The Stack Overflow Podcast

Hackathons and free pizza: All about Stack Overflow’s new Student Ambassador Program

Episode Summary

Ben, fresh from launching Stack Overflow’s new Student Ambassador Program, tells Matt about partnering with Major League Hacking, the young programmers eager to get back to in-person events, and the powerful allure of free pizza. Plus: Why you don’t have to create an account to engage with our public platform.

Episode Notes

As part of an effort to work with students at college and universities, Stack Overflow is partnering with Major League Hacking (MLH) to recruit our first cohort of Student Ambassadors. These folks will represent us on campus and lead the way in tackling challenges, earning rewards, and planning out the future of the program. 

Our pizza fund events are open to students in the US and Canada, and Global Hack Weeks are open to all. You can learn more about how to apply here.

ICYMI: Major League Hacking cofounder Jon Gottfried and Hackathon Community Manager Mary Siebert previously came on the podcast to describe what a Major League Hackathon looks like (the succulents were a surprise).

Today’s Lifeboat badge goes to user Manquer for their answer to the question How can I upgrade Yii 1.x to Yii 2.0?.

Episode Transcription

[intro music plays]

Ben Popper Some failures may feel like the end of the world, but at the end you find yourself walking away with a vital lesson. CircleCI CTO Rob Zuber is on a mission to find stories of software industry leaders who survived some epic mishaps. You can subscribe today to the Confident Commit Podcast at So head on over to that URL, let them know we sent you, and support the program.

BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I'm your host, Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my wonderful cohost and colleague, Matt Kiernander. Hey, Matt. 

Matt Kiernander Hello! Nice to see you again. 

BP Thanks, nice to see you. So I have some fun news for our audience. There's a blog post about it out today and a website up. Stack Overflow is launching its first ever Student Ambassador Program. So it's kind of a no brainer. I went to an event this weekend, we're partnering for the first semester with the folks at Major League Hacking, which is kind of a platform for hackathons. They have coaches and they have event training and they have their own hackathons and so they help kids– and adults– but mostly students put on hackathons all over the world and at lots of schools around the US. 

MK That's where I was getting confused because there’s MLG which is Major League Gaming as well. And so I was like, “Is this the gaming thing or the hackathon thing?” So I'm glad we've got that sorted. Hackathons, everyone. 

BP Yeah, exactly. We'll put a link in the show notes, there's an old podcast we did with John, one of the co-founders from Major League Hacking way back when in like 2019 or early 2020. But anyway, they ended up being a great partner because we wanted to launch a program this year. We wanted to be on campus, but that's kind of a tough thing to build out if you don't have a ground team. So I was at a summer camp in rural New York with 400 college students who have either signed up to be brand new or have over the years participated in Major League Hacking, so it was awesome to see all these kids there who were so excited to go back to real life events. Most of them were very burnt out on remote stuff, on virtual hackathons, they've had two years of on again/off again campus life so they're hoping that this September will be a big return to sort of campus life the way it used to be. And just so folks understand, this year we’re working with Major League Hacking, and these events called ‘Pizza Fun Nights’ will be available only in the United States and Canada, unfortunately. In the future we hope to go global. We are also sponsoring three global hack weeks where Stack Overflow engineers will be speaking and talking about their experiences, sharing that with students, and will be giving challenges. So if you’re in the US and Canada, sign up for the Pizza Fun Nights, otherwise you can come check out some of our global hack weeks which are fully remote and open to everyone.

MK That's cool. How was the awkwardness level in the room? Because I remember going to my first big event after not seeing a human in a long time and you kind of forget how to be a human to be honest. 

BP Yeah. I would say the awkwardness level wasn't very high. The kids were super enthused. These are the kind of people who raise their hand to be class president. They're like, “I'm the one who's going to make the spreadsheet for the hackathon. I'm the one who's going to find the sponsor.” So they're kind of go-getters. I guess the thing that stood out to me was that we were like, “Well they're just young kids, sometimes 17, 18. Will they know Stack Overflow? Maybe they learn everything off of YouTube and blogs and TikTok and whatnot.” But they thought that was a silly question. We were like, “Do you know Stack Overflow?” And they were like, “What are you talking about? Of course. We use it all the time for schoolwork. It saved me a million times on this project or that.” So that was nice to know that the younger generation uses it. Not a lot have accounts or if they have accounts ask questions and answer, we know that to be true for Stack Overflow. But there were even a few who said they had gotten to the point of feeling comfortable. So what we're hoping to do with the Student Ambassador Program is to get them to sign up for accounts and try out some of the new stuff we have like the new ask question wizard that hopefully will make it easier for them to really participate in our public platform. And if they sign up they get free pizza, so it's not that big of an ask.

