Dave, leader of the Hackathon movement

Dave, leader of the Hackathon movement

Dave Fontenot has lead the hackathon movement in hundreds of universities for more than 3 years.

Short background ? What are the experiences that made you ?

In my first hackathon, I created a very simple product and built a website to sell it. It was super simple. I couldn’t imagine it was possible. After this first experience, I was addicted. My friends and I went to as many hackathons as we could to feed us with this unique energy and grow our skills.

In 2013, we started MHacks, the largest hackathon in the world. Since then, over 5000 students have attended from 50 different schools.

I dropped out of the University of Michigan to devote my life to spread the hackathon movement. After Airbnb-ing for 17 months to start hackathons all over the country, I created HackMatch to help engineers find the perfect startup.

Your “Impossible actions” ?

Most of the people don’t think that it is possible to build an app. But in one hackathon weekend, they end up to have done it. Among the 50 000 students that have participated, about half of them had never created app before !

I dropped out to travel during 18 months to spread the hackathons movement all around the world, 40 different schools. A hundred schools now host/organize hackathons... 50 000 students attented.

We have created the largest community for hackathon hackers. At one time, I used to answer more than 50 calls a month to help people around the world organize hackathons.

What was the most challenging ?

The most challenging was politics. There is a hacker group at Michigan university. Instead of trying to convince them to join, we fired them. Because they didn’t have the big vision. They were afraid of failing.

The tough part was also to convince people that I wasn’t crazy, or more precisely, convincing people that I was the right type of crazy guy. At the first meeting at Michigan, they couldn’t believe us. We finally convinced them to give us the largest building of the university. For the event, we raised 50000 dollars in 3 months.

What is your strategy to convince people and make your projects happen ?

Go top-down, always go to the top person, the boss, and then go down. Because, people down wants to do less, it is in their interest to say no.

Some of our strategies are :

  • Figure out the ones who can break the rules in the organization and make it the champion
  • Envision the goals and vision of the people you want to convince and then adjust your one-minute pitch to their core values
  • Be OK with breaking rules and then ask for forgiveness.
  • Teach that it is Ok to fail.

What makes the success of M-Hacks?

We accept failures. We make more failures than anyone else. Let’s play the game. We are the one who send the crazy emails, who never stop breaking rules. The schools hates and loves us at the same time.

We also tap in the great potential of fresh schools students. They have the most important : passion and vision.

We don’t think about Hackathons as an end. We think it is just a mean to unleash the creative power inside anyone. We empower youth, we tell them :

“The only reason there is no hackathon at your school is because you haven’t started yet. That is your responsibility”.

For us, a hackathon is much more than an event, it is a community of learners.

How do you personally make a living ?

I have created Hackmatch.com to help engineers to find the right startup to join. I am an agent for engineers. I think engineers should threat themselves as investors. They should research even more than the best investors.

How do you describe your life mission ?

I want to accelerate the coming of the next renaissance. I want people to be able to create what they want and not worrying about anything else. I want to help people to devote their entire life with things that they are obsessed with. I see the internet similar to the printing revolution. It has unlocked the knowledge. It is just a matter of when. I want it to happen faster.

What matters most for you at the moment ?

My personal growth. That is why I want to spend time with the people I grow the most with.

What is your vision of education ?

Even though we have the internet, the way we learn at the college and university has stayed very traditional... I want people to learn by doing. To dive into something. You become a painter by painting, you become a writer by writing. How can I lower the cost ? What can I test ?

How do you deal with fears and doubt ?

By jumping into it. What I'm afraid of is my own thinking. For example, I start thinking about vegan, I am afraid to think about it because I know it will change myself. I am afraid to think about space because if I do, I know I will start working only about space projects.

When I reach a conclusion, I have to do it.

Favorite app ?

Facebook messenger. I want to message with people. I am trying to leave email, to use only messenger.

What would you suggest to youth to help them find their direction ?

I rarely give advice. I say try. The opportunity cost is usually nothing. Inaction is the worst. You are either doing something or you are going to do nothing.

A good idea is an insane one, the one people don’t believe in. If people don’t think you are crazy, it is perhaps that your ideas are not good enough.

However, I have one suggestion : learn new skills and at least one valuable today. For example, I have learnt to code so that I could have financial freedom.

The most important is the process of creating and not the creation in itself. The true art is in the process.

If you need woodwork to express yourself, then do it. There are just ways of expressing yourself.

Choose the experiences that will make you grow faster. It is not about dropping out, it is where you are dropping in !

You are with whom you spend time with. The main important thing is who are spending the time with.

Live in the world you have created.

Interview by Diane Lenne on June 24th 2015 in San Francisco, Mission.