From Angels to the Apocalypse

Kyle Liao: Personal Essay

AngelHacks started on May 27th, 2023. Apocalypse started on May 17th, 2024. In that one year, I’ve attended over 10 hackathons. This is just a small piece of that story.

Before AngelHacks, I had one year of real programming experience, much less than most of you reading this. I knew how to build little things, and I was blessed with the opportunity to have worked with much better hackers than myself. That was enough to make me happy, but I wanted more.

As many of you know, your first hackathon is nerve-racking. It’s a lot of new experiences, crammed tightly into one package. Although AngelHacks was not my first hackathon, it was the first time I would travel by myself, over 300 miles away, alone.

When I arrived at Penn Station to catch the bus to Boston in the middle of the night, I looked at the departure board and thought about hopping on the train home. I was scared for a lot of reasons, but truth be told, I questioned what the hell I was doing. No one expected me to go, and this was a time before Hack Club’s Gas Fund. This was my own money and my own volition, and to the organizers, I was a name on a list that was never going to show.

Hey Yu Kang Kyle Liao!👋

It’s surprising how quickly things turn. How we are both masters of our fate and subject to chaos. I ended that event pacing through Cambridge, over the bridge into Back Bay, as a winner of sorts, walking through the city, admiring the people, the buildings, and the magic of it all. Two days before, I was filled with self-doubt, and in a mere weekend most spend between Netflix and bed, I became this kid who traveled across the Northeast, ordered breakfast at a 24-hour diner like a real backpacker, watched dogs in the dog park at 6 AM in a city not my own, confidently shook hands with strangers to make a team, got an Uber and lunch with strangers, and walked for hours just to adventure. And even though I am that person, I still felt like a fraud. Because, in my mind, this isn’t my life. I’m not some spontaneous, fearless, carefree individual. I swipe my ID card day-in and day-out at school. I sleep in the same bed every night. I’m not some magical do-it-all programmer. I yell at the computer and talk to myself, and my mind goes in circles. All I did in Boston was build a game about grass. But people would remember that, and I’d go on to do similar things again and again.

Shortly after AngelHacks, Outernet was announced. I couldn’t be there since I’d be on the other side of the world, but it felt better knowing it was my own choice compared to Assemble, where I got a spot but just couldn’t stomach the cost of a last-minute ticket to San Francisco.

But I’d go on to more than make up for it. Sometimes, the chaos works against our dreams, but sometimes you have to laugh in its face. I decided to work harder on planning TeenHacksLI, to give New Yorkers back their OG high school hackathon, and kept searching for events to go to.

One of the first I went to after AngelHacks was HackUMBC, which was absolutely wild. I built a really great project there, and it still makes me proud to this day. The city of Baltimore, a giant hurricane, a 3 AM nap on a train station bench, a super competitive crowd, and absolutely terrible food couldn’t stop us from having a blast working with a giant group of people building something useful just for us. We figured out how to turn RC cars into a hackathon hardware prototyping tool. The whole experience taught me that Baltimoreans have a grit that you can count on. Hackathons are unique in that aspect because they let you do more than visit; they enable you to work with people from a different culture.

HackUMBC Shoutout: A UMBC-alumni teacher I see all the time brings his students to overnight hackathons. He’s my inspiration to fight bureaucracy for what’s right and to push the boundaries of education.

After that was HackRPI, located in the beautiful Hudson River Valley. In NYC handball, my sport of choice, sometimes you play and end up not hitting the wall. Sometimes you go to a hackathon, don’t get the numbers of your teammates, and they disappear. Sometimes you work as hard as you can, and at the end, there isn’t anything solid left between your fingers. Sometimes you scream into a carpeted floor, burn a plastic chair with a soldering iron, and your neighbors look at you funny. That’s the way it is sometimes.

HackRPI Shoutout: My friend Miles went to this hackathon with me and helped convince me, despite all of the untold and told hijinks, that I should go. He’s my inspiration to be a little more stubborn.

Other times, you go batshit crazy, and it all works out. That’s exactly the vibe of “Six in a Row.” Imagine going to six hackathons in a row, basically spending every weekend traveling and hacking. You don’t have to after I finish writing that story, but for now, here’s the overview.

I might be one of the few, or the first, who has traveled across the country, from high schools to colleges, from 12-hour events to 40-hour events, all in six weeks. Maybe a few too many conditional statements to be an accolade, but certainly unique. Remember TeenHacksLI? I started this journey by running that event. For a 12-hour hackathon, I made it feel a whole lot longer. I squeezed as much programming and demo time in as possible by pushing everything unnecessary online. I pushed my team to its limits to provide as many workshops and activities as possible to reach as many people as possible. But, even now, I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s one of my best pieces of work, but it didn’t live up to all of my dreams. I suppose only time will tell when those baby hackers and organizers fight their next battles, and we will see if my foundation holds.

TeenHacksLI Shoutout: Organizer duo Laura and Lydia, running THLI 2025, are some of the craziest people I know because they’re determined to make an independently organized 24-hour hackathon happen again in a city where if you make it here, you can make it anywhere.

