Events May 15, 2013

The Hackers Behind Greylock’s Hackfest: Alice L

Alice Lee Discusses Life After Greylock's Hackfest

We continue our series of The Hackers Behind Greylock’s Hackfest with Alice Lee.

Formerly of University of Pennsylvania and currently a Product Designer at Dropbox, Alice was named by Glamour Magazine as one of the top 10 most inspirational college students of 2013 — and we’d have to agree! From graduating in 3 years and securing a summer internship at foursquare, to combining her love of photography, design and tech to get her digital resume viewed more than 80,000 times (and, of course, participating in last year’s inaugural Hackfest) Alice embodies her top tip of “learning more”.

In this post, Alice talks about the important (albeit, sometimes unexpected) role designers can play in hackathons, how Greylock Hackfest helped her to secure a full-time job at Dropbox and why her competitors should be stocking up on Hot Cheetos (lots of Hot Cheetos).



What is the role of a designer at a hackathon?

Hackathons are all about creating something cool within a constrained period of time. Often, the experience boils down to a pressure-packed demo for only a couple of minutes where, among other things, you’re judged heavily on the wow-factor and the first impression you make. That said, even though designers are less commonly found at hackathons, I’ve found the role of a designer to be quite straightforward in a hack. Just like any other product, design influences the way you interact with and perceive the value of that interaction with an app and is extremely important.

At a hackathon, our team will usually outline the general product “flow” together so we know what we’re generally building or aiming for, at the very least. I’ll then start mocking up really quick, low-fidelity stuff in Photoshop and passing on assets to an engineer, or I’ll switch my designer hat out for a front-end one and start mocking these up myself in HTML/CSS.

I loved the fact that design was one of the pillars that we were judged on at the Greylock Hackfest last year. I think design totally has a place at hackathons — and one thing I noticed about the Greylock Hackfest was that the apps were mostly polished and such high quality that they far exceeded the quality bar that I’ve seen at other hackathons.

What was the first project you ever built?

The first project I’ve ever built overall was my portfolio site for articles that I had written for my high school newspaper a few years ago. It was a big step for me because it was the first time I had even looked at HTML and thought about the web from a designer’s perspective.

The first project I ever built at a hackathon was called “Plan My Night For Me”. I had just finished interning at foursquare and wanted to build something off of their venues API. My team also ran out of ideas so we just started jokingly looking up nearby bars to go to. From that, we thought it would be funny to build a site that recommended an agenda of venues based on how “crazy” you wanted your night to be (there was a slider that you could set, from tame to wild).

What tech or language are you are most excited about it & why?

At hackathons, I usually play the role of the designer and front-end dev. That said, I’m really excited to begin exploring digital painting this summer (it would be so cool to “digitally paint” something in under an hour for a hackathon!) and diving deeper into front-end animation work with CSS3 (woo!).

What would be surprising to your friends to learn about you?

I love Hot Cheetos. They are my vice. If you want to sabotage me and my team during a hackathon, just put an endless supply of Hot Cheetos in front of me.

How did you first become aware of greylock hackfest?

I found out via Facebook and Quora and of course, every other intern I knew was buzzing about it (“Have you heard of the Greylock Hackfest?” etc).

What part of the hackfest did you like best?

Greylock Hackfest is the best hackathon I’ve been to because the beginning-to-end experience was taken care of (ie. food, tablets, outlets, space) so that I could just concentrate on hacking. I also felt that the quality of apps finished at Greylock Hackfest was very high from both a product (WOW-factor / “does this make sense?”) and execution (“does it work?”) perspective.

What was your favorite moment from the hackfest?

Joao (our server engineer) and I (design / front-end) had finished early after a solid 20 hours of hacking just by the nature of our roles and how they fit into our project, so it was up to Randy (iOS) to carry the torch to the finish line and put all the finishing touches on our iOS app. In the final three hours, Joao and I alternated being “human alarm clocks,” as we would wake up to make sure Randy was awake, had food, etc., and then we would promptly fall back asleep.


(From L to R: Joao, Alice and Randy)

Who did you meet that you were most inspired by & why (fellow hacker, judge, etc)?

Chris Varenhorst, an engineer at Dropbox, was a truly inspiring person to talk to. I’m pretty sure he’s a secret genius. He served as our team “mentor,” as we could sign up for mentoring sessions on the first afternoon.

What was the best piece of advice you received at hackfest & from who?

Our project was called, Pouch, an IOS babysitting app. Chris told us to keep our app simple, a suggestion we very highly adhered to. He even helped us brainstorm possibilities for launching our app beyond Greylock Hackfest in identifying markets (ie. babysitters in more metropolitan areas) and suggesting great APIs to build off of (ie. Stripe for our in-app payment piece).

Have you kept in touch with anyone since the hackfest? If so, who & why?

I’ve kept in close contact with other Pathletes (Path interns) who did the Hackfest including RandyArashAndrew, etc. Even though my team pulled a few pranks on them (below). I’ve also kept in touch with a lot of other hackers that I met through Greylock Hackfest!

Have you continued work on your hackfest project?

We made plans to and may pick it up at some point in the future, but we haven’t. ☺

Can you provide some insight on how the hackfest helped connect you with your current employer?

Greylock Hackfest was integral in my decision to apply to Dropbox as a Product Designer. I loved the office and could tell a lot about the Dropbox culture just from the quirky artwork and installations around the office (nap pods, anyone?). Beyond that, I also interacted with Chris, a Dropbox engineer, and came back the next week to check out some of the demos at their internal Hack Week. That kicked off my hanging out at the HQ more and more afterwards and I got to know a lot of awesome Dropboxers. Six months later upon graduation, I started at Dropbox as a Product Designer and have been loving it here.

“The Hackfest experience boils down to a pressure-packed demo for only a couple of minutes where, among other things, you’re judged heavily on the wow-factor and the first impression you make.”