Open Hub Hackathon Attracts Wide Range of Backgrounds, Talents and Visionaries, United by Shared Passion

Say the word “techie” and most are likely to quickly conjure up an image of an individual possessing elusive, innate technological skills that consume that person’s life. A further vision of one of these prototypes includes someone who has always known exactly what he or she wanted to do because of this unwavering passion, reserved to a few elite: The math and science types, those logical ones, and oh yes, the linear personalities. Think again!

Participants in October, 2020’s latest Hudson Valley’s Open Hub Hackathon showed first-hand, “Zoom style,” just how far off those antiquated, oftentimes derogatory, and confining stereotypes, are. Hailing from a wide range of backgrounds, ages, personalities, and aspirations, each of the participants carries an intriguing flair of authenticity, creativity and energy that is slowly redefining what it means to be a person involved in technology in today’s dynamic, quickly evolving world. They further exemplify how technology is drastically changing people’s lives by its enriching, empowering rewards, available to ALL people.

Meet Dana McMullen. Her journey is woven with flexibility, determination, an altruistic spirit and some recurring doses of fate. It begins in high school, where although she excelled in math and science, technological interest and aspirations were the furthest things from her desire to become a female rapper, along with entertainment icon. You can find traces of that talent on YouTube where she and some friends have a popular gig analogous to Salt-N-Pepa which had an impressive number of views; however not enough to generate a steady income. So, off to college she went, where a major in sociology was not a revenue wielding career path either. The panacea to her job future came when she decided to take a Computer Information Systems Class. While working at Syracuse University, fate entered her life when a colleague tipped her off to a job opening in her field of study. Before long, she was fully immersed in and passionate about her new love: an Adaptive Technology Instructor for the blind. Realizing the positive difference being able to use technology can make in changing lives, she thoroughly enjoyed this position, which also included modifying technology for others with disabilities, for close to 10 years. However, when a loved one became ill, she had to make caretaking her new priority. When returning almost a decade later to the technology field, she faced an unsettling reality of how fast it had evolved and just how unprepared she suddenly was. Enter fate number two: a Coding and Programming free Bootcamp through HackUpState opportunity was available. Although extremely demanding, the course resulted in her present position as a Web Developer Manager, who also educates others to learn the very technological skills that positively altered her life. Reflecting back on how far she has come since her days of wanting to be a singing sensation, Dana cannot be more grateful where she has landed. “Technology helps other people’s lives so much,” she stressed. “After all, if we can’t do it for that purpose, what’s the point?”

Another self-proclaimed “non-techie,” who stumbled upon the medium as a way to connect with and make learning meaningful to children, is educator Sonya Abbye Taylor. Initially using it-along with music and theatre- way back in the day to make filmstrips with students, Sonya immediately saw the huge, transforming impact it can have in most all realms of learning. As an administrator she went on to encourage her teachers to attend workshops and integrate technology as much as possible, realizing its profound enriching capability. “I truly value it,” affirmed Sonya about technology. “However, I’m still not a techie.” Presently teaching on the collegiate level, the lifelong educator specializes in teaching technology to students facing communication disorders, opening up a whole new world for them.
“Some of the services available to these students make change and going to places we never thought possible become possible,” said Sonya. “Technology can change the world, and we need to have the visionaries around who can see and make that happen.”

One of those visionary types of people is Stephen Shaffer, another Open Hub Hackathon participant who entered the world of technology in a non-traditional manner. A business major who went on to earn his MBA, Stephen has never taken a formal technology class. However, he has always possessed a very logical mind, one that has consistently queried about what can get him to an end result. Oftentimes the most expedient way is using technology, something he views as multifaceted as well as imperative to keep up with its constantly evolving changes. With a Hackathon victory to his credit, he revels in the “fun” nature they provide, something he likes to refer to as his “play time.” Attracted to the experimental appeal of Hackathons as well as the exploratory allure of technology in general, Steven wants to spend as much of his limited free time as possible continuing to engage in this wonderful “adult play time.”

Shannah White is quick to describe herself-even to this day- as more of the hippie type than a techie. Regardless, the entrepreneur found herself on the technology path for the problem-solving high she got from the immediate and tangible art of coding. A self-taught web developer, who started on a small scale, Shannah has slowly honed her abilities while staying true to her chief priority: self-reliance. Intent on avoiding the confinements of the “cooperate mold, 9–5” she worked arduously to develop her now thriving freelance website developer business. Discovering Open Hub was yet another game-changing moment in her career. Viewing the Hub as the ideal “marriage between uplifting the community and developing skills,” Shannah has joined the Hudson Valley innovative technology team as a Web Development Bootcamp instructor, who stresses real life projects, requiring creativity and critical thinking.

