Matt O’Hagan and Christian Pelaez-Espinosa are two Florida State University students with big talent and even bigger dreams. They’re making a huge impact in creating a culture of innovation in the state of Florida via the organizations they’ve helped build. Through TechNole at FSU, the groundbreaking HackFSU, and now Florida Hackers, Matt and Christian are paving the way for the next generation of hackers, entrepreneurs, and innovators.
In this interview, we talk about company culture, talent and talent retention, and the future of tech in Florida. Needless to say, it’s looking bright. Read on below to find out what it takes to build “a culture that believes in people.”
Cuttlesoft: How did you two get into computer science and programming?
Matt: Early on, I got into computers and development just by messing around in school. I would go and shut down other kids’ computers from across the room, and I got into a bit of trouble with that. But what it started showing me was that you can do a lot of things with computers that people weren’t talking about. So I knew going into college that I wanted to study computer science and create stuff; that was really my only direction.
After I got to Florida State, I started going to hackathons, and from those I really started expanding my view of what computer science was, what software engineering was, and what developing was.
Matt O’Hagan at Trailhacks
From there, it’s gone on the last three years or so. I’ve been building side projects – coming up with ideas and getting a team together and making it happen. I recently shifted away from development and towards product design: more thinking about the user, doing UI/UX and thinking about a product holistically, rather than just figuring out how to engineer it.
Christian: I was lucky enough as a young kid to have a computer in my home, and I remember me exploring as much as possible – using paint, going on websites – that was back when AOL was a thing. I had a restricted AOL account and that’s how I accessed the internet.
Christian Pelaez-Espinosa in a TechNole “culture” t-shirt
What I realized was that my parents were starting to come to me for help with technology and they were being confident with my skills. However, when I wanted to learn about tech, there weren’t too many opportunities in my high school. The only class that was offered was digital design. That course was probably one of the easiest I’ve ever taken because of how enjoyable it was for me to use a computer to actually create something.
When I got into college, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I joined an interest meeting for an organization that had just started called TechNole. The president at the time, Diva, asked me if I wanted to go to Michigan for a hackathon, and I said “sure.”
If you don’t know what a hackathon is: it’s basically an event over the weekend on a campus where students get together from different backgrounds and different colleges to build any idea they have. When I was introduced to that community, I saw a bunch of students coming together to try to learn and build something together. That was a very motivating experience for me. It made me feel like I found a community that I belonged in. So ever since then, I’ve been super involved in tech and TechNole.
The fun part about exploring with tech is that there are so many different directions to go in. Right now my biggest area of focus is product management. Things like UX/UI, product management – these aren’t courses or majors at our university right now. These hackathons provide the experience for you to see the arising fields in tech. So I’m going through that now and figuring out where I see myself in a tech company.
Does this happen a lot at hackathons? Someone who may not be tech-oriented goes to a hackathon that opens their mind to tech?
C: It gives you the opportunity to experience it, to dive in and try out what it feels like. It’s not uncommon for a student to focus on their degree and then when they graduate they find out that’s not what they want to do. If you can make that feedback cycle quicker, and realize that earlier on, then I think you’ll be able to realize where you see yourself in the future.
M: I agree. For HackFSU, the annual hackathon we run at Florida State, for over 50% of the attendees, it’s their first hackathon. So they most likely have not been exposed to developer culture or hacking culture – thinking of something and taking a weekend to build it.
It seems like the courses offered at a lot of universities aren’t representative of what a career in tech looks like. Is this a big problem?
M: Yes, there’s definitely a lot of conversation that goes on around what our schools are teaching now, and what people think they should be teaching. I think schools are teaching a lot of the fundamentals, and there’s definitely a gap when it comes to getting students to realize what they want to do in their careers.
There are a lot of pipelines to get students to a job, but not necessarily a job that they’re passionate about. That’s something that a lot of universities struggle with. At Florida State, because of our curiousness to go travel to these hackathons and be exposed to these different communities, we’re able to get a bigger picture of what’s out there.
For the courses that they offer here, it’s not very software engineer-driven, it’s more theory driven – again, those fundamentals. In terms of design, the only route that you have for design is the studio art route. There aren’t really many people talking about how design plays a role in the tech industry, or in all industries. I think that’s the conversation that’s missing.
C: I think scope is definitely an issue. Being able to meet students from different universities and watch where they go, their career paths and being able to talk with them, it really paints a nice picture of what’s out there. Basically, a lot of the curriculum and the direction of the education system right now is focused solely on getting you a job. Not so much building someone up to work somewhere where they’re super passionate and can make that difference.
That’s what leading companies are looking for. They’re looking for people who’ve figured out what they want to do, are passionate and driven about it, and are focused on making an impact, rather than someone who just has the technical background and the prerequisites.