MK So can you kind of describe what the event was and what you did there, what the general vibe was like, what people were doing, all that kind of stuff? 

BP Sure. So people were traveling from all over the country to this summer camp. I was manning a table with a little sign that said that Stack Overflow is launching a student ambassador program. The kids were doing camp activities, they were doing some coding activities, they were doing some talks and discussion tracks about how do you host a hackathon, how do you organize? If you’re graduating, how do you pass the reigns to the next person? So kind of a mix of fun stuff, planning stuff, and things that are relevant to people who are in the hackathon scene, I guess I would say.

MK I did my first hackathon at university because I realized I needed an internship and one of the ways to help stand out, because you've got no experience as a college student apart from the stuff you do yourself, so one of the ways to stand out was by participating in a hackathon. And pretty much everyone who did that hackathon ended up getting internships that summer from various different companies. And it was one of the most valuable things I did throughout my computer science degree for sure. 

BP Nice. Do you remember what the challenge was or what you made that time? 

MK Basically everyone was kind of just making various CRUD apps, so it wasn't anything too technically intense. There was obviously some very enthusiastic, overly ambitious projects that were presented, because you have a weekend to try and build out a prototype and a design. 

BP A decentralized social network that's the answer to everything that's wrong with today!

MK Why has nobody done this before? It's so easy!

BP Nobody’s done this before. Amazing!

MK What did we end up doing? There was a couple of projects, one of them created a dating app, almost like Tinder for flatmates, which was pretty cool. And then one of the big residential– it's called Trademe in New Zealand. It's kind of like New Zealand's Craigslist for those unfamiliar. 

BP Got it.

MK And they actually hit them up and were thinking about potentially buying that idea which was pretty cool. And they had designers there and developers so you actually got to work with a team and put all the stuff that you'd been learning into practice for once. It was a lot of fun. I can't actually remember what we built. I think we were doing something to do with secondhand motor vehicle parts and building a marketplace for that. 

BP Okay, that sounds good. So I guess the summer camp was exciting in that the kids were enthused. We had over a hundred people sign up to learn more about it. I'm sure not all of them will end up becoming student ambassadors, but they were incited, mostly because I promised them that we would raffle off the key. I had the key with me, that was the big hit. They all wanted to play with the key. But there's going to be a bunch of Pizza Fun Nights and that's part of what I was describing before with Major League Hacking and us, is that we want to help kids get back together on campus in person if it's safe. So free pizza to have a study hall or a CS club or a hackathon, that's part of it. We'll offer the free pizza if you sign up. And then Major League Hacking is putting on three week-long, what they call global hack weeks, which are remote. And so some Stack Overflow engineers will be giving talks at those and we will be presenting a unique challenge for each one that the kids can participate in and earn rewards. And if you can't be part of one of those weeks we'll try to make the challenges something you can do over the course of the semester. I guess the minimal level of participation is to get a Stack Overflow account and eat some free pizza, so that's pretty easy. The maximal level is, man, you could compete in a whole bunch of different challenges and we'll shout you out on the Stack Overflow blog and podcast, and maybe you'll win the key. So there's a wide spectrum of participation if you're interested. 

MK For these kids who are getting involved in the ambassador program, what kind of activities would they expect? Is this kind of like a year-long thing, and what kind of stuff would they be doing throughout the year?

BP Right now we only have the first semester planned out, so we're hoping to learn from the kids about how they are learning, in what way can our platform be most useful, in what way could our tools or platform or community evolve so that we can be more useful to college students and people who are just entering their careers in technology? And if we establish a good base of ambassadors, hopefully, fingers crossed, then we'll look forward to next semester and how we can continue it. Major League Hacking has events that run all year round so we might continue to partner with them. But I think there's already some things happening in public like our new ask question wizard and some things that we can't talk about yet on the show but that you and I know about related to ideas about education, your learning journey, and making the platform more welcoming that will be coming online over the course of the next semester or two. And so we're hoping to funnel kids into these things that we think would maybe be kind of productive for them. I think that's a piece of it also. You know, Stack Overflow has been publicly committed to this challenge of, how do we get more people engaged as question askers and answerers and how do we get more people to actually sign up for a while. So like I said, the event was both energizing in that they were all like, “Duhh, we use Stack Overflow every day,” and that we still have that problem of, “But I don't have an account because what is the value to me there?” So we're still figuring that out. 

