An Interview with Raffi Hotter and Wilfred Mason
By Emma Frattasio and Simon Kidd
Our PaperCut team met Programming Club executives Raffi Hotter and Wilfred Mason last Friday. Our goal was to understand the objectives of the club, and to shed some light on the sometimes elusive field of programming.
Raffi’s boundless enthusiasm for programming is complimented by Wilfred’s more pragmatic approach. Together they have created one of the most cutting-edge clubs at Marianopolis. Without any further ado, the PaperCut team jumped right in.
Q: So, what’s the goal of the Programming Club?
Wilfred Mason: When people think of programming, they think of it as a super complex, dense forest of information that is hard to access, hard to learn, and perhaps is not accessible until you are at university…
Raffi Hotter: Or that you’re some genius who has been working on it since five years old. Our mission since day one is to demystify coding, so we hosted programming workshops for beginners and set up specialized workshops in areas like game development, artificial intelligence, speech recognition… We even got a speaker from Google–
Q: How’d you manage that?
R.H: It’s called email.
Q: So these workshops, how long have they been going on?
R.H.: About a year now. Our numbers have also been going up. We were at about one-hundred fifty [members] last year…
W.M: Now we have over 260.
Q: When you want to participate in these workshops, do you need to bring anything else along? How beginner friendly is it?
R.H.: You only need to bring along a computer, and we actually lend them out for workshops as well. It’s pretty easy–well, we teach people programming with a dog.
Q: A dog?
W.M.: Not a real dog–
R.H.: Yeah, not a real dog, a virtual dog. This virtual dog could only respond to about four different commands, kind of like a real dog. When you wanted the dog to run a course, you’d have to be extremely explicit with the instructions, otherwise it’d run into a wall. That’s essentially what programming is, applying low level concepts and implementing high level solutions. It really looks at programming from the roots.
W.M. It’s also very approachable, which was great for us.
Q: When I was younger, I had a beginner’s interest in programming, so I struggled through Codecademy for a while and gave up. Are your teaching methods more approachable?
R.H.: Yeahhh… We aren’t fans of Codecademy. They teach you code syntax, which is different from actually understanding how programming works. We’d rather focus more on the logic than the syntax, so we opt for a more problem-based approach.
Q: What are your upcoming club events?
R.H.: This Sunday we actually have a learnathon. We are bringing in experienced professionals to teach workshops about iOS development, database creation and web development, and we’re also teaching a workshop on the fundamentals of programming, which we have over a hundred people signed up for. It’ll be great for experienced programmers and beginners alike.
[Editor’s Note]: I would have covered the learnathon, but ended up in bed with a fever. For beginners like me who missed the workshop, there are still resources about! Links will be provided at the end of the article.
R.H. [Continued]: Then there’s the hackathon, which is definitely the marquee event of the Programming Club. It’ll happen on the 11th of February.
Q: What’s a hackathon?
R.H.: Well, we’ve been planning it for a year now. Unlike what it sounds like, nobody at the hackathon is hacking into anything like the NSA, though that would have been fun too! Instead, students team up and create their own app, website or other computer science project. Then, at the end of the day they pitch it to the judges.
W.H.: The club gives participants tools too, workshops to learn cool stuff related to computer science and entrepreneurship, with mentors to help with the projects.
R.H: Yeah, we have mentors coming from Microsoft, Amazon, ElementAI, Shopify, etc. to help competitors make their projects. There’s also a one day time limit.
Q: So the idea behind the Hackathon is that you only have a day to complete a project?
R.H.: The time constraint is really what makes it so special. It’s only one day, so the intensity really promotes out of the box thinking really fast.
Q: How did this Hackathon idea start? What’s the story?
W.M.: We’ll give you a story.
R.H: When we first thought of the idea of MariHacks, we pitched to a couple of people in administration–
W.M.: Not going to name any names though–
R.H.: Yup, not going to name any names. Our initial idea was that we’d only have fifty people for the workshop.
W.M.: Pretty small, yeah, because we didn’t think there would be much interest.
R.H.: When we pitched fifty people, people would tell us ‘no way are you going to get fifty people, be prepared for three to four teams…’
W.M.: And now…
R.H.: And now we have over 180 applicants and people across CEGEPs in Montréal…
W.M.: We actually had to decline some people, since only 120 people can participate in the event.
Q: Where do the participants come from?
R.H: From CEGEPs Marianopolis, Dawson, Brebeuf, Vanier, John Abbott, St-Laurent, Bois de Boulogne, and Collège Maisonneuve. Some high schools (LCC, The Study, Brebeuf, St. Georges School, College Ste-Anne, Vincent Massey Collegiate, and École Pasteur) are participating as well.
Q: Wow. For people who are not participating, when could people come to the event?
R.H.: It would be best to come at around 7-8PM to see the finished projects being demoed. Then there’s a top five judging demo and closing ceremony until 9:30PM, so stick around.
Q: I’m guessing you guys are graduating next year. What are your plans for the future of the hackathon? Where do you see it going in the next few years?
R.H.: So we only started this a year ago, but we’re growing really quickly, and we have some pretty big ambitions for the future. Though a lot of us will be in university (hopefully) next year, we have some new young execs who we’re confident will take the club to a new level. Some of those ambitions include transitioning from workshops during activity period to “learnathons” where we could invite not only Marianopolis students, but students from CEGEPs and high schools across Montreal!
For the hackathon, we want to expand past Montreal, and become the go to hackathon for high school and CEGEP students across Canada. Maybe a tad ambitious but we think we’re up to the challenge.
Q: Do you have any advice for any high school students getting into programming or hacking for the first time?
W.M.: Don’t be intimidated, there are a lot of resources out there. It may not be easy to start, but there are a lot of groups out there that are willing to help you out. It is also pretty easy to get upset while you’re programming, but you just have to work past that.
[Editor’s Note]: If you want to learn more about the upcoming MariHacks event, check out the website below. The website also has some links to resources for newbies who want to begin learning how to program from the ground up. If you have any questions about the Programming Club, contact Raffi Hotter or Wilfred Mason on through Omnivox. If you want to contact someone through Facebook, Raffi is your best bet.