It seems you both found a way around these issues by participating in HackFSU. What’s the story behind that?
M: My freshman year, I got to Florida State looking for some tech groups and found one called TechNole, which was founded by Ryan Kopinsky, who was an engineering grad student. The mission of TechNole at the time was to make programming a fun and interdisciplinary experience. We had a good range of students who were just interested in talking about technology.
One of the students who joined was Diva, who Christian mentioned earlier. She decided that we should run our own hackathon. She got a team together, and we threw together the first HackFSU in a little under three months. That was the first time that a lot of these students had seen one of these events. This was in the Spring of 2014.
The next year, Christian and I ran the event. Our goal for that year was to inspire the rest of the schools in Florida to start hackathons on their campus. Since then, a lot of schools have taken the leap. In 2015, UF ran their event SwampHacks.
C: I think the next year, nine hackathons happened.
So you guys really kicked it off?
M: A lot of what Diva saw was this potential that hadn’t been brought to Florida yet. So we really wanted to pick up on that and realize what would happen if this spread across the state. Since then, we’ve become friends with a lot of the organizers across the state. We’ve been travelling together.
So the next time Mhacks was happening, we got them to send a bus down to us. They sent a fifty-four passenger bus and we filled it with kids from all across Florida. That was really the first time hackers from around Florida travelled as a state.
That began us driving across the country for hackathons and getting all of these students to come out and not sleep and chug red bulls and build something that they hadn’t thought of before. It turned into the entire state coming together.
C: And that’s what lead to Florida Hackers. About a year ago we were at HackGT, which is Georgia Tech’s hackathon. I remember seeing a lot of Florida hackers and organizers together. We had just met Takashi, who is the lead organizer of University of Florida’s hackathon, SwampHacks, and we just loved his designs.
So we said,
“Yo, we should develop a brand for everybody who’s travelling together. We should identify as one, because we’re a peninsula, we don’t have any borders. We’re almost like an island, there’s only one way to get out, and it’s driving north.”
So it really influenced the state of Florida to be concentrated when it comes to hacking and travelling and supporting each other.
So Florida Hackers started with the mission to empower hackers.
M: We thought of it in the Fall, launched it in the Spring, put up a website and told everyone,
“This is a thing now, we are a state. We can travel together. We can organize events together.”
At the time it was one of the first regional tech communities. We’re still seeing what the potential and the possibilities are for this. One of the things we’re doing is running a conference in October called Floatie, and that is a way to get together all of the student tech leaders across the state of Florida.
What that’s doing is broadening the community around hackathons. So we’re bringing together all of the ACMs, all of the hackathons, all of these different tech groups that are building their own communities, and we’re introducing them at this conference. We’re starting that conversation, thinking about how we can become better community leaders.
We see that as the base of the future of the student tech community in Florida.
C: We’re also working to dispel this notion that universities can’t work together because they’re rivals or things like that. It’s a social norm. At our most recent HackFSU, we actually asked Takashi to do the opening ceremonies. So we had a Gator emceeing the opening and closing ceremonies at our Florida State hackathon. That’s a representation of how we’re seeing through those borders. It’s a really great community.
For those who may not be hackers themselves, what does it mean to be a hacker?
C: So a hacker is not what you’re thinking when you imagine that black terminal screen with a green font and somebody breaking into stuff. It’s definitely not that. The word is more connotative to “life-hacks.” It’s asking,
“What can I put together and make work, as quickly as possible?”
A hacker is someone who can build something and be resourceful, and learn, all at the same time. The connotation and the definition of the word hacker is changing over time because of what is going on.
M: It’s having an idea, and seeing what resources and tools you have at your disposal to make it happen. At the heart of hacker culture is really this creative mindset. It’s about bringing ideas to life.
Christian, you’re a Major League Hacking (MLH) Hackathon Coach – what is that like?
C:It’s super interesting. It’s unlike anything that exists right now. All of my friends think I dropped out because I’m travelling so much. It’s because of the program. MLH is the official student hackathon league. They’re focused on helping students run hackathons and empowering hackers by providing resources and hardware such as Oculus Rifts, Arduinos, and even laptops to borrow.
So they started this coaches program and they reached out to me and said they needed coaches.
I jumped on board. Now, every other weekend, I get to travel to a hackathon, help the organizers out, and help the hackers out. I travel to a university and I do that for a weekend. It’s a really cool opportunity to meet other students in the same culture but in a different state.
What has been the impact of these new tech organizations – TechNole and HackFSU?
M:I think the student tech community was at a beginning standpoint three years ago. Since then, all of these student tech groups – TechNole, ACM, SIGGRAPH, WISE, Codeducation – they’re building up a community and drawing more student into tech. It’s been the same way across the state of Florida. Since three years ago, the hackathon culture has grown. The student tech culture has grown. More students are being connected. More companies are being brought into the state of Florida and seeing it as a viable place to recruit students from.
