady anymore, and going too fast, and we say, “Slow down and check yourself.” So that’s how we keep our focus around here, to some degree… And that’s great that you have that response, because you’re focused.
I’m glad we had you on to share more of the story. I was curious myself. I wanted to dig into what you’re doing. We didn’t talk too much about Sprig and the PCB that was there, but we did enough, I suppose… Is there anything else in closing you want to share? Anything else that’s left unsaid?
[01:28:07.16] Go to github.com/hackclub/Sprig. Go to github.com/hackclub/sinerider. Go to hackclub.com and sign up for the email list, where every three months we’ll send you an email about a cool new open source project. What we see is like there are so many young people who are hungry, and sharing one of these things with a young person in their life could be the thing that helps them find their people, helps them find their path, and helps them be part of a community that they might have been looking for for a long time. And it takes a big tent, you know?
And again – I think maybe the last thing is if you’re listening to this and you wish you had something like Hack Club as a teenager, give that gift to a teenager today. A lot of our support will – literally, all of Hack Club is made possible and free for teenagers through donors. So give $5 a month at hackclub.com/donate. You’ll really be helping to make this possible for a new generation of young people, too.
Very cool. Yeah, we’ll link that up in the show notes. We definitely want to encourage donations as necessary. Yeah, I can’t imagine we have a large teenager audience, but we certainly want to encourage the ones who are here, and those who are parents or loved ones of teenagers, then please, follow Zach’s advice. We’ll link everything up in the show notes, as you would expect, so check that out.
Zach, thank you so much for taking the time to come on. We appreciate it.
Thank you both again. And really, thank you both for everything you do for open source. I follow the Changelog and would check it often as a teenager after you launched. You actually featured one of my projects I built when I was like 15, and that was like the most exciting thing ever.
Is that right?
Which one was it?
It was a Git ignore tool. It was a CLI tool that generated Git ignores for you. I think it was just like one of the Go projects that I got a few stars that day. Another one was SSH Tron, I think you did… It’s a little game. If you type “ssh sshtron.ZachLatta.com” in your terminal, it drops you into like a multiplayer Tron game written in Go. I think those are the two that you had on your site, and that was really – I think that was like one of the first times I’d ever seen my stuff on someone else’s site… So thank you both for the work you do, and for supporting the ecosystem. I would not be coding today if it wasn’t for the open source movement, and I know you two do a lot to help make that possible.
Wow. Thank you for saying that. I know what’s getting featured in news next week, Jerod… SSH Tron! [laughter]
We’ll re-up that sucker.
We’ll bring it back. We’ll bring it back. It’s a multiplayer Tron in your terminal. That’s so cool. It looks cool, too.
Sounds like something I would have covered at some point, definitely. We’ll give it another shout-out next week on News, why not?
That’s right. Well, Zach, thanks for being a follower all these years, and - man, I appreciate you saying that, and it’s so cool to… We never really quantify our impact; we never slow down enough. We’re always sort of chomping at the bit for the next thing, or the next urgent thing, or the next right thing, or whatever your next thing might be, and we don’t often start to - not smell the roses, but quantify our impact. And I appreciate so much having you on the show so many years later, but also throughout your journey having some shape or form of impact to you. That’s just, honestly, such a cool thing. Thank you for that.
Of course. You’re the people who did the hard works. Thank you. Have a wonderful rest of your days. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Zach.
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