MK To be very honest and transparent about my own usage of Stack Overflow as a college student or a university student, most of it was very much at the panic mode of trying to finish an assignment and things were not working and desperately Googling on Stack Overflow, asking a very quick question, “This isn't working, what do I do?” So it was more that I didn't have time to create an account because I was flustered and trying to get as much as I could done to get a passing grade.

BP Right. One student said something that I thought was interesting, which was, “Why don't you just make people sign up? I use it two or three times a day. If registration was required, the site would still be public and free and all the knowledge would be accessible, but of course I would have an account.” And I said, “I don't know why we don't do that.” So I'm going to have to explore into the history of why. I guess it's a little bit limiting to ask people to sign up, but on the other hand it feels like we would learn more about our users and be able to offer them better tools with just that sort of minimal level of engagement with the platform, so I wonder why we never did that. 

MK I was having a chat with Jon Chan who is one of the Directors of Engineering here at Stack Overflow, and talking about privacy specifically within Stack Overflow and how Stack Overflow deals with that. And I think one of the reasons why you don't need an account to engage with the platform is to respect our users' privacy. If people don't want to engage and want to be completely anonymous on the platform then they're entitled to do so. So I think that was one of the key drivers for why that functionality isn’t there. 

BP What an old fashioned Web 1.0 website we are, and God bless. We have great values. If you don't want to sign up and share your data with us, you don’t. You don't have to sign up and share your data with us. We're not going to make you do that, no way. You don't want to look at all these popup ads? We would never do a popup ad. So I’ve got to say, we're a unique company in a lot of ways and the better for it I'm sure. If you're listening and you work with students, or if you are a student, definitely please go check it out. This year we're working with any school in the United States and Canada that's MLH affiliated. If you're not already but you’re interested, you can sign up to try and host a Pizza Fun Night which we are sponsoring and we will share the information with you and work with MLH to see if we can get you approved. Pizza Fun Nights can be short study halls or they can be focused on a project or a topic, you can bring in a speaker. There is another option for Pizza Fun Nights which is a mini-hackathon that runs for 12 hours and can be for up to 75 people. So both of those are great options for students to get organized, on campus with their friends and classmates, get free pizza brought to you by MLH and Stack Overflow and use it for learning or a hackathon. And then in the future, hopefully if all this works well, we'll be able to expand it to other schools or to other CS clubs and things of that nature.

MK And just to clarify for somebody who is non-American. By college student, are you talking about 18 and below or at the university or post level? 

BP Yes. I'm using the Americanized version. So a college student is 18 and up, you've entered your first year, and then also we would be happy to work with a graduate student or a PhD student who's doing on campus. Anybody who's on campus post-high school. What do you call it– secondary school? 

MK Yeah, we call it high school, although sometimes in New Zealand especially, we call them colleges and then after you hit 18 and you go to your next round of education, that's universities for us. 

BP Right. So yeah, we're mostly talking about university students in that sense. It's kids who are 18 and up. I guess some of them might be a little younger, but who are past high school. And then at that point there were a few people there who were working on their masters or their PhDs but were also in the hackathon scene and we’re happy to work with those people if they're on campus. 

MK So in terms of the longevity of this program, what is Stack hoping to achieve by this? What are they hoping that it grows into further on down the road, if we can talk about that? 

BP I think we want to learn from the kids and see. I know that for years while I've been here there's been a lot of inbound at various points saying, “Would Stack Overflow be willing to sponsor this hackathon,” or, “My club is doing this,” and we never had a focused, organized way to say yes or no to that, because where would it go, and who would handle it, and how would we be able to know afterwards if there was a benefit to the students and to Stack Overflow the organization? I know that there's been a demand for this for a long time, kind of a diffuse demand, and in going and meeting these students I was energized to see that there is a lot of brand recognition and love and definitely a demand from them for like, “I'm already planning a hackathon this semester. 20 bucks would really help. Pizza would really help. Money to book a room would really help.” The need is kind of low, what they need is just a bit of support. So my hope is that we'll learn a bunch this semester about how we can support those things and by supporting them and getting people more engaged with the platform we'll figure out more ways to bring students on and get them to be not just casual users of the information when they need it, but also contributors who can ask and answer questions and therefore help to grow the community and have it be young and have a new wave of people who want to participate in the platform. I think that’s really important to us, so just learning from students and getting to know them and supporting them, I think is a key piece of figuring out that challenge for us. 

MK One of the things that just occurred to me that I feel like is quite interesting is that as technology platforms age– you look at for example Facebook and Meta, Snapchat, Instagram, all that kind of stuff. Typically there is another platform that comes as a competitor to overthrow or bring in a new generation of younger users. And Stack Overflow has been around a long time and we haven't really seen anything that has been able to compete with Stack so far. It still seems like younger generations are still kind of engaged with the platform, which just from an outsider’s perspective I feel like it's quite an interesting dynamic that Stack is a little bit separated from these other companies.