You had Apple at the last HackFSU; that’s amazing!
M:Yeah, they were huge. They brought about thirteen engineers who came out for the weekend to mentor students. A couple weeks later, Apple got back to us and they ended up sending out eight internship offers to students they met at HackFSU. There were just so many students that they had never met that had such great talent.
Where do you see this culture going here in Florida?
C: I’m surprised everyday. I can’t say for certain where it’s going to go, but it’s so new. It’s uncharted territory. Anything is possible, and I mean that in a literal sense.
Is there anything going on at this scale anywhere else in the country?
M: There’s just now starting to be. We went to MLH’s HackCon this summer, which is a conference for hackathon organizers. We went and spoke about what we’re doing with Florida Hackers, this community. From that, a lot more students were getting the idea of building a regional community that can benefit all of us. I think we’re going to see more of these regional communities down the road. From that, we’re going to see different opportunities and outcomes.
For our conference, Floatie, we’ve partnered with Github to make it happen. We’re going to be working with them in the future with Florida Hackers. There’s a lot we can do with that type of industry partnership. Like Christian said, a lot can come from this.
C: One thing we’re looking forward to is different universities getting together and meeting up, whether it’s a coding night or building a project together or even going on retreats together. There’s just so much potential for these relationships, and there being a body of students who you can relate with outside the borders of your university. That’s something that hackathons really express.
Talent and retention is a pretty big issue here for Tallahassee tech companies and startups. What are your thoughts? Where is the disconnect?
C:That’s a really good question. There are a lot of factors, and we’ve thought about this as well. One thing that I’d highlight is awareness.
I agree there is a disconnect between local companies and students knowing what opportunities there are in Tallahassee. Because you can say that there’s this company that’s hiring and it has these positions open, and you can apply and get a job. That awareness is not the difficult part.
The difficult part is helping students understand where they can grow. Students may not know that there are startups in Tallahassee that are willing to invest in them and see them grow in a role that they’re interested in.
A lot of what’s been going on is students preparing to be ready for a job instead of companies investing in students and their interests and what they want to do. And that goes both ways – the student grows and the company grows as well.
M: I think there’s good movement. The city as a whole is moving in the right direction of making sure that students are fully aware of the opportunities and what they gain from them, but we’re not there yet. I definitely like what you guys are doing at Cuttlesoft – making sure that students know what they’re going to be doing on the job and being prepared to teach them those skills. We definitely need more of that.
What we’ve seen traveling is that students learn a lot of skills, and they do so haphazardly. That’s the nature of it, and it’s a lot of fun that way. So I think companies being open to that culture and reaching out saying they want to train students – because a lot of students aren’t necessarily learning the skills they need in classes – they’re learning by building side projects or attending hackathons or learning online.
So having a value proposition for the job that says, “here’s what you’re going to learn,” that’s going to help.
C: I’ve also been noticing that companies are extremely interested in what students are doing outside of school. So if a student knew that there was an opportunity to learn and get better at what they’re interested in doing outside of the classroom, they just landed themselves a job that they’re excited about, and that gives them a reason to stay.
M: People are interested in what you’ve done and what you’ve built, what you’ve thought about – rather than what courses you’ve taken. That’s something that students may not be thinking about, and that employers may be overlooking also.
What can local companies do to be more attractive to students?
C: There’s not a single solution. However, culture is extremely important. I think that if a company is able to provide a culture of learning and students excelling, they’ll see more opportunities. If a company has a culture where they believe in the people they bring on and believe in the future of who they bring on, then it goes both ways.
Because if a student becomes really passionate about becoming really good at what they do, and finds his or herself in a company that supports them, then they’re going to be motivated to do their best and be motivated to stay because that company is interested in investing in them and helping them grow.
If a company’s culture is focused on growing its people, students will find more reason to see how their future would be better if they stayed in Tallahassee.
M: To add to that, this summer I was able to see the director of MODA in NYC, which is the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. They’re a team of four or five people, and they are nationally known for the work that they do. He was saying that the way they bring on new members to the team is by sitting down with people and saying,
“Ok, I want two years of amazing work from you, and after that you’re going to have a great reputation , you’re going to be able to go to any job you want, and in the meantime, you’re going to be building a culture at this team that others are going to want to join. And we’re OK with you leaving after you’ve fulfilled that purpose.”
I think that’s an amazing way of thinking about it. Saying, we’re going to bring you in for a time, and we’re both going to benefit immensely, and then you’re going to move on because naturally that’s what people do.
That’s a good way to think about it in terms of, there are people leaving Tallahassee after graduating, but if you can provide them something that benefits you, and keep bringing on new people, that will keep building that culture and that community, that will eventually influence more students to stay.