And then I turned 18 years old. My happy birthday present was HoyaHacks. Like every newly minted adult, it came with a lot of mixed feelings. It was my first birthday away from home, but I was surrounded by the handcrafted gift of an empty, 70-degree Fahrenheit Washington, DC in January. I joked with Kevin during an event later that we manifested everything we wanted, but honestly, it might just be me, because I don’t think I’ll ever get to be a tourist in DC on my birthday wearing a t-shirt ever again. Not everything was sweet that day, though. I ended up getting rejected by Georgia Tech and UVA on the same night. But, in the end, I got to build a fun project with a Python library I always wanted to try, and made a new friend. I didn’t get everything I wanted that night, but my choice to be at HoyaHacks instead of at home was a kismet consolation. Control what you can, and make choices that make you happy because the world won’t guarantee it for you.

HoyaHacks Shoutout: Robert is just one of the first guys I met randomly, and we ended up being teammates. You’ll hear of him again. This is hacker magic.

Returning for a lighter weekend at home, I went to a single-day hackathon at the Beverly School in Manhattan, NYC. I built a little data dashboard using Streamlit to display my school's public finances. When Sahib and I, both working solo on separate projects, ended up winning, it was a welcome surprise. But even more meaningful was seeing Md’s little sister and her friend working on their project, along with meeting Rami and Baker. It’s a small world for hackers. Md was one of the mentors we found for TeenHacksLI, and Rami and Baker were friends with a hacker we had met at our first in-person hackathon. Community is hard to find, but when you build things, people come.

BevHacks Shoutout: Rami and Baker are helping build HATM, Hack at the Museum, which is my final piece before starting my college chapter. They have a love for building things and learning that’s arguably stronger than mine. It’s something to envy.

Full circle, I finally made it to San Francisco. My choice to start a club long before eventually brought me what I had missed in terms of Assemble. Thomas’s vision for making an event happen is a testimony to what hackers do on an organizational level. I’ll be looking forward to seeing him again on the trail and seeing his magic take place again. I met a lot of familiar faces that weekend, along with a lot of friends I would continue to see. I ended up building a small web project using this obscure Lego library with Sarvesh, Sahib, and Lena. We would have done more if not for the 15-mile bike ride, but alas, maybe it’ll be worth it when I am inspired to build something for a bicycle. A lot of incredible inspiration happened at this event, and a lot of wild things happened too. The infamous Waymo incident, if you know, you know.

Summit Shoutout: Tolib, aka Junior, is a Hack Club leader I met at a DMV area hackathon. I forgot which one, but I ended up telling him about our club and the Hack Club community. Next thing you know, I see him in SF with us. As HCers and hackers, we should be open-minded enough to invite others into the fold. Most of them end up being incredible pieces of our story if you’re willing to make the first move.

And then it was as if I went back in time with HackTCNJ. Their organizers had shifted the timeline up, making it less than a year since the last one had happened, but it was still oddly nostalgic. The local bus system was terrible last time we tried it, so we were dead set on an Uber, and when we looked out of the train station windows, it was snowing. The whole place was blanketed, and it actually looked like a nice place to be. For context, Trenton is not. The event didn’t live up to our past year’s expectations. The crowd just wasn’t the same, but we still built a fun project, which is hopefully relatable to all of you. Hackerman’s Challenge: an AI negotiation game where you talk with fellow organizers or participants at a hackathon over absolutely random conflicts, such as the lights being too bright. The experience reminded me to live in the moment because nothing is ever the same as it was.

In the final piece of the six exists Wonderland. It's a wonder that I even survived, but also it’s not. Because for all six hackathons, I had Sahib with me. It takes a real bro to go to all these events back-to-back with you. He ended up building the iconic Death Death Revolution at this event, and I built a really bad kite. I ended up reuniting with a lot of my Summit friends during this event, and I even gave Hack Club its first taste of poker. I had a lot of fun, and it was crazy how many of my friends were there. From my New Yorkers—Sahib, Baker, and Rami—to my Summit buddies: Sarvesh, Kevin, Lena; to my hackathon recruit, Robert and his sister; to those I met that day: Samay, Valerii, Micah, and more.

Wonderland Shoutout: Kevin was one of the organizers of Wonderland, and I really got to see the genius of the event when he helped with the planning for HATM. He’s a real one in the hackathon space, and he’s one of the best hackers I’ve met. Cheers!

As much as I’d love to have done a seventh event (looking at you, Blueprint), I’m glad I didn’t because by the event, I was coughing really hard. My pollen allergies had inflamed my throat to the point where I was popping DayQuils and “vibing.” The chronic lack of sleep and exhaustion had taken their toll, but that experience of perseverance lives with me every day.

There are a few hackathons between this and the end of this story and year: Apocalypse.

It’s funny that I started with the Angels and ended with the Apocalypse. I went from building a game about grass to a Toronto Slang Zombie Translator. I suppose it’s a fitting end and an interesting place for the next chapter. To be honest with you, the time has passed quickly, and I never realized that it’s been a whole year because, in my mind, I’m the same person I was a year ago. But that’s not the case. How could I be? With friends across the globe, building things I never saw myself building, and traveling across the country, what didn’t change?

More importantly, in my heart, I didn’t feel the same. There weren’t those nerves I had during AngelHacks. I was stoked to be flying to Canada, even if it was once again all alone. Because with Hack Club, I wasn’t.