BP Totally. I couldn't agree more. I mean, I think it's two sides of the same coin. They said they couldn't live without Stack, it's been my savior, really trust the content that the community produces. On the flipside, our dedication to extremely high quality content and restricting what posts stay open versus closed or get marked as duplicate means it’s tough for them to get involved themselves as users. So I completely agree. And I was actually expecting more than I experienced that they would be like, “Yeah, I use Stack sometimes but I've got all these other resources.” And I don't think they were flattering us. We were giving away the stickers for free. I think they were being honest. But like you said, it's a unique sort of thing, and I think it is. Like Wikipedia– it is the online encyclopedia of record for these kinds of problems and doesn't really have a direct challenger that I'm aware of.

MK Yeah. The meme potential is also very strong with Stack which is something I personally enjoy. 

BP Yes. They liked the socks, they wanted the key, they liked the stickers, so that was good. All right, so I know you had a few little hardware notes you wanted to hit on. Let's do those and then we'll say our goodbyes. 

MK Yeah. So this one is near and dear to my heart as somebody who plays video games and also does a little bit of motion graphics work on the side. GPUs have been incredibly difficult to attain over the last couple of years. And there's an article from with a note from the CEO Jensen Huang who was basically talking about the last quarter that Nvidia has had and that the company is actually struggling with excess inventory of the GeForce RTX 30 series, which is the latest GPUs from Nvidia. And this is hopefully a good thing for gamers out there, an excess inventory, excess supply, hopefully lessening the need of demand, and we're hopefully going to see some lowered prices in the near future, especially because they're going to be talking about the next generation of video cards, the 4000 series at GTC next month. So by the time this podcast airs maybe that's already happened, but some good news hopefully for any GPU fans out there. 

BP Nice. Yeah, I have been following a couple different blogs and things like this, but there was the pandemic, there was the supply chain shock, there was a few other things. Some things were very difficult to get and now we're on the flipside where people are saying, “Just wait a few more months, man. The deals, just wait till Thanksgiving.” We're now at the excess inventory point and people are waiting to see how low things can go. And GPUs and other things of that nature obviously will never be cheap, but compared to where they were a year ago, will look very attractive so that'll be interesting. 

MK Yeah, that'll be fun. There's also actually another little bit of hardware news to which I am more than happy to share. And that is AMD, as of tonight– so we're recording this on Monday the 29th of August– they're going to be introducing their Ryzen 7000 series of CPUs this evening, which is going to be great. I personally had one of the 3950X CPUs, which was just outstandingly performant as a CPU. As a content creator, somebody who dabbles in both video and the art side of things, it was just a very capable CPU and never slowed me down in any respect. And these 7000 CPUs are running at even greater clock speeds and they've got some new exciting tech in there which will hopefully facilitate a lot of creative cool stuff.

BP Awesome.

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BP All right, everybody. Well, I want to say thanks as always for listening. If you're in the hardware game you got some recommendations of things to keep your eyes on. And if you are a Stack Overflow user, you've been on the site, you've been helping and contributing, maybe you've been awarded a lifeboat badge. I want to shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge, as I always do. This one was awarded August 25th to Manquer, “How can I upgrade Yii 1.x to Yii 2.0?” Y-I-I? Do you think I say ‘yee’? 

MK I could not tell you. I don't know that technology at all, so we can go with yee. 

BP Yee! “How can I upgrade from Yii 1 to Yii 2.0?” Well we have the answer for you, and thanks again to Manquer for answering the question and winning a lifeboat. You've helped almost 12,000 people. I am Ben Popper. I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me @BenPopper on Twitter. You can always email us with questions or suggestions, If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. And if you are a student or a professor or somebody who's involved with hackathons or CS clubs, please check out our blog, and just as a reminder, if you’re interested in being a Stack Overflow Student Ambassador, you can sign up in the United States and Canada to host our Pizza Fun Nights, which are really cool ways to bring you and other students together for pizza, to study, work on a project, or even do a mini-hackathon. If you are outside the US and Canada, unfortunately you cannot be a Student Ambassador on campus in that way this semester. We’re hoping to go global in the future, but you can join us for a global hack week in October or December where Stack Overflow engineers will be making presentations and offering challenges. 

MK And I'm Matt Kiernander. I’m a Developer Advocate here at Stack Overflow. You can find me online in quite a few places @MattKander.

BP Terrific. All right, everybody. Thank you for listening and we will talk to you soon.

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