Not only did many of the 2020 HVTechFest Hackathon participants not fit into the traditional “techie” boxes of having a lifetime love affair with technology or even entering the field with a solid skill set, but several proved age need not be a variable. Anna Patel, now 11 years old, started to develop an interest in coding in fourth grade. Beginning with Basic Java, the pre-teen was immediately hooked, enjoying the challenge tremendously while prompted to explore more and more. Her quest led her to joining the Newburgh Girls Coding Club this past spring and summer, where her tech calling was further secured. Recently a participant in her first Hackathon in October, Anna earned the respect of the judges for both her positive attitude as well as impressive coding skill set. Now further inspired, she enrolled in Open Hub’s Web Development Bootcamp. Her present goal is to learn integral real world skills as well as critical other ones to develop professional websites. In just fifth grade now, Anna possesses unlimited, untapped potential and plenty of time to acquire priceless more skills as well as hone those she already possesses, allowing her to contribute to the field of technology in countless, exciting ways. This is just the beginning.

It’s also a new start for another youth Hackathon participant, Taylor Dinardo, a senior at SUNY New Paltz. Initially a Linguistics Major, Taylor “never, ever” thought of herself as a techie. However, one day she was posed with “a techie barometer test:” How would you tell a robot to transfer a cup of water from one hand to another? Providing a super detailed reply, Taylor also revealed her keen ability to think logically. This revelation led to her signing up for an accelerated Computer Science Master’s Program; she then went on to contribute her knowledge to younger females intrigued by technology, working this past summer as an instructor for the 180 member, country-wide “Girls Who Code,” a life-transforming experience.
“It was very reformative for me,” reflected Taylor about her teaching role. “It was an opportunity I wish was available when I was younger, so now, I want to pass on to others what I have learned.”

For still others, technology represents sheer survival, a precious pathway whose doors can invite in all kinds of possibilities. Meet Ludmila Smirnova, a professor at Mount Saint Mary College. Twenty years ago, the educator came to an awakening that technology truly is the future. It is a tool that can allow anyone in any field, including teaching to excel. With this epiphany, Ludmila relentlessly studied-day and night- all the ins and out of technology, developing a love for a field once completely foreign to her. Attempting to share that passion with her students, she ran up against a brick wall of resistance. Then, everything changed when COVID struck. Suddenly, all of her students took on roles of explorers, their creative juices organically growing; Ludmila embraced this opportunity, creating a “very creative and interactive syllabus.” Building a community through Triple Echo, the professor also had her students introduce their future selves using Flipgrid, a device that immediately attracted her charges for its engaging as well as empowering appeals. Suddenly, all were on board with the potent-dynamic and far-reaching- effects technology can have, especially on learning. “We need to teach students to be global citizens, who are not afraid of using technology, but rather than just using it, they are actually the curators of it,” affirmed Ludmila, who is a firm believer in the shared and motivating components of technology and how they can help shape as well as change the future.

Finally, there are those “techie types” like Max Pavlov; they are the ones who love to create things, seeing a product develop through each phase. Like so many others, Max’ initiation into the tech field was unique and non-linear. His first job was far removed from computers, in carpentry. However, the Pandemic, as it did with multiple thriving fields, put a slow halt on the construction industry. Max, not one to slow down, changed gears and enrolled in a Web Development Bootcamp, providing him with just enough of a baseline to create his own web projects. Pursuing this emerging passion, he learned both Cloud and AWS deployment. In fact, before he even had the chance to complete his own project, he was offered a job requiring the exact new skills he had recently acquired. Technology has been a sheer blessing to the once carpenter turned “techie,” who sees multiple commonalities between the two careers. “Both allow you to create what you want,” pointed out Max. “The only difference is there is no material cost in the programming; you have access to everything.”

Each of these HVTechFest Hackathon participants clearly reveals the changing face of those entering and passionately excelling in technology. There is no longer a specific gender, age, location, background or even innate skill set needed; rather all that is required is a curious mind, one that enjoys problem solving, creating and is intrigued by a rapidly developing field that has and continues to make positive, life-lasting changes in those it touches. Ultimately, it’s for everyone… what extent is totally up to you!
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