C: Imagine this. Imagine there being a company in Tallahassee that has a reputation for building students up. Students are going to want to work there. Even if they leave, let’s say they stay for three years and work for the company – if the company has a track record of students leaving there and going on to work for amazing companies, working on real-world problems, students are going to want to work there.
Because even if they leave, every year there’s a new batch of students and talent coming in that can be retained if the company’s culture is focused on building the employees up.
Culture is a huge focus for you at TechNole & HackFSU, how do you go about building a culture that builds people up?
C: First, you have to believe in it. That’s the key. If it’s not genuine, people can read that. Second, understanding your ethics is super important. Matt and I talk all the time about ethics, not explicitly, but we talk about ethical issues within the organization. Ethics are a standard you abide by when it comes to making logical reasonings about your decisions. When you go to make a decision, you back it up with logical reasonings, and those reasonings are structured by this standard of ethics that you believe in. That’s how you create a culture.
M: And culture is also influenced by environment. If you’re thinking about the environment that you create, you have to think about the space that you’re in. Whether that’s a physical space or a virtual one like Slack, having an environment that expresses that culture is vital.
That brings up an interesting question. Do you think that students are more attracted to companies that are using tools like Slack and that have more of a “startup culture” versus a more traditional, corporate one?
C: Definitely. One reason might be that people like to work at companies that are growing and changing. When a company has plateaued and it’s just okay with its performance and how it’s doing, then things go about the same way that they’ve always been going. That’s why people are more interested in working for a company that’s constantly changing because things are happening.
M: Going back to a point we made earlier about how students are starting to find work that they’re passionate about and that’s what’s driving their career decisions, if you’re passionate about something, you’re not going to want to work for a company that limits you in any way. I think that’s what a lot of this “new” startup culture that’s been going on for years and years now, is that people come in to the compnay and they feel welcome, it’s much more friendly.
It’s not, okay I’m going to come in and put a suit on and drive to work 9-5 (to be dramatic). It’s more about saying okay, here’s the work we need to get done, here’s our mission, I am 100% about this mission and I love working with my coworkers, how can we make this happen to the best of our abilities?
How do you create that at a conceptual level? Beyond having these fun perks and the cliches like having nerf gun wars and trampolines at the office… how do you really solidify that innovative culture?
C: That’s a tough question. A simple answer would be to just be genuine and really believe in what you’re doing. Authenticity is very important at a company because it’s easy to tell the difference between a company that just buys a ping-pong table to fit in and a company that spends time with their company outside of office hours because they actually believe in and embody the team beyond the time between when you clock in and clock out.
M: I think we’re seeing a lot of this conversation about tech in general and work/life balance. From our perspective as students, it’s almost like our society went through this transition into, “the startup life is awesome, I’m going to work 80 hours a week and go all in for this…”
We’re kind of scaling that back a bit and saying, “Okay, I’m also going to have a personal life also.”
I think we’re going to see a lot of great cultures come out of that. I think being genuine when you’re building your culture and making all of the decisions about every aspect of what it’s like to work at your company be tied to something, whether that’s a value system or ethics. I think people will definitely see that and recognize it, and that will carry through to how work is done.
C: If a company can understand and define the values it lives by, that can be very powerful. We just went through this at TechNole. We lived by these values and had a way of going about things, but we had never really defined it. So recently, TechNole got together and defined it. We agreed that our model was “Learn by doing.” We had three values,
“Empower others, discover new opportunities, and work with passion”
Those are more than just things we’re talking about, it’s who we are. We really strive to develop confidence in each other through organizations such as TechNole. When we joined, we didn’t think we were capable of doing the things that we did until we got that support. So if a company can clearly understand what makes them who they are, it will be a great step forward in understanding who they are.
It was kind of a reverse approach. We built it and embodied it, then figured out what it was. For any startup that feels like they have a great culture, figure out what it is that makes it great and really try to solidify that.
M: And it’s hard, once you figure that out and start building that culture, then the problem is scaling that. If you are having a problem with the work that’s getting done, if you figure out that it’s a scaling issue, you need to ask,
“How is the team working? What are the processes that are being used, whether they’re explicitly said or implicit, how can we fix this so that it keeps the culture but we still get the work done that we need to, at scale?”
C: That’s where documentation is very important, because scaling is extremely complex. Once you have documentation, then it provides a concrete reference for the future, for future teams, and for remembering why something was done.
Startups and organizations, a lot of the time, they’re moving so fast that they don’t have time to have a paper trail. But that paper trail is super important because it’s concrete information that communicates how you got there.
The first step is understanding how it exists.
A big thanks to Matt and Christian for taking the time to chat about Tallahassee startups and tech. When looking to make decisions about hiring and growth, companies should look to innovators and mold-breakers like those involved in HackFSU and TechNole to discover how you can build a culture that rewards experimentation, values growth, and puts people first.